Being a playwright and actor in addition to a mystery writer, Joseph Goodrich has a nuanced view of voice, which he discusses here. He won an Edgar Award in 2008 for his play “Panic,” inspired by the life and work of Alfred Hitchcock. His plays include “Calamity Town,” based on the 1942 Ellery Queen novel of the same name, and most recently “The Red Box,” based on a 1937 Nero Wolfe novel, which debuted this summer in Minneapolis to great acclaim. He edited Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947–1950.
As a playwright and a writer of fiction, I spend a lot of time alone in a room talking to myself. It’s only natural that the question of voice fascinates me.
When I talk about voice, I’m talking about two things, really: the voice of an author, and the voices of an author’s characters.
The first is a subtle combination of subject matter, language, experience, and perspective—the sum of all the choices a writer makes in the creation of a work. Those choices are as singular as fingerprints, and also serve as identification. It’s why Hammett doesn’t sound like Christie, and why Christie doesn’t sound like Highsmith. Another word for this is style, which Raymond Chandler once defined as “the projection of personality.”
A character’s voice is a lot like an author’s: It reflects the age, background, likes and dislikes of that character, and serves to distinguish one character from another. For me—and this is a result of years of working in the theater—the key to a character’s voice is sound. Marty Kaplan, the narrator of my short story “Red Alert” (AHMM, November 2014), is an East Coast wisecracker of a certain age who was once in show business. His sound is snappy, irreverent—and what he says is (I hope) entertaining.
When I’m moving words around at my desk, or contemplating notes scrawled in a Moleskine, or walking down the street with a head full of jangling story fragments, one of the things I’m doing is listening for the sound of the piece in question. Sound isn’t separate from sense, of course. The two are related. But “Call me Ishmael” creates a different effect than “Hey, it’s Ishmael. How are ya?”
Voice is what draws us to certain writers and characters. It’s the single most important factor in appreciating (or not appreciating) an author’s work.
An editor once cut some lines from one of Raymond Chandler’s stories because they didn’t advance the action. Chandler begged to differ. He believed that what readers really cared about was
the creation of emotion through dialogue and description;
the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not
for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment
of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the
polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from
him, so that there was a look of strain of his face and his
mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and
the last thing in the world he thought about was death.
We’re all aiming for that golden combination of language, psychological truth, and urgent circumstance that makes for great reading.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that character is fate. Our fictional creations reveal their fates through the language they use. Voice is fate.
I’d better get back to mine.
It’s time again to start listening . . .