MacDonald, Tey, Waugh, and Warren for your Pleasure

The book I’m reading on fiction-writing (Writing Fiction, from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which is wonderful so far) cautions against getting too enamored of your own writing: “Be particularly careful of language that’s so beautiful you notice it just for that.  Always ask yourself: Does the description interrupt the flow of the story?”  The point about flow is a good one–I always get bogged down in long descriptions, and my suspension of disbelief is broken.  But I personally don’t mind stopping to notice a gorgeous metaphor or description.  If it’s done well, it can serve its purpose in developing a character or plot while still giving you a little gift of good writing to enjoy.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Robert Penn Warren’s descriptions are a joy to read, but he definitely doesn’t reign it in as often as he should. Here’s a nice succinct one that I always remember after eating a huge home-cooked meal:

I had just managed to get down the last spoonful of chocolate ice cream, which I had had to tamp down into my gullet like concrete in a posthole…  (All the King’s Men, p. 52)


  • Here’s one from an author I’ve recently discovered: Josephine Tey.  She’s a mystery writer with a talent for creating devastatingly accurate and sympathetic characters.  Here’s a description of Miss Pym’s inner dialogue from Miss Pym Disposes:

Sitting there so calm and beautiful and all wrong inside.  What does she remind you of?  One of those brilliant things that grow in the woods, isn’t it?  One of those apparently perfect things that collapse into dust at a touch because they are hollow inside. (p.169)



  • It’s been a long time since I’ve read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and I need to read it again; but this image of Julia has always stuck in my mind:

The diamonds flashed in her hair and on her fingers, but her hands were nervously rolling little balls of crumb, and her starry head drooped in despair. (p. 230)


File:Humphrey Bogart 1940.jpg

  • Finally, the heartbreaking work of Ross Macdonald.  He writes mysteries, the kind that get made into film noirs starring people like Humphrey Bogart.  He reminds me of Raymond Chandler, but to my mind his characters are more real and sympathetic, and he takes the gritty cheesiness of the “hard-boiled” mystery and turns it into real literature.  A few quick examples, which he seems to pepper his work with effortlessly:

“Her face was granite in whose crevices her eyes were like live things caught.”  (from the short story “Guilt Edged Blonde”)

“She woke and struggled up on her arms like Lazarus, looking at me out of underground eyes.”  (The Wycherly Woman, p. 94)

His blonde good looks were spoiled by a small goatee which wagged on his chin like an unfinished piece of face. (The Wycherly Woman, p. 63)

Outside, the offshore wind was rising.  The choppy sea at the foot of the street reflected crumpled light. (The Wycherly Woman, p. 36)

And my favorite, one which really gave me pause:

Deep feeling sounded in her voice.  I had no doubt that the feeling was partly sincere.  Still, there was something unreal about it.  I suspected that she’d  been playing tricks with her emotions for a long time, until none of them was quite valid.  (The Galton Case, p. 14)


If you can take it, I’d recommend starting with Macdonald’s collection of short stories, The Name Is Archer, and then moving on to the novels, especially The Chill and The Wycherly Woman.  For Josephine Tey, I’d recommend A Shilling for Candles, starring the endearing Inspector Alan Grant.  I haven’t read any Robert Penn Warren except for All the King’s Men, and very little Waugh, though I would recommend the hilarious satire Scoop.  What images from your reading have stuck in your mind?  What would you recommend for me to read next?


Humphrey Bogart

Hollow tree



3 thoughts on “MacDonald, Tey, Waugh, and Warren for your Pleasure

  1. Oh–and another, from “Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis, in which our passive-aggressive protagonist has spent the day getting sullenly drunk while enduring insufferable academics performing madrigals. He finally decides to go to bed, but he really needs to go to the bathroom: “He tried to open the bathroom door; it was again locked. Without thinking he threw back his head, filled his lungs, and let loose a loud and prolonged bray of rage which recalled, in volume and timbre, Goldsmith’s perfomance in the madrigals.”


  2. One of my favorites is from the disreputable artist Gulley Jimson in “The Horse’s Mouth” by Joyce Cary:

    “Nothing is a masterpiece—a real masterpiece—till it’s about two hundred years old… Look at Christianity. Just a lot of floating seeds to start with, all sorts of seeds. It was a long time before one of them grew into a tree big enough to kill the rest and keep the rain off. And it’s only when the tree has been cut into planks and built into a house and the house has got pretty old and about fifty generations of ordinary lumpheads who don’t know a work of art from a public convenience, have been knocking nails in the kitchen beams to hang hams on, and screwing hooks in the walls for whips and guns and photographs and calendars and measuring the children on the window frames and chopping out a new cupboard under the stairs to keep the cheese and murdering their wives in the back room and burying them under the cellar flags, that it begins even to feel like a religion. And when the whole place is full of dry rot and ghosts and old bones and the shelves are breaking down with old wormy books that no one could read if they tried, and the attic floors are bulging through the servants’ ceilings with old trunks and top-boots and gasoliers and dressmaker’s dummies and ball frocks and dolls-houses and pony saddles and blunderbusses and parrot cages and uniforms and love letters and jugs without handles and bridal pots decorated with forget-me-nots and a piece out at the bottom, that it grows into a real old faith, a masterpiece which people can really get something out of, each for himself. And then, of course, everybody keeps on saying that it ought to be pulled down at once, because it’s an insanitary nuisance.”


    • I love this! It’s so complete, it draws you all the way in, and you forget it’s an analogy, and then you have to look back and see how perfectly it fits.


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