Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Long and Winding Road*

One of the effects that you could say films and, especially television, have had on crime fiction is that they telescope the process of following up on leads and clues and getting the evidence. In real life, solving crimes can take quite a long time. That’s especially true if the victim is unidentified at first, or if there’s something else that complicates the investigation. Of course, a television show or film that showed every detail of an investigation would have to be very, very long, but it’s different with crime fiction novels. Some of them, especially police procedurals, do give the reader a sense of the time that it takes to solve a crime. It’s hard to do that without the novel becoming too long or getting bogged down in detail, but it can also be very important. A novel that doesn’t acknowledge the time and effort involved in solving a crime may come across as being unrealistic.

A few of Agatha Christie’s novels give the reader a sense of the time it takes to gather evidence, sift through the clues and so on. For example, in Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot pays a visit to Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. He’s there at the request of Ariadne Oliver. Oliver has prepared a Murder Hunt (along the lines of a scavenger hunt) for an upcoming fête at the Stubbs property, but she suspects there may be more going on than preparations for a fête. Oliver’s instinct proves tragically correct when fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. On the same day, Lady Hattie Stubbs disappears. The investigation into both cases takes some time to complete. The murder and disappearance occur in early summer, but Poirot doesn’t put the final touches on the case until late autumn. A good portion of that time is spent searching for Lady Stubbs, and that’s realistic; the process of finding a missing person can take a lot of time.

We also get a look at the amount of time it can take to solve a case in Christie’s The ABC Murders. In that novel, Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate several murders that seem to be the work of a serial killer. The first murder takes place on 21 June, and despite the fact that Poirot receives a cryptic note warning him of the murder, the killing is not prevented. The body of Alice Ascher is found in the sweetshop she kept. The next month, Betty Barnard’s body is found on the beach near the town in which she lived and worked. Then two other bodies are found, each a month apart. Before each murder, Poirot gets a warning note. Near each body is an ABC railway guide. Throughout the summer and into the early autumn, Poirot and Hastings work with the local police and Scotland Yard to find out who the killer is and stop the murders. It takes quite a lot of time for the police to investigate the leads and for Poirot to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and we get a sense of this in the novel. Finally, Poirot gets the clues he needs and is able to catch the killer. It’s not a quick process, though.

Neither is the process of finding out the truth about the mysterious corpse in Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Bunter run into car trouble one New Year’s Eve near the village of Fenchurch St. Paul. The two men are kindly taken in by the Rector of Fenchurch. Wimsey is able to repay the kindness the next day, when he replaces William “Will” Thoday, who’s fallen ill, as one of the church’s bellringers. A few months later, an urgent letter recalls Wimsey to Fenchurch when an unexpected corpse is found in the grave of Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire. Wimsey returns to the village to help unravel the mystery of who the dead man is and how he came to be there. Over the course of the next several months, Wimsey investigates the history of the Thorpe family, especially a robbery that occurred there twenty years earlier. In the end, Wimsey is able to connect that robbery with the mysterious body found in the grave. The process isn’t a quick one, though, and it’s nearly a year later before the case is finally put to rest.

In Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, we follow the investigation into the murder of Roseanna McGraw, an American from Nebraska who was killed while she was visiting Sweden on a cruise. Her body is discovered on 8 July during a dredge operation in Lake Vättern. At first, no-one can identify her. After a time, though, when it’s clear that Roseanna was not Swedish, she is identified when the police in her home town of Lincoln, Nebraska, match the description they have of a missing woman with that of the unidentified woman found in the lake. Even after Roseanna’s body is identified, though, it takes months before the police are able to narrow down the suspects, establish who could have killed the victim, and figured out the motive. And it takes time after that for Martin Beck and the rest of the investigating team to find a way to catch the killer. In fact, it’s January of the following year before the police can close the file on the case.

And then there’s the investigation that Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander undertake in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. One Friday in November, eighty-two-year-old wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger receives a mysterious birthday gift – a pressed flower. The only problem is, the sender, his grand-niece Harriet Vanger, disappeared nearly forty years earlier. Vanger wants to get to the truth behind the mysterious flowers he’s been receiving on each birthday. So he hires investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist to find out what really happened to Harriet Vanger. Blomqvist isn’t in much of a position to refuse; he’s just lost a libel case against industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström, and his publication Millennium is in dire financial condition. So Blomqvist accepts Vanger’s financial support. He’s also motivated because Vanger has promised to help him get the evidence he needs to bring Wennerström down. Blomqvist and his researcher Lisbeth Salander are given a year to find out the truth, under the guise of writing a history of the Vanger family. Over the next year, they discover intrigue, very dark secrets and a great deal of corruption. It isn’t until the following November that Blomqvist and Salander finish putting the pieces of this puzzle together.

Inspector Morse is faced with a long investigation in Colin Dexter’s The Way Through the Woods. Swedish tourist Karin Eriksson disappeared in Wytham Woods and was reported missing when she never showed up at her destination in Wales. Inspector Johnson has been on the case for a year, and although Karin Eriksson’s rucksack’s been found, there’s been no body discovered, nor any word from the young woman. The case is currently at a standstill since no new clues have been discovered. Inspector Morse is reluctantly taking a holiday at Lyme Regis when he reads an interesting article in the Times about the disappearance. Apparently, the Times’ literary critic Howard Phillipson has been called in to help the police interpret a cryptic, poetic message from someone who seems to know what happened to Karin Eriksson. Morse is intrigued, and Superintendent Strange is just as well pleased, since he’s getting pressure to put Morse on the case. Morse and Lewis take over the investigation, much to Inspector Johnson’s chagrin, and the two sleuths look into the disappearance. What they find is a surprising mystery that forces them to retrace Karin Eriksson’s life to find out what happened to her.

