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This is the ninth in a series of annotations on writing from award-winning author, Michael W. Hinkle. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma Law School, Michael practiced twenty-five years as a trial lawyer in state and federal courts throughout the United States. Michael’s reputation and success led to his being listed as one of the best lawyers in America. Since retiring in 2005, his exceptional work as a nationally-read columnist and author have gained him wide notoriety.

 

Annotation on Nero Wolfe’s 1939 novel, Over My Dead Body

Over My Dead Body is a Nero Wolfe novel published by Rex Stout in 1939 crafted very much from the Sherlock Holmes mold. The story chronicles the detective skills of Nero Wolfe as seen through the eyes of Archie Goodwin, his assistant and self-described “confidential secretary.” Stout’s work is notable for the snappy dialogue, the sophisticated plot and the interesting characters. Each member of the cast is endowed with a distinct, full-bodied personality – especially Wolfe and Godwin, the first-person narrator.

For example, we are informed, throughout the book, of Wolf’s eccentric habits. He is fascinated by orchids and cultivates thousands of them in a glassed in area on the roof of his residence. He spends the morning from 9 o’clock to 11 o’clock attending these orchids and never goes down to his office before 11 o’clock. Prior to that time, he is never available for conference. Promptly at 11:00, an assistant delivers a “beer tray.” Chapter 1.

He is very fat and has an enormous appetite. He never discusses or thinks about business while he eats. From four in the afternoon until six in the evening, he returns to his orchids. Chapter 2. Adjacent to his office is a camouflaged listening station with “peepholes” which allow Goodwin to overhear what goes on when Wolf pretends to dismiss him from a “supposedly private” conversation. Chapter 6

Wolf has a fascinating back story. At 25, he was a secret agent for the Austrian government. During World War I, he fought against the Germans and the Austrians. Following the war, he lived temporarily in Montenegro. He was jailed for a time in Yugoslavia and released under pressure from the American government.

He claims he never leaves his residence except in extraordinary circumstances and, indeed, does not leave in the course of the novel. Chapter 12.

In regard to work, Archie comments, at one point, “He never puts off till tomorrow what I can do today.” Chapter 10

No matter what obligations he assumes relative to defending someone’s interests, he is always primarily concerned with “My own. Always my own.” He turns down a $10,000 retainer. The insistent client promises that, in the event he finds the assignment distasteful, he can simply return the money. “No sir. To return that amount of money would ruin my digestion for a week.” Chapter 15

Confronting a man trying to interfere with Archie’s instructions to bring a woman to Wolfe’s office, Archie tells him, “Whatever Nero Wolfe wants, he gets or he has a tantrum and I get fired.” Chapter 16

At the end of the book, when he discovers that his purported client is a murderer, he arranges for her to leave his house under the nose of the chief of homicide. Once she’s gone, he exposes her and furnishes the means of identification. The chief explodes, “And she is – and by God, you had one of my men take her and turn her loose –“

“I did. What else could I do? She was sitting here in my office, thinking she was my client, under my protection. I didn’t agree to catch the murderer for you, I agreed to disclose the identity and the motive.”

Moments later, the murderess returns to his home and lunges at Wolfe with a dagger. He kills her in self-defense–with an empty beer bottle. Before he provided the means for her departure, however, he arranged to have an envelope placed into her hand with a one sentence message, “… saying that she was not my client, and, under the terms as stated, never had been.” A nice exclamation point highlighting his commitment to ethical proprieties. Chapter 19

Stout has created an eccentric character whose unusual behavior adds appeal to the interesting workings of a brilliant mind.

Michael W. Hinkle

Michael W. Hinkle

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This is the eighth in a series of annotations on writing from award-winning author, Michael W. Hinkle. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma Law School, Michael practiced twenty-five years as a trial lawyer in state and federal courts throughout the United States. Michael’s reputation and success led to his being listed as one of the best lawyers in America. Since retiring in 2005, his exceptional work as a nationally-read columnist and author have gained him wide notoriety.

 

Annotation on Elmore Leonard’s 1970 novel, Valdez is Coming

 

Elmore Leonard’s 1970 novel Valdez Is Coming employs an extraordinary plot twist at the end to rescue Bob Valdez, the main character, from certain death. Throughout the book, “the Segundo” Tanner’s right-hand man is the “business end” of Tanner’s determination to humiliate and kill Valdez. At the climax, when Valdez is cornered, outnumbered and outgunned, the Segundo’s change of heart turns the tables in Valdez’s favor.

