Most 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.