Crime fiction novels are just that – fiction. That’s a blatantly obvious point to make, but a very well-written post from Xavier Lechard at his excellent blog At the Villa Rose has got me thinking about just how much day-to-day reality, gritty or otherwise, needs to be reflected in well-written crime fiction. Oh, and please do read Xavier’s post. Go ahead; I’ll wait ‘till you get back….
…The question of how removed from reality crime fiction should be is an interesting one. On one hand crime fiction is fiction. That’s why we love it. We want to read something that takes us away from what we do every day. And if the story takes us to a way of life that no longer exists, or a setting that’s less seamy than real life is, or describes a murder that isn’t a typical (if there is such a thing) drive-by shooting, that’s not necessarily a problem. If the sleuth investigates an unusual murder or exposes an international scheme, or the story is peopled with delightfully eccentric characters we know we’d never really meet, that doesn’t always present a problem either. Let’s face it; real life – everyday life – isn’t generally absorbing. It can even be humdrum. Well-written fiction isn’t. Most murders really aren’t strange or out-of-the-way. They’re certainly not the stuff of well-written fiction; crime fiction fans don’t want humdrum.
In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, for instance, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate a series of murders. They seem to be connected only by two things. Before each murder, Poirot gets a cryptic note warning him of the killing. Also, there’s an ABC railway guide found near each body. No-one pays much attention to the first killing. In fact, here’s Hastings’ first reaction to the news of the murder:
“I had expected something fantastic – out of the way. The murder of an old woman who kept a tobacco shop seemed, somehow, sordid and uninteresting.”
The second murder, though, generates some interest. And after the third, it seems clear that a serial killer is at work, and Poirot and Hastings work with the police to find out who the killer is and why these particular victims have been targeted. It’s true that this novel doesn’t reflect what everyday life was like for, say, the poorest classes in 1936 when this novel was written. And it’s probably very unlikely that a private detective – even one as skilled as Hercule Poirot – would work closely with Scotland Yard and the police the way he does here. But the mystery is intellectually interesting and the murders turn out to be committed for a believable reason.
Ian Rankin’s John Rebus is one of the most popular fictional detectives of recent years. Those who enjoy the Rebus novels (and I’m one who does) enjoy the character development over time, the distinctly Ediburgh setting and the skilled way in which Rankin weaves together several plot threads. Rebus fans admire his dedication, his determination to do the right thing and his ability to put the pieces of a puzzle together. They like his courage, too. Is John Rebus completely realistic? Are the stories? In real life, a police inspector with Rebus’ history of insubordination and the inability to work well with others likely wouldn’t last long on the force. And would a real-life inspector run up against as many unusual cases as Rebus has? Likely not. But it doesn’t matter. This is fiction. Rebus fans get caught up in the interesting mysteries and the character development, among other things. That’s what matters.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch also has a lot of fans (of whom I’m one). Bosch fans are drawn to the well-written mysteries and puzzles, the larger issues and themes in the novels and the character evolution as the series goes on. But do the Bosch novels really reflect everyday life? Like Rankin’s Rebus, Bosch has a history of doing things his way regardless of what official policy may say. And it doesn’t exactly reflect everyday life when a cop throws a superior officer through a window, which Bosch does in The Last Coyote. He’s run up against far more serial killers, Mafiosos, and “dirty dealings in high places” than a whole squad of real-life cops would likely encounter. He’s got a very unusual backstory, too. The son of a prostitute (whose murder he solves thirty years after it occurred) and a prominent attorney, Bosch has his share of life’s scars. Most of don’t have personal histories like that. But that doesn’t matter. Again, this is fiction. Bosch fans know that. They savour the mysteries, the rich interactions among the characters and the setting. They also admire the ideals that Bosch tries to live up to, even when he fails.
But there is something to be said for a certain amount of realism in a crime fiction novel or series (Remember I said “on one hand?” Here’s the other.). Crime fiction fans want stories that have a ring of truth, so to speak. For instance, they want crimes and murders to take place for a reason that makes some sense (at least to the criminal). As an example, in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates the poisoning death of novelist Philip Boyes. Boyes’ former lover Harriet Vane has been arrested for the crime, and there’s plenty of evidence against her. But Wimsey has become smitten with Vane and wants to clear her name so he can marry her. So when the jury can’t reach a verdict at Vane’s trial, Wimsey takes it on himself to investigate. In this case, it’s not realistic that someone who attended a trial – someone not there in an official capacity – would even get to meet the defendant, let alone take on an investigation. But the murder Wimsey investigates is a believable one. The motive is quite believable, too. That believability is one of the things that’s given this novel the enduring popularity that it has.
C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye also has some real believability in it. It’s the story of Jack and Melissa McGuane’s desperate struggle to keep their adopted daughter Angelina after her biological father decides to exercise the parental rights he never waived. When they are first told about this decision, the McGuanes are shocked and distressed; it all seems like some sort of dreadful mistake. Then, the biological father Garrett Moreland and his father, powerful judge John Moreland, visit the McGuanes. It’s obvious from that visit that Garrett has no interest in raising his child. So the McGuanes determine to do whatever is necessary to keep their daughter from the Morelands. There are some unrealistic elements in this novel. But the basic questions the story addresses are very real. What would you do if someone tried to take your child? How far is “too far?” Is it ever right to take the law into one’s own hands? The McGuanes’ devastation and the way they react to it are also realistically depicted.
Peter Robinson’s All the Colours of Darkness is the story of two murders that at first appear to be a murder/suicide case. The body of Mark Hardcastle is found hanging from a tree in the woods near Eastvale after an apparent suicide. Then, the bludgeoned body of his partner Laurence Silbert is found in Silbert’s own home. DI Annie Cabot and DCI Alan Banks investigate the two deaths and find that there’s more to this case than it seems on the surface. As it turns out, Silbert had been a member of British Intelligence, particularly valued for his skill at languages, and it’s very possible that his past may have something to do with the murders. This novel may not describe the life of a small English town as it really is, and it may be improbable that a former espionage artist would happen to be living in such a town. But the character development is very real indeed. Readers also get caught up in the mystery of what really happened to the two men.
And that’s the main point. Crime fiction fans know that they’re reading fiction. So a story doesn’t have to reflect everyday life in all of its detail. An excellent crime fiction story can take place in the type of charming English village that no longer exists (if it ever really did). It can also take place in the glittering mansions or on the gorgeous private islands of the wealthy that most of us can only imagine. What really matters is a well-written mystery to untangle, some interesting and believable characters, and a plot that makes sense. That’s what engages crime fiction fans. The rest is a grand illusion. It’s supposed to be.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s The Grand Illusion.