Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What people look like

Still with John Dickson Carr, and finally we are introduced to the great man himself, Sir Henry Merrivale. Since this is, I believe, the first book in this series, and we'll certainly be seeing more of HM, you might think we'd get a full description, but no, we only see his face in action, or inaction, since his face rarely changes We're told that expression, No matter what his mood is. We're told that it's big, wrinkled, impassive, and that his rarely-changing expression involves turned- down corners of his broad mouth, making him look as though he has just swallowed a bad breakfast egg.

That's pretty much it for description until, a good deal later in the book, we meet Mrs. Sweeney.

Mrs. Sweeney was a large woman, with a heavy face which seemed to come sailing at us as she got up from her seat by the small round table in this waxy best-parlor. She was not ill-featured; she resembled one of those old ladies who sit and knit in boarding-houses, but larger, harder, and more archly cunning. Her grayish hair was folded into buns over her ears. She wore the black coat “with black feathers”; and a rimless pince-nez attached by a gold chain. This last she twitched off with a gesture which tried to indicate that she had been improving her time by studying the Bible on the center-table.

“So!” said Mrs. Sweeney. Her dark eyebrows went up. She lifted the pince-nez slightly to one side of her eyes, as though she had been removing a mask, and rasped accusingly:

We also learn that she has an ample bust, because she shakes it "rather as though she were dislodging worldly cares; but it was a gesture curiously like that performed by the chorus in a musical comedy."
This is all excellent description, and certainly fixes Mr. Sweeney in one's mind, but why? She's a minor, tangential character, and as I was marking descriptions of faces in my Kindle copy, I asked myself exactly that question.

Of course -- and here comes a three-quarters-of-a-century-later spoiler alert -- if I were a better detective story reader, I would have known the answer instantly-- what if she's not a minor character? What if she is, in reality, the mysterious, shadowy second wife of the murdered Darworth????

She isn't, as it turns out, so even the better detective story reader than me can be fooled.
But there you have it. Why does a novelist use a few broad brushstrokes for his main character, and bring painstaking to bear on a minor character? It ain't just carelessness.

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