Thursday, February 10, 2011

Avoiding Crime Fiction "Road Hazards" ;-)

Have you read work by a new-to-you author lately? If you have, then you know it can be risky. No matter how many fine reviews a book gets, even by reviewers you trust, you never do know exactly what kind of reading experience you’ll have. In a way, it’s quite a lot like taking a road trip to an unfamiliar place. And, just like a road trip, a reading journey can be rife with hazards. So I thought it might be helpful to alert you to some of the crime fiction “road hazards” you might encounter as you try new authors. If you know about them in advance, you might be able to save yourself untold annoyance and time spent reading something that didn’t appeal to you. Here are just a few of those “road hazards.”


Plotholes are large gaps in a story. They often occur when important information is left out or when there are no clear links between the events in the story. They are dangerous and can tear gashes into your time as you try to figure out, for instance, how a character knew something or why a character went to a particular place.

Of course, not all crime fiction is full of plotholes. For instance, Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road is the story of the investigation into the murder of prospector Albert Ozolins. Emily Tempest, Hyland’s sleuth, has just accepted a position as an Aboriginal Community police officer. On her first day on the job, she and her team, under the supervision of Bruce Cockburn, are sent to Green Swamp Well where Ozolins’ body was found in his shack. Another man, John “Wireless” Petherbridge, is lying in a drunken stupor on the bed. The two had had a quarrel in a nearby pub, so Cockburn thinks it’s an “open-and-shut” case, and certainly doesn’t want to waste time on it. Emily, however, isn’t so sure. Besides, she’s not too pleased with Cockburn’s high-handed, arrogant manner. So she decides to start asking some questions. The more she looks into the matter, the more convinced she is that Wireless wasn’t responsible for the murder. Against Cockburn’s specific orders, Tempest starts a real investigation into Ozolins’ death. Her investigation pits her against Cockburn and against a killer. Although the story is in some ways complex, everything in it makes sense. The body is discovered in a logical way. Emily Tempest grew up in the area and knows several people involved in the case, so it makes sense that she would be curious and that she would ask the right questions. All of the events in the story are linked logically, and when Tempest finds out what links everything and who’s behind everything, we don’t get the sense of any gaping holes.

If you see a plothole coming, you’ll want to slow down and maybe skip that part of the book ;-).

Uneven Pagement

If you’ve ever been on a road that hasn’t been smoothly paved over, you know how bumpy the ride can get. The same kind of thing happens when a crime fiction novel doesn’t have a smooth, even pace and plot development. Sometimes that happens when the author has developed some scenes and events quite well, but others aren’t well developed at all. Or, it can happen when the story is “patched up” with improbable events and “cardboard” characters just to move the story along. This leaves the story “choppy” and uneven and leaves the reader with the uncomfortable, jarred feeling of having ridden a very rough road.

There are, of course, plenty of crime fiction novels that are smooth rides from the first to the last page. For instance, Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren novels move at a smooth, even pace throughout. They’re police procedurals, so the pace isn’t always breakneck speed. But the stories are well-developed throughout. For example, Woman With Birthmark begins at a funeral. Then, the story moves logically and smoothly to the murder of Ryszard Malik, who’s been shot in the head and groin. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team are called to the scene of this crime, but there are very few clues. The pace and plot stay even as the team looks for the killer. Then, there’s another, similar murder. And another. Now, Van Veeteren and the team have to track down the killer before there’s yet another death. There aren’t any “filler” moments in this novel, and all of the events are connected smoothly. So the reader gets the sense of a smoothly written story.

The same is true of Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, which begins at the murder trial of mystery novelist Harriet Vane, who’s on trial for the poisoning murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and, smitten with Vane, determines to clear her name when the jury can’t reach a verdict. The story then follows Wimsey as he searches for the truth. The events in the story come at an even pace and the characters are well-enough developed that we don’t feel “bumpiness” as Wimsey gets closer to finding out who really killed Boyes.


