Bad Blurbs #2 – Tour de Force (Christianna Brand, 1955)

After mentioning it in my previous post, I thought I should probably dig out my copy of Tour de Force and check that the blurb is really as bad as I thought it was. It is, and it’s made worse because there’s some really good stuff before the cock-up.

If you want to read Tour de Force, but want to avoid spoiling it for yourself, then all you need to know is that the bad blurb is from the Hamlyn 1980 edition, from the Hamlyn Whodunnit series. You can see the cover at the top of this post. There seem to be plenty of other editions, hopefully with spoiler-free backs. If you’ve already read it, or are just interested to learn how bad the blurb is, then do please read on…

[Warning! Spoilers for Tour de Force, which I think is a fantastic mystery. I’d seriously advise against spoiling it.]

I don’t know much about the art of blurb writing. As a discipline I suppose it’s related to writing advertising copy, which is completely unlike any other sort of writing. As such, I imagine a good blurb might seem quite bad out of context. It’s certainly unlikely to have many of the features I value in other sorts of writing. Subtlety, for example, or understatement. Those probably don’t have much place on the backs of books.

But I can imagine what a good blurb should do, even if I’d have difficulty writing one myself. A good blurb needs to convey the tone and the setting of the book, along with the name and a brief characterisation of the protagonist (and perhaps some of the other important characters). Then there should probably be a hint of an event from the middle or the first third of the plot, so the reader can get some idea of what direction the plot is going to go in and what kind of problems the protagonist will face.

That’s all.

This blurb consists of two short paragraphs and a rave review comment taken from the Observer. Here’s the first paragraph:

Inspector Cockrill was not enjoying the package tour. The heat was unendurable, the food indigestible, his fellow tourists unbearable. To crown it all, when a young woman is found murdered in her hotel bedroom he finds himself languishing in a foreign jail as suspect number one.

I think that’s an exemplary bit of blurb writing, with a good mix of the vague and the specific. It quickly and efficiently gives you an idea of the setting (abroad), tone (light-hearted) and the personality of the detective (curmudgeonly), without actually spoiling any details. It gives away the sex of the victim but not the identity (there are several young women amongst the suspects) or the method. Finally, it spoils a plot detail that’s unimportant to the mystery but works well as a hook.

The style is as good as the content. It’s simply written but not repetitive – each sentence has a different length and rhythm, and the second sentence is particularly playful (it’s a proper ascending tricolon! It’s like I’m doing Classics again!). And whoever wrote it has an ear for English – ending the last sentence with “suspect number one” sounds a lot better than the more usual “the number one suspect.” Try it out loud – it’s not nearly as good.

I don’t want to over-egg it. It’s not transcendently good writing. But it is very disciplined, just as a blurb should be.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there:

In the sizzling Mediterranean sun a group of bizarre characters are thrown together with dramatic results. And the mystery is only finally solved when the depleted party returns – gratefully – to England.

I can’t tell if I’m imagining things when I think that those two paragraphs were obviously written by two different people. Whether I’m right about that or not, the second paragraph is clearly much worse. It’s less rhythmic, and it doesn’t function well as blurb writing. It doesn’t add anything useful to the first paragraph. We already know it’s hot. We already know it’s set abroad. We’re already expecting the other characters to be interesting, because we know from the first paragraph that Inspector Cockrill finds them “unbearable”. The phrase “with dramatic results” is a completely uninformative cliché. We expect drama – it’s a murder mystery! We expect results – books tend to have plots with beginnings, middles and ends!

But it’s that last sentence that makes this a truly terrible blurb. Not only is it badly written (“Finally solved” seems like an awkward tautology in a sentence that’s already clumsy to read), it’s not even particularly enticing, unlike the morsels from the first paragraph. The fact that the detective gets thrown in jail is enticing; it’s an unusual turn of events for a mystery story and the reader is likely to want to know both how it happens and how it gets resolved. But the fact that the mystery isn’t solved until they get back home is completely uninteresting (to someone who knows nothing about the plot). Why would the reader care whether the mystery is solved during or after the package holiday? What’s intriguing or enticing about that?

So it wouldn’t be good even if it wasn’t horrendous for reasons other than the style. I can easily imagine a mystery where it didn’t matter whether the crime was solved at home or abroad. But it wouldn’t be Tour de Force. In Tour de Force it emphatically does matter. Christianna Brand spends almost 200 pages carefully working up to one suggestion: that Leo Rodd is the murderer despite his missing arm, that he commits suicide by swimming out to sea and that the remaining characters, satisfied that they’ve learned the truth, then return home. From the reader’s perspective, it’s completely plausible. The solution makes sense; all the plot threads seem to be wrapped up after an exciting climax, including Brand’s trademark firework display of false solutions; and, most importantly, it’s close enough to the end of the book that the reader can really believe that everything is winding down. There are only a few pages left, just enough time for Inspector Cockrill to say something profound at the airport. It’s all perfectly planned, and when Leo Rodd turns up again at the airport and says the immortal line, “Don’t touch me, Vanda Lane” it’s one of the best sucker-punches in the genre.

Unless, of course, you’ve already learned from the back of the book that “the mystery is only finally solved when the depleted party returns – gratefully – to England”…

It’s been five years since I read it and I’m still cross. All that wonderful effort undone by a single, ill-wrought sentence.

4 thoughts on “Bad Blurbs #2 – Tour de Force (Christianna Brand, 1955)

  1. I loved this book! Well, you might have guessed that if you read my 101 list. It’s definitely on there. I was disappointed in a couple of her other books, but this one is superb.My copy didn’t give anything away in the blurbs. Best thing to do: DON’T READ BLURBS!

  2. This is definitely one of my favourite books, by my favourite author; I’m extremely glad I didn’t get this edition. For more bad blurb goodness, the author’s biography on my edition of Brand’s A Ring of roses goes further and flat out spoils the culprit of Death in High Heels. I also remember my enjoyment of The Moving Finger being reduced from reading the blurb as well.

  3. I’m very late here, having just read the book for review at my place, but I love how you take this apart — that first paragraph is wonderful, and then it just bogs down and, yup, provides waaaaay too much despite adding very little. I’m reminded of the various blurbs for Josephone Tey’s The Franchise Affair, one of which (the green Pengiun edition) is perfection in brevity, and every other one I’ve read gives you pretty much every single piece of information going. If you read three of them it might even be possible to put the plot together without reading the book.

    • Thanks JJ! I wrote this before I became a full-time freelance editor (which would explain why it’s WAAAAY over-written), but you can probably see why I decided to make that career move. I just love analyzing and fixing this kind of thing, even more than I enjoy writing.

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