Sunday, February 10, 2008

Betty Webb's "Desert Cut"

Betty Webb is the author of Desert Run, Desert Shadows, Desert Wives: Polygamy Can Be Murder, Desert Noir, and the newly released Desert Cut.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to Desert Cut and reported the following:
After checking my own page 99, I decided that Ford Madox Ford was right -- and wrong -- when he said “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”

Desert Cut’s page 99 -- the beginning of Chapter 11 -- opens in the Geronimo Lounge, a dingy Arizona bar where P.I. Lena Jones is interviewing an old man who knows more than he’s willing to tell.

When I strode into the Geronimo Lounge, I saw Clive Berklee, my elderly informant, sipping slowly at a Molson’s while he worked a crossword puzzle.

“It’s not Sunday,” I said, sliding into the chair across from him. (In an earlier scene, Berklee claimed he only drinks on Sundays)

“I’m pretending it is.” He drained the rest of his glass, then called to the bartender.

“Another beer. And put it on the blonde’s tab.”

“You’ll need to work for that.”

He called to the bartender again. “Make that three Molsons.”

Here’s my first quibble with Ford. By checking only Desert Cut’s page 99, the reader would come away with a misleading notion of the book’s content and tone. Old guy and young gal bantering in a bar? Whee! There could be no way for the reader to know that particular scene was added for what Shakespeare called “comedy relief.” Remember the gatekeeper in Hamlet?

Shakespeare put him there because his tale about things being rotten in Denmark was so unrelievedly grim that he knew his audience needed a breather. Shakespeare employed this device will all his tragedies, and it worked well. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I did the same with Desert Cut, a book about a series of child killings.

I have another quibble with Ford’s thesis. When Ford was writing in the early part of the last century, novels were different. There was no television, no Internet, few movies, and no yards-long list of entertainment events waiting to seduce away prospective readers. In those days, people had more than a twenty-minute attention span (oh, how well TV has trained us). Paragraphs could be longer, chapters could be longer, novels could be longer -- and they usually were.

Desert Cut’s page 99 is -- as are most chapter beginnings -- short, at only 24 lines (not all quoted here). And because it’s a conversation, there are no descriptive passages, no interior thoughts. In fact, the page contains few of those devices which usually display the writer’s ability. As a professional book critic (Mystery Scene magazine) as well as a reader, I would need to turn the page to find those.

However (and thanks for nothing, Ford, old buddy), upon re-reading page 99, I found the dialogue nifty.
Read an excerpt from Desert Cut and learn more about the author and her work at Betty Webb's website and her blog.

--Marshal Zeringue