In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of wealthy Emily Arundell. She’s left behind several relatives who are desperate for their share of her money, and who have very good motive for getting her out of their way. It’s a complicated case, and one evening, Hastings suggests that the two of them take their minds off the investigation and go to see a play. Poirot agrees and they duly attend. However, there’s one problem: Hastings has chosen a crook play.
‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’
Poirot gets very frustrated with the plot, claiming that the whole case could have been solved before the end of the first act.
This shows, I think, how we all bring our expertise into what we do in the rest of our lives. Certainly research suggests that we tap our knowledge, background and expertise when we read. People in general are not passive when they read. They interact with what they read; and, however unconsciously, compare it to what they know from real life. This doesn’t mean that readers are never willing to set aside disbelief. But a lot of readers do get cranky if the author isn’t more or less accurate.
For example, you may or may not know that my professional background has been mostly in the world of education. So I’m particularly ‘tuned in,’ for lack of a better phrase, when I read crime novels that take place in academia. And, if I’m being honest, I’m probably less patient with such novels when the author doesn’t portray that world accurately. I bring what I know to the reading process, as we all do, so I notice it more when what I know isn’t reflected in what’s in the book. That’s why I have a particular appreciation for work like Christine Poulson’s, Gail Bowen’s and Elly Griffiths’, whose novels have an academic context. In part because of the authors’ experiences in academia, the context is authentic, and that makes those novels more believable.
It’s the same, I would imagine, for just about any profession. For instance, the law profession varies from place to place, and certainly from country to country. But there are certain things about what lawyers do and don’t do that are, I think, a little more universal. And a well-written legal novel reflects that reality. I would suspect that attorneys who read crime fiction are ‘tuned in’ to those aspects of legal novels, and probably not patient when the author isn’t authentic. Not being an attorney myself, I can’t speak from expertise. But the works of authors such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham, Scott Turow and (in his Mickey Haller novels) Michael Connelly strike me as being realistic.
One might say the same thing about crime novels that take place in the health care and medical community. Physicians, paramedics, nurses and other health care providers who read crime fiction probably get very impatient with crime novels that don’t depict that world accurately. And they’re probably quite pleased with the authenticity of writers such as Katherine Howell, Michael Crichton and Michael Palmer.
I could go on and on with examples, but I think the point’s made. Whatever your profession or work background is, you’re likely to bring it to your reading, and you may very well find yourself noticing it particularly when someone isn’t accurate.
What about law enforcers who also read crime fiction? Most crime writers aren’t police officers (although some of course are or have been). And yet, if you think about it, just about every crime novel involves police presence, at least just a little. And some focus quite a lot more than others do on police activity. Some of those novels give a more authentic portrait of police life than others do. So my unsophisticated guess would be that there is plenty of frustration among law enforcement people when it comes to the way what they do is portrayed.
You’ll notice that all of the authors mentioned thus far have a professional background in the area that’s the focus of their books. For instance, Howell has been a paramedic, Rotenberg is a criminal lawyer, and Bowen has been a professor. Does this mean that you need to be a member of a given profession to write about it accurately? I don’t think so.
Let’s consider some of the highly regarded crime series out there. Ed McBain is, as you’ll know doubt know, the creator of the 87th Precinct series, which many people regard as a superior series. Its focus is police detectives and their lives, and the crimes they investigate. McBain was never, at least to my knowledge, in law enforcement. And yet this series is often held up as an example of an excellent police procedural series.
Jussi Adler-Olsen has done a number of things with his career, including music, business and publishing. He’s never, to my knowledge, been a police detective. Still, his Carl Mørck novels are very highly regarded police procedurals. Not being in law enforcement myself, I can’t vouch conclusively for their authenticity. But they certainly have the hallmarks of the police procedural, including life at the precinct, policy and so on.
Sara Paretsky isn’t a private investigator. Her background was in political science and history before she turned her focus to writing. But as any fan will tell you, her V.I. Warshawski series is very well-regarded, and gives readers a great deal of information about the ins and outs of private investigation. These are just a few examples; there are dozens of others. But I think just these few serve to show that some authors have written extremely credible work about professions that aren’t in their backgrounds. The key here really seems to be doing effective research (and of course, telling a well-written story!).
What about you? When you read a novel about people who do what you do professionally, do you pay extra attention to the details? Do you get frustrated when the author isn’t accurate?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.