Friday, October 8, 2010

Don't Give Up on Us, Baby*

Have you ever had the experience of almost giving up on a novel, then giving it another try and really enjoying it? Not every crime fiction novel is impressive at first, and readers’ tastes vary. So what might be absorbing to one reader could be very off-putting to another. But a little perseverance can sometimes pay off in a memorable reading experience. So what is it about some books that makes them a hard slog at first? Why do people pick up and put down even the finest crime fiction novels before thoroughly enjoying them? Of course, the reasons are different for different readers, but here are a few things that seem to give readers pause, even in a novel that’s very well-written.

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.


  1. I felt that way about Val McDermid's book The Grave Tattoo. I think it was because it was a stand-alone. I couldn't get into the story and the characters. However, I gave it a chance and once I got 1/4 of the way through, the plot picked up and I got close to the characters and I just loved it.

    I'm like that now with Dreaming of the Bones by Deborah Crombie. Although it's a series, there is no crime really and I'm finding it slow. However, I'm giving it a chance and hopefully, it picks up.


  2. Clarissa - It's interesting, isn't it, how when we're used to a series, it can be hard to warm up to a standalone. I've felt that way, too, about some standalones I've read. I think you're right, that it's a matter of getting close to, and caring about, the characters.

    I happen to like Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series, so I'm sorry to hear you've not warmed up to Dreaming of the Bones yet. I hope you will find it more engaging as you go on. Of course, that's just my opinion.....

  3. Apart from my Nesbo example the other book I just about gave up on was Larsson's first one - all that guff about Swedish finance in the beginning was boring me to tears but I slogged on through and was very glad I did. Usually I will only do that (slog through) if someone I trust tells me it's worth it.

    Other books I've set aside and never gone back to...Michale Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union - alternative histories aren't really my thing and I just didn't 'get' the humour (though I had enjoyed other books by the author)

    With other books that I put aside it's usually that the characters don't engage me enough - I can put up with lots of things if there are interesting people to meet, observe, root for etc.

  4. Really interesting post. I've never been put off by a slow start to a mystery if, like in your examples, the setting and/or characters are interesting and well-written. However, I'm a big fan of books that hook the reader in from the start with a gripping murder scene.

    I'm not often squeamish about gore, especially not when the violence is implied through the forensic evidence or description of victim's body. Depictions of the violence happening to the person while their still alive I finder more disturbing. However, I'm quite uncomfortable with sadistic rape and sexual abuse or torture, and can be put off by graphic depictions of them.

    The points about standalone books versus series are interesting. I'll certainly pick up a longer book and stick with it no matter what if it features one of my favourite detectives. (I tend to be more loyal to detectives than authors.)

  5. Bernadette - Actually, it was your terrific review of The Redbreast that got me thinking about this topic, so thank you for that inspiration :-).

    I know what you mean, too, about the financial stuff in the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I agree that was a bit hard going - well it was for me - but like you, I found it worth the effort. And yes, when someone I trust tells me to make the effort, I do try to.

    I haven't read Michale Chabon; I've been told by other people to try his stuff and have been wanting to...

    It's interesting that you mention characters, too. I think that's one reason a lot of people put books aside and don't pick them back up. It really is important that at least some of the people in the book be at least a little interesting, or funny, or engaging, or...something.

  6. Debbie - Oh, how interesting! Your loyalty is to detectives rather than an author...that makes sense, too, actually. I know of many readers who have a strong preference for Hercule Poirot or for Miss Marple, or for Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. All of those sleuths were written by the same author, too. And if someone is loyal to a sleuth, then yes, it makes sense that s/he'll read a longer book, or a dryer book, or a less-than-perfect book if it features that sleuth. You've made a well-taken point!

    I'm with you, too, about the gore I don't as much mind, and the gore or violence that disturbs me. I hadn't thought about it that way, but I agree: when I read about violence actually happening to a victim - especially if it's sadistic violence, rape, etc. - I do get put off. Too much of it and the book goes in my DNF pile. When I read about forensic details, or when the detective discovers a body, even if the person was savagely killed, I handle it better. I actually prefer suggested, rather than explicit gore anyway, and I don't get gory when I write.

  7. I agree with Debbie on not liking the play-by-play on the violence, but also get nervous about books with violence against kids and dogs. I know I'm not alone in that one!

  8. Karen - Oh, you most certainly are not alone in that. I feel exactly the same way. I really don't like brutal stuff against kids - especially not detailed stuff. And yeah, I really dislike animal violence, too.

  9. Books that have too much gore, I rarely finish- if I do, they must be really fantastic.
    I also get put off by books that have too much despair as the main character (if that makes sense).

