Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Realism? Who needs it?

Sandra Parshall

“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?


Sheila Connolly said...

You forgot to mention that since Anna Pigeon gets stomped on, mangled, steamrolled, whatevered, in each and every book, she should be in a wheelchair by now.

It's a fine line. For a well-written book, one with appealing characters and beautiful language, I'm willing to overlook a few factual errors, and even a plot hole or two. But if the book features a protagonist who is supposed to be expert in something, I expect the author to give me some vivid details AND to get the facts right.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

My favorite example is Robert Parker's Spenser, who kills at least one bad guy in every single book and never even gets his wrist slapped for it. It hasn't stopped me yet. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, I'm amazed that Anna is still ALIVE, let alone healthy. And wouldn't you think she'd find a safer job? She must be a masochist.

I'm also amused by the number of people mystery protagonists can kill without consequences. Even a cop on duty can't kill somebody and walk away -- he's suspended from active duty, his gun is taken away, and the killing is thoroughly investigated. When a civilian is killing people left and right and never has to account for his actions, the story crosses over into fantasy.

Carol said...

If the book's a compelling read, I'll happily suspend disbelief until Judy Clemen's cows come home, and I really don't get readers who throw a book against the wall over some obscure mistake. But, like Sheila, if a character is an expert in some field, then I think the author should get it right. That said, if the author takes me on a wonderful journey and blew a couple of facts along the way, I don't care. It would be like turning down Daniel Craig because his socks don't match :)

paul lamb said...

I think that most of those readers who anguish over the one mistake they happen to find in a book are actually a bit jealous. By finding the mistake, they imagine that they know the subject better than you, so why are you the published author (fame, money, glamour) while they are just some working slob?
I nearly always find a typo in ever book I read. That doesn't tell me the story is no good.
What's interesting to me about these folk is that they may get alarmed about the one mistake they catch and yet don't seem at all aware that there may be a half dozen other mistakes that their keen mind overlooked.

Sandra Parshall said...

Paul, I found a factual error in your message:

you the published author (fame, money, glamour)

As if!