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.