Saturday, November 27, 2010

I Think It's About Forgiveness*

Even the most ardent crime fiction fan knows that very few crime fiction novels are perfect. That’s because even the most talented and dedicated authors are not perfect. Most crime fiction fans know that, and are quite often willing to forgive an author for one or another weakness in a novel. That’s especially true if the weakness is minor, it’s a favourite author or most of the book is strong. I also know several crime fiction fans who forgive some weaknesses because a novel is the author’s debut. But there are some weaknesses in novels that a crime fiction reader isn’t as likely to forgive. Very often, it’s not so much that the reader expects perfection; most readers don’t. Sometimes, it’s that whatever the weakness is, it pulls the reader out of the story and distracts the reader. Sometimes, the weakness is the kind of carelessness that shows the reader that the author doesn’t seem to be making his or her best effort. To readers, that’s disrespectful and many readers won’t forgive that. Of course, each reader has a different set of things that are, as you might say, unforgivable. Here are just a few:

Not Doing “Homework”

Crime fiction readers want a sense of authenticity in their novels. They want to believe that the details the author’s sharing are true. Of course a novel is a work of fiction, but certain points really do need to be accurate, or the story loses its credibility. Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Mrs. Oliver discusses exactly this in Cards on the Table. In that novel, she works with Hercule Poirot and two other sleuths to solve the mysterious stabbing death of the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. The four sleuths had been invited to dinner along with four people that Mr. Shaitana hinted had gotten away with murder. One of those four murderers has killed Shaitana. During one conversation, Superintendent Battle, one of the other sleuths, ventures to point out one or two inaccuracies in Mrs. Oliver’s writing. Here’s her response:

“As a matter of fact I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays…I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic…and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more...”

Mrs. Oliver goes on to say that really, it’s the excitement of the story that matters. Of course, she’s right to an extent, and a story can be weakened by too much attention to details. But most readers want a sense that a story’s details are accurate. That’s why many readers enjoy novels by authors who have experience in the fields they describe in their novels. For instance, Agatha Christie worked in a dispensary and had quite a solid background in pharmaceutical and in poisons. Shona Maclean, author of the Alexander Seaton historical mysteries, has a Ph.D. in 17th Century history, which is the time period about which she writes. There are many, many other examples like this.

Even authors who don’t have a background in the field they write about can do research and check their details. If they don’t, readers will be quick to sense that something’s not right about the novels, especially if the details are important to the story.

Clunky Prose

An interesting post by Martin Edwards got me thinking about this weakness. Of course there are as many styles of writing as there are good crime fiction novels. For that reason, there really isn’t one “right” way to tell a story. But clunky, awkward prose gets in the way of the reader’s enjoyment of a story. Writing doesn’t have to be long and drawn-out to tell a good story. Here, for instance, is just a bit from Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch. In that novel, we meet Dr. Siri Paiboun, Laos’ chief medical examiner. In this scene, he’s meeting with a local magistrate to go over some of his medical reports:

‘And what do you put the loss of blood down to?’ Judge Haeng asked.

Siri wondered more than once whether he was deliberately being asked trick questions to establish the state of his mind. ‘Well,’ he considered it for a moment. ‘The body’s inability to keep it in?’ The little judge h’mmed and look back down at the report. He wasn’t even bright enough for sarcasm.”

Effective use of prose can lend much to a story. Clunky prose can be distracting and off-putting.

Lack of Effort

Crime fiction fans don’t expect that every element of a novel will be perfect. But they do notice – and mind very much – if the author doesn’t make a real effort to make the novel engaging. There are lots of ways that readers get the message that an author is, to use an expression, “’phoning it in.” If each of the author’s books closely resembles all of the others, that’s one indication. If the author “patches up holes” with unlikely coincidences or “out of nowhere” characters and events, that’s another. Admittedly, there aren’t that many different kinds of plausible motives for murder, and it takes work to add innovation to a plot or series. But authors who don’t go to that effort send the signal to readers (whether or not they intend to) that they’re not putting work into their writing.

This is one reason for which some authors continue to win new loyal fans despite years of writing. They avoid just this weakness. Michael Connelly is one example author; admittedly, this is my opinion and I’m a biased fan, so feel free to disagree with me. But Connelly has consistently created new kinds of believable plots, developed his characters, added new well-rounded “regular” characters, and gone to other efforts to ensure that each novel is a new experience for readers. He’s not the only example, either. I’m sure you have your favourites, too, who can do this.

