One way in which authors add some ‘leaven’ to their stories is to put in side comments – sometimes even full-on asides to the reader – to add in extra information. Among other things, these side comments can also be used to lighten a situation and to provide character background. They’re there in fiction, and they’re certainly there in crime fiction.
Like any other tool, side comments have to be wielded carefully. Otherwise, they break up the narrative too much. Too many side comments can also be confusing. But when they’re used well, they can be effective.
Some authors use side comments to address the audience quite directly. That’s what John Burdett does in his Sonchai Jitplecheep novels. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police. He mostly works in Bangkok, although some cases take him to other places. More than once in this series, he gives insight into the Thai culture by speaking directly to the reader (whom he addresses as farang (foreigner)). For instance, in Bangkok Tattoo, the body of a CIA agent is found in a brothel, and the most likely suspect is one of the brothel’s top earners. Here is a comment Sonchai makes to the reader about many Bangkok sex workers:
‘These are country girls, tough as water buffalo, wild as swans, who can’t believe how much they can make by providing to polite, benevolent, guilt-ridden condom-conscious farang exactly the same service they would otherwise have to provide free without protection to rough, whoremongering husbands in their home villages. Good deal? Better believe it (Don’t look at me that way, farang, when you know in your heart that capitalism makes whores of all of us).’
Sonchai makes other comments to the reader about Buddhism, about the Thai way of doing things, and so on.
Linwood Barclay’s Zack Walker, whom we meet in Bad Move, is a science fiction writer. In that novel, he and his family move from the city to a suburban development called Valley Forest Estates. Walker thinks the move will make the family safer, but it doesn’t turn out that way. Instead, he gets involved in a case of murder, fraud, and more. At one point, he has this to say about himself:
‘How many assholes know they’re assholes? So I guess what I’m saying is that if I know I’ve behaved like an asshole on certain occasions, then there’s no way I could actually be one. But I’d understand if you remain unconvinced. By the time you’ve heard this story, you might say, ‘Man, that Zack Walker, he’s a major one.’’
It’s interesting, convoluted logic, and Walker makes other comments about the way he thinks in other parts of the story.
Sometimes, authors use the aside to give character background and offer some depth. For example, Agatha Christie does this in Murder in Mesopotamia. That novel’s focus is an archaeological expedition taking place a few hours from Baghdad. The narrator is an English nurse, Amy Leatheran, who’s been hired by the expedition’s leader, Dr. Eric Leidner. It seems his wife, Louise, is having anxiety problems, and he wants a nurse to help allay her fears and tend to her needs. Nurse Leatheran is a practical and observant nurse, and sometimes makes comments from that perspective. For example, at one point, she’s describing another character, Sheila Reilly:
‘I had a probationer like her under me once – a girl who worked well, I’ll admit, but whose manner always riled me.’
When Louise Leidner is murdered one afternoon, Hercule Popirot is persuaded to interrupt his travels in the Middle East to investigate, and he finds out the truth. The story is told from Nurse Leatheran’s point of view, and it’s interesting to see how she views Poirot.
Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning introduces Edinburgh journalist Jack Parlabane. One morning, he stumbles onto the scene of a brutal murder. It all starts when Parlabane hears a commotion in the flat below and decides to go down and see what’s going on (and hopefully get the people in the flat to be quiet). He forgets his key, though, and locks himself out of his own flat, clad only in boxers and a T-shirt. Here’s what Brookmyre tells us next:
‘Now, the rational course of action for any normal human being at this point would be to enlist the help of the conveniently present police in securing the services of a locksmith, or at least the services of a few standard-issue Doc Martens. But even if he hadn’t been reluctant to enter into any dialogue with Lothian and Borders’ finest, he’d probably still have seen climbing in from another flat as the easiest solution.’
And that’s exactly what Parlabane tries to do. But when he goes to the downstairs flat and heads for one of its windows, he’s seen by a police detective, and gets drawn into a web of murder and high-level corruption. In this case, the aside gives us some information about Parlabane, and adds some wit to the story.
In Janice McDonald’s Another Margaret, Edmonton-based sessional instructor Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig gets involved in a mystery surrounding enigmatic author Margaret Ahelers, whose work Craig studied for her master’s thesis. Craig knows that Ahlers has been gone for years. So, how has a new Ahlers novel just been released? Is this a case of forgery? Or has an unpublished manuscript been found? The mystery leads to real danger and connects with another mystery Craig encountered years ago. Craig’s partner is police detective Steve Browning, who plays an important role in this novel. At one point, they go out to dinner together. During the meal, they discuss an alumni reunion that Craig is helping to plan (she is a graduate of the University of Alberta). Browning asks if he’s invited, and Craig assures him that he’s welcome:
‘‘I love you, Steve Browning.’
‘Mutual, I’m sure.’
Steve drove us to his condo…and we proved it to each other. There is nothing better than feeding steak to a red-blooded Canadian man, I am just saying.’
That one-line aside is witty, and it gives the reader a quick break from the plot of the story.
Asides can serve several purposes in a story. They can be funny, they can reveal character traits, and more. But, like all tools, they are best used in moderation, so that the flow of the story isn’t interrupted. What’s your view? If you’re a writer, do you use asides? Do you have a preference when it comes to your reading?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Reef.