While I’m in the Middle of a Slow Recovery*

slow-recoveryMost crime fiction fans want their stories to be believable at some level. They want authentic portrayals of characters, police investigations (if they are part of a story), and so on. At the same time, readers also want their stories to keep their interest. As one quick example, DNA analysis can take weeks or even months, depending on a lot of factors. Crime fiction fans don’t necessarily want a description of every single thing that happens during those weeks or months.

This presents a challenge for crime writers. How does the crime writer acknowledge the reality of what really happens when a crime is committed, but at the same time, consider pacing, timing, and other aspects of a well-told story? It’s not an easy balance to maintain.

Still, some writers do it very effectively. We can see that just by looking at one factor: the amount of time it takes to get back to work after a traumatic incident such as a line-of-duty injury. In real life, it may take months (or more) to resume duties after a serious injury, or after serious psychological trauma associated with it. But crime readers don’t want to read about months of physical or possibly psychological therapy.

Some writers handle this by having that recuperation happen before or between novels, as you might say. For example, as Jussi Adler-Olsen’s ‘Department Q’ series begins, Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck has recently returned to work after a line-of-duty shooting in which h e was gravely injured. One colleague was killed, and another left with paralysis in that incident, so Mørck has some healing to do. But Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) doesn’t go into detail about Mørck’s physical recuperation. Although there are some scenes with the department’s psychotherapist, the bulk of the novel concerns an investigation: the disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. In this case, Adler-Olsen has all of that ‘down time’ occur before the novel even starts.

Kathryn Fox takes a similar approach with one of her protagonists, New South Wales DS Kate Farrer. As a result of some of the incidents in Malicious Intent, Farrer ends up needing to take a few months of leave from her job. Rather than describing in exhaustive detail the physical and psychological therapy she undergoes, Fox simply places the focus on her other protagonist, freelance forensic pathologist Anya Crichton. It’s Crichton who does the sleuthing in the next novel, Without Consent. Farrer returns in Skin and Bones, the following novel, and we learn that she still has some work to do to complete her recovery, but that she’s made a lot of progress. Farrer’s ‘down time’ takes place between novels.

Håkan Östlundh’s crime series features Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson. As a result of things that happen in The Viper, Broman is critically injured, and it’s clear that his recovery will take a great deal of time, assuming he can make a full recovery. That ‘down time’ isn’t the focus of the novel, though, nor of its follow-up, The Intruder. Rather, The Intruder begins as Borman returns to work. In fact, Östlundh presents a very realistic portrait of Borman’s uncertainty about returning to work, combined with his understandable resentment that others aren’t entirely convinced he’s ready to return to work.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of authors who deal with recuperation by simply having it occur between books (right, fans of Kel Robertson’s Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen?). But that’s not the only way that authors address this issue.

For instance, Inger Ash Wolfe/Michael Redhill’s DI Hazel Micallef works for the Port Dundas, Ontario police. As the series begins (with The Calling), she’s already suffering from a bad back. As a result of the events in the story, her situation becomes dire, and she needs emergency surgery. As The Taken, the next novel in the series, begins, she’s staying in her ex-husband’s home, so that he and his new wife can help take care of her as she recovers (she’s unable to do much by herself at first). It’s clear in that novel that she’s not yet ready to go back to her regular duties. But Wolfe/Redhill doesn’t go on and on about each detail of her recuperation. Rather, it’s a sort of background context to the actual ‘meat’ of the story, which is a bizarre set of events that eerily mirrors a crime novel that’s being published in serial form in the Port Dundas Record. In this way, Micallef’s recovery is presented authentically, but it doesn’t drag the story down.

Robert Gott doesn’t gloss over the long road to recovery for Sergeant Joe Sable of the Melbourne Police, whom we first meet in The Holiday Murders. In that novel, Sable, his boss, DI Titus Lambert, and his colleague, Constable Helen Lord, investigate a particularly brutal set of murders that occur over the Christmas holidays. As a result of that investigation, Sable is badly injured, and carries a burden of guilt, too. At the beginning of the next novel, The Port Fairy Murders, Sable has just returned to work. The events of this novel take place almost immediately after the events of the first novel. So, several people, including Lambert, think that Sable has returned to work too soon. He insists he’s ready, though, and his help is certainly needed for this new investigation. The team has to contend with a double murder, complete with signed confession, that isn’t at all what it seems. At the same time, the detectives are looking for George Starling, a dangerous man who has his own frightening agenda. As the novel goes on, Sable goes through part of the healing process. It’s painful and difficult, but Gott doesn’t overburden the novel with this aspect of the story. Instead, it’s woven naturally into the plot.

There are other ways, too, in which authors write authentically about recuperation without overburdening the story (right, fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux?). It’s not always easy, but the end result can make for compelling character development.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lucy Woodward’s Slow Recovery.


Filed under Håkan Östlundh, Inger Ash Wolfe, James Lee Burke, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Kathryn Fox, Kel Robertson, Michael Redhill, Robert Gott

20 responses to “While I’m in the Middle of a Slow Recovery*

  1. Tim

    If a hero cannot be bullet-proof and bigger-than-life, I guess he or she doesn’t get the “hero” label. Readers want heroes rather than reality. We have enough reality. We want bullet-proof crime-stoppers!

    • There is something to be said for heroes who save the day, isn’t there, Tim. Perhaps that’s why most readers like the idea of their protagonists being able to recuperate, get back ‘on the job,’ and solve the case.

