The problem with writing mystery stories is we’ve all read so many of them we think we’re experts. Unfortunately, that can make for lazy writing, recycling old ideas, and for assuming ‘facts not in evidence’ as they would say in Law and Order.
I mentioned last week that you can learn a lot from reading bad fiction. Obviously, you can learn a lot from reading good fiction too, and even from watching TV programmes within your genre. You should be an expert in whatever type of writing you’re drawn to. That said, there’s nothing like learning from other people’s failures of logic, of hackneyed plots, or ghastly language.
But tread carefully. There be dragons here. That is to say, dragon-shaped lazy assumption and flaws in logic. Walk softly. And carry a big sword.
Or editing pencil.
I’m not going to cover all the howlers, just a few so you get the idea of what I’m talking about. What I really want is for you to finish reading this and see how many other lazy notions you can identify. Not in your own work, nor mine. Naturally.
We’ll start off with the dragons and then we’ll talk about the skunks. Bear with me.
Dragon #1: The Failures of Fact
Yes, they all do it, even the greats can do daft things that strain credulity and, if you’re quick enough to notice, will make you say “Say what, now?” I’m not talking continuity errors, but howlers of failing to get ‘just the facts, ma’am.’ Here are a few examples from television shows:
Castle. I love Castle. Nathan Fillion rocks and Stana Kanic is fabulous. Most of the scripts are fun and, hey, the hero is a writer. What’s not to love? Right?
Enter The Limey (S4E20) in which a ‘Scotland Yard’ detective helps our hero and heroine solve a murder.
Now, I might be able to get over this English detective with the curiously antipodean accent. After all, most of the viewers are presumably American and they won’t notice the difference, right? It’s not like Americans have ever watched a British television series or heard an English person speak. They don’t watch Sherlock or Downton Abby or Masterpiece Theatre. They’ve never heard an English actor speak, what with there being so few in Hollywood. You’re right. I expect too much sometimes. It’s a flaw.
But it’s not all about the accent. I could forgive that because, well, it’s Castle. But did they really have to make this ‘English’ detective work for ‘Scotland Yard’? That’s roughly the equivalent of having an American detective tell Sherlock that he works for ‘One Police Plaza.’ Scotland Yard and 1PP are places, structures. They are not organizations. Jeesh! Mr London-via-Sydney should have said he works for the Metropolitan Police. But I suspect he was a fake from the get go.
JAG. Unlike Castle, I do not love JAG. I resent that the writers think I’m stupid. Case in point: Trinity (S2E6). This is the one where our trusty hero and heroine fly from Washington DC to investigate a crime in Northern Ireland.
Now, let’s forget that none of the characters in ‘Belfast’ actually have Belfast accents. We can even — swallow hard — accept that a number 12 bus to ‘Carnaby Street’ — which is in London. England. NOT in Ireland — goes through Belfast. Even if it is a hell of a commute. But, seriously, they fly into Heathrow (footage shows Gatwick) and then DRIVE TO BELFAST.
Now, even if we accept that they chose to fly OVER Ireland to get to England instead of flying directly to Belfast — I mean, I know we’re Irish, but we do actually have airports. Even planes. I believe one or two of them may actually fly — but are we seriously to believe they drive across the Irish Sea? Are hover-cars special issue for members of the Judge Advocate General’s Office?
Have I mentioned how much I don’t love JAG?
CSI There are really too many to count. The flaws are just part of the show’s world view. For instance, scientists having a personal involvement in a case, which all of the regulars do at one time or another, would not be permitted in the real world. (I attended a lecture given by a real Crime Scene Specialist. Scathing doesn’t come close to describing her attitude to this show.) Forensic scientists, she said, would not be included in investigations or conduct interviews with suspects. I know, I was shocked too. Oh, and they would be expected to wear complete protective clothing at every crime scene. But leave all that aside and let’s take a look a boo-boo in just one episode:
Overload (S2E3) – A construction worker is murdered when someone puts a nail through the sole of his work book so he will not be grounded and then electrocutes him. Several mistakes here: the boots were standard work boots, which wouldn’t have grounded him anyway; they’re not special electrician’s work boots. The nail would have to have been pushed in all the way in order to be effective in which case surely the victim would have felt it. And the nail used was a roofing nail – which wouldn’t have been used until after the building was erected and the carpenters arrived. The building was a highrise and was still under construction.
Dragon #2: Tired Tropes
We’ll just look at a handful of the most shop-soiled. I’m sure you will be able to add several dozen more to the list.
This one is so often repeated and so wrong it deserves a chapter all on its own. How often in books (I’m looking at you, Mrs Christie!) or on a television programme have you seen the detective examine a corpse and say, “Bitter almonds. This man was poisoned!” A lot, huh? But there are a few problems here:
Firstly, what exactly does a bitter almond smell like? Would you know it if it came up and breathed in your face? I mean, assuming you survived.
Secondly, not everyone is able to detect the smell of cyanide. A fair percentage of the population lack the gene that enables them to detect that particular odour. Maybe they have cyanide-identification classes at the police academy.
This trope was fine when Agatha Christie used it eighty-odd years ago, and it has served writers well over the years, factual errors notwithstanding. But really, isn’t it time to move on? Dimethylmercury is pretty toxic. So is tetrodotoxin. There are thousands of ’em. Be original. Leave the bitter almonds to the nut-cases.
The Dying Declaration
He’s been shot / stabbed / poisoned and as his wife / doctor / bestie holds him in his or her arms our victim says, “It was the bramberries…” Or “Uncle Ethelbert ate the plums…” They never say the name of the murderer. I mean, where’s the fun in that? Much better to leave some wildly obscure clue, preferably one that makes for a great title. And why didn’t they ask Evans?
