Why Crime/Thriller/Mystery Novels Fall Short: Part 2

red pencil, grammar, comma

photo: Martijn Nijenhuls, Creative Commons license

Authors of crime/thriller/mystery novel have to keep track of a lot. They must develop those pesky clues, forge a logic chain with no missing links, and avoid too-convenient coincidences. They must convey everything readers need to know without actually giving the punch line away or making it irritatingly obvious information is being withheld. No wonder early drafts of a book can be full of problems!

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the common plot and character pitfalls (the “thinking” pitfalls) I find in the dozens of crime/thriller/mystery novels  I review each year. This post concentrates on typical problems found in the actual writing.

Writing Pitfalls (the Biggest Ones)

  • Clichés in language and gesture – at least five chapters in a recently-read thriller ended with a character setting his/her mouth/jaw in a firm line. Using a cliché to express a thought is a writer’s shortcut. While certain characters may speak in clichés, if that’s their thing, narratives should struggle for freshness. That helps characters and settings feel unique, not like cardboard cutouts.
  • Unartful explanations—Readers often need background information—about politics, finance, weapons, a character’s training, whatever—but indigestible chunks of it that read like a resume or briefing paper feel amateurish. “Tell me about yourself, Mr. Smith,” is hardly better.
  • Over-explaining – Example: A Chinese scientist who’s volunteered to become a CIA source explains to an agent how his country’s government has hurt “many people who deserve better,” including his father. The agent immediately thinks, “His motivation appeared to be revenge for his father’s mistreatment at the hands of the Chinese government.” Duh. Then, in case the reader doesn’t get it yet, the author continues with what is actually a very good way of underscoring the point (good because it adds new information, the agent’s judgment): “He’d take revenge as a motivator any day” and explains why. This would have been just fine if that clunky over-explanation were edited out.
  • Mixed or inept metaphors – Example: “Trying to learn the ropes had XX feeling like a fish out of water.” I can’t picture that at all. Can you? Here’s a simple, effective one: “Out of [his police] uniform he just looked like an impatient kid waiting for his father.” I see this clearly.
  • Ending each chapter with a cheesy cliffhanger. Example: “My God! XX thought. The Americans will never know what hit them.” Actually, in this book, they will. Here’s a better one: “She closes her book and shuts her eyes to look up at the sun, unaware of her two observers.” Menacing, not manipulative.
  • General sloppiness – I’ve said enough about typos in my book reviews. They suggest a lack of care. Here is other evidence of it: homonym problems (hoard instead of horde, rein instead of reign, desert instead of dessert, and on and on); changing the name of a person or place, but not catching all the uses of the original name (“find and replace,” please); and of course, distracting factual errors.
  • Lack of support matter – OK, maybe I’m crazy, but I believe quite a few thrillers would be improved by the inclusion of tailored supporting material. For example, maps that show the principal places mentioned in the novel (I admit to a pro-map bias here), lists of acronyms and abbreviations, especially for novels involving multiple international agencies, lists of characters and how they fit into the story, and so on. The goal should be to bring readers in to the circle of cognoscenti, not shut them out.

Working out the plot of a story and developing the characters involved are completely different tasks than effectively writing the whole thing down, and rushing into print rarely serves the material—or the reader—well. I hate to see a good plot ruined by weak presentation!

Why Crime/Thriller/Mystery Novels Fall Short

reading, book

photo: Kamil Porembiński, creative commons license

Over the past 21 months, I’ve read and reviewed 62 crime novels and thrillers for crimefictionlover.com. While a number of them rise to greatness and many effectively get the job done, a surprising number were not ready for prime time, and a tiny number should have gone straight to the landfill. Many works fall short because author s believe their book is “done,” and it isn’t. Too often, I find myself saying, “Damn!—With a little more effort, this could have been soooo good.”

As a writer myself, I take into consideration the author’s hopes and effort, knowing it’s hard to see the flaws in one’s own children. That’s what editors are for. Yet, the acknowledgements pages of poor books often heap extravagant praise on their editors, whom I envision curled up under their desks, weeping. Authorial intentions aside, my primary obligation is to potential readers. Will readers’ limited reading time be well invested if they pick up this particular book?

