Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Ring of Authenticity

Whatever else mystery lovers may want from their crime fiction, they want the stories they read to ring true. Crime fiction fans want to believe that the events in the story could really happen, and that the characters they meet in the story could really exist. Interestingly enough, a book doesn’t have to depict an individual reader’s real life. Many mystery lovers enjoy, for instance, spy thrillers or other novels that describe events that probably wouldn’t happen to the reader in real life. But the story itself has to have that ring of authenticity, even beyond a believable plot.

Some authors do this by tapping their experiences. Agatha Christie, for instance, worked in a hospital dispensary during World War I. That experience taught her much about medications and poisons, and she put that knowledge to good use in several novels. For instance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), and Sad Cypress, among others, the victim dies by poisoning. Part of the reason that those stories ring so true is that they reflect real experiences. In fact, part of The Mysterious Affair at Styles takes place at a dispensary. Hickory Dickory Dock refers to a dispensary, too. In fact, in that novel, the victim works in a dispensary.

Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear also use their background and experiences in their novels. One is an archeologist, and the other is a forensic anthropologist, and one can see this experience in their Anasazi series. Those novels center in part on archeologist William “Dusty” Stewart’s excavation of a 13th Century Anasazi burial site. Working with him is forensic anthropologist Dr. Marueen Cole. They and their team are trying to find out the truth behind a mysterious group of remains that are found in the Sonora Desert of New Mexico. Their research and the descriptions of life at the dig has a real sense of authenticity, which isn’t surprising, given the authors’ background. Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell also have strong backgrounds in forensics, and one can see that in their Temperence, “Bones” Brennan and Kay Scarpetta novels.

Many other authors also tap their own experiences to add authenticity to their novels. For example, Bobbi Mumm’s forthcoming Lucy Beam series focuses on an event planner who moves from the U.S. to Saskatchewan. Mumm uses her own experience as an event planner, and her Saskatchewan background, to add a real sense of authenticity to the series. I do the same thing in my own Joel Williams series. Williams, like me, is a professor; that allows me to use my own professional experiences and background to make the stories (I hope) ring true.

What about authors who want to write about experiences they haven’t had? That’s where research becomes very useful. For example, Marshall Karp's
series about L.A.P.D detectives Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs includes his latest, Cut, Paste and Kill, in which Lomax and Biggs investigate the murderers of several members of Hollywood’s “A-List.” The novel includes a visit to the L.A. County morgue, so Karp paid a visit to the morgue and took a tour of it, in order to get a real sense of what the morgue is like. His account of the tour is here. I’ve done the same thing. While I was writing B-Very Flat, I went to jail. Well, I visited our local police precinct and got a much more accurate sense of what a police station is like, and what the process is for taking someone into custody than I would have otherwise.

It’s not just experiences that make a story “real,” though. We can also get that sense of authenticity through an author’s description of a place, especially if it’s a place we know, and the author knows it well. That’s part of what makes Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series so real. Leon’s lived in Venice for many years, and her descriptions of the city add a great deal to the sense of place that makes this series “ring true.” The same is true of Martin Edwards’ Lake District series. Edwards is familiar with the Cumbria of those stories, and his descriptions of the country give those novels a real (and authentic) sense of place that make them that much more believable. Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series has a similar sense of place. Those novels take place in the small town of Crozet, Virginia. Brown’s depictions of the country around Crozet give the stories a sense of location that makes them seem all the more real. Elizabeth Spann Craig brings the American South alive in her Myrtle Clover novels. Craig lives in the American South, and her portrait of life in a small Southern town rings true because of her sense of place.

Crime fiction can also be made authentic if the characters seem real. That’s part of the appeal in many of Agatha Christie’s novels. We can really believe, for instance, the anguish that Elinor Carlisle goes through in Sad Cypress when she finds out that her fiancĂ©, Roderick “Roddy” Welman, has become infatuated Mary Gerard, the daughter of the lodgekeeper at the family home. We can also believe Elinor’s reaction when she’s arrested and tried for Mary’s murder. The novel depicts in a very real way what it’s like to stand in the dock accused of murder, and what it’s like to feel the only life you’ve ever known slowly coming apart.

