Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Devil's in the Details

I’ve been reading several book reviews lately (for example, Bernadette’s review of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and and Sunnie’s review of Rennie Arth’s Dead of Winter) where the reviewer mentions the author’s use of detail. Since writers don’t have the luxury of using visuals, details and extra information are vital. They give the reader a sense of time, place and character. They also can add a great deal to the suspense. At the same time, though, too many details burden a book and distract the reader from the main point – the mystery plot.

Authors use detail to share the characters with readers – to make those characters more real. That kind of detail is important, because when readers believe the characters and identify with them, they get caught up in the characters’ lives – in the mystery. That was part of Agatha Christie’s genius. She created real characters and used detail to bring them to life. For instance, in Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a young teenager, Marlene Tucker, during an outdoor fete. At one point in the novel, Poirot visits Marlene’s family. Christie describes the home in which they live, the other members of the family, and their reactions to Marlene’s death. These details make the victim a real person and get the reader caught up in wanting to know why she died. Caroline Graham does the same thing in her Tom Barnaby series. In Written in Blood, for instance, Barnaby investigates the murder of Gerald Hadleigh, a member of a local writer’s group. Graham gives interesting details about each of the characters (and their reactions to Hadleigh’s murder); those details draw the reader into the circle of writers.

What’s interesting about Smith’s (and Christie’s) character detail is that neither makes the mistake of giving the reader too much irrelevant information. We learn enough about the characters and their backgrounds to make them interesting, but not so much as to detract from the main plot. Authors such as Smith, Graham and Christie strike this balance by giving readers information in the context of the mystery. That is, instead of just simply stating everything about a character, these writers weave background information into the plot, so it’s relevant. For example, in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, we learn a good deal about Precious Ramotswe’s background, including her disastrous marriage to Note Makoti. However, Smith integrates that information into the rest of the plot, and returns to Precious’ background only as it’s relevant for the story.

Smith also uses detail expertly to place the reader in the setting which, for this series, is Botswana. Smith describes the land, the kinds of trees and animals, and the food that people eat in just enough detail to give the reader the sense of setting without overburdening the reader. That’s also true of Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel. They have different writing styles, but both of them give the reader rich detail about the Native American lands that are the settings for their novels. In their cases, that’s important because very often, the land is a part of the plot and the setting is integral to the action.

Sometimes, mystery writers use details about the setting to heighten the suspense. The more skillfully the author describes a bleak, dangerous or lonely setting, the more suspenseful the story can be. For instance, Jonathan King’s The Blue Edge of Midnight takes place in the South Florida Everglades. In the novel, Max Freeman, a former Philadelphia police officer, moves to the Everglades to find some peace after he shoots a young teenager who’s robbed a convenience store. When Freeman discovers the body of a child in the river near his new Florida home, he is drawn into the investigation against his will. King uses the river setting quite effectively to draw the reader into the drama and to build suspense. C.B. Gilford does the same thing in his short story, Swamp Rat. In the story, Claude Wetzel has escaped from a prison. He hides in the swamp that surrounds the prison, planning to cut through it towards the road on the other side of the swamp. Especially towards the end of the story, Gilford describes the swamp in murky, suspenseful detail; that detail adds to the power of the story.

Christie does the same thing in And Then There Were None (My review of that novel is here). In the story, a group of people is marooned on an island, where they soon discover that one of them is a murderer. The details Christie provides about the island itself and the house add much to the suspense of the novel.

Authors of police procedural mysteries (
Kevin Hughes’ work is an example) use details to give the reader clues. Sometimes, those details are forensics details. Other times, they’re details about what suspects say and do. The balance in this kind of novel is between providing enough information for readers to find the clues, and not using too much jargon or being too graphic.

Taken as a whole, details make a very necessary and important contribution to a good mystery novel. They bring the reader into the novel, give the reader clues, set the scene and add to the suspense. But too many details, especially irrelevant ones, drag the reader’s attention away from the main plot. Then, the reader has to decide which details to ignore and which to note. That, too, takes the reader’s attention away from the suspense that’s supposed to be building up.

What’s your view? How much detail do you like in the mysteries you read? Do you prefer character details? Setting details? Evidence details? How much is too much?

The picture you see, by the way, was painted by my grandmother as a wedding gift to me and my husband. She captures the essence of an autumn day with important details, but without cluttering up the picture....


  1. And her choice of colors in the painting make it gorgeous!

    I like more character detail, less setting detail. I do like to find out more about the victim through dialogue between characters...little details about what made them a target.

    Another wonderful post, Margot!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - thanks! And thanks for the kind words about the painting; I've always loved it. It's interesting you bring up the way the characters talk about the victim. That's a really effective way to tell the reader about the victim, isn't it? Christie uses that expertly in Murder in Mesopotamia. I think character details bring the reader into a novel more powerfully than just about anything else.

  3. Sometimes one, sometimes the other. The style of the writing dictates how much detail for me.

  4. Patti - That's a good point. The number and kind of details the author includes have to be a good fit with the style of writing and the kind of mystery involved. Otherwise the book doesn't "hang together" well.

  5. Details are the colouring inside the black and white outlines. Absolutely necessary, but too many designs can be overwhelming. If what a character is wearing tells me more about the character then describe it. If the setting is important then describe that. If it helps fill out the story; good. If it helps fill out the word count; bad.


  6. Elspeth - you put that *so* well! Details that help the reader get to know the characters, follow the story or stay interested (i.e. suspense-related details) really do make a novel better. "Filler" details do not work at all.