Short Critical Essay on Silent Joe
I first heard about Silent Joe at the Bare Bones Writers Retreat, held in the mountains above San Diego by the Sisters In Crime. T. Jefferson Parker, its author, was invited to speak. The buzz: "I couldn't put the book down." Everyone seemed to agree that Silent Joe was the best-written character they'd ever seen. I never read murder mysteries. Don't like `em. But I picked up a copy of Silent Joe. From the first page, T. Jeff Parker salt-and-peppers every paragraph, every line of dialogue, with hints about Joe's character. By the inciting incident - his adopted father, Will, is murdered by gang members and Joe vows revenge - we are fully hooked into the story. After spending 20 pages with Joe, I want to kill the guys who murdered his adopted father too.
It's my belief that the secret desire of every reader is to unwrap a story like a Christmas present. First they inspect the outside of the package, then they shake the box and try to guess what's inside, then they pull off the bow, then they tear at the paper. It's a process of discovery. And we love the "tickle-tickle ha-ha" of being forced to wait until Christmas morning. T. Jeff Parker could have served Joe's life to us on a TV dinner tray. In his ninth novel, he could have gone for the jugular of Joe's ugliness, appealing to our pity or to the macabre curiosity that forces us to slow down and ogle a fatal accident hoping to catch a splash of blood. But no, that would've been too easy. By making us wait, breathlessly as it turns out, for each snippet of information, Jeff conjures a spell. We are no longer casual observers. He makes us participants in his dream. As Robert McKee says in Story, "Bad writers give information. Good writers withhold information." That's why Silent Joe is a masterful study in the creation of a character.
Joe's life is based on a true story. Joe (the fictionalized name for a real baby) was only nine months old when his father, Thor, threw sulfuric acid in his face. Joe hit headlines as the "Acid Baby." Thor bought a ticket to prison and Joe was carted off to an institution. His face was repulsive and horrible. He was shy and quiet. When Joe was six years old, a Sheriff's deputy named Will Trona and his wife Mary Ann, took him home with them. Parker paints a picture of silent Joe that sneaks up on us.
In medias res is Latin for "in the middle of things." It usually describes a narrative that begins, not at the beginning of a story, but somewhere in the middle - usually at some crucial point in the action. Silent Joe begins in medias res. "`Drive hard Joe,' Will Trona said as the speedometer hit 120 m.p.h. `Yes sir,' Joe said. `Are you carrying?' Will said. `The usual,' Joe said." We don't learn until page 15 that the usual means two .45 Automatic Colt Pistols - one for each hand. "`Joe, pay attention to Medina tonight. Mouth shut, eyes open. You might actually learn something.' Mouth shut,...