The common problems in crime/thriller books I’ve read recently fit into two overlapping categories: pitfalls in thinking (mostly related to plot and character), listed below, and pitfalls in writing. Thinking and writing problems are mutually reinforcing, since poor writing makes poor thinking more obvious. For those who respond to examples, I’ve included a few from “actual books.”

Thinking Pitfalls

  • Using increasingly gruesome torture and death methods (or a surfeit of comely young women/child victims) in the hope of sustaining reader interest. Bloodletting is easy; creating complex, unique, and engaging characters with grounded, understandable motivations is hard.
  • Mechanical problems—Where and when did stuff happen? Chris Roerden calls lack of clarity about the story timeline “crazy time,” and it drives readers crazy.
  • Galloping unreality—Example: after a big-city police chief spoke at a news conference, “several reporters broke into a round of applause.” Not any journalists I know. Another: two undercover CIA agents are scouting a computer research lab on a busy Chinese university campus. “‘That’s the building the lab’s in,’ XX said, pointing.” Pointing? And I don’t know how many times a bad guy has used a chloroform-soaked cloth to disable a victim, when a single moment of fact-checking would reveal this doesn’t work!
  • Technological non-fixes—Either using technology when it’s not needed just to sound cool, using it wrong (weapons, especially), or not using it at all–say, not picking up the phone to ask a simple question that would solve everything.
  • Lack of engagement—Some authors just want to sell books, often choosing the method describe in the first bullet, not provide the reader with a deeper, emotionally engaging experience. Crime/thrillers often appeal to the head, but the best ones capture the heart too. “When a plot resolves, readers are satisfied, but what they remember of a novel is what they felt while reading it,” says Donald Maass.
  • Cheesy theorizing—When characters come up with premature but enthusiastically adopted explanations of what happened or whodunnit, readers know they are being misled.
  • Failure to answer all the plot questions—Did the author just forget a main character’s spouse mysteriously committed suicide? Did he forget the police psychologist dropped the case’s murder book on a city street? For that matter, why was he carrying it out of the office anyway? Big questions need answers.

Further Reading for Authors

Ian Rankin’s 30th Year of Rebus

Ian Rankin

photo: wikimedia

In Daneet Steffens’s recent interview for LitHub with Scotland’s crime fiction star Ian Rankin, he says, “All crime fiction boils down to ‘Why do we keep doing these terrible things?” Go back to Shakespeare, to Euripides, and the combination of natural proclivity and circumstances has produced people who destroy not just their enemies, but also the people they love.

Rankin says his early books were more typical whodunits, “but as I got more confident about the form and about what the crime novel could do, I thought, ‘Well there’s nothing it can’t do.’” Writers who want to talk about politics can do that, like author David Ignatius. Those who want to talk about race relations can emulate Bill Beverly. The environment, Paolo Bacigalupi. And, those who want to explore domestic tensions can stake out territory alongside Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott. In that way, choosing to write about crime is not a limiting factor for authors, but one that gives their story about politics, race relations, the environment, domestic life—whatever—an extra urgency.

You may have read Rankin’s short stories, or be familiar with his best-known work, the award-winning Detective Rebus series (21 books!) set in Edinburgh, or seen one of the several television series made from them. The most recent series title, out earlier this month, is Rather Be the Devil, in which the retired detective takes on a cold murder case, and finds it tied up with a complex money laundering scheme and an aging rock star.

Rebus also has aged and represents some values and a black-and-white view of the world that Rankin says he doesn’t share. It’s Rebus’s partners—the books secondary characters—whose job involves “trying to change his mind on things.” After 30 years of writing the same character and his consistent opponent, Big Ger Cafferty, an old-fashioned gangster up against an old-fashioned detective, the world has changed around them, but the series has “no signs of wearing out,” says a CrimeFictionLover.com review.

