Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
The desire to find the likeness between unlike things is the holy grail of creative writing. Similes, as such figures of speech are called, help the reader see the thing being described more vividly. They can add an element of surprise and color, but only if they’re fresh. Brave as a lion, red like a rose, dry as a bone, crazy like a fox. Those old clichés did a fair job of likening in their day, but they have long since lost their punch. A serious writer must be constantly reaching for ever more original and arresting similes. Occasionally, that reach exceeds the reader’s grasp.
The quest for novelty and poetic resonance can lead to the brink of absurdity. The more contrived the comparison, the less comprehensible the meaning. Recently I read a novel by a major, award-winning mystery author – a writer renowned for literary excellence and psychological insight. I feel bad about what I’m about to say, but halfway through this Grand Master’s book, it occurred to me that there’s such a thing as too many similes. By the end, I’d decided that not every “this” is comparable to a “that.” Here are a few of his more jarring images.
The detective knocks on a stranger’s door. The moon peered down through flimsy cloud like an acned blonde roused behind her curtains by the noise. A woman appears. Her thick black hair was coiled on her head like sleeping dangerous memories. She asks the detective his name. The cords in her throat worked like pulleys to produce the syllables. He tells her who he is and her fingers vibrated like a tuning fork as she unlocked the door.
I was still pondering the memories asleep in her hair when She clutched her head as if it were an animal that had to be subdued. Her blue eyes jumped like a gas flame at his face. Her breasts were thrust out under her shirt, aggressive as nose cones. The moment stretched like rotten elastic, as if it might still not be too late to put salt on the tail of the ruby-breasted dream.
It was already too late to put salt on the tail of the author’s runaway simile habit and no amount of salt would have helped me make sense of the rotten elastic and the ruby-breasted dream. But those nose cones caught my attention. They started me thinking about the many fanciful ways that writers, especially male writers, have described the female breast. The Bible provides one of the more amazing analogies. Thy breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies. I have tried to picture this. A roe is a small, reddish-brown deer that has no tail. It is well adapted to cold climates where lilies surely could not grow. What sort of a woman was this? The mind boggles.
Similes devised to conjure up a vision of breasts are many and various. Marie Antoinette had breasts like champagne glasses. A Tamil queen had breasts like carved caskets ornamented with black diamonds. Contemplation of the bosom has launched a thousand likes – fruit stalks, gazelles, pomegranates, spaniels’ ears, beacons, zeppelins, umlauts, pagodas, clusters of dropping balm, and bronzed mangoes – to mention but a few. But I digress.
As Forrest Gump’s mother might have said, similitude is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’ll get because the similarity of one thing to another is in the eye of the beholder. In many cases, the beholder is the author’s main character. Some of my favorite similes come out of the wiseguy mouth of Phillip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s cynical, hardboiled detective. Chandler peppered Marlowe’s speech with startling, often humorous juxtapositions. You can’t get much more visually graphic than “inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake,” or more wince-inducing than “restful as a split lip.”
Chandler’s mean streets are as unlike P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle as bullets and boutonnières. But Wodehouse also displayed a flair for witty, inventive similes. “She leapt toward me like Lady Macbeth coming to get first-hand news from the guest-room.” And this: “The Duke’s moustache was rising and falling like seaweed on an ebb-tide.”
To paraphrase Robert Frost, an imaginative association of ideas is nothing less than a feat, but the association should be clear, evocative, and sound like the character who makes it. Similes should be used sparingly. The detective should not wax eloquent about the similarities between the moon and polished ivory while in the midst of a shootout, and when he does opine in the form of a simile, the two things compared should not be so mind-blowing that the reader forgets to read what happens next.