This hazard can present real traffic problems – and reading problems. At a cloverleaf interchange, two or more major roads intersect each other with ramps leading from one to the other so that from the air, the result looks like, well, a cloverleaf. These intersections can be dangerously congested during the rush hour and even when traffic isn’t heavy, trucks, vans and even some cars can overturn on sharply curved ramps. There are plenty of cloverleaf interchanges, and they’re not always a neat way to bring two major roads together.

A crime fiction (cl)overleaf happens when a book has two or more major plot threads, but they’re not woven together in a neat, logical way. This forces the reader to slow down, go back over the various threads and try to follow them. The result? Reading congestion – not a good thing. It’s a bit tricky to avoid (cl)overleafs; on one hand, a plot that’s too linear can get dull. On the other, a plot with too many tangled threads leads to reading congestion and reader confusion.

Not all crime fiction novels have problematic (cl)overleafs, though. For instance, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels frequently weave together more than one major plot line in a logical way. In Resurrection Men, for instance, one plot line follows Rebus and a group of other police officers who’ve been sent to Tulliallan Police College to learn the skill of working together as a team. To do that, they’re given a cold case to solve – the 1995 murder of small-time gangster Eric Lomax. The other major thread of this case is the murder of art dealer Edward Marber. Rebus and Sergeant Siobhan Clarke were working on that case when Rebus made the mistake of throwing a mug of tea at his supervisor in a moment of anger. With Rebus away working the Lomax case, Clarke “takes the reins” and pursues the Marber murder. Two separate plot threads, but Rankin brings them together smoothly and in a surprising way.

Dangerous You-Turns

Sometimes, cars abruptly change directions (at times this even happens when it’s not permitted). The unwary driver can get into a terrible accident when this happens. Often, it occurs when the driver making the turn hasn’t been paying attention to the signs and the traffic (or the other drivers).

In crime fiction, this can happen when the author doesn’t have a sense of what readers want and instead, writes without paying attention to the audience. Of course, this is a bit tricky. Just as traffic U-turns are sometimes necessary, it sometimes makes sense for an author to try something new (Michael Connelly does this quite effectively). And it’s hard to create interesting work if one doesn’t enjoy what one’s writing. But it is important to pay attention to what readers expect in a crime fiction novel.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels have won millions of fans – still do. And yet, it’s said that she got quite fed up with Poirot and didn’t much care for him herself. It’s been said that she expressed this through her fictional detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, who intensely dislikes her own creation Sven Hjerson. As Oliver says in Cards on the Table,

"Of course he's idiotic. But people like him."

But, since Poirot became so very popular, Christie continued to write about him. Christie innovated and created a number of different sorts of plots and characters that still keep her audiences engaged decades later. She also thought quite a lot about what her readers wanted. Here, for instance, is her point of view about the appropriate length of a detective story:

“Economy of wording is, I think, particularly necessary in a detective story. You don’t want the same thing rehashed three or four times over.”

When the author doesn’t at all consider what the reader might want, this can make for a very dangerous you-turn.

So, now that you’ve got a few ideas of the hazards that may be out there, I hope you’ll be careful. But please, don’t let that stop you from trying new authors. There are lots of wonderful books out there just waiting to be discovered. So buckle up, drive safely and hey, let’s be careful out there.

What do you think? Which crime fiction “road hazards” have snarled you up? If you’re a writer, how do you avoid these hazards?


  1. FOr some reason I found this post so funny. Perhaps it's because you've just described the state of Mexican roads.

    I agree with you, though, it's so important to make sure the road though the novel is smooth. If you ever notice my books leave you in the ditch, let me know.

  2. Clarissa - I honestly can't imagine anything you write leaving readers in the ditch. It's interesting, isn't it, what a post (or anything else, really) makes one think of. I promise I wasn't thinking of Mexican roads when I write this :-).

