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The Romeo Flag, by Carolyn Hougan

September 15, 2013

Felony of the Week: The Romeo Flag

Carolyn Hougan’s The Romeo Flag is what persuaded me to start publishing, in that I couldn’t stand the notion that a book that good would be out of print. There’s bits of everything in it – fascinating history (Revolutionary Russia, 1930s Shanghai), snappy dialogue, hot sex, car-chases, gunplay, betrayal, backroom CIA conniving… Because there are two protagonists, you get both the classic Innocent Suddenly Caught Up in the World of Spies AND a former tough guy who, thank heavens, actually knows what he’s doing. Perhaps my favorite thing about this book, though, is the incredible detail, observed with an eye so sharp it could cut glass. Characters who show up for THREE PAGES nevertheless have completely realized personalities and physicalities. There’s a gardener who never even speaks and doesn’t even have a name…but he does pee on the roses, imagining that his employer doesn’t know what he’s up to.

I am a great fan of “economy” in writing, and the classic directive, in that regard, is to start a scene only at the very last second, with no wasted scene-setting. But Hougan practiced a different kind of economy, visible in The Romeo Flag. Her scenes are vividly described, and even the most insignificant characters are fully rounded, but not a single word of description is wasted on the generic: Every sentence carries an absolutely stunning punch of specificity. It is the polar opposite of lazy writing.

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