You can hear Rankin for yourself at a three-day Rebus festival in Edinburgh, June 30 to July 2. Or in New York at The Center for Fiction, 17 E 47th St., which will host Rankin for a Crime Fiction Master Class on Tuesday February 7th at 7 pm. He’ll be interviewed about his career and the Rebus series by author Jonathan Santlofer. Free and open to the public.

A Thin Gruel of Words

Do overused words run out of steam like a runner at the end of a marathon of meaning?  This Jonathon Sturgeon article from Flavorwire, lurking in my pile of “gems to re-read,” asks that question. It’s of renewed interest, in light of conflicting views on the robustness of the word “fact” and whether it means anything at all any more. A “fact” used to be something you could hang your hat on; now we’re all like Alice in Through the Looking Glass.

Humpty Dumpty

image: public domain

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be the master—that’s all.”

Sturgeon cites data on the use of four descriptive words with literary origins that have gone in and out of fashion over the decades: Quixotic and Byronic were used in the 1800s, with Quixotic peaking around the middle of that century and Byronic—a word I have never used—in the 1930s. In the 20th century, these two were joined by Orwellian—still the most popular—and Kafkaesque, both of which may be destined for increased use. (There’s no source cited for these data, so I can’t find out how they were compiled—probably by text analyzing software.)

Do words like these presuppose at least some passing knowledge of their origins? Presumably a person can understand that a quixotic effort is whimsical and doomed to failure or that an orwellian environment is “antiutopian” and “totalitarian,” as the dictionary would have it. Probably more people understand and use the word kafkaesque than have read—or want to read—The Trial. But do they lose their punch when applied too freely, as people believe the word “nazi” has, by being applied here, there, and everywhere?

Then Sturgeon asks a deeper question, one Humpty Dumpty would appreciate: “Do words mean what the dictionary says they mean, or do they gain meaning through the way we use them?” The answer, he says, is “both.” By using words where they only sort-of apply, their meaning expands, even to the point of meaninglessness.

“The idea that a word could lose its meaning because people use it is both funny and politically scary,” he says. “And so is the idea that a word could mean nothing at all.” I suppose the best way to guard against diluting the meaning of words must be our own vigilance in how we use them. Unless we want the word “fact” to mean just what the user chooses it to mean, we must guard it carefully.

Is It Over? Story Endings

No Country for Old Men - Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men

Writer Toby Wallis has written a thoughtful essay in Glimmer Train on story endings. He centers a lot of his argument on Cormac McCarthy’s chilling novel, No Country for Old Men, in which, as he says “the climax that the story appears to be building towards just doesn’t happen.” It (like the terrific movie made from it) may make audiences feel left hanging, and incomplete, at least until further reflection. One thing to consider is, whose story is it? The killer’s or the sheriff’s? Whether the ending satisfies depends in part on the answer to that question.

As Wallis says, “At first I was disappointed . . . like the rug had been whipped out from under me. Two hours later, I loved it.” Perhaps we’ve been led by fiction—and movies and especially television—to believe all loose ends must be, can be tidied up, there is an answer to all questions, the broken can be made whole or at least set on the path to mending. But that’s not how it is in real life, is it? We must all deal with ambiguity, incompletion, unravelings not to be reknitted. As troubling as an ending as McCarthy’s is, worse, may be the ending where you feel the author thought, “Holy crap! I’ve got to wind this up.” And does.

McCarthy’s approach leaves us pondering what happens next? Our curiosity about the story and its protagonists is not satisfied, it continues to tickle our imaginations, to stay with us at some level. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You also ends ambiguously. She says readers are very firm in their conviction about what happened by the end, based on the evidence they gleaned in the novel. Yet their interpretations vary widely.

Genre fiction—and here I’ll speak of the genres I know best, crime novels and thrillers—approach endings differently. Thrillers generally adhere to the convention of restoring order to the world, so a tidy post-carnage ending is expected. Many crime novels are not so black and white. They leave room for doubt. Often they are critical of the status quo (corruption in city hall, incompetent police leadership, media on the take, etc.), so why return to it? A police detective may be able to solve a murder, but darker societal forces may be behind it. “That’s Chinatown.”