There are plenty of other crime fiction novels, too, where the reader gets a strong sense of the length of time that an investigation can take. Do you enjoy those novels? Or do you prefer novels that “telescope” an investigation? If you’re a writer, how do you handle the balance between an authentic depiction of the time an investigation takes and the need to keep the reader turning pages?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Beatles song.

18 comments:

  1. That's one of those things that, as a reader, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief on. Crime investigation does take time...there's a sensational case going on in NC right now and there's been a lot of frustration with investigators. But they've had to collect enough evidence to make an arrest--even if it seems obvious who the perps might be. Readers and publishers, wouldn't put up very long with the long delays depicted in books (I wouldn't, myself.) :)

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  2. Peter James handles this deftly in his recent 'Dead Like Me,' which deals with a series of rapes over a long span of time.
    As a writer, I think it necessary to provide enough action or things of interest (this is where subplots come in)to keep the reader involved.

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  3. Elizabeth - I know what you mean. I'm willing to suspend disbelief, too, if the story is a good one. I'm sorry to hear about that NC case; that must, indeed, be awfully frustrating for everyone who wants the criminals caught and punished. I know I've felt that way when there've been big cases. But as you say, in fiction, it's quite different. Long delays just don't work in books...

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  4. John - A good point! Solid sub-plots and interesting action can keep the reader interested and can link the pieces of a story together so that the delays don't make the book "drag." And thanks for the suggestion about Dead Like Me. I've not read that one yet, but it sounds as though it's a good example of your point.

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  5. I think because of books and TV shows where investigators crack a case and make an arrest in short order, we want it to happen the same way in real life and it can't. Books give us that escape to right a wrong in a short period of time so we're willing to suspend our disbelief.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  6. Mason - That's an interesting point. We've come to expect that the detective will catch the "bad guy." As you say, books provide an escape from the real world where investigations can take months or longer. So we don't mind it so much the a book "telescopes" time. As long as it's done in a believable way, we sometimes don't mind some leaps in time.

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  7. I think writing a sense of the time it takes to complete a case is so important. It could be just that you state "two months later, they still had nothing" or you could show each step leading to nothing but when you do that, you give the reader the stakes and it increases the tension and the panic. I like it when an author is realistic. Never do the clues just come together that easily. Just waiting for post mortem reports to come in sometimes takes days to come in.

    CD

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  8. Clarissa - Readers really do want a sense of authenticity. As you say, post mortem reports don't come in immediately. Ballistics reports can take even longer, and DNA tests much longer than that. So it does lend realism to a story when the author admits that. It can build tension, too. For instance, the police and the reader might think a particular person is guilty. But then some report or other comes in that clears that person. That builds suspense.

    On the other hand, it's also possible to do that without going into "blow-by-blow" accounts of the entire investigation. A mention of how much time has gone by can have the same effect if it's integrated well.

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  9. One person who could show time effectively was Conan Doyle. Even is shorts typically took place over a long period of time, and the way he handled it would be by having Watson comment on what Holmes was doing during the period- the one I remmeber most vividly was the one where he discusses the various disguises adopted.
    If a crime gets solved in a week, it is a bit of a downer at times.

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  10. Rayna - You know, you have a point. If an investigation doesn't take a respectable amount of time, it doesn't feel "real," and that can, indeed, let the reader down. So a certain amount of discussion of the process makes some sense. And you're right about Conan Doyle, too. He actually used Watson's POV quite effectively for a number of purposes; to acknowledge the passing of time is definitely one of them.

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  11. I like the various cold-case plots or series, cold cases being one way to address this time issue (fictionally speaking). Michael Connelly and Martin Edwards are two authors who do this well, I think - with Martin Edwards's Hannah Scarlett mysteries usually having a historical mystery thrown in, in addition.

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  12. Maxine - You're quite right about the cold case approach to handling the time challenge. There are several good "cold case" novels out there, and you've mentioned two of my favourite authors. Martin Edwards and Michael Connelly are very adept at using that strategy to show readers how long a case can take to solve, and what the challenges are in doing so.

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  13. I love books that span time. Not so hot on ones that start and finish in a short amount of it.

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  14. Patti - I understand exactly what you mean. Books that are realistic about time can really resonate well with the reader.

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  15. When writing I always worry about time, about striking the right balance between the reality of how long things take, (ie DNA test results, pounding the streets, interviewing people), and moving the story along and keeping it gripping for the reader.

    As a reader I tend to like stories that move along, and don't take two month breaks in the middle where I wonder, well, what the heck were they doing? Maybe this is because when the story rips along the reader has a sense that time is an enemy, it adds an extra element of pressure for the protagonist, adds to the tension.

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  16. Vanda - Isn't it interesting how our perspective can be different as readers from our "writers' perspectives?" I agree with you that it's important to have a sense of realism. DNA tests, interviews, etc, all take time. To pretend they don't isn't authentic.

    On the other hand, I think most readers are like you - they want the story to move along, please. They don't want to be overly bogged down in time-related details. Besides, as you say, having time be "the enemy" certainly can add to the suspense and keep the reader engaged. That's why that balance is so tricky...

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  17. When you consider that some crimes take years to solve, there's no way a mystery author will hold the readers' attention if the story is written the way life really happens. It would be too tedious for both reader and writer.

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  18. Patricia - That's exactly it. Some crimes really do take years to solve in real life, and you're right; the reader isn't going to keep turning the pages of a book that depicts that much passage of time accurately. And yes, I think it would be just as tedious for the author as for the reader.

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