Fantasy Will Set You Free*

To a certain extent, just about all crime fiction asks us to suspend our disbelief. And often that’s not a problem. We read crime fiction in part to escape. So we don’t mind it as a rule if the author asks us to believe things that don’t normally happen in our lives. But an interesting post from Dorte at DJ’s Krimiblog have got me to thinking about this question of suspending our disbelief. There seem to be some things we’re willing to suspend our disbelief about, and other things where we hold the line, so to speak, and insist that things be exactly true to life. And we’re all different when it comes to which things those are. Here are just a few of my ideas about things that some people are willing to suspend their disbelief about and others are not.


Pets and other Animal Companions

Most readers are perfectly content to have their sleuths get comfort and companionship from a pet. I know I am. Even readers who are not exactly pet lovers can appreciate the human/animal bond. That’s why, for instance, fans of Robert Crais’ Joe Pike don’t mind it at all that he’s developed a bond with sleuth partner Elvis Cole’s feral cat.

Some readers are happy to suspend their disbelief about what pets are capable of. Fans of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series have for years enjoyed the many skills of KoKo, the seal-point Siamese who owns Braun’s sleuth Jim Qwilleran. KoKo finds ways to point Qwilleran on the right path when he’s investigating, and many of Braun’s fans don’t mind suspending their disbelief about his intentions.

Fans of Rita Mae Braun’s Mrs. Murphy series have for a long time enjoyed the interactions between her sleuth Mary Minor “Harry” Harristeen and her cats Mrs. Murphy and Pewter and her dog Tucker. In this series, readers get an “inside look” at the way these pets and other animals in the series think. Their thoughts are italicised so that it’s clear whose point of view is being presented. Although the human characters in the novels can’t understand what the pets are thinking, readers can. Some readers don’t mind suspending their disbelief about what these animals are capable of thinking and doing. For other readers, though, this goes too far. They prefer that animals in stories act like, well, animals.


Small Town Murders

Many cosy series (and some series that aren’t so cosy) take place in small towns. And that can be a very effective setting for a series. Series such as Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford novels and Caroline Graham’s Tom Barnaby novels develop small-town life and characters so that we’re interested in visiting those places again and again. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels (those set in St. Mary Mead at any rate) are like that, too. We like the setting, the sometimes-eccentric characters and so on. So readers are willing to suspend their disbelief a little about exactly how many murders and other events can happen in a small place.

That said, though, there is a realistic limit to how much mayhem there can be in one small town or city. After a time, readers get impatient with the idea that so many murders, etc. would happen in one spot.


The Sleuth in Danger

Sleuthing is not an easy thing. Criminals – sometimes heavily-armed criminals – don’t want to be caught. And readers know that their favourite sleuths are going to take risks. That’s why fans of Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon and C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett don’t mind it that their favourite sleuths get into so many dangerous situations. Fans of these series are willing to suspend their disbelief just a little about how much terrible danger is likely in real life.

But some readers find too much danger too hard to believe. For example, that’s one thing I’ve heard about Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. Millhone certainly gets herself into more than her share of trouble, and for some readers, it goes just a little too far. Millhone fans, though, forgive this. There may be other things about which they’re less willing to suspend disbelief, but this isn’t one of them.


The “Rule-Breaking” Sleuth

Sometimes, the sleuth has to bend the rules so to speak in order to catch a criminal. Fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus will tell you that their favourite sleuths seem to make a habit of doing just that. And crime fiction fans often don’t mind it if the sleuth breaks a few rules here and there. It’s most effective if there’s some consequence for rule-breaking, but it’s not necessarily a problem that it happens.

But for some crime fiction fans, rule-breaking can go too far. In real life, there’s only so far that a detective can go before s/he’s disciplined right off the force or loses her or his P.I. license. That’s been a criticism for instance of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series. Just how many people can you really beat up and kill before you end up in jail permanently? Other readers though are willing to suspend their disbelief about rule-breaking. They don’t mind it that their favourite sleuths never follow the rules because there are other things that matter to them more.

