Saturday, March 20, 2010

Oh, Come on, now! How realistic does crime fiction have to be?

One reason that we get drawn into mystery and crime fiction novels is that we identify with the characters in the novel, and we can imagine what it might be like to be in a similar situation. We connect with the characters and their reactions to what happens. So in that sense, well-written crime fiction appeals to us because it’s realistic. That is, the characters think, act and speak in ways that we believe could happen. And yet, mystery and crime fiction readers also enjoy the genre because it allows them to escape the everyday. Well-written crime fiction can also allow the reader to experience things that really wouldn’t normally happen. So the question becomes: just how realistic does crime fiction have to be?

Agatha Christie’s novels very often focus on real-life situations and settings. In fact, one of the appeals of those novels is exactly that; we can identify with the characters, and we have a sense of familiarity with their daily routines and the kinds of situations they face. And yet, several of her novels aren’t centered on real-life situations – at least not situations most of us face. For example, Tommy and Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford, whom we first meet in The Secret Adversary, get involved in international intrigue when they’re overheard hatching a plan to earn a living as Young Adventurers, Ltd. When the man who overhears the conversation tries to hire Tuppence, she gives an assumed name. The name she chooses gets her swept up into a search for a mysterious woman, a missing secret treaty and a clash with a powerful enemy.

In Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt, we meet Stafford Nye, a low-level diplomat with a humdrum career. His life is turned upside-down when a mysterious woman approaches him in an airport, begging him to let her use his diplomatic credentials so she can escape the country. He reluctantly agrees, and that draws him into an international conspiracy for world domination, and a plot to manipulate the minds of young people in order to achieve that goal. In both of these novels, the plots involve things that wouldn’t really happen to most of us. And yet, we get pulled into the stories because many of the characters ring true. We can identify, for instance, with Stafford Nye’s befuddlement and reluctance when he first encounters some of the strange people he meets. We can imagine what it might be like to be swept up into events we couldn’t have dreamed of, too.

We can also identify with the characters in Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, which also isn’t, strictly speaking, realistic. In that novel, Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school, is thrown into turmoil when the newly-hired games mistress is shot one night in the brand-new Sports Pavilion. Then, another mistress is murdered, and a student disappears, and before long, it looks as though someone is targeting the school. Hercule Poirot gets involved in the case when one of Meadowbank’s students makes an important connection between the events at the school and a recent revolution in an exotic foreign country. The novel hinges, among other things, on espionage, missing jewels and kidnapping. Those are, of course, exotic to most of us, and in that sense, the novel isn’t realistic. However, we get caught up in the drama at the school. We care about the characters, and we sympathize with Headmistress Honoria Bulstrode’s determination to save her school and find out what’s behind the murders.

It’s not realistic to think that someone would be all-but-kidnapped, summoned to a secret island, and hired to investigate a series of threatening letters, but that’s exactly what happens in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead. Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are brought to Bendigo Island by its owner, powerful munitions tycoon “King” Bendigo. He’s been getting a series of threatening letters, and he wants the Queens to find out who’s been sending them. On the island with Bendigo are his wife, Karla, and his two brothers, Abel and Judah. The island itself is a secured fortress, and as the Queens begin to investigate, they experience all sorts of (for the time) futuristic technology. Then, one night, Bendigo is shot while he and Karla are locked in his private, hermetically-sealed office. When the Queens try to find out how Bendigo was shot, they find no gun and it soon becomes clear that Karla could not have fired a weapon. Nor is there any evidence that Bendigo himself fired the gun. So, adding to the fantasy-like setting, there’s an equally unlikely “locked-room” mystery. Queen finds that the events on the island are related to the Bendigo brothers’ growing-up years, so he travels to their hometown as he continues to look into the case. In the end, after a dramatic climax, Queen finds that all of the events are tied to a long-ago event during the Bendigos’ early years. What keeps the reader connected in this novel isn’t really an authentic setting or a “normal” shooting (if there is such a thing). Rather, it’s the intriguing inter-relationships among the Bendigo brothers and Karla, and the past-to-present connection. The intellectual puzzle the novel provides also keeps the reader involved.

Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series also has some elements of the unrealistic. Dr. Siri is Laos’ chief medical examiner. When the series begins, he is “volunteered” to take on the medical examiner’s role, even though, at seventy-two, he’s been looking forward to retirement. What’s not exactly everyday is that Dr. Siri shares his body with a thousand-year-old shaman named Yeh Ming, who gives his “host” important insights. He’s also able to communicate with those who’ve died. These supernatural elements certainly aren’t what most of us could identify with or experience. What keeps readers engaged in this series is Dr. Siri’s humanity. We can sympathize with his frustration at having to “make do” with the outdated and inadequate equipment he’s given. We can also identify with his aggravation when the “powers that be” seem to get in the way of his work. The other “regular” characters are equally “real,” and the stories are told with a certain humor. Cotterill’s depiction of Laos during the late 1970’s also rings true, which isn’t surprising given his experiences in Laos.

Science fiction mystery novels also integrate a great deal of the unrealistic. For example, in Isaac Asimov’s Elijah Bailey novels, Bailey isn’t your typical homicide detective. He’s agoraphobic, because on Bailey’s Earth, humans live in large underground caves made of steel. In the first Elijah Bailey novel, Caves of Steel, he’s asked to help solve the murder of a Spacer, or human who’s emigrated to another planet. He works with a robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, who later becomes a close friend. The Elijah Bailey novels include events and experiences that most of don’t have, such as space travel, sentient robots, and so on. And yet, those novels also keep readers engaged. In part that’s because readers of science fiction mysteries don’t mind suspending their disbelief. That’s part of the pleasure of science fiction. Also, there are many elements of Bailey’s life with which readers can identify. He’s a devoted family man and a loyal friend. As he begins to work with Olivaw, he has to face his own prejudices against robots, just as we all have to face our assumptions when we have to work with someone with a different background (e.g. Elizabeth George’s Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Barbara Havers face this issue, too). And, like any of us, Bailey feels pressure to get the job done. He’s a very believable character and that, too, draws readers in.

Crime fiction involving espionage very often has elements of unreality. In real life, of course, there are spies, counterspies, conspiracies and plots. Most of us, though, don’t get involved as secret agents. We don’t receive mysterious cryptic messages, send out coded information, or get ourselves involved in international plots. And yet, many crime fiction readers thoroughly enjoy spy series such as Dorothy Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax novels or John le CarrĂ©’s George Smiley novels. In part, it’s because the spy’s life seems exciting and certainly action-packed, and many readers enjoy that form of escape. But readers also connect with the very human characters. George Smiley, for instance, isn’t a superhero. He does have a remarkable memory, but he relies on his wits, too. He also depends for a lot of help on support staff, friends and acquaintances. He doesn’t solve his cases by himself. The same is true of Emily Pollifax. Readers can identify with her bewilderment when she gets involved with the CIA as a “rookie.” It’s also easy to identify with her genuine fear when she gets more than she bargained for. She’s a “real” character and behaves in “real” ways.

That’s arguably the key to crime fiction novels, even those with unrealistic aspects to them. If the plot makes sense and the characters behave in believable ways, we don’t mind elements that aren’t real. In fact, readers who like to escape when they read enjoy those elements of fantasy. What’s your view? What’s your tolerance for the unrealistic?

20 comments:

  1. I think my tolerance of the unrealistic has a lot to do with my mood. There are days when I just want to read and escape so the fantasy works. Other days I want to read some realistic and then fantasy doesn't work. Both ways make for great reads. That's another wonderful thing about books, you can have it either way. Enjoyed the post, very insightful.

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  2. Mason - Thank you : ). You really do make a well-taken point. Mood can certainly affect the way we think about what we read. It also may be a matter of what we've been reading lately. We may want a change, or we may want "more of the same." Thanks for bringing that up : ).

