Have you ever been reading a book, and come across an especially beautifully phrased sentence or two? Something that made you stop, go back, re-read, and just pause to enjoy it? I know I have. It might be a perfect comeback to a remark, or an especially thoughtful point, or simply a vivid description. Finding those sentences is a reminder that, as important as plot and character are (and they are!), style can make a big difference, too.
The interesting thing is, that beautifully phrased sentence doesn’t have to be ‘literary.’ It can be a simple line of dialogue. If it makes you stop and think, or have a laugh, or get a perfect mental image of something (or someone), it’s a powerful sentence. We’re all different in our tastes and in what we find memorable, so your list is bound to be different to mine. But here are a few lines that I’ve found particularly well crafted.
There’s a very strong visual image in G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Invisible Man. Successful businessman Isidore Smythe is found murdered in his home. He was alone, and no-one was seen entering or leaving the building in which he lived. So, on the surface, it looks as though it was an ‘impossible’ crime. But Father Brown knows there’s no such thing. He investigates, and finds out not just who the killer is, but how it was done. Here’s the last sentence of the story:
‘But Father Brown walked these snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer, and what they said to each other will never be known.’
To me, it’s the sort of sentence that invites the reader to stop and think and imagine what these two people might have talked about, and what the conversation would have been like.
In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of the 4th Lord Edgware. The victim’s wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the first suspect. But she claims that she was at a dinner party in another part of London at the time, and there are twelve people prepared to swear that she was there. So Poirot, Captain Hastings, and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. The case turns out to be more complex than it seems on the surface, but Poirot finds out who the murderer is. That person is duly arrested, and writes a letter to Poirot, explaining all the details about how the crime was committed. Far from remorseful, the killer is actually proud of several aspects of the crime. At the very end, the murderer asks,
‘Do you think they will put me in Madame Tussaud’s?’
It’s only one sentence, but it’s a chilling glimpse of the killer’s lack of conscience.
Some lines are memorable because they’re really funny, both in meaning and in execution. For example, Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men introduces her protagonist, Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. It’s 1931 in New South Wales, and Australia is in the grip of the worldwide Great Depression. The wealthy Sinclair family hasn’t suffered inordinately, but times are hard all around, and it’s fueled a political conflict between conservatives and liberals. Rowly gets caught up in it when his uncle, also named Rowland Sinclair, is murdered. The police investigate, and at first, suspect the family housekeeper. Rowly is sure she’s innocent, though, and starts to follow up on a clue he gets from something she mentions. The case turns out to be much more dangerous than he thinks at first, but in the end, and with help from friends, he finds out the truth. Rowly is liberal in his political beliefs, and he has friends who are even further to the political left. His older brother, Wilfred, is much more conservative, and doesn’t approve at all of the company his ‘black sheep’ younger brother keeps. At one point, Wilfred remonstrates with Rowly:
‘Why can’t you just drink too much like everybody else’s wayward brother?’
Without missing a beat, Rowly responds:
‘I’ll make sure I’m totally under the table next time you see me.’
Not only is this exchange funny in its own right, but it also gets a dig in at the ‘ne-er do well’ brother/son that’s so much a part of Golden Age crime fiction.
There’s also a funny exchange in Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye. In it, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar, whose body was found in her bathtub. The most likely suspect is her husband, Janek Mitter, who was drinking heavily that night, and who can’t account for his actions. He claims he’s innocent, but he’s arrested and brought to trial. At one point, the prosecutor asks how Mitter knows he didn’t kill his wife, since he was so drunk at the time. Here’s Mitter’s priceless reply:
‘I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’
Those last two words make this a brilliant comeback, at least to me.
And then there’s Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of former Oxford don Felix McClure. The most likely suspect is McClure’s former scout, Ted Brooks. But then, Brooks disappears and is later found dead. So, the two detectives have to re-think the case. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this case is a sex worker who calls herself Ellie Smith. She and Morse find themselves attracted to each other despite the circumstances, although they don’t really pursue a relationship. Later in the novel, Ellie disappears. We’re not told exactly where she’s gone or what happened to her. Here’s what Dexter says:
‘And above all in Morse’s life there remains the searching out of Ellie Smith, since as a police officer that is his professional duty and, as a man, his necessary purpose.’
It’s a haunting comment on Morse’s personality, his essential loneliness, and his feelings about Ellie.
And that’s the thing about especially well-written phrases and sentences. They stay with the reader and express so much more than the words themselves. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tim Buckley’s Chase the Blues Away – Take 3.