There are other plot points, too, where some readers are happy to suspend their disbelief and others notice immediately if something’s not true-to-life. For instance some fans don’t mind their sleuth finding a worm of corruption under every proverbial rock as they investigate. Others soon ask just how much corruption there can be. Some crime fiction fans are willing to suspend their disbelief about how often their favourite sleuths can be right. Others mind it very much if the sleuth always seems to “get it right.” What about you? Which things are you willing to suspend your disbelief about? Which things just have to be true to life for you? If you’re a writer, which things do you make sure are true to life? Which ones are you willing to be more – erm – flexible about?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Caroline Graham, Ian Rankin, Lilian Jackson Braun, Michael Connelly, Mickey Spillane, Nevada Barr, Rita Mae Brown, Robert Crais, Ruth Rendell, Sue Grafton

28 responses to “Fantasy Will Set You Free*

  1. I would love Melrose Plant to get a bad-tempered cat – the thought amuses me on many, many levels. I enjoy the small-town murder scenes, but there has to be a certain suspension of disbelief for them to work. It’s the same thing as inviting Hercule Poirot or Jessica Fletcher to dinner and expecting everything to go smoothly. *Why would you think that?* As for the rule-breaking sleuth – within reason, I’m fine. However there’s a slim line between rule-breaking sleuth and vigilante.

    Hope you’re enjoying your time Down Under, you lucky girl!

    • Elspeth – Oh, that is funny! I’d love to see Melrose Plant get a bad-tempered cat, too. You make a very good point, too about Poirot (and Jessica Fletcher). We know they’re going to get tangled up in a murder investigation; as you say, how can you not guess that. And yet, readers are willing to suspend their disbelief for those sleuths. We love to read about their adventures anyway.
      And yes, I’m richly enjoying myself 😉

  2. I cannot imagine that Jessica Fletcher gets invited anywhere by anyone in their right mind. 😉
    I also cannot believe that Chief Inspector Reg Wexford has been solving cases since 1964 without getting a promotion.

    • Norman – LOL! Oh, that’s very funny! No I can’t imagine inviting Jessica Fletcher anywhere. And yet, people do… And well-taken point, too, about Reg Wexford. He’s never been promoted, and yet, readers love him. They set that aspect aside and enjoy the novels. I hadn’t thought about that but you are right.

  3. I’m one of those who don’t like to suspend disbelief on a regular basis. I remember watching–when I was younger–Murder She Wrote. That writer, who also solved mysteries, kept finding dead bodies nearby. More people died in Cabot Cove than any other major city. It became hard to watch. Totally with your other commenters.

    • Clarissa – Yes, it’s been called the “Cabot Cove Syndrome,” and I agree that it’s off-putting. As you say, how many murders can you have in that one small town after all? And you’re not along; a lot of people have limits to what they’re willing to accept in terms of suspending disbelief.

  4. Margot: I disagree with the challenge of suspending disbelief over the number of murders committed in a small community. I view each mystery set in the community an individual story. Whether the series has two or ten or more books I read them as unique stories. As an example, I do not expect to tire of the Louise Penny mysteries set in Three Pines.

    When the writing is well done I am able to suspend disbelief over characters who do not age. Nero Wolfe and Archie remained the same age through four decades of American life.

    Where I have a hard time suspending disbelief is when a mystery turns to the supernatural or occult especially to help in solving the mystery.

    Lastly I cannot suspend disbelief over all the fictional lawyers who never lose a case in court!!

    • Bill – First, thanks for your thoughts about murders in small towns. And I’m glad you reminded me of Louise Penny’s excellent novels that take place in Three Pines. They show clearly exactly how murders in small towns can be depicted without challenging one’s sense of disbelief.
      And you bring up a good point about aging. Your example of Nero Wolfe is an excellent one. It made me think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who doesn’t age in real time either.
      And I know what you mean about suspension of disbelief about lawyers not losing cases. Now admittedly the law is not my specialty but even I tire of lawyer sleuths who never lose a case. It really doesn’t seem authentic at all. And about the occult and the supernatural? It has to be done very, very, very well for me to be willing to suspend disbelief for that.

  5. kathy d.

    I like cats and dogs to be human companions, not sleuths. I’m fine with them acting the way animals do, even mentioned often in the stories, as in Susan Conant’s series.
    I think several murders in big cities are fine, and it doesn’t usually annoy me when they occur in small towns, but occasionally it’s overdone.
    I don’t like when the sleuths/cops become vigilantes. Sometimes they’re righting an old wrong, but there are limits. I definitely don’t like it when protagonist police officers either beat up suspects or ignore their colleagues doing that. That’s why there are laws, courts, etc.
    Also, when clues come up too often at exactly the right moment, perfectly, gets annoying. And coincidences — those suspend my disbelief — or accidents at the right time when a suspect is standing in front of a tornado or an earthquake occurs where he/she is positioned. Or a sudden wind knocks the gun out of the person’s hand. Things like that are annoying.
    Finally, any paranormal, occult, superstitious plot line used in the conduction of an investigation does not sit well with me. I will avoid any book which includes that.
    Others may disagree with me on this, but plots can be wild and crazy, but if the investigation and denouement aren’t based in logic, deductive reasoning, scientific knowledge and evidence, I do not buy it.