When the reader reflects on events leading up to the climax, this proves not to be a deus ex machina conclusion. There has, in fact, been some skillful foreshadowing.

We meet the Segundo on page 37 when Valdez first approaches Tanner seeking compensation for the widowed Apache woman. On page 40, when Tanner orders Segundo to “teach him something,” Segundo shows no compunction about unleashing a barrage of gunfire and humiliating insults from Tanner’s collective henchmen. At 42

When Valdez returns for a final appeal on the widow’s behalf, Segundo executes Tanner’s order to tie Valdez to a wooden cross and send him stooped and on foot into the harsh terrain. At 68

The first can’t that the agendas of Segundo and Tanner will diverge occurs at page 101. Valdez has killed one of Tanner’s men and Tanner wants to send riders to track him down. Segundo reminds him “We start to drive tomorrow.” Tanner responds, “We start to drive when I tell you we start.” At the end of the book, this moment assumes a larger significance.

After Valdez kidnaps Mrs. Erin, Tanner orders Segundo to send men. Segundo asks, “In the dark… How do we see them?” When Tanner brushes this concern aside, Segundo doesn’t argue. “It was Tanner’s business.” At 111

When they fail to overtake Valdez and the woman and Valdez kills more men challenging Tanner to follow him, Segundo questions whether the pursuit is worth the cost. As he waits for Tanner’s reply, we catch the first glance of Segundo’s real feelings. “The Segundo was hot and thirsty. He would like a nice glass of mescal and some meat and peppers, but he was standing here waiting for this son of a bitch Americano to make up his mind.” At 115

When Tanner answers, he says, “If you were up here I’d bust your face open. And if you wanted any more I’d give you that too. Do you see the way it is?” At 116. Here, Leonard leaves us in no doubt there is no mutual warmth between these men.

The first inkling that Segundo admires Valdez comes at page 119 when Tanner, recalling Valdez’s appearance, says, “He didn’t seem like much.” “Maybe,” the Segundo said, “But he knows the Apache.”

The differences between Tanner and Segundo almost break into the open when Tanner orders Segundo to execute one of his own men. “We lost five now. We shoot our own, that’s six, but the same as Valdez killed him. How many you want to give for this man?” “As many as it takes.” At 158. This time, the tide turned in Segundo’s favor. The man is spared – if only to serve as a target for a Valdez ambush.

When the chase nears the end Segundo suggests “We got six at Mimbreno. We could send eight or 10 back and they could start South with the drive. Then we finish with him, we catch up, maybe lose only two days.” At 159. Tanner responds, “I’m going up the mountain… You’re going up the mountain and all my men are going up the mountain. My men Segundo. You savvy that?” “If you say it.” “I say it…”

At this point, we know Segundo dislikes Tanner. We know he has some level of admiration for Valdez. We know he resents the subordination of their business concerns in favor of Tanner’s personal objectives. The pursuit goes on.

After the next Valdez ambush, Segundo counts up his losses. “… Two dead on the slope, two wounded, five horses shot. Now seven dead in the grand total and, counting the men without horses who would have to walk to Mimbreno and come back, twelve men he has wiped from the board, leaving twelve to hunt and kill him.” At 166.

Now we see Segundo’s unqualified admiration. “… God in heaven, he knew how to shoot his guns. It would be something to face him… It would be good to talk to him sometime, if this had not happened and if he met the man to have a drink of mescal with him…” At 167. It is now clear that Segundo holds Valdez in much higher estimation than Tanner.

Still, Segundo seems intent on pursuing and killing Valdez.

At the end, when Valdez could have escaped but, instead, goes back for the woman, he is caught and completely at Segundo’s mercy. As they wait for Tanner to arrive, Segundo meditates. “How would you like four of him… And no Tanner… Who would you rather shoot, him or Tanner…” At 195

When Tanner gives the order to shoot Valdez, Segundo refuses. “It’s not my woman… A man holds his woman or he doesn’t. It’s up to him, a personal thing between him and the man who took the woman. All these men are thinking, what have we got to do with it?”

Segundo’s final break with Tanner changes the story’s outcome. Even though there were hints skillfully distributed through the plot line, the reader doesn’t know until the final page how the Segundo will decide. In fact, the ultimate conclusion is left to the reader’s imagination as the book concludes with Tanner and Valdez facing each other as Segundo and the others look on.