Attitudes and –isms

Sometimes, the characters in a novel reflect attitudes and prejudices that readers find very hard to accept. For instance, some crime fiction lovers find it difficult to finish a novel or read another novel by the same author if the author seems to glorify violence. That seems, perhaps, counterintuitive, since murder is violent. But there are ways of describing murders, their investigations and their solutions without giving the impression that violence is acceptable.

The same is true of prejudices that can sometimes come through in novels. If a crime fiction lover gets the message that a novel or author is sexist, anti-Semitic, racist or otherwise offensive, this can be hard to forgive. This one’s a fine line, because sometimes, a well-written plot includes a character with offensive prejudices. And in real life, such people do not always “get theirs.” In historical novels, or in novels that were written in another time, it wouldn’t be realistic for characters not to have certain prejudices that we now consider offensive. Again, though, there are ways to express those –isms without sending the message that they are acceptable in today’s world.

These are only a few weaknesses that many people find unforgivable. What about you? Are there weaknesses that you can’t get past as a reader? What are they? If you’re a writer, which weaknesses do you work hardest to avoid?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don Henley’s The Heart of the Matter.


  1. The thing that makes me the MOST MAD of all is when authors assume their readers are stupid--explain the obvious, or put in plot twists that make no sense and think we won't notice, or otherwise talk down to us. That I can't overlook.

  2. Karen - I know exactly what you mean! I dislike it, too, when I feel that I'm being condescended to. Any time an author gives me the idea that s/he thinks I'm an idiot, it's time to move on...

  3. Karen said what I was thinking of saying. I hate it when an author talks down to me. I may not be as brilliant as the author, but that doesn't mean I am so silly I need to have every little bit explained to me- even my four year old resents that.

    And yes, the one thing that keeps an author going for me is constant variety. What I would like is 60-20-20. 60 of the old, because that is why I picked up the book in the first place, 20 that builds on something that was new in an earlier book, 20 that is totally new which can be built on in later books.

  4. Rayna - I don't like being treated as though I'm foolish, either. And I'm not surprised that your four-year-old resents being treated that way, too. Most intelligent people resent it.

    I really like your idea, too, of the appropriate balance of "regular" characters, sorts of plots etc., with new things and brand-new things. That's a very effective way to make sure that readers stay interested and wanting more without sacrificing what made readers loyal fans in the first place.

  5. I'm in agreement with not talking down to the reader. But I also dislike it when a writer has their protagonist change so completely without reason. They don't stand up to problems they way they normally do or act as they have in previous books. When other characters are introduced to cause this change, it makes sense. However, when the character just changes it makes the reader wonder if the author has forgotten who they're writing about.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Oh, you make such a well-taken point! If something doesn't make sense to the reader, whether it's a change in a character, a weird event or something else, that jars the reader. It takes the reader "out of the story," and makes the novel hard to follow. I agree that that's quite annoying!

  7. I like to read a book with a flow, not one that suddenly jumps out at me and screams...that should have been a revolver, not an automatic.

    It is hard to research, but I think it is important that 99% is accurate.

  8. Glynis - Oh, I agree with you; accuracy is really important. An author who really cares about her or his work should take the time to get the details right.

    That said, though, readers know that no book is perfect, so the occasional flaw can even be interesting. I've even been known to try to catch the mistake ;-).

  9. If the plot is brilliant, I can forgive a lot, and likewise if the characters are exceptional. I am also willing to give new writers a second chance if there is some hope they will develop, but when well established writers seem to think they can get away with sloppy writing, just because they have so many fans, they shouldn´t count on much patience from my side.

  10. Dorte - Oh, you put that so well! It's one thing to overlook mistakes from new writers, or if the mistakes are made up for by something else that's exceptional. But if it's an author who's established and who "cuts corners," then yes, that's much less pardonable. I, too, lose my patience. After all, those fans made those authors best-sellers in the first place. The least they deserve is "return loyalty."

  11. And I just had to come back and tell you that the other thing I dislike is when the author is talking about something that he/ she knows nothing about. Yes, they may have done their reserach, but sometimes, to get that authentic tone, you need more than just research. Sometimes, specially when reading books set in India or with Indian characters, I find facts I know are true, but that extra something is missing. And that not only spoils the book for me, it makes me start questioning the entire series.

    In these days of online critique groups, it cannot be so hard to find someone who can check for tone?

  12. Rayna - You really do make a good point! It's one thing to do research, and most authors do that. It's quite another to really understand the tone of a culture one's writing about and communicate it. As you say, it's not that difficult (although it is time-consuming) to find someone who can check for tone, for that, as you say, extra something that gives a book an authentic sense of place. I, too, dislike books that do not have the flavour of a place and people, even if the facts are correct.