He had an air about him: Ministry of Fear Part Two

Early on in Ministry of Fear, Greene observes that his protagonist’s sloppy, rumpled clothes make him look like a bachelor, except he had that “indefinable married air.”
Like “this is real life, idiot!” this cliché has a long life. It’s basically a short-cut to describing your character’s personality while trying to pretend you’re not using exposition. You mention that he “had the eyes of a killer” or he “carried himself like a man who enjoys the company of women” or “he gave the impression of being constantly henpecked” (examples all made up, but not out of character for the cliché).
An extreme case being the opening of the first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws: Erle Stanley Gardner introduces Perry Mason as (this is not verbatim because the book’s in a box for the move just now, but it is close) someone who has the look of a fighter who would maneuver his adversary carefully into position, then finish him with a knockout punch.
Sorry, Mr. Gardner, but I have never seen anyone with a look even remotely like that. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to convey that about themselves just by looking like it.
Which is the first problem with the cliché: There’s only so much people’s “air” can convey. If Arthur Rowe (Greene’s protagonist) were trying to pick up a woman in a single bar, I could believe he had a married air—a furtive quality that suggested he was doing something wrong. But walking into a church fete? Not so much.
The second is that, while it can theoretically be an effective shorthand, particularly if it’s first-person narration (if a first person narrator says someone looks bored, or horny, it’s his personal thoughts; if it’s omniscient narrator, it’s a divine verdict), it often feels like a cheat. So someone has a henpecked air or a dangerous air or the air of a traditional, old-fashioned girl? What gives him/her the air? Body language? Clothing? The way he carefully studies everyone who enters the bar as if sizing up their threat potential? Details help.
Having an air works best, I think, if it’s a vivid simile that really does convey something, even without details. Later in the book, Greene describes one policeman as having a slightly guilty manner, like a bull that realizes it shouldn’t be in the china shop. I think that conveys a very vivid picture. P.G. Wodehouse once wrote of a man who looked as if he’d drained the cup of life to its dregs, only to find a dead rat at the bottom. That’s pretty good too.
And I now have the air of someone who’s finished posting.

1 Comment

Filed under Reading, Writing

One response to “He had an air about him: Ministry of Fear Part Two

  1. Pingback: The Opener of the Way | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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