“That one error ruined the whole book for me.”
“I was enjoying the book until the protagonist did that. It was so unrealistic.”
This kind of declaration is pretty common from mystery readers. They want realism, they want factual accuracy, they want to be able to believe the story.
Yet all crime fiction – including police procedurals – is inherently unrealistic. If we took it as a reflection of real life, we’d have to believe that legions of hairdressers, cooks, booksellers, and antique dealers are out there every day, solving murders the cops are too dumb to figure out. We’d have to believe that every homicide detective routinely has a life-or-death confrontation with a killer before he can make an arrest. We’d have to believe that private detectives spend virtually all their time on murder cases (again because the cops can’t solve them).
Let’s get real. My hairdresser is a smart lady, but I doubt she’ll ever bring in a killer. Private detectives spend most of their time on tasks that would read like drudgery if they were dramatized, and they’d be in plenty of trouble with the cops if they interfered in murder investigations. As for homicide detectives, theirs is a reasonably safe line of work – most will go through their entire careers without firing their guns in the line of duty or being attacked by a suspect.
Some of the most popular crime novels being published these days are praised for their gritty realism, which might give the impression that the events described could happen in real life. Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch does things no real cop could get away with, but he’s still on the job and still having those perilous armed confrontations with crazed killers. Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon is the Jessica Fletcher of the national park system – if this woman shows up at your campsite, I’d strongly advise you to pack your gear and head home before it’s too late. John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport novels – I love them, but realistic? Please. Any crime novel that has the familiar, dramatically satisfying elements readers want will fail the plausibility test at some level.
So where does the insistence on “realism” come from? If readers can accept, say, a wedding planner as a crack detective, why do they scorn a book that has inaccurate forensic details? If a hairdresser can solve murders, why does it matter if the cops accept a piece of evidence from her with no proof of where it came from? Why is research even necessary for crime fiction writers? Why can’t we simply make it all up?
Maybe readers – and I include myself among them – want all the supporting details to be accurate so we can accept the central fallacy, which is the amateur sleuth’s involvement in a murder investigation or the pro’s flaunting of regulations or laws. Maybe if the story seems anchored in real life, suspension of disbelief will be easier.
I’m still not sure this is fair. I’m not sure fiction has to be anything more than an entertaining fantasy. But fair or not, readers demand the illusion of reality even when the basic premise of a crime novel is totally unbelievable. An author can push the unreality quite a distance, but beyond a certain point the reader refuses to follow – and that point may be different for every reader. The writer has to aim for a level of plausibility that will appeal to the largest number of readers.
I know what my breaking point is. Can you define yours? How much will you swallow before you refuse to take another bite? What books have disappointed you with unrealistic details?