27/09/2010

Hats Off to Barry

As those kind - and patient - enough to follow this blog on a regular basis must know by now, I'm an enthusiastic defender and promoter of the short story, which I regard as the most demanding (and thus most rewarding) form of fiction, especially mystery fiction. Stanley Ellin, Henry Slesar, Robert Arthur, Edward D. Hoch or John Collier rank high in my personal pantheon, and Donald Westlake's or Lawrence Block's shorter work I always found to be more interesting than their longer efforts. 

Before going further I must admit to a slight bias here as the author I'm about to discuss is a personal friend and has been for years, even though we never actually met - only Internet may make such things possible. Barry Ergang is one of the highly interesting fellows I've encountered on the highly interesting GAdetection board; we come from opposite corners of the mystery field, being of a decidedly traditionalist bent while he is more of a hardboiled guy (nobody's perfect) but our common liking for the Man Who Explained Miracles and our devotion to short stories made sure we'd get along very well, if not always seeing eye to eye. As many GAders, Barry doesn't content himself with reading mystery fiction: he writes some, too. And I think he does quite well.

Years ago I was one of the privileged ones he asked to review his then-latest effort, a piece called "The Play of Light of Shadow". To review a friend's work is always a difficult experience, as you have to balance criticism and sensitivity in a more careful way than you do when asked to judge the work of someone you don't know. Regarding "The Play of Light and Shadow", however, I didn't need to worry about that, since it was just excellent. Barry successfully blended there his two favorite themes, the tough and the impossible. I don't want to spoil anything and I'm not that good at summaries anyway, so let's say that it's about an impossible crime solved by a hardboiled dick going by the name of Darnell and that it's an absolute winner, both in term of plotting (with an elegant and - to me, at least - original solution) and good characterization, especially of the lead character. (I have spent the last half-decade or so asking Barry for a sequel as I think Darnell has a lot of potential - and I'm still waiting) And then there is the writing - lean, sparse, precise. 

His latest collection, "A Flash of Fear" displays Barry's pointe sèche at its best. It is a collection of six flash stories - or short-shorts if you're not into Internet neologisms. As I said above, the regular short story is the most demanding of all forms, and the short-short is the most perillous of its variations - telling, as opposed to outlining, a compelling story in a few lines requires virtues that not every writer possesses. Barry does, however, and if you think I'm just pouring friendly praise on an old comrade, you might like to know he's a past winner of the highly coveted Derringer Award, in - guess what? - the "Flash Fiction" category

On AFF's evidence it's easy to see why. Each one of the six vignettes has enough material for a more verbose writer to make a novel or at least a novella out of it; Barry for one packs it all in a few lines, complete with endings as sardonic as anything Jack Ritchie ever deviced. I mention Ritchie here as, I think, he would have approved of such sarcastic gems as "The Merchant of Varnish" with its devilish pun, "Moaning Lisa" or "Mother's Day Present" - he would, too, have liked the darker "No Such Thing" where Barry shows he can handle serious issues and drive his point home without hammering it (a poor pun as you'll realize when you read the story, but I couldn't help it) Ritchie was after all a master of both the cynical twister and the compassionate noir. 

The best piece, however, reminds one of Hammett in its extremely stripped-down, yet evocative, prose. Barry says it was intended to be "an experiment in the objective style" and for fear of seeming overly complimetary I'll just say it is very effective. "Ambition" may not be the cleverest story in the collection, but it summarizes what, in my view, makes Barry a writer to follow, that is, his ability to suggest a setting, invoke a character and a situation in a unique, convincing way with a few words and just basic English. Quite a feat and, in these times, worthy of encouragement. I strongly advice you to encourage Barry by reading his works.

Further reading:

All of Barry's works previously discussed, as well as a few others, can be found (and, for some, bought) as Smashwords e-books (click here)


2 commentaires:

Barry Ergang a dit…

Thanks for the very kind words, Xavier, and for placing me (undeservedly) in the company of some master storytellers.

I also want to mention that when as a kid I first started reading mysteries aimed at adults, it was in the traditional field. I read lots of Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, S.S. Van Dine, Rex Stout and others. It was a little later on that I discovered Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald and the hardboiled school. I also read some Mickey Spillane and a lot (eventually all) of Richard S. Prather's Shell Scott stories, along with spy thrillers by Ian Fleming and Donald Hamilton. See http://www.mystericale.com/historical/IMPOSSIBLEPLEASURES.html

Although I went through a period during which I read nothing but hardboiled mysteries and suspense stories, I have always generally mixed it up and read my share of traditional mysteries, too. As you pointed out, we share a love of the work of John Dickson Carr, whom I regard as the greatest practitioner of the pure detective story.

Patricia Harrington a dit…

Wonderful, well done commentary for Barry. I've read some of his short works and agree wholeheartedly with the assessment. And, re: the flash story--as one who enjoys writing them, however painful the process--I look forward to getting this latest collection of Barry's.

Pat Harrington