After some recent ultra-pulp excesses, I decided to go back to a classic noir: Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block. It immediately posed a question. Namely, how the hell does he hook me so fast and so completely?
Many people would say the alcoholism sub-plot makes the book. I agree. But protaganist Matt Scudder drinks black coffee, attends AA meetings, and lies in his room trying not to think of alcohol. For pages at a time very little else happens. And I couldn't stop turning pages.
Different authors use different methods to keep a reader's attention. For Steinbeck it's simply the most beautiful writing. For writers like Angela Carter or Tom Robinson, it is the fact you never know what madness is going to pop up next. For others it's the fact you're still reeling from comedy or emotion as you flip from one page to the next (Kurt Vonnegut managed both at the same time, at his best). For a lot of pulp writers like Charles Williams and Donald Hamilton it's pure action.
But for a great writer or a great book, it's the voice. Mr Block sculpts a voice of such magnetic story-telling capability that it's impossible to look away, from the very first page.As with Bukowski, we are as interested in the character as the story, if not more so. It's hard to describe but you know when you hold it in your hands. Of course, with every book it's some combination of the above. But the voice is the magic thing. If you have that, little else matters.
Some books don't quite do it. Really nice writing, a good plot, great characters. You like it, but it doesn't quite have that magic.
Megan Abbotts's Queenpin has it. From the very first page I was captivated by the voice of the main character. A wonderful entrancement. It isn't a long book, and it didn't last long because I just couldn't stop reading it. It has the magic touch. It has that something special, like Eight Million..., like Bukowski.
A lot of this is subjective, of course. One writer that always does it for me is David Goodis. I'm prepared to accept that others will disagree, but I'm reading one now: Cassidy's Girl. Co-incidentally, this one's about alcoholism, too. It's far from his best. But as far as I'm considered it has that magic touch. The magic voice that won't let me put it down.