Whatever happened to the good old American hard-boiled tradition? Many of the big-time thriller writers of today have gone so soft that I barely feel like writing about them in this column. I’ve recently yawned my way through books by the who’s who of the lot, from Michael Crichton to James Patterson, and I’m sorry to say but I felt no thrills.

What I’m talking about is this: Today’s thriller writers increasingly explain away everything that might make their books exciting. Instead of showing us a character or scene, they tell us what we’re supposed to make out of it. I discovered this, for instance, in the early pages of Patterson’s Guilty Wives, where there’s a detailed description of how to bet on roulette in Monte Carlo. It was like reading some kind of technical handbook.

Have you noticed, too, how suspense fiction increasingly reads like cellphone manuals? Are we readers taken to be so stupid that every single detail must be spelt out to us (I mean, if we wanted to know the rules of roulette, couldn’t we just google with our smartphones)?

There was once a hard-boiled tradition—a way of writing in an understated manner that many great writers adhered to. It started back in the 1930s: Think Dashiell Hammett, think Raymond Chandler. It is this tradition that is slowly dying as its last practitioners age.

I realized this recently, reading Elmore Leonard’s Be Cool, originally published in 1999, which admittedly makes it a bit ancient. Besides, its main character, Chili Palmer—ex-loan shark and reformed gangster currently working as an unorthodox movie producer in Hollywood—doesn’t even own a cellphone. But Leonard deals with the issue elegantly in a brief and hard-boiled passage when Chili has to borrow one:

“Vita asked Chili, didn’t he have one of his own? Chili said no, he didn’t like people he didn’t want to talk to calling him."

Sentences like these, sharp and full of attitude, are what make Leonard a thousand per cent better read than the pulp of many other contemporary thriller writers. Chili’s not carrying a phone is important to the plot and almost leads to his being thrown off a 10th floor balcony. Leonard delivers all these practical details with his trademark wry humour, rather than launching into endless explanations.

Be Cool doubles as a masterclass in how to be a cool writer. Chili’s got one blockbuster to his name, Get Leo, followed by a megaflop, Get Lost, and is looking for new projects when he meets Linda Moon, wannabe rock musician, and decides to become her manager in order to trace the career graph of a rising star through the down and dirty Los Angeles (LA) record industry.

Bluffing his way through the business, Chili makes enemies real fast, dead bodies turn up everywhere, and off we go on a roller-coaster ride through tinsel town, encountering armed and deadly gangsta rappers, armed and deadly Russian Mafiosi, Samoan musclemen and so on.

But I’m not only talking about the intensity of plot here, although Be Cool is an excellent read; Leonard also teaches us how to think creatively about storytelling.

There’s not a single page that makes you feel the plot is plodding. He has to throw in lots of data about the music industry–how payola works, for example—but facts and figures enter naturally as Chili plays the game, getting Linda a recording deal, promoting her, getting her high-profile gigs. Instead of sounding like a music business handbook, Be Cool feels insightful, thanks to the way the facts are handled.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that in a career spanning over 50 years, Leonard has some 50-odd best-sellers to his name; many made into movies. As the ruling king of hard-boiled he is also a willing teacher to those who want to become better writers. One of the best, and shortest, no-nonsense how-to-write manuals you can find is Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (it’s the very opposite of cellphone manuals; not many pages and not much text—on most pages there’s just a single sentence).

As Leonard himself puts it in the preface, which is so short that I’ll quote it in its entirety, “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over."

I’m not going to run through the rules here except to point out that they contain important arguments such as why a novelist should not use any verb other than “said" to carry dialogue. But I encourage everybody interested in writing suspenseful fiction to get hold of a copy and see for themselves.

Show but don’t tell was always the No.1 rule—but for some reason, writers are increasingly moving in the opposite direction, and in the long run, if we’re just being told what we could have seen and experienced, it’ll remove all the thrills out of the thrillers.

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.

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