Saints of New York, Writing Style and Speech-Only Chapters

Saints of New York by RJ Ellory is a crime/detective novel with lots of variety in style, mystery, and characters with strong motivation and conflict. The story is summarised in the blurb as follows:

“The death of a young heroin dealer causes no great concern for NYPD Detective Frank Parrish – Danny Lange is just another casualty of the drug war. But when Danny’s teenage sister winds up dead, questions are raised that have no clear answers. Parrish, already under investigation by Internal Affairs for repeatedly challenging his superiors, is committed to daily interviews with a Police Department counsellor. As the homicides continue – and a disturbing pattern emerges – Frank tries desperately to make some sense of the deaths, while battling with his own demons.”

In this post, the focus will be on selected chapters from Saints of New York and the style in which they are told.

One notable aspect of Saints of New York is that many of the chapters are completely in speech between the main character, Frank, and a Police Department counsellor. These chapters can be useful to study as straightforward examples of back and forth conflict between two characters. They can also be useful as straightforward examples for considering what can be provided in speech and how, as well as how and why specific aspects of writing other than speech can be useful .

The opening of the first speech-only chapter is as follows:

Chapter 3

‘You’re late.’
‘I am.’
‘I think you should try and be on time.’
‘I did try.’
‘Could you try harder.’
‘Sure I could.’
‘So take a seat, Frank… tell me what happened this morning?’
‘You can read my report.’
‘I want to hear it in your own words,’
‘I wrote the report. Those are my own words.’
‘You know what I mean Frank. I want to hear you tell me what happened.’

There is no description of the setting to indicate to the reader where the characters are. There is nothing outside the speech to attribute each instance of speech to a character (no “she said”, “he said”, “said Frank”, etc). There is no description of physical actions. There is no description of each character’s thoughts. There is no description of events from each character’s past.

This makes it easy to pick out the back and forth conflict between Frank and the counsellor. Writing in such a simple or minimalist style allows a reader to fill in the blanks and imagine for themselves details that are not key to how the story progresses. Sticking to a minimalist style like this can also lead to uncertainty about key details. Although a reader knows from the end of the previous chapter that Frank is about to go to an appointment, it is unclear at first which of the speakers Frank is. A reader could assume that Frank is late to his appointment, prompting the other character to say ‘You’re late.’ However, it is just as plausible upon reading this first line that Frank had been waiting after arriving on time and that he said ‘You’re late.’ A few lines in, it becomes clear that it was Frank who was late. If a reader is not able to figure this out from the context of the discussion and the way each character speaks, this is confirmed when Frank’s counsellor speaks his name.
In the second speech-only chapter, this is clearer from the first line because Frank’s counsellor uses his name.

Chapter 6

‘Why did you become a cop, Frank?’
‘Why did you become a shrink?’
‘I’m not comfortable with that term.’
‘Like I’m comfortable with being called a cop?’
‘Okay… why did you become a police officer?’
‘Why did you become a headpeeper?’
‘Very good, Frank. You seriously want to spend the next month playing games every day?’
‘No, not really. I want to spend the next month solving murders.’
‘Well, be that as it may, Frank, the fact is that unless you continue to see me on a regular basis then you’re going to be suspended. That means either you can see me and continue to work, or you can refuse to see me and stay home. Which is it going to be?’
‘The first one.’

A reader can infer from the context of the recurring style of these chapters that, although the counsellor’s name is not used in the following passage, that it is her that Frank is talking to. In addition to the stylistic context of the chapters between Frank and his counsellor, Frank refers to her job as a counsellor in his first line of speech and it can be inferred from the context of the discussion that the character Frank is talking to is his counsellor.

There is little detail in the excerpts here about the physical surroundings of the characters. Frank’s counsellor tells him to take a seat in the first excerpt. Sessions between a police officer and a Police Department counseller are usually done in an office. There is nothing to suggest that the situation for Frank and his counsellor is any different from this. So it is a reasonable proposition that Frank and his counsellor are in the counsellor’s office during these chapters.

If RJ Ellory had not been strictly using a speech-only style for these chapters, he could have used aspects such as decription of each character’s appearance, physical actions, and physical surroundings to tell the story more clearly. However, stylistic choices can be an effective part of how a story is told and sometimes these may take priority over how clearly a story is told because of added benefits the style provides for the telling of the story. The precise nature of such stylistic benefits is open to debate and will depend on how a reader thinks about both the story and the ways that story is told.

You can read the following excerpt with the above ideas in mind, along with any ideas you may have developed yourself, to consolidate your ideas.

Chapter 9

‘Frank, I need you here on time. Twenty minutes and I have another appointment.’
‘That’ll work fine, ‘cause I have an appointment in fifteen.’
‘Seriously. I need you here on time. We can’t get anywhere in fifteen minutes.’
‘So what do you want. You want me to stay or go?’
‘Stay. Sit down. We’ll make a start. You were going to think about discussing your father.’
‘I did think about it.’
‘So are you willing to talk about him?’
‘Where are you from, Doctor Marie?’
‘I can’t see what that has to do with anything.’
‘Humor me.’

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More on RJ Ellory and his fiction can be found at www.rjellory.com.
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Saints of New YorkThe Anniversary ManA Quiet Belief in AngelsA Quiet Belief in AngelsA Simple Act of ViolenceA Simple Act of Violence

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The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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One Response to Saints of New York, Writing Style and Speech-Only Chapters

  1. Michael says:

    I was lucky enough to RJ Ellory at the Politics and Fiction panel at the Melbourne Writers festival, so was very excited when I logged on this morning and saw this article up and ready for me to pore over. Thank you.

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