Saturday, December 26, 2009

How long is this going to take?

Recently, I read a very interesting blog post by author Martin Edwards about how to handle the time factor in crime fiction writing. His very well-written post got me to thinking... After all, in real life, murder investigations take time. Interviewing witnesses and suspects, gathering evidence and waiting for laboratory results can take weeks, even though it’s in the police investigators’ interest to get as much evidence as possible as quickly as possible. So it makes sense that fictional investigations should acknowledge those time lags. The only problem with this kind of approach to crime fiction, though, is that crime fiction writers want to keep the reader engaged. Mystery lovers want to keep turning pages and getting new clues, and it’s not interesting or absorbing to read about the weeks in an investigation when the police detective is waiting for a lab result, or the hours of time logged in writing up reports of interviews with witnesses. So most crime fiction ends up striking a balance between an accurate portrayal of the time involved in an investigation and including enough suspense in the novel to keep the reader engaged.

Some crime fiction is quite accurate about the amount of time an investigation takes. For instance, Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders takes place over a period of several months. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates a series of murders that seem connected only by the fact that the murderer sends Poirot a warning note before each killing, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. At several points in the novel, it’s mentioned that the police follow up on a large number of leads, and that a great deal of time is spent interviewing witnesses and searching crime scenes for evidence.

Christie also gives a more or less accurate portrayal of the passage of time Sad Cypress, in which Poirot is called in to find out who murdered Mary Gerrard, the young protégée of wealthy Laura Welman. In fact, that novel also allows for the time involved in preparing for and going through a murder trial. The real action of the novel begins in June, when the events leading to Mary’s death start to occur, and ends later in the year with the trial of Elinor Carlisle, who’s been charged with the murder.

We also see that kind of timeline in Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, in which Queen investigates the murder of Rosemary Haight. That novel begins in November, when Queen visits Wrightsville, a small New England town, for a rest and a chance to write quietly. The events leading up to the murder take place over the American Thanksgiving and then Christmas holidays, and the investigation follows. The police look for evidence as quickly as possible, but the trial of Jim Haight, who’s charged with the murder, doesn’t take place until March of the following year.

Several of Robin Cook’s novels also take place over what you might call an accurate period of time. In fact, one of Cook’s trademarks is to label chapters and sections of chapters with dates and times. For instance, the main action in Cook’s novel Fatal Cure takes place between March and November. In the novel, David and Angela Wilson take jobs at Bartlett Community Hospital in rural Vermont. David is a practicing physician, and Angela is a pathologist. With them is their eight-year-old daughter, Nikki. At first, everything seems to working out well, until a series of unexpected deaths among some of David’s patients, and some unexpected findings in Angela’s work, lead both to the chilling realization that deliberate murder is being committed at the hospital. It takes time for a pattern of deaths to establish itself, and it takes time for lab tests, etc. to show what’s causing the deaths. So it makes sense that Cook’s novels reflect this. In fact, as an aside, many characters in Cook’s novels acknowledge how long lab tests can take, and there are several scenes in those novels in which the protagonist asks for the results to be rushed.

So what keeps the reader turning pages in novels such as this? Usually it’s suspense as more deaths occur (that happens in Cook’s novels and in Christie’s The ABC Murders). Sometimes the reader is engaged as more and more is revealed about the characters and their pasts, as happens in Christie’s Sad Cypress. In Calamity Town, the reader is engaged not only by the intellectual puzzle of how Rosemary Haight was murdered (and by whom) but by some of the larger themes in the novel. That also happens in novels such as Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, where Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates the murder of a young gypsy girl. There are also compelling characters in those novels that keep the reader interested.

There are just as many novels, though, in which time seems to be collapsed, or in which the investigation takes place over a very, very short period of time. One of the more famous is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (AKA Murder on the Calais Coach). That novel, in which Hercule Poirot finds the murderer of a wealthy American businessman, takes place over the course of a little over three days. In that time, we meet the characters, the victim is murdered, Poirot helps to interview the witnesses and suspects, and the solution to the murder is found. What makes that time period believable is that Poirot is asked to solve the murder before the train gets to Paris, so that Poirot can simply give the solution to the police, rather than have all of the passengers trapped for an indefinite period of time while the police investigate.

Many of Janet Evanovich’s novels are also “telescoped” into relatively short periods of time. One example is Two for the Dough, in which bounty hunter Stephanie Plum is sent to apprehend Kenny Mancuso, who’s skipped bail after shooting his best friend. Things get more dangerous for everyone when Kenny’s friend is murdered and it turns out that Kenny himself is mixed up in a gun-running scheme. The action in this novel takes place over only a few weeks, but it’s believable because bounty hunters don’t really do (or wait for) lab work or the results of witness interviews. So it makes sense that these novels would have a “collapsed” time frame.

