Friday, 7 March 2008

The Rising Tide of Crime

I’ve been reading a lot of crime novels lately. Too many, probably. I need to let off a little steam.

I’ve always enjoyed American hard-boiled novels. I quite like ‘tartan noir’ – or at least, I quite like Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels. And I’ve been a fan of Elmore Leonard for as long as I can remember (I met the great man at a BBC Book Club event a couple of years ago and now proudly possess a signed copy of Rum Punch). There are other writers I could list who I admire for their more literary approach to the genre.

But there are a lot of not-very-good writers out there making a killing in crime fiction. It was ever thus, I hear you sigh.

There are three things that particularly irritate me about a lot of modern crime novels, especially far too many modern British crime novels. First, the prologue. Unless the author is Geoffrey Chaucer I don’t like prologues. They are cheap and nasty things and I don’t understand why crime writers like them so much. They seem to be the fashionable accessory of the moment and as far as I can see serve no purpose other than as an artificial ‘hook’ to draw the reader into the story. Finding a prologue at the front of a novel always makes me think either (a) the author isn’t good enough to get this information into the body of his story or (b) the author isn’t sure where their story should begin. Either way, I think there must be crap writing ahead. (And the fact that some really good writers use prologues doesn’t stop me thinking that!).

Second, I don’t like it when authors allow their research to show – for example, I don’t need to know in great detail all the things the author has researched about the HOLMES computer system used by the British police. I don’t care what the acronym actually stands for. I don’t need to know when and why it was set up, how it does what it does, and so on. All I need to know is that the detectives use the wretched thing. It’s called HOLMES, for heaven’s sake – it speaks for itself. Don’t you agree, Watson? Here’s an acronym for you: RUE. Resist the Urge to Explain!

Finally, I get annoyed with crime novels that have an omniscient narrator, when the narrator tells the reader everything about each of the main characters – even taking us inside the characters’ heads to show us what they are thinking or worrying about, their hopes and fears. Then suddenly we find ourselves inside the head of the murderer as he commits his crimes, and the narrator’s descriptions become darkly vague and sketchy. Suddenly we have no idea whose head it is we are trapped in. That strikes me as nothing less than cheating the reader. And putting the whole thing in italics is no excuse!

Okay. Rant over. I’m off to take my medication.


Mary Witzl said...

You should rant more, Paul -- this is a useful, pertinent rant if it is a rant at all. (In America, where the right to whine is written into our constitution, this would hardly even register as a rant.)

I have my own crime favorites, and Robert B Parker is one. I don't love everything about his writing, but I love his dialogue so much that I avidly pounce on every one of his Spencer novels that comes out. I have a whole collection of them from when we lived in Japan and I had to read novels over and over again, as I never knew when I might get the next one. (I can read novels in Japanese, but it takes me forever, and it isn't the joyous, effortless experience that reading English is.)

Just having read what you wrote, I'm glad I scrapped my prologue. Aren't I wishy-washy, though? I needed others to tell me to lose it first...

Paul said...

Thanks for your comment, Mary. I think Robert B Parker and Elmore Leonard are both masters of dialogue. I imagine they must be interesting in Japanese!

I don't think you are 'wishy-washy' to listen to the advice of others. Sometimes, a writer is too close to their work and needs an outside eye to give a more objective view. That's why I think we both found the TLC feedback helpful.

I'm always grateful for advice, especially from other writers. But as the author I always reserve the right to completely ignore such advice!