The Gore Factor
All of us have different levels of squeamishness. Some readers don’t mind a lot of gore, and others try to avoid it. For readers who dislike gore, it can be very off-putting when a novel begins with a dreadfully gory scene. For instance, Linda Castillo’s Sworn to Silence begins with the gory murder of a young girl. Her death bears all the hallmarks of a series of grisly murders from sixteen years earlier. Police Chief Kate Burkholder, who’s got her own demons to deal with, investigates the murder with the help of an investigation team. Then, more murders occur, and now it looks as though a sadistic serial killer is at work in the small Amish community of Painters Mill, Ohio. This novel is certainly about solving the murders and stopping the killer. But it’s also about the different viewpoints of the Amish and “English” world, the reality of coming home again after having been away for a long time, and the way past and present interact. Many readers have found that if they persevere past the gore, the story is worth the wait.
That’s also true of Ian Rankin’s Mortal Causes, which begins with the brutal torture and murder of Billy Cunningham. At first, it seems that Cunningham was killed by Irish terrorists, so Inspector John Rebus works with the elite Scottish Crime Squad to find out whether Irish terrorists have infiltrated Edinburgh. As it happens, Cunningham was the son of local gangster and crime boss Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty. He’s out for revenge for the murder of his son, so he makes it clear that if Rebus and his team doesn’t solve the case, Cafferty will, in his own way. So Rebus and his investigative team have to deal with the very real threat of an all-out gang war in Ediburgh as they struggle to find out the truth about Cunningham’s death. The beginning of the novel is not for the squeamish. However, many people who’ve read it have found that the story is worth getting past the gore.
Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning also begins with a brutal murder, this time of Dr. Jeremy Ponsonby. Investigative journalist Jack Parlabane lives in the flat above Ponsonby, and discovers the murder when he becomes aware of the smell coming from the flat below him. Parlabane gets drawn into the investigation and determines to get to the truth about the murder. I confess I haven’t read this one yet; it was just too good an example not to mention it. Here is a terrific review of the novel by Margaret at Books Please.
The History Factor
Some crime fiction novels include discussions of historical events. For people who enjoy history, this can be a “plus.” But for those who are less interested in history, a novel that includes it can seem off-putting at first. And yet, some novels that include a dose of what seems like dry history can turn out to be excellent reads.
For instance, Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast features a strong connection between World War II Nazi collaborators and a modern-day arms-smuggling operation. So part of this novel describes events during the war. For those who find those events less than interesting, the novel may seem off-putting. However, it’s also the story of Harry Hole, Nesbø’s flawed but endearing sleuth. Hole and his friend and fellow police detective Ellen Gjelten work together to investigate a neo-Nazi group and its relationship to the arrival in Norway of a new kind of gun. That story, and the development of Hole’s character, have made this novel one of Nesbø’s most well-regarded works.
In Colin Dexter’s The Riddle of the Third Mile, Inspector Morse investigates the disappearance of his former mentor, Oliver Browne-Smith. When a body turns up wearing Browne-Smith’s clothes, Morse and Sergeant Lewis look into Browne-Smith’s life to find out who wanted to kill him. Browne-Smith’s past includes a haunting incident from World War II which is described in detail at the beginning of the novel. Those who don’t care for history might be put off by that beginning. However, the novel is not really a historical novel. It’s a police procedural that also tells us something of Morse’s personal background. In this case, those who put the novel down because of its history might miss those other aspects of it.
The Slow Start
Some crime fiction fans like their novels to have a solid dose of action at the beginning. The discovery of a body, a confrontation, or some sort of action can get the reader’s attention right away. Not all crime fiction is like that, though. For instance, Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency does not have an action-packed beginning. Instead, we learn about Mma. Precious Ramotswe, and her decision to open a detective agency, the only female-owned agency of its kind in her native Botswana. Some readers might be put off by the fact that there’s not a “high-energy” investigation, the discovery of a body, etc. And yet, the story of Mma. Ramotswe and her detective agency has gained millions of fans. Mma. Ramotswe’s own personality, McCall Smith’s evocation of the culture and geography of Botswana, and the sense of humour in the novel have made devotees of many readers who might have started out by thinking the book moved too slowly.
Some of Agatha Christie’s work starts slowly, too. For instance, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd begins slowly enough, with a conversation between Dr. James Sheppard of the village of King’s Abbott and his sister Caroline, who keeps house for him. Then, Christie describes some of the people who live in the village. One of them is wealthy retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. We don’t really get to the murder until Chapter Five, when Ackroyd is stabbed one night in his study. Hercule Poirot, who has moved to King’s Abbott in an abortive attempt to retire and grow vegetable marrows, gets involved in the investigation. Although some readers might have been put off by the slow start, this novel remains one of Christie’s best-regarded, and contains one of the most famous dénouements in crime fiction.
Crime fiction readers generally don’t like their books to be overly long. In fact, excessive length is one of the most common reasons for a book to make its way to a reader’s DNF pile. And yet, some readers have found that even a long crime fiction novel can be gripping. For instance, the novels in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy are all long. And yet, many crime fiction fans regard them as excellent novels with plenty to keep the reader turning pages.
Shona MacLean’s A Game of Sorrows is also rather a long novel. That’s the story of the proud O’Neill family of Ulster. A poet has placed a curse on the family, and parts of the curse seem to have come to pass. So family matriarch Maeve O’Neill sends her grandson Sean O’Neill Fitzgarrett to Scotland to enlist the help his cousin Alexander Seaton, an Aberdeen university teacher. Seaton reluctantly agrees to return to Ireland with his cousin to find out what’s behind the disturbing events that have happened in his family. Before long, he’s swept up in the political and religious turmoil of 17th Century Ireland. The novel moves along at a pace that for many readers, makes the 400 pages go by quickly. Those who enjoy historical mysteries, but are put off by the length of this novel might miss a very well-written story.
These are just a few of the things that can make a reader initially put a book aside. There are others. What’s your view? If you’ve ever put a book aside, what made you do so? Which novels are you very glad you read, despite being put off at first?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Soul's Don't Give Up on Us.