  3. Margot, you're too clever! Plot holes and overleafs... Good stuff. :-)

  4. Another thought provoking post. The cloverleaf is one aspect that I have run into with new authors. If it's not done well, the reader has to go back and re-read trying to figure out which path goes with which character. When it's done right, it keeps the reader on a fast pace ride. Great examples.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Bobbi - Awww...thanks :-). What can I say? My background is in linguistics. We do these things. ;-)

    Mason - Why, thank you :-). I know exactly what you mean, about how difficult it can be to go back and keep track of all the characters and their various plot threads. That's not easy to do neatly, and although people like Rankin do it well, not everyone does.

  6. Fascinating, Margot! I do like to read debut authors, and have read many I've liked, but I have to admit that some of your hazards have occurred on occasion so have necessitated a "dead end street" as far as return visits are concerned.

    Translated fiction is interesting because an additional bar has to have been reached for the book to be published in a language not the original. Either some organisation has made a grant for translation because the book is literary/good (in someone's judgement! Often it has won a prize on first publication); or a commercial publisher thinks the book will sell. I think this "bar" means that one can sometimes be more sanguine about trying a new translated author compared with a new Eng Lan author. (Only sometimes, though! I'm very glad I tried Jane Casey and Ruth Dugdale, for example.)

  7. Sometimes I see neon lit signs by the roadways saying "clue! clue! clue!" :) That's always discouraging for a traveler too early in a mystery.

  8. Maxine - I know exactly what you mean about "dead-end streets" as far as some debut authors go. I've had that happen, too, and it is disappointing.

    You know, I hadn't thought about the additional bar that translated crime fiction has to reach, but your point makes a lot of sense. As you say, a novel in another language either has to be judged to be of real merit, or has to look like a very good seller in order to be translated. That doesn't of course guarantee that a translated novel is good, but it certainly can help. That said, though, I agree that there are some terrific English-language debuts, too. That's what makes the reading journey so interesting :-).

    Elizabeth - Oh, I find that annoying, too! Those obvious "billboards" do take away from the mystery reading experience, don't they, and they take away from the suspense.

  9. What brilliant examples. I have been lucky in all the books I have read recently (but they have come recommended by a person I now trust implicitly). But when I was poking around, trying to find books to read myself, I often ran into those problems. (Cl)overleaves I honestly don't mind too much, because I often re-read books and things get simpler the second time round, but Plot holes, and road hazards are two things that can be a real turn off.

  10. Rayna - Thank you :-) :-). You're awfully kind. I've done that, myself, actually - tried to find something good, only to be faced with all sorts of "road hazards." If I like a book enough to read it more than once, than like you, I don't mind (cl)overleafs as much; if they're not so bad, I can sort them out. But I agree - the other hazards really are annoying, aren't they?

  11. I dislike when the speed of the highway never changes. Fast is good, but I don't want it all the time. Let me slow down occasionally so I can count the cows in the field. Wait! Those are sheep! Get going!

  12. Elspeth - I know what you mean! Sometimes it's best to vary the pace of a trip, isn't it? Especially when there are sheep involved.... We all know about those sheep!!! ;-)

  13. Very clever. My most common peeve might be falling rocks. When the book is just too violent for me.

  14. Patti - Thank you :-). And I share your peeve about falling rocks. Yes, murder is violent, so any murder mystery will refer to violence. But there is no need for gratuitous gore, and a lot of times, that takes away from what could otherwise have been a good story.

  15. Sadly, plot(pot)holes happen even to my favorite authors. I have higher expectations of multi-million dollar producers, but some will keep me coming back simply for the characters I have grown to love. If I'm satisfied as a whole I'll be forgiving.
    I try to make the violence in my work relevant and understated. There's no need for excessive gore unless it's a horror story.
    Loved your analogies!

  16. Jodi - Thank you so much :-). I've been disappointed, too, by p(l)otholes even among books by my favourite authors. Like you, I will forgive those slips if they're only once in a while and if I've come to be attached to the characters. But I know what you mean...those p(l)otholes can happen even on the best "roads." ;-).

    And I agree completely: excessive gore is almost never necessary, and it's certainly possible to ratchet up suspense and keep the reader turning pages without it. I tend to be quite low-key on the violence I use, too.