The final words from Tanner, “I should have killed you three days ago…” From Segundo, “No… Three days ago you should have started for Mexico.”

Michael W. Hinkle

Michael W. Hinkle

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This is the sixth in a series of annotations on writing from award-winning author, Michael W. Hinkle. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma Law School, Michael practiced twenty-five years as a trial lawyer in state and federal courts throughout the United States. Michael’s reputation and success led to his being listed as one of the best lawyers in America. Since retiring in 2005, his exceptional work as a nationally-read columnist and author have gained him wide notoriety.

 

Annotation on Ken Kensey’s 1962 classic, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

In the Ken Kensey’s 1962 classic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he employs a number of interesting literary devices to craft a truly wonderful story. First, the point of view is entirely that of “the Chief,” one of the “chronics” confined to a mental institution. The perspective offered by this inmate enables Kesey to construct a cohesive, if distorted, view of reality that adds an almost hypnotic atmosphere to the incidents he describes.

Some of Kesey’s descriptions are striking. He uses some chilling language to create a mechanical impression surrounding Nurse Ratched. For example, when things don’t go to suit “The Big Nurse” she becomes “a little white knot of type-smiled fury.” At 23. He describes her level of control as, “a sure power that extends in all directions on hairlike wires too small for anybody’s eye but mine…” She sits “in the center of this web of wires like a watchful robot, tend her network with mechanical insect skill, know every second which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get the results she wants.” At 24

Later in the book, when she trivializes McMurphy’s importance, “she takes a sip of her coffee; the cup comes away from her mouth with that red-orange color on it… She couldn’t be wearing lipstick that color. That color on the rim of the cup must be from heat, touch of her lips sent it smoldering.” At 146

As we draw near the climax, and McMurphy’s fate is all but sealed, Nurse Ratched speaks. “She continued to glare at us as she spoke. It was strange to hear that voice, soft and soothing and warm as a pillow coming out of a face hard as porcelain.” At 309

Kesey’s description of the purpose underlying “the ward” is masterful. “The ward is a factory… Fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches… When a completed product goes back out into society… It brings joy to the Big Nurse’s heart; something that came in twisted, different is now a functioning adjusted component… A marvel to behold. Watch him sliding across the land with a welded grin, fitting into some nice little neighborhood where there just now digging trenches along the street to lay pipes for city water. He’s happy with it. He’s adjusted to surroundings finally…” At 36

Kesey’s use of “laughter” to underline aspects of the story’s momentum is excellent. When we first meet McMurphy, he’s laughing; “… It’s the first laugh I’ve heard in years. He stands looking at us rocking back in his boots and he laughs and laughs… Even when he isn’t laughing, that laughing sound hovers around him, the way the sound hovers around a big bell just quit ringing…” At 9. In McMurphy’s words, “Man, when you lose your laugh, you lose your footing.” At 66.

“The Chief,” projecting his own thoughts about laughter onto McMurphy says: “Maybe he couldn’t understand why we weren’t able to laugh yet, but he knew you can’t really be strong until you can see the funny side of things… I was wondering a little if maybe he was blind to the other side, if maybe he wasn’t able to see what it was that parched laughter deep inside your stomach.” At 225

Compare Keysey’s description of Harding’s laugh (the instant before he suffers an emotional breakdown). “Harding looks around, sees everybody watching him, and he does his best to laugh. A sound comes out of his mouth like a nail being crowbarred out of a plank of green pine;…” At 58

Keysey may be at his best when he highlights contrasts like this. A great example is his treatment of “hands.” McMurphy’s hand: “There was carbon under the fingernails where he’d worked once in a garage, there was an anchor tattooed back from his knuckles; there was a dirty Band-Aid on the middle knuckle… All the rest of the knuckles were covered with scars and cuts… The palm was smooth and hard as bone from hefting the wooden handles of axes and hoes… The palm was calloused and the calluses were cracked and dirt was worked into the cracks. A roadmap of his travels up and down the west.” At 21. Compared to the description of Harding’s hands. “I see his hands begin to creep out from between his knees like white spiders from between two moss covered tree limbs… The spiders reach the joining trunk and settle there… He’s got control of his hands again; they flip loosely before him trying to toss off what McMurphy has been saying.” At 55

When Pete, one of the chronics, is pushed beyond his ability to cope, “they didn’t see the hand on the end of that arm pumping bigger and bigger…” It became “a big rusty iron ball at the end of a chain.” After a tense confrontation and an emotional breakdown, “he began slumping over again, and his iron ball shrank back into a hand.” At 49

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a great example of an author’s resourceful use of unusual description and contrasting word pictures to create a comprehensible picture of an otherwise indescribable situation.

