From: Mark Sullivan ( DJ-Anonyme@webtv.net)
Date: 19 Aug 2000

I just finished reading Leavin' Trunk Blues by Ace Atkins, the second book featuring Nick Travers, Blues tracker. It brought a couple of related issues to mind:

This is not a new trend, but it seems to be on the rise, opening with a glimpse at the climax, then going back to the beginning of the story. For instance, this book opens with a 2 1/4 page prologue. The first chapter opens with the note "Five Days Earlier." The book gets back to the material in the prologue on page 297 of 322. While I have read books in which this strategy has been used effectively (Stark's Parker series uses it a lot), it most often seems to evidence a loss of nerve, the fear that the reader will not have the patience for a slow build. All in all, I would have liked this book a lot more without the teaser. It messed with the pacing, especially if you got the inside joke -- it told too much.

Which is my other topic, inside jokes. This, too, can be used effectively, as in the book Shooting Elvis. Everyone is chasing a
"dingus" in that book. Although the dingus is clearly described, its significance is never explained; it's as if Hammett forgot to provide the provenance of the Rara Avis. The dingus in Shooting Elvis is a real item. I doubt it hurts the enjoyment of the book if the reader does not know what makes this particular item so special, may even make it kind of surrealistically amusing that all of this to-do is over this item, but awareness of its significance brings a knowing smile to someone who is in on the joke. The inside joke in Leavin' Trunk Blues is not so subtle.


That tease mentions Stagger Lee. The entire plot hinges on whether or not Ruby Walker really killed Billy Lyons. Now, anyone who knows the song Stagger Lee (AKA Staggerlee or Stack O' Lee), which is just about anyone who knows anything at all about the blues, knows that Stagger Lee killed Billy Lyons. So by introducing his name at the beginning, Atkins has already told us that Ruby is, indeed, falsely imprisoned. This changes the pacing of the whole book, makes the reader impatient with Travers as he too slowly comes to believe Ruby's declaration of innocence. If he had skipped the teaser which tells us of Stagger Lee's real existence, we might have thought he was nothing more than an urban legend, as Travers does when his name is first introduced much later in the book.

And when that name does come up, Travers asks, "LIke the song?" However, he never mentions the irony (as he does not yet believe there is a real Stagger Lee), that the victim is named Billy Lyons. There are a lot of variations on that song, but they all agree that Stagger Lee killed Billy Lyons.

I still liked the book quite a bit, but I think the teaser introducing the inside joke way too soon works against it being as good as it could have been. I don't mind being a bit ahead of a protagonist, but I don't like being that far ahead of him, except in a book which gives the detective and the killer equal play, which this doesn't -- although there are asides featuring other characters, this is clearly Travers's book.


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