Writers are often told to “show not tell.” And in general, that’s a fairly sound principle. Readers don’t want to wade through pages of description. They want the author to get on with the story and the character development, and too much “telling” pulls the reader out of the story. On the other hand (there is always that other hand isn’t there), readers also don’t want flat characters and they don’t want to be left out, so to speak. Including a certain amount of information in a story – especially backstory – gives the reader insight into the characters and makes the reader feel a part of what’s going on. One way that well-written crime fiction strikes this balance is to integrate characters from the sleuth’s past. As we see the sleuth interacting with these people, we learn backstory and we get insight into what motivates the sleuth. We can also get a perspective on the sleuth’s view of a case.
For example, in the course of his work, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot interacts more than once with people from his past in Belgium. In fact, that’s one interesting role that Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp plays in the novels that feature him; he gives us a little of Poirot’s backstory and updates us without Christie having to tell us what’s happened in Poirot’s life. For instance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the poisoning death of Emily Ingelthorp. Two Scotland Yard men – one of whom is Japp – attend the inquest and get involved in the investigation. As everyone’s leaving the inquest, Poirot introduces Hastings to Japp, who introduces Poirot to his colleague this way:
“You’ve heard me speak of Mr. Poirot? It was in 1904 he and I worked together–the Abercrombie forgery case–you remember, he was run down in Brussels. Ah, those were great days, moosier. Then, do you remember ‘Baron’ Altara? There was a pretty rogue for you! He eluded the clutches of half the police in Europe. But we nailed him in Antwerp–thanks to Mr. Poirot here.”
We don’t have to be given a lot of description about Poirot’s life in the Belgian police force; other characters refer to it and that gives the reader that information.
We also see that strategy used effectively in Åsa Larsson’s Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar). Stockholm tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson gets a call one day from a former friend Sanna Strångard. Sanna has discovered the murdered body of her brother Viktor in a local church in Martinsson’s home town of Kiruna. Sanna begs her friend to return to Kiruna and help her through this difficult time. At first Martinsson is very reluctant to take this trip; she’s put Kiruna behind her for some good reasons. But Sanna Strångard is very persuasive and eventually Martinsson makes the trip. The two old friends do some catching up and through that, we find out several things about what each one has been doing. We discover, for instance, that after leaving Kiruna, Martinsson moved to Uppsala where she studied law, and then moved to Stockholm. Sanna Strångard, on the other hand, remained in Kiruna where she had two children. We don’t learn these details through pages and pages of description. The strategy of having Martinsson catch up with someone she’s known for a long time gives readers the information.
In Donna Malane’s Surrender, missing person’s expert Diane Rowe is still recovering from the murder of her younger sister Niki. At the time of the murder, the police suspected that James Patrick “Snow” Wilson was the murderer but could never prove it. Now Wilson himself has been murdered in the same way that Niki was. Before his death, Snow confessed – actually bragged – that he killed Niki Rowe and that he was hired to do so. Now Rowe wants to find out who hired him and why. So she starts to ask questions, although she’s told more than once that the police are taking care of the matter. In the meantime, Rowe’s been hired by Inspector Frank McFay to find the identity of a “John Doe” whose partial skeleton was found in the Rimutaka State Forest. The arrangement is that Rowe will be given space at the local police station to do her work. When she gets there, her interactions with others at the station show us (rather than tell us) that she’s worked there before “on contract,” and that she knows a number of people. As she catches up with old acquaintances we learn that she’s been suffering since Niki’s death and the breakup of her marriage. Those conversations give readers insight into her character, too, and save the reader lots of needless description.
Andrea Camilleri frequently uses those “catch up” sessions to give readers insight into the cases that his Salvo Montalbano investigates. One of Montalbano’s friends is Nicolò Zito, a journalist with Vigatà’s Free Channel. Zito is always eager to expose high-level corruption, and he knows pragmatically that having a good friendship with a cop is an effective way to get stories. Besides that the two men like and respect each other. So Montalbano and Zito frequently catch up with each other and exchange news about stories Zito’s working on and cases Montalbano is investigating. In the context of those exchanges, we learn about the cases that are the focus of the story. For instance, in The Wings of the Sphinx, it’s partly through exchanges between Montalbano and Zito that we learn the truth behind the disappearance of wood merchant Arturo Picarella, whom everything thinks was abducted and probably murdered. We also get some interesting insights into Montalbano’s up-and-down relationship with his longtime lover Livia Burlando.
Alan Orloff makes use of the “catch-up” session to tell the story of his sleuth, stand-up comic and comedy club part-owner Channing Hayes. In Killer Routine we learn that Hayes’ fiancée Lauren Dempsey was killed in a terrible car accident, and that Hayes himself was permanently injured. As Hayes slowly starts to return to life and work, he interacts with several comedy club owners, fellow comedians and others in the comedy business as he searches for Lauren’s sister Heather, who’s disappeared. That, as much as anything else, is how we learn that Hayes was a respected comic before the accident, and that since that time he’s been more or less in hibernation. That’s also one way in which Orloff gives us insight into how the accident and Dempsey’s death has affected Hayes. We don’t have to be told that Hayes has suffered greatly and that he is grieving. In fact, pages of description of his grief would most likely pull the reader out of this story.
And that’s the thing about those “catch up” sessions. They can give the reader insight into a character as well as information about a case; that’s what can make them effective tools for “showing not telling.”
On Another Note…
Want to catch up with what I’ve been doing lately? Fellow author and blogger Lisette Brodey’s protagonist Molly Hacker has asked me to fill her in. I’m proud to be among several authors that Hacker interviewed, and whom she asked for an update. You can check out what I had to tell her here. Just scroll down a bit and you’ll find me :-).
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s Hello, Old Friend.