 

Michael W. Hinkle

Michael W. Hinkle

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This is the fifth in a series of annotations on writing from award-winning author, Michael W. Hinkle. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma Law School, Michael practiced twenty-five years as a trial lawyer in state and federal courts throughout the United States. Michael’s reputation and success led to his being listed as one of the best lawyers in America. Since retiring in 2005, his exceptional work as a nationally-read columnist and author have gained him wide notoriety.

 

Annotation on Carl Hiaasen’s 2004 novel, Skinny Dip

 

In his 2004 novel, Skinny Dip, Carl Hiaasen employs rapid-fire point-of-view shifts to illuminate the aims and reactions of a complex cast of unusual characters. Using this device he keeps the book moving at a quick and entertaining pace. There are also periodic non-sequential episodes clarified and knitted together by these differing points-of-view.

Chapter 1 springs back and forth from Joey Perrone, who narrowly escapes a murder attempt, and Chaz Perrone, her self-absorbed husband who believes he has successfully killed his wife.

In chapter 2, the reader is introduced to the omniscient narrator who reappears from time to time providing informative exposition or serving as voice for the larger ecological message Hiaasen interweaves through the various storylines.

Though Mick Stranahan first appears in chapter 2, Hiaasen moves us into his private world in chapter 4. Mick is a semi-reclusive former law enforcement officer who rescues Joey from the Atlantic after Chaz pushes her overboard from the deck of a cruise ship.

Likewise, Broward County Detective Carl Rolvag, who made an earlier appearance, takes center stage in chapter 4. Carl, who owns two large exotic rat eating pythons (to the dismay of his pet owning neighbors) is determined to close the Joey Perrone case before he moves back to Minnesota.

The point-of-view continues to hopscotch into chapter 6 where Joey’s eccentric sheep herding brother, now living in Australia, temporarily changes the focus.

In chapter 8, a new character muscles into the POV lineup. Earl Edward O’Toole (Tool) is a hulking atavistic henchmen who does the more unsophisticated dirty work for Samuel Johnson (Red) Hammernut, the unscrupulous wheeler-dealer whose irresponsible large-scale farming operation is choking the Everglades. Tool is addicted to fentanyl, a topical narcotic which he acquires by removing patches from unwilling but lethargic convalescent home residents. Tool needs the medicine to cope with pain caused by a bullet lodged in his – withers.

The point-of-view bounces from character to character as the various plot lines parallel or converge with the main story. In Chapter 12, Red Hammernut, in turn, becomes the focus (though there are some blurred edges.)

The final player in the POV lineup appears in chapter 23. Here, we meet the deranged swamp dweller calling himself (and demanding that others call him) simply “Captain.”

Hiassen’s nimble POV technique works because he is able to make each “snapshot” a credible addition to the book’s overall effect. With one (understandable) exception, each character has a distinct persona. Even if there weren’t adequate indicators in the text, we could readily identify each person by his/her perspective and language patterns. Each character’s point- of-view maintains consistency throughout the narrative along with, for the most part, a fair degree of plausibility.

The sharp line dividing distinct personalities blurs somewhat in Hiassen’s treatment of Stranahan and Rolvag. They are both mature taciturn males and their senses of humor are similarly dry. They both have a relaxed, if not dismissive, regard for rules and authority. They both live by a fairly stoic code, and their attitudes toward women are similarly respectful.

These personality parallels can easily be accounted for by similar age and law enforcement background as well as the fact that they are clearly similar personality types. For example, when the story begins, both men share their residences with unusual animals which they seem to prefer to people. Likewise, at page 30, this sentiment originating with Stranahan could just as easily spring from Rolwag’s mind: “Part of him instinctively wanted to know more, to ask nosy questions and dig around like in the old days. A wiser inner voice told him to drop it – Mrs. Perrone and her marital crisis would be departing soon, and then the cops could sort out her story.” At page 343, this note on Rolwag’s thinking appears: “Under ordinary circumstances, Rolwag would have shared all he knew and suspected with young Detective Ogden. Not today, though, for Rolwag was impatient to get home and pack. Anyway, what would be accomplished by bringing the kid up to speed? His boss probably wouldn’t give him enough time to put a dent in the case.” These men are obviously cut from the same bolt.

