By Jodie Shull
Mystery novelist Steph Cha says she has always loved the 1940s noir private detective stories of Raymond Chandler. Picture Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. When Cha began to write her own noir mysteries, she channeled her unique spin on the voice of Chandler's tough guy protagonist Philip Marlowe. The result was detective-in-training Juniper Song, a 20-something Korean-American female looking for a post-college life in today's gritty, fast-paced, stress-fueled Los Angeles.
"One thing I really like about Chandler," Cha says, "is that he would describe things in a figurative way." This is the good and bad news about channeling Chandler for a modern mystery writer. "Philip Marlowe's interior monologues are very florid and figurative. Everything is a million mixed metaphors. There's a simile in every line." Cha acknowledges that this worked wonderfully for Chandler in another era. Today, though, it's hard to pull off in a contemporary novel. Steph Cha is a master of figurative language herself, but she says her agent asked her to pull back some of the excesses in her first Juniper Song novel.
For Cha, the use of unique and striking descriptions are part of building the voice and character of her protagonist, Juniper Song. "I don't like to write descriptions that are just the same as everyone else's. I want to make it seem like a fresh pair of eyes are looking at it," Cha says. Juniper Song's descriptions establish who she is and how unique her viewpoint is. "She's so observant and all of her emotions are coloring her descriptions," says Cha. Making Juniper's voice unique was her goal, "Marlowe-inflected but also approachable and colloquial." Beautiful writing need not be difficult to read or get in the way of story. Cha says she likes stylists who write beautifully but don’t call attention to their efforts.
Actually, the marvelous voice of Juniper Song is the first thing you notice in Steph Cha's novels. Here are a few of my favorite lines of description:
Of a male friend’s disheveled appearance: “His hair was a nest wrought by blind birds.”
Of a murderer’s inattention: “Maybe he was watching, worrying, and missed the moment when his victim made the binary leap from 1 to 0.”
Of a female actress’s face: “[she had]…a dainty chin, slightly dented in the middle like soft fruit pressed by a thumb.”
Of Los Angeles gangs: “[They were]…veins running beneath the skin of the city.”
“We leaned against the hood of his car, smoking and boozing, a quiet little picnic of sadness and vice. The sky was an oily black, starless, chilly, portentous.”
“I feared her like an insomniac fears the death of the sun.”
“Lusig’s confession stayed with me like a hangover that refused to dissipate.”
“I felt sick to my stomach, like my computer had crashed and swallowed my thesis.”
Each line tells us about Juniper Song—that she is a sensitive observer, a sharp wit, a wry sensibility, and a feeling actor in her own drama. These samples illustrate Steph Cha’s success in her effort to achieve fine writing in a voice that is seamless, accessible, and compelling.