Outside of genre, in literary novels, Wallis says “stories are at their very best when they ask questions . . . at their didactic worst when they presume to answer them.” At least, when they presume to answer every last one of them. When I look back over the literary fiction of last year that I enjoyed most—Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Lily King’s Euphoria, Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, for example—every one of them leaves space for readers to speculate, to use their own imaginations, to engage with the author in the creative process.

Finding Your Story

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, banned books

(photo: wikipedia.org)

Whether you think of yourself as a plot-driven author, a character-driven writer, or one who relies on creating a compelling situation, stuff has to happen on your pages or readers will stop turning them. Stuff that truly tests your characters.

In an excellent recent online essay about plot, novelist and former literary agent Barbara Rogan cites Mark Twain’s advice: “The writer’s job is to chase characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.” Think Huck Finn and Jim on the raft. In other words, keep the problems coming. Readers want to see characters succeed, fail, change, and grow, but, she says, “Characters cannot rise to a challenge that never comes.” I would append this thought “and overcoming a wildly unrealistic challenge doesn’t work, either.” It’s the author’s victory, not the character’s.” Some thrillers cross that line.

Maybe an author starts with an exciting, possibly (fingers crossed) film-worthy opening scene. That and its aftermath are dealt with, then there’s a slog to the skating-on-the-edge-of-disaster conclusion. What happened in the middle? Not enough, very likely. A saggy middle is the bane of new authors and people over 40 alike. Says Donald Maass, another widely respected literary agent and author, “For virtually all novelists, the challenge is to push farther, go deeper, and get mean and nasty.” Plot-driven novelists do it with incident, character-driven ones by ramping up internal conflict. Stephen King doesn’t rely on plot at all. He starts with a situation, a predicament, and then watches his character “try to work themselves free.”

Tellingly, King says, “my job isn’t to try to help them” free themselves, but to observe them and write it down. That’s such an important point. You can’t go easy on your characters, however attached you are to them. Rogan says when authors “smooth the way for their protagonists”—making clues come too easily or difficulties to easily overcome, giving them a midtown Manhattan parking place just when they need it (!), authors are behaving like “benevolent gods”—a trap my own writing sometimes falls into. I like my characters, even some of the baddies; but I cannot be their mum. What characters learn, they must learn at a cost in physical or emotional pain—preferably both. That makes readers care about them.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran FoerExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the protagonist, precocious nine-year-old Oskar Schell, has a mysterious key belonging to his dead father, and he want to find the lock it will open. He believes someone named Black knows what lock that is. Lots of people in the New York City phone book are named Black, and Oskar visits them all. If the key had belonged to Aaron Black, this would have been a short story.

As in real life, Oskar and other successful fictional characters have to work hard to find their answers. As do the writers who create them.

 

On the CriFi Horizon

June Lorraine Roberts

June Lorraine Roberts

Vicki asked me to comment on where the crime fiction (CriFi) genre is headed. I’ve enjoyed her diverse and timely blog for a while now. Certainly, her request has caused much reflection on my part.

Let me start with an online definition of crime fiction. Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalises crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as historical fiction or science fiction, but the boundaries are indistinct.

I quite like the term indistinct. It indicates the versatility and flexibility available to the genre. Two posts I did earlier this year were on the blend of science fiction and steam punk with crime fiction. For me it’s one way to broaden reading horizons and generate ideas on how to move CriFi forward.

Several books have done well examining marriage and family relationships within crime fiction since Gone Girl appeared on shelves. The word ‘Girl’ still appears in book titles, but not for much longer I suspect.

What’s next? If we could predict the next big trend we’d be hard at writing it now. However, there are authors who are using an inventive edge.

Currently, I’m halfway through Fickle by Peter Manus. Written as blog posts on two different websites, followers speculate and ask questions of the bloggers. The storyline is easy to follow, no talking over one another. And it’s well done. I have no idea how the book will wrap up, but it’s sharp and clever and I’m enjoying its modern, noir atmosphere.

Is it the next big thing? Probably not. But it makes the point that, when talent isn’t enough, a different way of looking at things can boost the likelihood of being published. One of the many challenges for writers today is beating the numbers and getting your book noticed. First by an agent, then by a publisher, and then by readers. Every year thousands of CriFi books are released worldwide by publishing houses. Imagine how many more are self-published!