While it might be argued that Hiassen missed an opportunity to create an additional and enjoyably distinct new personality, this apparently intentional “line blurring” may be useful to this extent. Two similar witnesses, viewing a criminal investigation – one from the inside perspective and one from the outside – can add additional spice to the narrative.

Skinny Dip is instructive in how to employ rapid-fire POV changes to add interest, non-sequential explanation and compelling momentum to a story.

Michael W. Hinkle

Michael W. Hinkle

 

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This is the fourth in a series of annotations on writing from award-winning author, Michael W. Hinkle. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma Law School, Michael practiced twenty-five years as a trial lawyer in state and federal courts throughout the United States. Michael’s reputation and success led to his being listed as one of the best lawyers in America. Since retiring in 2005, his exceptional work as a nationally-read columnist and author have gained him wide notoriety.

Annotation on Stieg Larsson’s 2005 novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

             In Stieg Larsson’s 2005 novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there are three emotionally explosive scenes. In the first, Lisbeth Salander, one of the two main characters, is the victim of a brutal rape. In the second scene, Lisbeth exacts a dramatic measure of revenge. In the third, the main male character, Mikael Blomkvist is a helpless captive bound in a nightmarish kill room facing horrible death at the hands of a grossly sadistic serial killer.

Comparing these three scenes, the reader will observe that Larsson employs similar techniques to heighten the tension and highlight the brutality of the situation.

The rape scene begins at page 197. By page 199, Lisbeth is completely helpless in the hands of a vicious rapist. At a moment of extreme brutality, Larsson cuts abruptly to an intimate and tender scene between Blomkvist and Cecilia Vanger. The dramatic contrast in tone and content is disorienting and heightens the anxiety. Right away, we rejoin Salander. The rape is complete and she is left to cope with the disturbing emotional and physical consequences of this savage attack.

Her revenge is set in motion on page 202. She springs a trap and neutralizes the rapist. Before she actually starts to inflict punishment on her tormentor, Larsson again shifts focus back to the charming sweetness of the Mikael/Cecilia romance. But here, he links these two emotionally charged moments by introducing an account of brutal abuse Cecilia suffered at the hands of her estranged husband. We are also informed concerning the extremely cruel verbal assaults she endured at the instigation of her father and brother.

Larsson’s welding of these two scenes appears to be an invitation for the reader to regard Salander’s punishment of her rapist as a vicarious penalty for the damage inflicted not only on Salander, but Cecilia – and possibly a wider population. The reader is emotionally prepared to be complicit in Salander’s revenge. By introducing Cecilia’s injuries, Larsson invites and encourages the reader to regard Lisbeth’s revenge as a more universal blow.

We return to the scene of Lisbeth’s ordeal/revenge on page 205, then back, again, to a tender exchange between Mikael and Cecilia on page 209. Again, Larsson uses this unexpected contrast to increase the tension and keep the reader somewhat disoriented.

On page 209, Lisbeth has completely turned the tables on the rapist, leaving him permanently marked – physically and emotionally.

Finally, the most emotionally charged sequence in the book begins on page 345 and ends on page 363. Martin Vanger, the loathsome sadist/mutilator/murder takes Blomkvist prisoner. As the monster escorts his victim to the hellish kill room, Larsson shifts the focus to Salander working quietly in the safety of a corporate office studying clues pointing ultimately to the killer’s identity. At page 347, we’re back in the kill room for an extended bout of physical and emotional torture. We rejoin Lisbeth, still at the office enjoying a beverage. More than two hours after the ordeal begins, Lisbeth changes location back to Blomkvist’s cottage where she realizes Mikael has been in the murderer’s hands for hours. At page 357, Larsson returns us to the kill room. This manipulation of time and location brings the reader to a state of high anxiety. The fever starts to break when Lisbeth comes to the rescue at page 360 – two hours and 15 pages after the pressure nears a boiling point.

What we learn from Larsson’s handling of these sequences is the power of shifts and contrasts to emphasize and extend the tension and anxiety of an emotional scene.