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  3. Like Mason I think for me the willingness to accept the unrealistic is quite a transient thing depending on my mood and overall liking for the story in question. With the Dr Siri character you've mentioned or P D Martin's central character of Sophie Anderson (who has some psychic ability) or even J D Robb's 'In Death' series with Eve Dallas and her ludicrously perfect partner (the series set in the future) I am willing to accept the 'woo woo' or fantasy elements because I like the main characters and settings and I feel the fantastical elements follow a logic (even if it is only internal to that story). I am far more likely to become disgruntled with books in which there are too many coincidences or thrillers in which the hero performs too many impossible feats in the space of a single day :)

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  4. Bernadette - You're right; whether or not the unrealistic aspects of a novel "go down well' have to do with how well-written the rest of the novel is and with whether those fantasy elements fit in - whether they make sense. That's why I like P.D. Martin's Sophie Anderson series, too. Yes, the protagnonist has some psychic ability, but Martin doesn't belabor that, and Anderson doeson't "save the world" with her psychic visions. Besides, the stories are (in my opinion) well-written.

    It's funny you would mention thrillers. I can enjoy a good thriller, but yes, if we're asked to "six impossible things before breakfast," as Lewis Carroll put it, then that's a bit much. I like more "human" heroes, myself : ).

    Of course, mood is a factor, too, as you say. In Cotterill's hands, the idea of communicating with the dead actually works. In other hands, not so much.

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  5. Some days I can overlook things that aren't realistic and some days I can't. I'm more critical now, as a writer. I'm thinking, "Hey, if *I'm* not allowed to get away with that, then YOU shouldn't be, either!" It makes me feel like they're cheating a little.

    But some genres I'll overlook it more. This goes for films, too. If I'm watching a James Bond film, I'll totally accept the unbelievable...because it happens in every film!

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  6. Elizabeth - I know just what you mean about films. I'm the same way when it comes to overlooking the unrealistic. Plus, there's something to be said for escapism and suspension of disbelief, especially if one knows that's the kind of film it is.

    I agree 100% about the writer's perspective, too. When I read, I look for the essentials that I've learned go into a well-written novel. If they're missing, my thought is similar to yours: I would be criticized for doing that; not even my beta readers would let that slip by. Why are you doing it? I think that "writer's point of view" is a really interesting phenomenon.

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  7. I think a lot has to do with expectations. If I pick up a book about a talking cat, then I know (expect) that book not to be "realistic." As long as the author keeps things consistent in his/her world, then I'm good with that. I don't think I'd go for a talking animal in a Michael Connelly book.

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  8. Alan - You've got a very well-taken point. If the author's clear about the kind of book it is, we can often put aside our "normal" expectations, such as the one that animals don't talk. It's when we expect a realistic book and don't get that sense of authenticity that it's hard to accept that unreality. And I wouldn't want to read about a talking cat in a Michael Connelly book, either!

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  9. I think readers can forgive a few far-out plot points if the pace is strong & the characters are engaging. As long as the joyride is there, authors can push the limits.

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  10. I prefer plots that ring true, but if a thriller is compelling enough, I can forgive the author quite a lot. An example is Bolton´s Sacrifice - not the world´s most convincing plot, but I was engrossed in it from the very first page, and the protagonist and her worries were so easy to identify with.

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  11. This reminds me of Murder She Wrote. Who would live in Cabot Cove, a small town with at least one murder a week? A stretch like that, or Nevada Barr's National Park Ranger solving murders in each park she works in, or an ordinary young widow solving a neighborhood murder in the book I'm working on is such a common scenario that it takes something extraordinary to make me close the book in disgust.

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  12. Deadly Letters GTA - You put that quite well! As long as the plot is strong, the pace is appropriate and the story is well-written, readers don't usually mind some things that aren't "real life." Without those basic elements, though? The book suffers and readers aren't forgiving.


    Dorte - You put your finger on such an important point! If we can identify with the characters, and the plot pulls us in, it's not so bad at all if there are points that aren't realistic. But those essentials just have to be there, or the book falls flat, doesn't it? I'm with you completely; there has to be some way in which the reader can connect with the protagonist (or another character) or the setting, or something.


