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.
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.