Michael W. Hinkle

Michael W. Hinkle

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This is the third in a series of annotations on writing from award-winning author, Michael W. Hinkle. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma Law School, Michael practiced twenty-five years as a trial lawyer in state and federal courts throughout the United States. Michael’s reputation and success led to his being listed as one of the best lawyers in America. Since retiring in 2005, his exceptional work as a syndicated columnist and author have gained him wide notoriety.

Annotation on Ross McDonald’s novel, Midnight Blue

 

 

In his 2010 novel Midnight Blue, Ross McDonald uses color as a “thickener” to add intellectual substance to a brief, straightforward and fairly superficial murder mystery. The title selection invites the reader to be alert for the role the color blue will play in the story.

McDonald employs various colors to link disparate people, objects and events to certain abstract qualities they may have in common. For example, Green is not only the name of the murder victim, but also her father who will turn out to be a key player in the story. Highway Patrol headquarters are in “a drab green box of a building.” Anita Brocco, another key player, assumes a “greenish pallor” when she inadvertently slips a clue that her father might have murdered her mother years ago.

There are numerous provocative uses of the color red. Examples include the dead girls red nail polish that first draws Archer’s (the first person protagonist) attention to the body. Archer sits in an automobile with Mr. Green, the dead girl’s father and observes: “The light on the highway was red. I glanced at Green.” “The Old Man of the Mountain,” a mentally unstable itinerant wrongly suspected of murder is shot trying to surrender. The moment before he dies, he “coughs red.” Following a clue that the killer may have been driving a foreign car, a known killer is seen “…washing a small red Fiat” (which ultimately turns out to belong to the murderer.) In the final showdown between archer and the murderer, “Her lipstick looked like fresh blood on a corpse.”

This repetitive use of color might be attributed to happenstance or McDonald’s lack of imagination. But a closer look at how he uses the color blue suggests this is an interesting component of his craft.

Practically the first sentence in the book tips us off that color may play an important part in McDonald’s literary technique. Before we’re pulled into the ugly world of illicit sex, prejudice and murder, we are told “The world had the colored freshness of a butterfly just emerged from the chrysalis stage trembling in the sun.”

Right away, Archer encounters a character he comes to call “The Old Man of the Mountain.” Here, McDonald makes his first reference to the color blue. Describing the old man’s eyes: “They were as blue and empty as holes through which I could see the sky.” Clearly, the color blue here is not meant to evoke serenity or comfort.

Blue reappears moments later when Archer discovers the body of a young girl, “… wearing a midnight blue sweater and skirt.” Later, we meet Sheriff Pearsall who is eager to pin the murder on the vagrant, “… It looks like an open and shut case.” He wears a blue gabardine business suit.

When the dead girl’s father spots the fleeing suspect, he pursues and guns him down with, “… a heavy blue revolver.” With the dying suspect’s final words: “He looked up at the sky with his sky colored eyes, straight into the sun. His eyes changed color.” When Archer questions the dead girls close friend and the sinister role of illicit sex begins to emerge, there are “… blue depressions under her eyes.”

If the color blue is viewed as a thread, it runs from a sad bewildered old man, to a dead girl, to a prejudiced Sheriff, to a cruel instrument of death, to eyes of a dying victim, ending in the eyes of a young girl with guilty secrets. As the sad sordid truth become clear, the color blue disappears from the story.

McDonnell seems to be wrapping many of the story’s sad, dark mysteries in blue. This may, of course, be the author’s subconscious expression or just an easy convenience. I’m inclined to think, however, this is emblematic of McDonald’s approach to literary craft generally and murder mysteries in particular.

As this is the first book by this author I’ve read, it would be interesting to see if he uses color or other evocative devices in his other work. Clearly, there is a jarring contrast between the usually pleasant association we might have with the color blue and the painful and unsettling role blue, by design or otherwise, plays in this story.

Midnight Blue offers a nice example of how an unexpected feature – color in this case – can be used as an interesting thread through a storyline.

Michael W. Hinkle

Michael W. Hinkle

 

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This is the second in a series of annotations on writing from award-winning author, Michael W. Hinkle. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma Law School, Michael practiced twenty-five years as a trial lawyer in state and federal courts throughout the United States. Michael’s reputation and success led to his being listed as one of the best lawyers in America. Since retiring in 2005, his exceptional work as a syndicated columnist and author have gained him wide notoriety.

