Speed Limit Violations
The pacing of a crime fiction novel is important. If a novel moves too quickly, readers can be left confused. Too slow a pace can be tedious. Of course, some kinds of crime fiction novels lend themselves to a faster pace, and some to a slower pace; the real key is a good “fit” between story and pace; that’s the way to avoid the “speed limit” violation. Spy thrillers, for instance, work best with a fast pace. That’s part of the appeal of writers such as John le Carré. In The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, for instance, we meet Alec Leamas, a member of British Intelligence who’s stationed in East Berlin during the Cold War. In fact, he supervises the other British Intelligence agents also stationed there. Leams has gotten more than weary of the “spy game.” It becomes obvious that he’s not devoted to his job any more when several of the agents he supervises are killed on his watch. When Leamas’ best agent, Karl Riemeck, is killed, Leamas tries to retire. But then, he’s called back to London. There, George Smiley and some of Leamas’ other supervisors ask him to take on one last assignment – killing Hans Dieter Mundt, who engineered the murders of Leamas’ agents. Leamas reluctantly agrees, and is soon plunged into a very deadly “chess game,” in which almost everyone is deceptive and in which even Leamas doesn’t know what his real purpose is.
Some kinds of crime fiction, though, work better with a slower pace. For example, Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels tend to move at a slower, more even pace. Mma. Precious Ramotswe, who runs the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, takes cases, investigates them, finds answers, and solves mysteries. In that sense, there are certainly plenty of events in the stories. Yet the novels move at a leisurely pace. That’s entirely appropriate, though, for this kind of novel, and there are many crime fiction fans who enjoy such a pace. The real question isn’t whether or not a novel has a very fast pace or a slower pace. Rather, it’s whether a novel has the right pace for its type.
A well-written crime fiction novel avoids the “littering” offense by giving the reader just enough detail and description. Too many details “litter” the book and make it tiresome. Not enough description and the book becomes “flat.” Of course, what “counts” as enough detail varies by sub-genre. For instance, historical mysteries sometimes benefit from solid description, since readers may not be familiar with the time period. That’s part of the appeal of Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Incidentally, that novel’s my “Europe” contribution to the 2010 Global Reading Challenge community meme being very skillfully led by Dorte at Dj’s Krimiblog. In that novel, which takes place in 17th Century Scotland, Alexander Seaton, a disgraced aspirant to the ministry, has been relegated to the position of undermaster in a grammar school in the Scottish town of Banff. Early one morning, Seaton awakens to the terrible news that the body of Patrick Davidson, the local apothecary’s apprentice, has been found in his classroom. At first, everyone thinks that Seaton’s good friend, Charles Thom, committed the crime; he was Davidson’s rival for the affections of Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter. Thom begs Seaton to help clear his name, and Seaton agrees. Before long, though, it’s clear that there was more to Davidson’s death than a rivalry over a woman. As Seaton investigates, he finds himself caught up in the political and religious fears, prejudices and movements of the time. MacLean gives very helpful background information (including a glossary of Scottish terms) that helps the reader understand the plot. For this kind of novel, those details of time and place are very important.
In other kinds of crime fiction, there’s less need for a lot of detail, so that adding in too much ends up “littering” the novel. In those cases, it’s best to tell the story without adding in too much extra information. For example, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies gives the reader a sense of the American South, where the novel takes place, without overburdening the novel with detail. In the small town of Bradley, North Carolina, no-one is particularly upset when Parke Stockard, a recently-arrived realtor/land developer, is found dead in the local church. She’s malicious, scheming and generally heartily disliked. Retired teacher Myrtle Clover decides to find out who killed Parke, if only to prove to her son, the local police chief, that she’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture.” As Myrtle investigates the murder, we meet several quirky small-town characters, and find out, bit by bit, about Parke Stockard and her history. We meet the suspects and we find the clues; along the way, we also get a real sense of place. And yet, the novel isn’t filled with minutiae. Craig gives information through dialogue and through the events that happen, rather than through a lot of description.
Driving Under the Influence
Related to “littering” is the offense of allowing something other than the crime(s) and investigation at the heart of the novel to have too much influence. For example, a cime fiction novel can be much enhanced by sub-plots, if they’re related to the main plot. Elizabeth George does this quite well as we learn about her main sleuths, Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers. There are often sub-plots in George’s novels that tell us more about those characters and that make them more real. The key, though, is that those sub-plots are related to the main story in some way. So the reader doesn’t feel pulled in too many directions by too many storylines. Michael Connelly does this well, too; when he includes sub-plots involving his sleuth, Harry Bosch, they’re related to the main plot. When sub-plots and stories-across-stories become overpowering and aren’t related to the main point of the novel, the novel can fall apart.
That’s also true of novels that include too many characters and events. In some crime fiction novels (such as Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series), there are certainly many different characters, and readers follow several investigations and events. However, they’re all tied together, as it were, by common threads. Those threads relate the different characters and events, so that the plot’s not overly influenced by too many distracters. That’s the key to avoiding the “driving under the influence” offense.
Expired License or Registration
One of the potential pitfalls, especially for crime fiction authors who write series, is that the books can become formulaic after time, with “expired” plots. Admittedly, it’s not easy to avoid this offense and offer readers fresh plots and characters after a number of books. In fact, that’s something I’m trying to work out as I create my own Joel Williams series. That’s especially true once readers have become loyal to main characters, as they have to Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, for instance. So there’s a real pressure to keep working with a cast of characters and types of plot that have won readers (and, pragmatically speaking, that have sold books).
At the same time, it’s important to give readers something new, even in a series. Some authors, like Alexander McCall Smith, do that by sharing characters’ growth and development over time. In his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, we see several developments in the main characters’ lives; for instance, we see how Precious Ramotswe gets engaged to and then marries Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and later acquires two foster children. We see how Grace Makutsi develops from simply being a secretary to becoming a very able detective, business manager and entrepreneur.
We see a similar kind of character development in Martin Edwards' Lake District series. In those novels, we see how DCI Hannah Scarlett "grows into" her role as the leader of the Cold Case Review team that she heads. We see how Oxford historian Daniel Kind also grows and matures, both personally and professionally. Edwards also offers fresh plots and interesting characters that keep the series strong.
Other authors keep their novels fresh by using a variety of different kinds of plots and plot twists. Agatha Christie was a genius at this. Together, her most famous sleuths, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, appeared in 45 novels. Yet, while there are certainly some similarities among the novels, Christie offered new characters, new kinds of plots, and new settings in her stories, so that each one is unique. Some are arguably stronger than others, but each of them has an interesting new twist, surprise, or point of view that keeps the reader interested. In some novels, for instance, Poirot (or Miss Marple) travels, so there’s an interesting setting. In others, the point of view changes. In still others, there’s an unusual character or plot twist. It’s that willingness to try different things that’s arguably kept Chrstie’s work fresh through the years.
What’s your view? What would you add to the “Crime Fiction Penal Code?”
In a late addition to this post....
Mr. Confessions of a Mystery Novelist has suggested this addition to the "Crime Fiction Penal Code:"
Crime fiction fans like to savor books. So if an author releases books too close together, it's hard for the author's fans to keep up. It certainly makes it challenging to remember the characters, plots, etc.. Of course, authors and publishers realize that more releases mean more sales. But sometimes, releasing books too close together can backfire if the books aren't of high quality. There are some authors (Michael Connelly is one) who are able to keep up the pace, and whose books are consistently well-written. But that's more the exception than the rule.
I see the wisdom of this addition...