A number of recent books run dual storylines: past and present. While not new, this construct is very effective at moving along a storyline, giving readers the backstory for the main character in a concise fashion. (I just reviewed one exactly like this—What Remains of Me—for CrimeFictionLover.com—ed.)

In other storylines, we have narratives written from the perspective of two or more characters. Add to that blog posts from two websites, and location changes for protagonists–all this shows a duality of nature that is as common as villain vs. hero. Perhaps there is opportunity here to leverage our creativity and reader interest. Or at least to have us think about storylines from a different slant.

It’s the openness to new ideas and the willingness to try an atypical approach that marks today’s crime fiction. It speaks to our society and the cultural mores of this place in time. Much has changed in the past 15 years. What we need to do, as authors, is harness the change and let it generate new ideas, and, as readers, be willing to experiment.

The thing about a book is that it is both tangible and intangible. You can hold a book in your hands and take it many places. But the story, the story is what you carry inside you, and it can take you to places you never expected.

Guest poster June Lorraine Roberts is a Canadian and a graduate of the London School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in Tengri Magazine and Aware Magazine. Her first CriFi flash fiction story was picked-up by the Flash Fiction Press earlier this year, and she continues to work at plotting devious story lines. Check out her website: MurderinCommon.com.

Lee Child is a Pantser

Superman

graphic: Kooroshication, creative commons license

Someday I hope I inspire a reader as enthusiastic and indulgent as Lee Child has in John Lanchester. Lanchester’s fanboy article in the 14 November New Yorker delves into both the form and process used by Child to create his literary child, Jack Reacher. I’ve read only the first one in this long-running series, The Killing Floor, and didn’t see what the fuss was all about.

Lanchester—a contributing editor at The London Review of Books—was untroubled by my big gripe: I just couldn’t believe in the character. First of all, Childs’s hero, he says, “isn’t just tough; he’s supertough. He is exceptionally good with all manner of weapons. His expertise as a sniper is regularly called upon . . . He routinely gets into fights with multiple opponents” and in a climactic combat, Reacher will be pitted “sometimes against vastly superior numbers, sometimes against an opponent of superhuman size or strength of inability to feel pain, sometimes against all of the above.”

But Lanchester has devised a clever test for whether a novel exceeds his ability to suspend disbelief. He calls it the Superman test: “Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?” Everyone has a set-point for their own personal Superman test, and mine must be lower than Lanchester’s.

He likes Reacher, even when he skates perilously close to Superman territory. He says it’s because Child balances Reacher’s extraordinary skills with realism. The fighting seems “realistic within its implausibility”; Reacher fights for the good guys, but he’s a realist, he’ll fight dirty.

Reacher’s given up everything and travels around the country, righting wrongs, carrying no more than a folding toothbrush. To every cube warrior who longs to get out from under, this sounds pretty good. Even if such a life isn’t really possible, “The alienated possessionless freedom of Reacher has a core of emotional truth,” Lanchester says.

Another seductive aspect of the books for Lanchester is Reacher’s thought process as he tries to decipher what’s going on, who the bad guys are. Turns out, Child is a pantser! He doesn’t write the books with the whole plot worked out in advance; he writes by the seat of his pants. He captures Reacher’s figuring-out activity so well, because he’s figuring it out at the exact same time.

This way of working was revealed when author Andy Martin—another Jack Reacher devotee—literally sat with Child as he worked on his recent book Make Me. Martin turned his observations into Reacher Said Nothing (2015), a “genuinely enlightening” literary biography that’s one of a kind.

Reacher’s work-it-out-as-you-go method is the way I write, too. Although some writers storyboard each scene and conversation ahead of time, that would take all the fun out of writing—the thrill of discovery—for me. This faint kinship is why I’ll give old Jack another go. I think I’ll read Persuader. Lanchester says it’s Reacher at his best.

