This is the tale of how an apostrophe changed my life. It made me open my mind, in spite of deeply entrenched prejudices, and endowed me with hours of reading pleasure I would never have expected in a million years.
Don’t like thrillers
Some years ago a colleague whose taste in books hardly ever chimed with mine, recommended a thriller he’d just discovered. “Fantastic plot”, he said. “Great writer. None of that stodgy grammar and fancy image nonsense. Just a plain man speaking plain thoughts.”
I groaned in spirit. “Lots of action?” He nodded enthusiastically. That meant dead bodies. “Lots?” I wasn’t looking for more nightmare material. He thought about it. “Nine or maybe ten. Not sure. A couple of wives might have died too.” I filed the recommendation for a time when I didn’t have to worry about sleeping any more and forgot about it.
Forget titles easily
But… but… but … The next person to recommend it was Russian. He didn’t comment on character, grammar or apostrophe either. Just the cracking story. “You will be intrigued,” he said with great firmness. “Also impressed.” Mind you, Russians are like that.
He gave me a copy in English. It was in my carry-on bag on a horrible flight, bumpy, overcrowded and cold. Nightmares weren’t going to be an issue. Nobody was sleeping on that flight. I read:
I was arrested in Eno’s Diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.
That hooked me, right there and then. I could see that diner, smell that coffee and feel the weary irritation of the man interrupted at his delayed breakfast. OK, the grammar wasn’t formally brilliant. But the sentence structure reflected the way he thought. And I wanted to know why he was being arrested.
This was a first book and it had one of the classiest set-ups and pay-offs I’d ever come across, most of all because it was so extended. The story was based on a cracking idea, brilliantly realised, and both the novel and also the underlying series of events were very well plotted. Another colleague, a Danish central banker, agreed. My Russian critic was right about the story.
Above all there was the enigmatic, ingenious, loner hero.
Don’t want nightmares
But there was that body count. A lot of people died. Most did so horribly. Some of them at the hands of the – er – hero. He was fighting for right and justice, of course, not to mention personal loyalties, but even so, he was just too good at killing. I didn’t think I was going to read another.
And then, almost at the end, there came the game changer. The Chief Detective needs evidence but he thinks it was destroyed in a fire in a garage belonging to a guy called Stoller.
Our hero knows otherwise:
“It wasn’t written like that,” I said. “The apostrophe came after the final letter. It meant the garage belonging to the Stollers. The plural possessive. The garage belonging to two people called Stoller. And there weren’t two people called Stoller living at that house by the golf course. Judy and Sherman weren’t married. The only place we’re going to find two people called Stoller is the little old house where Sherman’s parents live. And they’ve got a garage.”
Finlay drove on in silence. Trawled back to his grade-school grammar.
“You think he stashed a box with his folks?”
“It’s logical,” I said.
YES!!!! Apostrophe, grammar and logic too!
Whoopee, I thought. Let’s hear it for the irresistible apostrophe. Murderer or not, this is my kind of dude.
Since then I’ve read pretty much all of what is now a successful series with readers all round the world. I admit, I skip the stuff where I know he’s going to tell you in detail how the various characters hurt each other — and sometimes what they threaten to do, too. I’m not courting nightmares. But there is so much more in the books that I relish and revel in, that it’s worth the constant vigilance and occasional page hop.
I commend it to you. And to any teenage boy who thinks grammar is for sissies. Jack Reacher, I salute you.