    Length is rarely a put off, unless it is pointless length, and if a book takes too long to get to the point, I don't mind as long as it is a good read.

  10. Margot- I usually try and finish a book even if I don't like it. I know life is too short to waste time on poor books, but I always hope something will come up to rehabilitate the story in my eyes. Anyway sometimes you have read about 200 pages before the author loses the plot, so you have already invested time reading and might as well go on to the bitter end.

    One of the factors that will put me off a book is out of context, and out of character bad language.
    Earlier in the year I came across a book classified as a cosy with liberal use of the F-word, and several derivatives. In this book the author also wanted to show how much cleverer they were than their readership, throwing in references to Charlotte Bronte and Bohuslav Martinu that had very little to do with the plot. I hated that!
    A slow start and length does not bother me especially when those pages are used wisely to build up tension and characters.
    At the end of the day if a writer tells a good story, then length, a little gore, and a slow start can all be forgiven.
    How could anyone not like an accurate historical digression in a crime fiction novel? ;o)

  11. Usually if I put a book down after just starting it, it's because I'm really not in the mood for that type book at the time. However, there are some books that seem to go into extreme detail about minor things (or what I consider minor) while leaving questions unanswered about major issues. Once I got past that, the story picked up and the blanks were filled in. As for the slow start or starting off with an explosion of action, I like both ways.

    Thoughts in Progress

  12. Rayna - I hadn't thought about despair as a character, but that does make sense. If hopelessness and despair permeate a novel, it can be a real drain on the reader. And I agree with you about the gore. A pointless over-abundance of gore just for its own purpose is enough to put me off a book, too.

    Norman - You've got a solid point. Sometimes it takes two or three hundred pages before you realise the book isn't really good. And by then, you've already invested quite a lot of time, so why not finish it?

    It's interesting you would bring up out-of-context language. It's true that there are just some contexts where foul language doesn't suit the characters or the context, so using it just takes away from the plot. There are others, as in Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano series, where it does suit the context. Then it's not off-putting. It's really a matter of whether it's appropriate for the context.

    It's also interesting that you bring up an author trying to be cleverer than the reader. There's such a fine line, isn't there, between showing enough cleverness to respect the reader, and being so clever (like those literary references you mentioned) as to be off-putting. You do have a point there.

    And I agree completely; a bit of an historical digression can do wonders for a novel ;-).

    Mason - Oh, that's a well-taken point. When the author leaves major questions unanswered, but goes into pages of detail about minor things, that can be off-putting. When that happens, I just have to hope the author answers the questions later on. You're right, too; lots of times if a book doesn't impress one at first, it can just be because of mood. I've done that myself - started a novel I wasn't in the mood for, put it down, and then come back to it later. When I am in the mood, then I wonder why I waited so long to read the book...

  13. I recently read RJ Ellory's Saints of New York, and the first few chapters are pretty tough, with a very nasty couple of deaths. I'm a squeamish reader, so I was worried that this was what the whole novel would be like, but I'm so glad I continued on as in fact that was the worst of the violence, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I did feel compelled to warn my mum about the first few chapters, when she wanted to read it next.

  14. Vanda - Books like Saints of New York really can be rough going at first because of the grisly murders. And that's enough to stop plenty of readers. I'm glad that for this one, you kept on with it and really enjoyed the story. Your comment makes me wonder what the line is between having enough action (i.e. a murder) to get the reader involved and interested), and so much gore that people get put off entirely. For an author, that's a difficult balance...

  15. I agree very much with the points in the post and by the commenters. These days it seems to be a normal style that a "crime" book has to begin with a prelude chapter describing a graphic event or a murder or other, to "hook" the reader. For me it has the opposite effect. I knew The Girl Who Played With Fire was going to be good, but the first chapter would have put me off if I had not had that confidence! Funnily enough, the first 200 pages of that book also have another of your points - slowness, and irrelevance to the main plot. And, the rest of the book suffers from the third point in your post - excessive length! However, by then the book had really picked up so I loved the length and was sad when it finished, especially as it ended on a cliffhanger....I was reading an advance proof so had a long wait for the next installment....

  16. Maxine - Isn't it interesting how a book that seems to have so many strikes against it turned out to be such a terrific book? You are so right about the length, slowness and that first chapter of The Girl Who Played With Fire.

    It's so interesting, too, that you mention how common it is these days to have books with prologues where there's some killing or some other occurrence. In some of the writing advice columns and blogs out there, writers are told that prologues like that are a good idea for exactly the reason you mentioned. On the other hand, as you say, they are so common these days that if they're not done well, they become too predictable and the reader can easily be put off. Tough decision to make if you're a writer...