“Killer Women” and “Sisters in Crime”

 

woman writing

photo: Nick Kenrick, creative commons license

Don’t for a minute think the only books women want to read—or write—are chick lit and romances. London’s first crime-writing festival, organized by the all-female writing collective Killer Women, was held recently at London’s Shoreditch Town Hall. This creepy Victorian building was picked for a reason: it’s where the inquest for Mary Kelly was held—you know, Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper’s last victim.

Killer Women (whose tagline is “criminally good writing”) was started a few years ago for many of the same reasons women writers in the US launched Sisters in Crime in 1987. SinC’s mission is to “promote the ongoing advancement, recognition and professional development of women crime writers.”

As the festival report points out, “women dominate crime fiction.” Women buy 80 percent of the 21 billion crime books sold annually. They outnumber both male writers and readers in the genre. So, what’s the problem? Why are groups like these needed?

Are Women Good Crime Writers?

Writers are attracted to the genre, one Killer Women founder says, because it “allows you to say almost anything and explore emotions that—particularly as a woman—are not acceptable to explore . . . and it allows you to give the bad guys their comeuppance.”

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid has said that women writers may actually be better at scaring us, because “since childhood we have learned to imagine this”—the possibility for violence in our lives. We’re the ones careful when walking at night, watching the shadows, lying in bed listening for the squeaking stair tread. We read about violence as a way of processing that fear and, perhaps, preparing ourselves for the worst, as well as that satisfying bit of revenge (need some fMRI studies here!). Like the line from the Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango,” “if you’d have been there, if you’d have seen it, I betcha you would have done the same.”

Three-Dimensional Characters

Women writers are in a good position to create more believable female characters too. It’s a long-standing concern that too many women in crime fiction (and film/tv) are present only for titillation—as one Shoreditch participant put it, “running around in their panties, chased by a serial killer.” Their only role is become the victim of a grisly crime or to have (always steamy) sex with the male protagonist or both. Killer Woman member D.E. Meredith calls this sexualization of murder “morally dodgy.” And boring, I say.

Women as calculating protagonists—actors, not victims—has become a standout trend with the growth in popularity of the “domestic thriller.” The success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Megan Abbott’s recent You Will Know Me, and numerous variations on the theme have opened new territory.

Feats of True Grit

suitcase, Asian

photo adapted from Roger Wagner, creative commons license

In this political season, when so much airtime has been expelled on the issue of immigration and the negative characterization of immigrants, I’m reminded of what a rich vein of stories the immigration experience has provided us and continues to do so.

Immigration Stories in Literature

Shawna Yang Ryan has written a beautiful meditation on recent immigration. Her mother immigrated from Taiwan when she married Ryan’s father and worked for a time as an “Avon lady”—a desperate choice that daily forced her to confront strangers at their own front doors and in their language, to face rejection. “To displace one’s self in adulthood, to uproot, to leave behind ways of speaking, moving, being that are second nature is a feat of true grit,” Ryan says.

The immigrant’s persistent sense of dislocation and not-belonging has nourished many great stories. We think of Cólm Toibín’s Brooklyn. We think of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, of Sandra Cisneros and her culture-straddling kin, never feeling fully at home anywhere, of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. We may even think of The Godfather and his literary family.

And In Your Own Back Yard

These stories, separate and unique, yet all similar and at a fundamental level, shared, are the sometimes uneasy bedrock of America, “a rich array of experiences: loss, longing, duality, triumph and contradiction,” as revealed by the immigration stories of Latinos who work for National Public radio.

Members of my mother’s family came to America as early as 1634, but on my father’s side, I know little. I’ve researched and developed a speculative jigsaw puzzle of these grandparents’ separate experiences. Hungary was all my dad knew, and the rough time period, 1900-1910.

The treaty of Trianon at the end of World War I changed their origin story forever. My grandfather, to the best I can determine, came from a part of Hungary that is now Romania (Transylvania, to be exact), and my grandmother, about whom I know even less, from a Hungarian region ceded to Czechoslovakia, now the Slovak Republic.

Share your family’s immigration experience at MyImmigrationStory.com, whose message is a nice counterpoint to the political debate: “Statistics do not tell the story of immigration. People do.”