Annotation on Carl Hiaasen’s novel, Skinny Dip

In his 2004 novel, Skinny Dip, Carl Hiaasen employs rapid-fire point-of-view shifts to illuminate the aims and reactions of a complex cast of unusual characters. Using this device he keeps the book moving at a quick and entertaining pace. There are also periodic non-sequential episodes clarified and knitted together by these differing points-of-view.

            Chapter 1 springs back and forth from Joey Perrone, who narrowly escapes a murder attempt, and Chaz Perrone, her self-absorbed husband who believes he has successfully killed his wife.

            In chapter 2, the reader is introduced to the omniscient narrator who reappears from time to time providing informative exposition or serving as voice for the larger ecological message Hiaasen interweaves through the various storylines.

            Though Mick Stranahan first appears in chapter 2, Hiaasen moves us into his private world in chapter 4. Mick is a semi-reclusive former law enforcement officer who rescues Joey from the Atlantic after Chaz pushes her overboard from the deck of a cruise ship.

            Likewise, Broward County Detective Carl Rolvag, who made an earlier appearance, takes center stage in chapter 4. Carl, who owns two large exotic rat eating pythons (to the dismay of his pet owning neighbors) is determined to close the Joey Perrone case before he moves back to Minnesota.

            The point-of-view continues to hopscotch into chapter 6 where Joey’s eccentric sheep herding brother, now living in Australia, temporarily changes the focus.

            In chapter 8, a new character muscles into the POV lineup. Earl Edward O’Toole (Tool) is a hulking atavistic henchmen who does the more unsophisticated dirty work for Samuel Johnson (Red) Hammernut, the unscrupulous wheeler-dealer whose irresponsible large-scale farming operation is choking the Everglades. Tool is addicted to fentanyl, a topical narcotic which he acquires by removing patches from unwilling but lethargic convalescent home residents. Tool needs the medicine to cope with pain caused by a bullet lodged in his – withers.

            The point-of-view bounces from character to character as the various plot lines parallel or converge with the main story. In Chapter 12, Red Hammernut, in turn, becomes the focus (though there are some blurred edges.)

            The final player in the POV lineup appears in chapter 23. Here, we meet the deranged swamp dweller calling himself (and demanding that others call him) simply “Captain.”

            Hiassen’s nimble PO V technique works because he is able to make each “snapshot” a credible addition to the book’s overall effect. With one (understandable) exception, each character has a distinct persona. Even if there weren’t adequate indicators in the text, we could readily identify each person by his/her perspective and language patterns. Each character’s point- of-view maintains consistency throughout the narrative along with, for the most part, a fair degree of plausibility.

            The sharp line dividing distinct personalities blurs somewhat in Hiassen’s treatment of Stranahan and Rolvag. They are both mature taciturn males and their senses of humor are similarly dry. They both have a relaxed, if not dismissive, regard for rules and authority. They both live by a fairly stoic code, and their attitudes toward women are similarly respectful.

            These personality parallels can easily be accounted for by similar age and law enforcement background as well as the fact that they are clearly similar personality types. For example, when the story begins, both men share their residences with unusual animals which they seem to prefer to people. Likewise, at page 30, this sentiment originating with Stranahan could just as easily spring from Rolwag’s mind: “Part of him instinctively wanted to know more, to ask nosy questions and dig around like in the old days. A wiser inner voice told him to drop it – Mrs. Perrone and her marital crisis would be departing soon, and then the cops could sort out her story.” At page 343, this note on Rolwag’s thinking appears: “Under ordinary circumstances, Rolwag would have shared all he knew and suspected with young Detective Ogden. Not today, though, for Rolwag was impatient to get home and pack. Anyway, what would be accomplished by bringing the kid up to speed? His boss probably wouldn’t give him enough time to put a dent in the case.” These men are obviously cut from the same bolt.

While it might be argued that Hiassen missed an opportunity to create an additional and enjoyably distinct new personality, this apparently intentional “line blurring” may be useful to this extent. Two similar witnesses, viewing a criminal investigation – one from the inside perspective and one from the outside – can add additional spice to the narrative.

Skinny Dip is instructive in how to employ rapid-fire POV changes to add interest, nonsequential explanation and compelling momentum to a story. 

Michael W. Hinkle

Michael W. Hinkle

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