    Barbara - I had to laugh at your mention of Murder She Wrote. You're right that a small town like Cabot Cove isn't likely to have a murder a week. The same with Nevada Barr's park ranger series (although I do have to say I like the pace of those novels). Mr. Confessions.... says that the police really ought to have started suspecting Jessica Fletcher years ago of all of those Cabot Cove murders ; ).

    It might be that when we know a book is going to be about a "regular" person who solves neighborhood murders, we expect it to be a bit unrealistic. After all, there aren't a lot of murders in most quiet neighborhoods. And yet, we do get drawn in, as I'm sure I will be when your book comes out. I felt that way about Laurien Berenson's Melanie Travis series. An ordinary person who raises show dogs and solves murders... a little unrealistic, but they were engaging books.

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  13. I have a very low tolerance for "that which cannot be explained". This is why I was quite surprised to like Colin Cotterill's "Coroner'e Lunch" series which you mention in your (as always, excellent) post - though the author does it a bit by stealth as he seems to boost the "spirit" elements more with each book, so if you are interested in the series your tolerance is probably higher.

    But it is for this reason I have not read "Let the Right One In" despite the very many rave reviews on crime fiction blogs. I just can't cope with the idea of reading about vampires. To paraphrase myself in another context, I read Bram Stoker's Dracula ages ago and quite liked it, but one encounter with vampires was enough for me. ;-)

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  14. Maxine - LOL! I have to agree with you about vampires. I do, as you hint, have a reasonable tolerance for the unrealistic, if the plot of a book is strong, the characters compelling and so on. That's one reason that I like the Cotterill series. I know the whole "spirit" thing isn't realistic, but I forgive Cotterill for that; I like the books. But vampires? I don't think so.

    I haven't read Let the Right One In, either, and although I ought to be more open-minded, I suppose, I probably won't read it. I really prefer books where I can make at least some connection to the characters and plot, etc., and I just don't see it in that book. I may be denying myself something good, though.

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  15. Your final paragraph sums it up beautifully, I think.

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  16. Martin - Thank you : ). I appreciate it.

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  17. What a great post today, Margot. I've been thinking about it and your readers' comments all morning and, I must confess, have been unable to come to any self-resolution. I love the Mrs. Pollifax mysteries and can easily suspend my incredulity at a grandmotherly woman working as a spy for the CIA--or for that matter, that the CIA would hire an older woman as a spy. Yet, I have no inclination to read about Stephenie Meyer's vampires. Vampires are mean and vicious, dammit! They aren't charming hunks with feelings and sensibilities. (I suspect Ms. Meyer would agree with me were it not for her bank deposits.) Initially, I determined that my favorites must have a "realistic un-realism" that allows me to keep turning the pages; but then, how do I explain my enjoyment of Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas novels? Again, good provocative post today. Thanks!

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  18. Bob - ...and thanks for your kind words. It's not an easy question to answer, is it? I agree that the Dorothy Gilman novels are terrific, even though it's hard to believe that someone like Emily Pollifax would be a CIA agent and would actually survive. I've read other series like that, too, where I enjoy the books thoroughly, despite having to suspend my disbelief. There isn't an easy answer to this question, but I think it's got to do with the quality of the writing and the strength of the plot and the characters. If the plot is strong and the characters "real," then readers don't mind suspending their disbelief.

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  19. I think the important thing is that the characters, and their behaviours etc, are somewhat recognisable and realistic (in terms of their traits, the way they act, what they feel, etc). The plotlines etc don't need to be as realistic, I feel - as long as all those other things are believable.

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  20. Craig - I know exactly and precisely what you mean! If the characters' behavior, dialogue, reactions and so on make sense, the reader can connect to those and believe in them. It matters less, then, if the story includes some less-likely or even hard-to-believe events. That said, though, I think even less-believable plot lines need to make sense within the context of the story. For instance, a plot line that includes, say, time travel, should also include some way for that time travel to happen (i.e it wouldn't happen magically, probably).

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