The Miracle of Modern Technology
Yes, Sherlock can too get a phone signal anywhere in London, or even in the middle of Dartmoor, if it comes to that. And Penelope Garcia (Criminal Minds) can sort through thousands of databases with just one tap of her Gothic-fingernails.* Because she is, you know, that good. Those CSI chappies can identify someone’s fingertips in less than ten seconds. To be fair, though, DNA takes longer. Sometimes as much as fifteen whole minutes. Slackers.
The Lonesome Hero
I blame Sherlock Holmes for this. Ever since he first donned deerstalker and stepped out into the London fog armed only with his wits and a magnifying glass, detectives have been solitary men.
Now I know what you’re thinking: what about Watson? Trusty sidekick, armed with his only slightly less dazzling wits (no matter what Nigel Bruce might say) and his service revolver, he was always on hand to, you know, lend a hand. But Watson never really gets inside Holmes’s head. How long had they been friends and flatmates, for goodness sake, before Holmes even mentioned he had a brother? And how long after that did it take Holmes to reveal the true nature of Mycroft’s job? No, no, it will not wash, my dear reader.
If you want to have a hero (or a heroine), he or she needs to be a solitary soul, preferably with a tragic past. He can be shell-shocked like Lord Peter Wimsey, widowered (is widowered a word?) like Foyle and Dalgliesh, or have a loved one die in mysterious circumstances like Kate Beckett mother or Adrian Monk’s wife. But something has to drive him. A paycheque is just so crass.
The Skunks: The Wicked Way with Words
I hate to break it to you, fellow word-smiths, but some of our illustrious peers ain’t that illustrious.
To read such prose as this would make even the colour purple blush. I cannot bear to give you more than the smallest of samplings. Find more, if you must, but you’re on your own.
As writers, words are our business, our stock in trade. Sadly, there are those who treat words, not as jewels, but as festering carbuncles which fester and ooze between the pages. Here, my brave friends, are some of the most ghastly examples of writing in the history of language.
You’ll need a very big sword for these. Not to mention a gas-mask.
These are all real books or events. I haven’t made up anything. One small caveat, however: it’s all in your point of view. Even some of these charmers have their fans.
Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860-1939) This Irish-born writer took melodrama to new highs. Or do I mean lows? Love, passion, bad marriages, jealousy, Gothic intrigue, sadism and indecipherable sentences were her stock in trade. Here’s a snippet from her 1897 ‘masterpiece’ Irene Iddesleigh:
“Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!”
The Guardian calls her the worst novelist of all time. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/apr/19/worst-novelist-in-history
Not to be outdone, is the renowned Edward Bulwer-Lytton. You’ve heard of him, or at least, if you’ve been writing for more than five minutes I guarantee someone will have quoted one of the most famous opening lines in literature:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. (Paul Clifford, 1830).
Lovely, isn’t it? It should be noted, however, that the estimable Mr B-L’s prose could not be distinguished from that of Dickens, according to this article: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/mar/25/dickens-sentence-worst-writer-bulwer-lytton Make of that what you will.
Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) Described as the “Ed Wood of the mystery genre”, you got to love him for his titles alone. Let’s see, there’s The Man with the Magic Eardrums, The Case of the Lavender Gripsack, The Case of the Two-Headed Idiot, The Man who Changed his Skin, and The Riddle of the Wooden Parakeet, to name but a few. It seems Keeler liked to collect tales from the newspapers and then randomly jumble them together and write a story based on that jumble. Here’s a snippet from that immortal favourite (this type of writing is catching!), The Man with the Magic Eardrums:
It was close upon 9 o’clock in the evening when I first met that gifted—and yet pitiful—individual, “The Man With the Magic Eardrums.”
At least, I shall always think of him by the name: “The Man With the Magic Eardrums!” For, of course, I subsequently learned his right name. As well as many facts in his unusual life history.
And my meeting with him took place under curious circumstances—to say the least!
For, at the time we met, he was effecting a most perfect job of—well, had there been a blue-coated police officer near by witnessing the job, he would have been writing painstakingly in his notebook: “Breaking and Entering,” while, had there been instead, near by, a detective from the detective bureau, more technical in his description of things criminal, he would have been writing “Burglarious Entry.” Though whatever the proper description of the job being done by the individual I call “The Man With the Magic Eardrums,” it was being done in front of my very eyes.
And the doing of which, quite naturally, he would never have attempted had the big room into which he was securing ingress been lighted up!
And why it was not lighted up was simply because I had not, myself, yet had time, since arriving, to snap those lights on! http://www.ramblehouse.com/magiceardrumschapter.htm
The New York Sun says Keeler “is to good literature as rectal cancer is to good health. He makes the J.D. Robb novels seem as if they were written by Shakespeare. Given the choice of reading three Keeler novels back to back or being imprisoned in an Iranian jail,you’d need to think about it.” Ouch! http://www.nysun.com/arts/worst-writer-in-the-world/24771/
Some of these books are available on the internet because their copyright has expired. Just in case you want to take a look at what you’ve been missing.
*Speaking of Criminal Minds, listening to Derek Morgan constantly call computer genius Garcia “Baby Girl” makes me want to go on my own homicidal outrage. Demeaning, sexist and, apparently, allowed by the FBI. That’s no way to treat the sisterhood.
Let me know if you have more goodies (by which I mean baddies) to share.
I’m off to listen to some Elvis Costello by way of a palate cleanser.