    • Kathy – Many people agree with you that pets are fine – even welcome – as companions, they should act like animals. They shouldn’t solve crimes. And you’re quite right that too many coincidences can certainly take away from a story. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot says at one point, “I am always prepared to admit one coincidence.” More than that is too much.
      You’re also far from the only one who thinks that “vigilante justice” asks them to suspend their disbelief too much. As you say, one can accept a certain amount of it in some circumstances, but it definitely has its limits.
      There are also plenty of people who agree with you about paranormal and “otherworldy” explanations for events. It’s definitely a tricky subject. Some people such as yourself don’t want any of that sort of thing. Other people can handle just a little, and some like such explanations.

  6. Much as I enjoy Ian Rankin’s Rebus books, I also find it hard to accept that someone who drinks as much as Rebus does and breaks the rules would still have a job, even if he does get the culprit – I’m sceptical that he would be able to think straight let alone get it right! But somehow, just as I doubt that people like Miss Marple are always one step ahead of the police, I do suspend my disbelief each time. Similarly with Midsomer – a place where murder is an everyday event. But talking animals and supernatural sleuths are definitely a no-no.

    • Margaret – It’s funny isn’t it how we’re willing to suspend disbelief with certain sleuths (I do that with Miss Marple just as you do, and with Tom Barnaby), and not others. You make a well-taken point about Rebus, too, and yet I enjoy those novels as well. Of course, as you point out, we all have those things about which we’re not willing to suspend disbelief, and talking pets are, for many readers, “over the line.” Similarly, paranormal sleuths are not everyone’s cuppa and lots of readers won’t suspend disbelief for that.

  7. You made a point about Mike Hammer. I’m not willing to suspend my disbelief for what Hammer does to his victims, however guilty they may be of crime or communism or whatever. He is brutal and his violence is of the extreme kind. In his book I, THE JURY, I think, Hammer says, “I don’t want to arrest anyone. I just want to shoot somebody.” Of course, I’d like to unleash the trigger-happy Hammer on serial killers and rapists let off by the courts for lack of evidence. But I know it’s wrong in real life. It’s best for civil society that Hammer justice or vigilante justice stays inside a storybook.

    • Prashant – Oh, that is a good line from I, The Jury; it shows clearly exactly how much Hammer is affected by that “vigilante” attitude. In real life, as you say, that kind of behaviour is wrong and would not be tolerated. And yet, in the novels, Hammer fans can accept it.

  8. This is an interesting topic for me! I think my fictional town of Bradley, NC has definitely had quite a few murders in it–I may have to send Myrtle on a road trip, soon. What I do is poke a little fun at the “crime wave”–diffusing the issue a little by pointing it out.

    I have a little more leeway in Memphis, which is a good-sized town. 🙂

    • Elizabeth – I think about this theme, too. Like your Myrtle Clover novels, mine are set in a small place. It’s hard to make sure it’s all believable and that’s a small part of the reason I decided to take my own sleuth “on the road” for my third novel. But you do, I think, a very effective job of making it believable. I love that you use the term “crime wave,” and when you bring it up, it’s obvious how unusual that much crime in one small place is. And yes, Memphis is an easier place to have several murders; you’ve done a great job of making your murders “work” there.

  9. I find that the suspension of my belief happens if I don’t like other components of the work. Just like any other rules that can be broken or not – the unbelievable will work for me if I am sufficiently ‘in’ the action of the book. I don’t mind that Cabot, Maine is such a murderous place because I like Jessica Fletcher. I love animals in books but in most of the ones where the animals try and help the sleuth, I’m not interested. I think that is because I’m not into the books as a whole – and especially if it is a constant gimmick. Ah well. Every time I think I don’t like some device of an author I will remember another author that uses the same device and it doesn’t bug me! Sort of like friends – the ones I love can do no wrong even if they do something that would drive me up the wall in another person.

