One of the challenges authors face is how to convey the visual. It’s easy enough if one’s writing a graphic novel or children’s picture book but in other kinds of novels it can be difficult to give the reader mental images. For one thing, readers are often more engaged if they use their own imaginations to ‘colour in the drawing.’ What’s more, too much description tends to burden a novel and can pull the reader out of the story. But if the reader has no sense of the visual it can be harder to be drawn into the story. So authors have to strike a delicate balance when it comes to depicting the visual. Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you what I mean about striking that balance.
There’s interesting use of imagery in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). That’s the story of the murder of Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who does business under the name of Madame Giselle. She’s poisoned while en route by air from Paris to London, and the only viable suspects are her fellow passengers. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, so he works with Chief Inspector Japp to solve the crime. Two of the other passengers are London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey and dentist Norman Gale. At one point, the two have a cup of tea together and discuss the case:
‘They found a tea shop, and a disdainful waitress with a gloomy manner took their order with an air of doubt as of one who might say: ‘Don’t blame me if you’re disappointed. They say we serve teas here, but I never heard of it.’’
Can’t you just visualise the waitress and her facial expression? And Christie does this without overburdening the reader with a lot of description. There’s room for the imagination, but she leaves the reader in no doubt about the setting for the conversation these two characters have.
One of James Lee Burke’s many strengths as a writer is the way he conveys the Southern Louisiana setting for most of his Dave Robicheaux novels. Burke takes a different approach to Christie’s but that’s of course part of the pleasure of crime fiction – the variety. In The Tin Roof Blowdown, for instance, one of the plot threads is Robicheaux’s search for his old friend Jude Le Blanc, who has become a Roman Catholic priest. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Le Blanc disappears and is presumably shot while trying to save some of his parishioners. The boat Le Blanc was using turns up later, this time in the possession of a group of looters. So Robiceaux suspects a connection between the looters and his friend’s disappearance. And so it turns out to be although of course, it’s not the obvious connection you might make. Here is a bit of the description of the onset of Katrina:
‘A hard gust of wind blows down the long corridor of trees that line Bayou Teche, wrinkling the water like old skin, filling the air with the smell of old fish roe and leaves that have turned yellow and black in the shade. Katrina will make landfall somewhere around Lake Pontchartrain in the next seven hours.’
This visual imagery places the reader unmistakeably in the setting, and raises the tension as it’s clear there is about to be a devastating storm.
In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper investigate when two sets of remains are found on Pity Wood Farm near the village of Rakesdale in the Peak District of Derbyshire. The farm was the property of brothers Raymond and Derek Sutton, but Derek Sutton has died and his brother has had to move to a nursing care facility. Now the farm is the property of Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin, but he has spent nearly no time there as of yet. So one thing Fry and Cooper have to do is find out who actually owned the property at the time the bodies were buried there, and how likely the owner would have been to know about the bodies. The remains belong to Orla Doyle and Nadezda Halak, very different young women from very different backgrounds. So another task the police face is finding out what these women were doing near the farm and why anyone would want to kill them. Here is Fry’s first impression of Pity Wood Farm:
‘She was confronted by a collection of ancient outbuildings leaning at various angles, their roofs sagging, doors hanging loosely on their hinges. By some curious law of physics, the doors all seemed to tilt at the opposite angle to the walls, as if they were leaning to compensate for a bend. Some doorways had been blocked up, windows were filled in, steps had been left going nowhere.’
This description gives the reader a real sense of how poverty-stricken and untended the farm is. It’s not a very pleasant place, but it’s in the history of the farm that Fry and Cooper find the clues to what happened to Orla Doyle and Nadezda Halak.
Håkan Nesser isn’t known for flowery descriptions, but he’s quite skilled at conveying visual images. For instance, in Woman With Birthmark, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team are called in when Ryszard Malik is murdered in his own home. The team is starting its investigation when there’s another murder. And then another. The deaths are all tied together by a past event, and Van Veeteren and his team will have to find out what the victims had in common if they’re to prevent a fourth murder. Here is the way Nesser describes a press conference in which Van Veeteren participates:
‘The conference room on the first floor was full to overflowing with journalists and reporters sitting, taking photographs, and trying to outdo one another in the art of asking biased and insinuating questions.
He had been press-ganged to accompany Hiller and sit behind a cheap, rectangular table overloaded with microphones, cords, and the obligatory bottles of soda water that for some unfathomable reason were present whenever high-ranking police officers made statements in front of cameras…’
The reader doesn’t need a lot of verbiage to build a strong visual image of what this press conference is like.
In Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure, Sydney police detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate when Suzanne Crawford is murdered and her husband Connor goes missing. At first, it seems like a case of domestic violence that ended in death, but before long, it’s clear that the case is more complicated than that. For one thing, background checks on Connor Crawford show nothing, as though he never existed. And it comes out that he was keeping a secret from his wife that she was desperate to discover. Things get even more complex when Emil Page, a teenage volunteer at the nursery the Crawfords owned, also disappears. These events are all related and tied to the Crawfords’ past, and in the end, Marconi and her team find out what it is about the Crawfords that made them targets. Here’s a description of the murder weapon used to kill Suzanne Crawford:
‘It looked like a standard carving knife, about twenty centimetres long, with a stainless-steel blade and black plastic handle. Ella saw prints in the dry blood on the handle.
‘Beautiful,’ she said.’
Just from this short description one can get a strong visual image of the weapon without the need for Howell to use gory detail.
And that’s the thing about effective visual imagery. It conveys a lot to the reader without the need for a lot of verbiage or gratuitousness. Which authors do you think do a particularly effective job at conveying the visual? I know I’ve only mentioned a few here. If you’re a writer, how do you convey the visual?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Joy Division.