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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The power of a single phrase

Daniel Silva is one of my favorite spy novelists. He doesn't just tell a good story; like the other greats--Le Carre, Deighton, O'Reilly--he tells it well. This passage is from his latest book, Moscow Rules.

There is a VIP reception room at Ben-Gurion Airport that few people know and where even fewer have set foot. Reached by an unmarked door near passport control, it has walls of Jerusalem limestone, furnishings of black leather, and a permanent odor of burnt coffee and male tension. When Gabriel entered the room the following evening, he found it occupied by a single man. He had settled himself at the edge of his chair, with his legs slightly splayed and his large hands resting atop an olive-wood cane, like a traveler on a rail platform resigned to a long wait. He was dressed, as always, in a pair of pressed khaki trousers and a white oxford cloth shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His head was bullet-shaped and bald, except for a monkish fringe of white hair. His ugly wire-framed spectacles magnified a pair of blue eyes that were no longer clear.

That's a marvelously descriptive pasage that introduces us to the character Ari Shamron. But what I want to call your attention to is a single phrase that makes everything work--"like a traveler on a rail platform resigned to a long wait." Take that away and what you have is a description, with no context. That phrase defines the mood not just of the man but of the scene, and it points to the inevitability of what is to come. It's a visual image like a definin camera shot in a great film. It's a close up not just of the man, but of his mind. There are other great phrases in the passage--"a permanent odor of burnt coffee and male tension," "a monkish fringe of white hair." Taking them away would diminish the paragraph, but not in the same way taking away the image of the traveler on a rail platform would. And it's not just the phrase, it's the visual quality of the metaphor (that sets up the visual description of the man) and its placement in the middle of the paragraph so that everything revolves around it. Some people are masters of the language. Daniel Silva is one of them.


  1. Any writer that can transport you and put you, and your five senses, in the scene is earning his salt.

    Peace - Rene

  2. Burnt coffee, male tension and a bullet shaped head. Sounds interesting. ;^)

  3. I see your point here. I'd not thought of this before. You are right though you need to express everything necessary to make that first paragraph grab you. This one did.

    Have a terrific day. :)

  4. Thank you for your kind words. I will make sure my husband sees this, and I know how pleased he will be. It is one of his favorite scenes. Many thanks for reading and for taking the time to write about Moscow Rules.
    Jamie Gangel (wife of Daniel Silva)

  5. Beautifully put. I've learned something here today. And got a book referral too. Thanks, Grandpa.

  6. I love these word mechanic lessons. It is always fun to visit your garage, Grandpa!

  7. I would have to agree with you about that phrase. As soon as I read that line, I had the image. Clearly.