    • Jan – Oh, now that’s a great analogy! I’ve got friends, too, who do things I would not tolerate from other people, but when those friends do those things, it’s OK with me. And I think you make a very well-taken point, too. If a book is very well-written, or if there’s at least something in it – a character, the plot, something – that hooks one, then we’re much more willing to suspend disbelief. When a book doesn’t capture the reader in the first place, it’s much harder to suspend disbelief isn’t it?

  10. Poor Melrose Plant. He doesn’t need a bad-tempered cat, he already has his bad-tempered aunt to deal with. Have some pity on the poor man! 🙂

    It’s amazing that I became a fan of mysteries. My mother read them back when the Mike Hammer books were the norm. I hated the love-’em-and-leave-’em, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later atmosphere. I didn’t understand how my gentle, generous mother could stand them. It wasn’t until my 30s that I read a Robert B. Parker and got hooked.

    And no talking animals, please!

    • Barbara – No doubt at all about it. Melrose Plant’s Aunt Agatha is enough for anyone to tolerate. Still, I can see the humour of a bad-tempered cat ;-).

      And isn’t it interesting how some authors completely leave us cold and others hook us. Spillane’s hooked some readers and left others completely cold. And Parker could hook anyone 🙂

  11. I’m glad you mentioned Kinsey, the unluckiest sleuth I know 🙂

    For me, it’s ‘gut feelings’ and instincts. Once or twice is okay but please don’t use it because you don’t know how to get the guy to where he needs to go – and Down Under? Are you taking a holiday Margot?

    • Sarah – You know, I thought of you when I mentioned Kinsey Millhone :-). She certainly does get in more terrible trouble..
      And I know exactly what you mean about “gut feelings” and instincts. To an extend it makes sense. But if it’s always the solution to how the sleuth gets that important lead, it’s overmuch. And no, not taking a holiday – I’m here at an academic conference.

  12. kathy d.

    This post reminds me that I could not stand Mickey Spillane/Mike Hammer books when I began reading mysteries as a teenager. No way. Not the horrible violence or the covers showing lurid, bloody violence against women. Turned me off then, turns me off now. I’ve never read one of those books and won’t. If I were on a proverbial desert island and these were the only books available, I’d have to think about it.

    • Kathy – You’re far from the only one with that point of view. Spillane’s novels have been criticised on all of those counts and more. And even though he was one of those who took the genre in a whole different direction, many people simply find the books far too violent and misogynist.

  13. Margot, I enjoyed your article and also the interesting debate that followed it.
    I’m having a similar problem myself. My main character is a Detective Inspector (female) and I need her to investigate a series of killings and assaults. But I know quite well that, in reality, the Major Investigation Team (MIT) would have ben called in by now and the case taken off her. So I’m treading a really fine line between authenticity and the needs of the plot. I need her to kind of strike out on her own towards the end of the novel, yet I still want it to sound plausible. It’s taking quite a bit of thinking through.

    • Pauline – You’ve outlined one of the real challenges that authors face. I face it myself. How do we move our plot along to the next plot point we plan, but at the same time respect what would happen in real life? I think readers expect that not everything in the story might happen in real life, but most readers don’t want to be asked to suspend disbelief too much. It really is a balancing act and a challenge. There are nearly always ways to get past those snarls, but as you say, it takes some thinking. I’ve found that talking to experts helps, too. For instance, I had a question about police jurisdiction in the novel I’ve recently finished writing. So I got in touch with people in the jurisdiction that’s the setting for the story and got my answer. Result? What I hope is a more realistic story.

      • Margot, thanks for the reply. Actually I do have a police source, and I’m sure I drive her mad with my questions, but it’s been very helpful as this is the first time I’ve tried writing crime. I’ve edited quite a few scenes since I got in contact with her. She’s actually a Crime Scene Manager, and wrote me a short (2 page) piece on ‘how to manage a crime scene’ which was illuminating. It’s not at all how it’s portrayed in cop dramas, not in the UK, anyway!

        • Pauline – I’m so glad you have a good source! I always think it’s so interesting that TV shows (in the U.S., too, by the way) don’t portray the reality of criminal investigation very authentically. Some admittedly come closer to it than others, but they don’t as a rule accurately portray what an investigation is like. Of course, the main purpose of airing a TV show is to get people to watch it. So things are distorted for the purpose of drama. So I’m happy for you that you’ve found someone who’s willing to inform your work.

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