The vast majority of crime fiction novels feature what you might call a blended timeline. The storyline acknowledges the need for lab results, interviews, waiting for warrants and the like. At the same time, the timeline doesn’t include undue attention to the number of hours and days that this can take. I’ll just mention a few authors in this category, since there are so many. Martin Edwards’ Lake District series, which features Oxford history don Daniel King and DCI Hannah Scarlett, falls neatly into this category. In those novels, there are certainly mentions of forensics reports, interviews and other aspects of investigations that take time. At the same time, these novels don’t take place over very long periods. Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby novels and Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford novels also include attention to the time-consuming details of police procedure. For instance, the detectives interview witnesses, study reports and follow through on the other details of their jobs. Still, the novels move quickly, and the stories don’t take place over a great many months. My own Joel Williams novels are similar, in that lab reports, forensics reports and so on don’t happen instantly. Yet there’s not generally an inordinate passage of time.

What do you think about the way crime fiction handles the passage of time? Do you prefer novels where that’s handled with an eye to accuracy? Or do you prefer the “telescope” approach where there’s less attention to the real passage of time? Does it make a difference for you?


  1. It doesn't really make much of a difference to me as a reader. I am very conscious of time passing in the books I write...I have elderly protagonists. I go a bit with the frozen time approach. There's really, I don't think, an easy way to handle the passing of time or years, unless you have a young main character.


  2. Elizabeth - You make a really important distinction between writing and reading crime fiction. As long as the story is engaging, lots of people don't really have a preference for actual time passage or some manipulation of it. But writing fiction is so different. Your Myrtle Clover is such a great protagonist that I wouldn't want her to be younger or older. I haven't "met" Lulu, but I'll bet she's the same way. My own Joel Williams is younger; he's in his early fifties, so I've got a little time-latitude before I have to decide what to do about the passage of time for him, but I'm already thinking about it.

  3. I do worry about time; both in my WIP and my main character (who is in his late 40s). My mystery takes place over 4 days and the year is given. The other stories I want to write will take place during the war; so yes, time is constantly on my mind!


  4. Elspeth - It sounds as though you're planning, at least for your current WIP, to do a more-or-less "telescoped" approach to time, where the entire story takes place over a few days. I admire that; there's a real element of tension and suspense that one can include when a mystery is "telescoped" like that. But I understand why you're thinking about and worrying about the time element. Whether your protagonist will age, etc., and whether you'll think about doing postwar stories at some point - big decisions.

  5. It is probably more believable for the story to take place over weeks and months but I think there is more tension and a better sense of immediacy when the time line is condensed. An interesting discussion and thanks for sharing these examples.

  6. Although my inclination is to write it in real time, my preference is to read it condensed.

  7. The time factor doesn't really matter as long as it's done right. The examples you pointed out clearly show this. Sometimes it works to have the real time factored in and others to do the "telescope” approach. Your post are always interesting and thought provoking. Thanks.

  8. Cassandra - Thanks : ). You've got a well-taken point about tension and immediacy. One element that very often sets mystery novels apart from other genres is that sense of urgency and suspense. Mystery lovers want to get caught up in the suspense, and that's often easier if the storyline is condensed. So long as it's not too unbelievable, it's often worth sacrificing a bit of the authenticity of having an investigation take days and weeks.

    Patti - There really is a difference, isn't there, between writing and reading when it comes to timelines. Most of us who write do so with real characters in mind and real events. Those take time and we think that way. But when it comes to reading, it can definitely be more exciting when there's a "telescoped" timeline.

    Mason - Thank you : ). There's no doubt that a strong storyline and well-developed characters are a lot more important than whether the author chooses a "real-time" or condensed storyline. Without a solid story and interesting characters, most elements of a novel fall apart, so I'm glad you've pointed that out.

  9. I like both styles of story-telling. I find it annoying in some thrillers when it's obvious that the main character has only toyed once with his food and slept for a fitful hour over a seventy-two hour period. Love your stuff, Margot!

  10. Bobbi - Thanks : )! I agree with you, too; it's simply not realistic for a character not to eat or sleep for a long period of time. Of course stress can interrupt sleeping and eating patterns, and that's completely believable. As you say, though, a story works best if characters at least spend some time doing normal "human" things.

  11. To quote Mason Canyon: "The time factor doesn't really matter as long as it's done right."

    I think the Swedish writer I am reading now does her best, and her timeline sounds quite accurate; it is just as if too little happens. It is much better than her debut, however, which a quotation from my review indicates: "Page 190. If an author knows so little about police work she should not write a police procedural on 400 pages."

  12. Dorte - I know exactly what you mean! Your critique of that novel captures beautifully one of the challenges that one faces when one's describing police work. Keeping the reader engaged with a strong plot, interesting characters and an intriguing mystery is lots more important than exactly how much time each part of an investigation takes.