  2. The classic, of course, is Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, where the investigation almost trickles out over a few months, until new evidence comes to light. Almost unbearably realistic, in that it takes the team nearly 3 months to simply identify the victim.

    • Oh, I completely agree, Marina Sofia. In that sense, the book is quite realistic. My guess is that at the time, it probably did take that long to identify a victim. And, even with today’s technology, it doesn’t always happen quickly. Thanks for bringing that up.

  3. Interesting observations Margot. And a lot of fictional detectives are angst ridden by some traumatic event and often this is simply part of their character. For me, in Peter Robinson’s Novel’s, Bank’s psychological trauma is never really addressed but instead becomes a reason for him solving cases. That is his therapy.

    • I like the way you put that, D.S.. I suspect that Banks is far from the only one who uses investigation as a therapy. And it is an interesting way to do that, actually. Hmm….thanks for the ‘food for thought.’ And for the kind words.

  4. I think you’ve hit on why I don’t enjoy a lot of modern crime fiction – I’m not sure I really want realism to that degree, and I’m completely sure I don’t want screeds of stuff about suffering detectives! I really preferred it when crime series novels didn’t have thriller endings, with the resulting life threatening injuries and psychological trauma that seeps on into the next novel and beyond. In fact, as the detective becomes more and more damaged, I find my credibility stretched too far – in reality, they’d be retired on a pension, I suspect, or at least confined to desk duties. Standalone thrillers work better for me, when the dealing with the trauma is left till beyond the last page. In series, I prefer the ending to be a matter of detection so that there’s no reason for the detective to carry baggage forward (and actually I believe that’s more realistic than thriller endings). Just personal preference, of course, but I suspect that’s why I’ve reverted back to reading more classic crime…

    • Preference or no, FictionFan, it’s a valid point. And I suspect you’re not the only one who would rather that crime fiction focus on the crime plot than on all of the things that may happen to the sleuth. Now, granted, I think most people want their fictional sleuths to be human – to get tired and hungry, or to get peeved or worse. I think those things are normal. And it’s not incredible to believe that a sleuth would be physically injured in the course of duty, depending on the case and situation. But there is a point beyond which damage goes too far. I think in those cases, readers can be asked to give up too much disbelief. And that can pull a reader right out of a story. I think there might be better ways to create a fully rounded character who occasionally gets hit with a ‘life blow,’ as we all do.

  5. Margot: Robert B. Parker’s sleuth, Spenser, is shot more than once during the series. In Cold Service there is time spent on the rehab during the book before Spenser joins Hawk in wreaking vengeance. ”

    Travis McGee in the mysteries of John D. MacDonald could head out on a cruise on the Busted Flash when he suffered one of his numerous injuries.

    • Those are both good examples of what I had in mind with this post, Bill. And you’re right; both characters are injured several times during the course of their series. And yet, the authors don’t spend an inordinate amount of time describing their recuperation. The pace of the books doesn’t really slow down.

  6. Intriguing post, Margot. We as readers want the protagonist to be a hero and unstoppable while at the same time being realistic and facing the same problems we do. I can enjoy stories where the protagonist has to recover from an injury or trauma but at the same time, I don’t have to know hour by hour how that recovery is coming along or came about. But when the author uses that recovery period to cast doubt on the protagonist’s ability to continue working, then that’s a different story. 🙂

    • I know what you mean, Mason, about wanting to see the protagonist as an actual human being, who has to heal from injuries, the way we all do. That makes the protagonist more human, and more accessible. As you say, there’s no need for every single detail. But the fact that the protagonist has to take time to heal, as anyone would, can add to her or his character.

  7. Good points made both in the post and the comments – so many series have an officer injured at some point these days and as you point out this often happens near the end of a book so they can recuperate away from prying eyes… I have to say I prefer it when an officer dodges a bullet through nifty footwork or good luck, even though that may be less realistic

    • I don’t think you’re alone, Cleo. I think a lot of people like the idea of their protagonists making it through a case without real injury. But I think in real life, as you say, that’s not always what happens. Perhaps the modern trend towards realism is prompting more authors to write about that aspect of police/PI life? In any case, we do see a lot of that sort of plot point in today’s crime fiction.

  8. tracybham

    This type of story is not my favorite, I don’t like a whole lot of trauma in a detective’s life, realistic or not. And especially not in TV shows, where there is a lot of trauma at the end of the season, then it is just easily glossed over in the first episodes of next season.

    • I know just what you mean about those TV cliffhanger trauma plot points, Tracy. They really don’t add to the quality of a TV show, in my opinion, and they distract from the plot.

  9. One of my cop friends has a pet peeve about officers continuing on with their day after discharging their weapon, which as you know would never happen in real life. Crime writers definitely have to dance on the line of real life/fiction in order not to stretch the suspension of disbelief too far. These are excellent examples of authors who do it well.

    • Thanks, Sue. And I don’t blame your friend for that pet peeve. I couldn’t imagine firing a weapon and then going on with my day as normal, even if I were accustomed to carrying it, and went to the firing range, and so on. It’s not realistic. At the same time, readers want their plots to move along. They want to know what’s coming next. And that doesn’t always include the sleuth going home and coping with a line-of-duty shooting. That can be done well, but it takes a deft hand.

  10. Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant managed to solve a huge historical mystery while he was recuperating from an injury – Daughter of Time!

    • Oh, absolutely, Moira! That’s a fantastic example – thanks! And you remind me, too, of Colin Dexter’s The Wench is Dead, where Morse solves an old mystery as he’s recuperating from surgery.

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