I’ve read enough free books that I always go into them with low expectations. That way I’m not so disappointed by poor storytelling and writing, and anything half-decent is a bonus. So it’s a pleasant surprise when a freebie makes me sit up and take notice.
This happened recently, with the short story Loose Ends by Craig A. Hart. Not so much for the story itself (which was an enjoyable way to spend half an hour), but for the quality of the writing. One of the things that stood out was how Hart feeds the reader information.
The story is a noir thriller, with a typical wisecracking protagonist. This is set up perfectly in the opening line:
Nothing ruins the benefit of a good night’s sleep like being awakened by the muzzle of a pistol being jammed into one’s ear.
There’s no panic in this phrase, even though such a situation would be terrifying for most people. So the narrator—the man with the gun to his head—is either used to being in scrapes like this or he’s calm under pressure. Or both.
Already, we’re intrigued, and want to read on.
The narrator has been woken up, and it’s only natural that he’s a little disorientated. His thoughts start to wander—specifically to his ‘lady friend’, who he imagines being
thrust into the role of a modern day Sisera, playing the part of Jael by hammering a nail through my temple.
I’ve no idea who Sisera and Jael are, but I assume they’re characters from old stories, possibly biblical or mythological. And this tells me something about the man in the bed—he’s well-read. And, again, the way he’s not focusing on the gun at his head says he’s still calm.
But he’s a detective, so he has an analytical nature. Hart reinforces that in a quick summary.
I was lying in my own bed, in my own hotel room on Key West, and a gun was pressed to my ear.
It’s blunt, a stark reminder of the situation. It also drops clues about the setting—we’re in the man’s hotel room in Key West. His hotel room, so this isn’t a ‘wake up in a stranger’s bed after a wild night’ situation. He hasn’t mentioned anyone else, so we can assume he’s alone—apart from the person holding the gun.
We’re still missing a lot of information, though. Who is this man? We need to know more, and we get that in the next few lines.
“Not a move, Wolfe,” a deep voice growled.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I said, quite truthfully.
“You expecting visitors?”
“Yeah. King Jabin’s army. You’d better get out while you have the chance.”
“What the hell you talking about?”
“I take it you’re not a scholar of ancient texts.”
So, we have a name now. We also know that this isn’t a random hit—the gun-man is targeting Wolfe specifically.
We also get another reminder of Wolfe’s intelligence, with the reference to King Jabin’s army (again, not something I’m familiar with). But we also see more of his character. It’s a stressful situation, but he’s calm enough that he’s wise-cracking. This might be a trope of noir thrillers, but it’s a fun one, and it’s something we expect in a story like this.
Hart’s given us so much information here, without forcing it down our throats, and we’re not even off the first page. He’s also set up an intriguing situation. We’re hooked.
A good thriller won’t give us everything straight away, of course—there has to be mystery and intrigue. But we’re still missing information that will help ground us. For instance, when is this story set? We might assume it’s mid-twentieth-century simply because that’s the golden age of noir, but we can’t be sure. That is, until Hart again drops a beautifully placed clue in dialogue.
“I’m just joshing you,” I said. “Trying to lighten the mood.”
“Keep your day job,” the little man growled in his paradoxically deep voice. “You’re no Jack Benny.”
The only thing I know off the top of my head about Jack Benny is that he was an entertainer or comedian around the mid-twentieth-century. It’s unlikely that the gun-man would reference someone who wasn’t contemporary to the story’s settings, so our original assumption of time seems to be correct.
But there’s more in this little exchange. The gun-man’s reference of another person mirrors Wolfe’s mention of King Jabin, but also highlights their differences—one contemporary and popular, the other older and more esoteric. It also hints at cracks in the gun-man’s confidence—he’s trying to beat Wolfe’s wise-cracks, but it doesn’t quite work. Even though he’s the one with the gun, it already feels like Wolfe is in control of the situation.
It’s a wonderful demonstration of how the craft of writing is as important as story itself. It’s a fantastic lesson in how to give information without resorting to info-dumps. It shows how phrases can do double-duty (providing information and giving insight into character while moving the story forward.)
And it’s definitely encouraged me to read more of Hart’s work.
It’s worth reading these freebies. Every so often, you come across a gem.