As part of my replotting Southern Discomfort, I checked The First Quarry by Max Allan Collins out of the library (all rights to cover reside with current holder, but I forgot to check the artist). I’d enjoyed Collins’ handling of period detail the first time I read it, so I thought it might be instructive.
As I mentioned at the link, Collins never dwells on any single reference, he just tosses them off. Beehive hairdos. Bullet bras. Split-level homes. Bonanza on the TV. Vietnam as the crucible that forged Quarry (he’s a sniper turned hitman). Car brands. It creates a period feel but never gets heavy-handed.
I’m not sure how applicable Collins’ approach is to Southern Discomfort. The discussion of clothes, hair, etc., definitely. But my book deals a lot more with politics, and I can’t simply name-drop that stuff. In the opening, aspiring senator Richard Cannon refers to Rep. Shirley Chisholm’s campaign for president in 1972; there’s no way Richard’s not going to think about how it was received and what he’ll have to do differently. He can’t just name drop. Which is not to imply I’m doing something deeper or better than Collins, only different.
Rereading it for study, I’m struck by the times Collins tosses off references without context. Not that anyone in the 1970s would be thinking “Bonanza, the wildly popular Western about the wealthy, powerful Cartwright ranching family that ran for years” but the price of not forcing an explanation into the story is that a lot of people TYG’s age (for example) won’t get it. Not that this is a problem, as it’s just as a show on the TV seen in passing. But in another scene, Quarry looks at an attractive woman and compares her to a Breck Girl. It’s a slightly bigger moment, and it also has no context. Again, appropriate for the 1970s, but I’m sure there were readers who had to stop and look it up; heck it took me a second to figure it out and I was old enough to have seen the commercials (Breck Girls were the cuties in Breck Shampoo commercials).
Does that mean I could get away with similar no-context references? Maybe, though I wouldn’t want to bet the farm on it. Collins, after all, has a legion of fans (I’ve read and liked his work); if I have a fan base, it’s considerably smaller. So I wouldn’t rely on getting the same amount of slack.
Either way, an instructive read. And as noted the first time I read it, a good yarn too.