Christie paints a similar “real” picture of characters in 4:50 from Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw !). In that story, Elspeth McGillicuddy, an elderly lady who’s a friend of Miss Marple, has been shopping in London and has taken a train back to her home. While she’s on the train, another train passes, going in the opposite direction. In that brief few moments while the trains are passing each other, Mrs. McGillicuddy sees what she thinks is a woman being killed. When she reaches her destination, she tries to tell the police, but nobody will believe her. In frustration, she turns to her friend, Miss Marple, for help. In that novel, we can really identify with her aggravation at not being believed, and her resentment of being “set aside” because she’s elderly.

We also see very real characters in other novels, of course. I’ll just mention two series. In Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley/Sergeant Havers series, the characters (especially those of the sleuths) are very realistic. We can imagine them acting the way they do, and reacting in the way they do. That’s part of what makes those sleuths appealing. For instance, Sergeant Barbara Havers is under a great deal of pressure. Not only does she have to fight what she sees as “an uphill battle” to get respect as a woman from the working class, but also, she has personal stresses. She’s got an ailing mother, and the stress of taking care of her takes its toll. We’re not surprised, then, at Havers’ sometimes very prickly personality. It’s a perfectly natural reaction (even if it doesn’t get promotions) to being under a great deal of stress.

We also see hauntingly real characters in Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels. Although Hillerman is also well-known for his sense of place, there are also some very realistic characters that populate the novels. For instance, Chee’s boss (in some of the novels) Captain Largo, reacts just as we would expect when the FBI sends agents onto the Navajo reservation to investigate the death of one of their informants in The Ghostway. He’s resentful (as Chee is), but also feels the political pressure to co-operate. The same is true in The Dark Wind. In that novel, a dispute over water rights is compounded by a mysterious plane crash and the deaths of two strangers. Largo has to cope with these incidents, plus the very real possibility that the Reservation may be being used as a “safe” place by drug smugglers. When his best officer, Chee, is accused of being involved with the smugglers, Largo is understandably contemptuous of the FBI agent who makes the accusation. Still, he’s pragmatic, and knows that he has to cope with the FBI. We can really believe his sense of conflict and his behavior.

Some authors make their work authentic because it’s based on their own experiences or research. Others do it through a real sense of place, or character, or something else. In whatever way an author chooses, that “ring of authenticity” can make crime fiction unforgettable. How do your favorite authors achieve this?


  1. I think it adds a great deal to a story if you know the author's background is similar to that of their character. Such as the Gears and their writing or Kathy Reichs and her Temperence, “Bones” Brennan character. It just helps to make the story that much more believable.

  2. Mason - I think you're absolutely right. When an author's got a particular background, as the Gears do, and as Reichs does, and uses that background in his or her novels, that really does add a sense of authenticity to the writing. The reader then gets a window into that world, so to speak.

  3. This is one of the questions I rarely think about when reading. If the author gets it right and the plot, setting and characters seem convincing, I don´t worry too much about how he or she knew. It is only when things go wrong I wonder why they didn´t do their homework.

    Research for a book is fun, especially today when you can sit in your best armchair and google the most amazing subjects.

  4. Dorte - That's a very interesting point! Getting one's facts right is one of those "behind the scenes" things that readers often don't notice unless the author hasn't done her or his homework. And, as you say, with today's Internet, and the ease of communication, doing research for a book is increasingly easy - and fun : ). I know I always learn when I do it.

  5. Authenticity, or apparent authenticity, is one of the pleasures of reading. I have just finished At Close Quarters by Eugenio Fuentes and, although I can't know for sure how authentic it is, it certainly seems that way - I found it a totally absorbing account of Spanish life from many perspectives. Great post, Margot!

  6. Maxine - Thanks : ). I agree completely! Authenticity is so much more important in crime fiction than many people think until, as Dorte pointed out, it's missing. Then people notice it. Thanks for mentioning At Close Quarters, too. I'd heard that that was a good one, and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'll have to add that to my ever-growing list...