Style Analysis: Remo Went Wild by Mike McCrary
Today I’ll be looking at a passage from the author of the Remo series, Mike McCrary. In this scene, Remo and Cloris are entering a compound filled with dangerous criminals, and Remo’s questioning Cloris’s sanity.
“He remembers Lester’s concerns about Cloris killing all of them. There’s this look in her eyes. It comes and goes. Hard to tell what triggers it exactly. There have been times when the trigger was obvious. When she wanted to kill Hollis at dinner that look in her eyes made perfect sense but it’s here now too. Like it’s this wandering wave of whacko that comes and goes with the wind. Sometimes it makes some sense, but most of the time it’s just plain fucking whacko for the sake of being whacko. Remo wonders if there’s a way to harness that power. To bottle up her whacko and release it when necessary, like popping a bottle of bubbly on special occasions. He wonders if Lester knows that’s not possible. Maybe he’s tried. Remo wonders if this is why Lester thinks she will kill them all. Then realizes how pointless it is to wonder while being zip-tied by a crazy person.”
Previously I analyzed a passage from Elmore Leonard and noted a few of the elements Leonard uses in his prose: simple and informal language, conversational phrases, incomplete sentences, and contractions. I consider these to be the foundational elements of the crime fiction style.
McCrary uses these foundational elements effectively as well, even though his style differs from Leonard’s. Where Leonard is cool, calm, and controlled, McCrary has a more frenetic, high-energy approach. Both writers establish a distinctive style within these parameters.
Beyond this, McCrary uses several other tools to establish a strong voice. These are less foundational elements and more stylistic idiosyncrasies that make McCrary’s work a blast to read.
This might not be a laugh out loud passage (though McCrary has plenty of those). But it retains a humorous tone in parts. For example, the phrase “just plain whacko for the sake of being whacko.” The repetition of whacko works well too–it’s a funny word, and its use here feels natural in Remo’s voice. He emphasizes that repetition with the alliterative line: “Like it’s this wandering wave of whacko that comes and goes with the wind.”
The last line is classic McCrary: “Then realizes how pointless it is to wonder while being zip-tied by a crazy person.” Remo’s been navel-gazing for a while, but now he’s back in the moment, questioning whether he’s about to die. As always with McCrary’s writing, the tension is high and the conflict is clear, but the mood is never too serious.
The slightest variations in word choice can alter how memorable a passage is. Take this sentence: “To bottle up her whacko and release it when necessary, like popping a bottle of bubbly on special occasions.” What if McCrary chose “champagne” instead of “bubbly”? Why is bubbly better? Maybe it’s the contrast between the Cloris’s psychotic tendencies and bubbly’s soft and juvenile sound. Whatever it is, bubbly’s the clear winner.
Varied sentence length
Some writers can get away with only writing long sentences or short sentences. I would wager that most writers would be better off varying sentence length to reflect the natural rhythm of speech. Let’s take a look at a chunk of this paragraph:
“There’s this look in her eyes. It comes and goes. Hard to tell what triggers it exactly. There have been times when the trigger was obvious. When she wanted to kill Hollis at dinner that look in her eyes made perfect sense but it’s here now too. Like it’s this wandering wave of whacko that comes and goes with the wind.”
Each sentence holds together on its own and as part of the whole. He starts with two short sentences and a fragment–5 words, 4 words, 7 words. Then a slightly longer sentence, 9 words, followed by a much longer complex sentence, 21 words, and wraps up with a 14-word sentence. The overall effect is that the passage contains zero awkward phrases and flows from beginning to end.
Still, this particular rhythm is part of McCrary’s style. James Ellroy’s style, to use an extreme example, would include many more short sentences and fragments.
McCrary is known for high-octane fiction that refuses to bore the reader. In a recent interview, he said, “I think it’s a constant fear that I have, a panic even, that I will not entertain the person reading the thing. I simply don’t want to bore people. Perhaps to a fault.” Part of this is his aptitude for writing action scenes and packing his books full of whacky characters. But he also makes every paragraph sing–an equally important skill for crafting entertaining fiction.