UrsulaV (ursulav) wrote,

Breaking the Promise

So I found myself at the used bookstore this week–I had a few dregs of credit left from the last time I sold ‘em books–and decided that I was in the mood for a thriller. They had both In the Woods and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I bought them both, I read them both, and now I am going to say a few words, which may count as spoilers, so if you’re still planning on reading these, now would be a good time to go water the begonias.


Still here?


Here’s the thing.  When you set out to write a crime novel or a mystery novel or whatever, you have made a covenant with the reader, and that covenant says “The crime will be solved by the end of the book.”

This is not the only genre that makes you a promise when you pick it up–if you’re writing a romance, then you promise that the hero and heroine will have fallen in love with the book, probably with each other. (You are occasionally allowed to have them fall in love with other people–Heyer’s Sprig Muslin does this very charmingly–but you usually have to introduce those other people early on and make them very sympathetic. Big age gap also helps.)  Write hard sci-fi and you will not make the alien fleet vanish because of voodoo or casting Fireball. Write historical fiction and you must make at least a token nod to researching said history and not have Alexander the Great conquer Hawaii, unless it’s alternate history, in which case, eh, Aloha, knock yourself out.

Heck, it’s not just promising to stick somewhat to your genre–if you write a sequel, you promise to hold true to the first book and not ret-con stuff because you’ve decided that it would be much cooler if your hardened atheist worshipped Anubis so that you can have giant black dog ghosts roaming around in Book Two, Dan Simmons, I am looking in your direction.

And if you’re writing a whodunnit, you gotta tell us whodidit.

Now, if you wish to write a story of a terrible crime and not tell us who did it at the end, because your heroine has grown and matured and decided that she doesn’t need to know, she just prefers to put it all behind her and get on with her life and ditch this unhealthy obsession and perhaps build a better relationship with her sister/mother/therapist/estranged offspring, this is fine. Write it. Just shelve it in Literature, because that’s where it belongs.

If you are writing a classic mystery, you have in fact TWO promises to fulfill–first of all, you must solve the mystery, and second of all, you are required under the Poirot Act of 1934 to provide enough clues that the reader can potentially figure it out in advance and feel smart.

You don’t have to do this with a thriller, because of course sometimes you won’t actually meet your killer until you flush him out through smart detective work–Caleb Carr’s The Alienist does this just fine and I have no complaints, because there’s not really a way we COULD have met him, and at the end of the day, all is solved and there are tea and crumpets with leading industrialists.

But you have to solve the mystery. Failure to solve the mystery = Novel Fail.

In the Woods is beautifully written. It is lyrical. The heroine is genuinely likable and the tormented narrator, while he does occasionally get carried away on his own purple prose, is still sympathetic. I read it in line at the post office and on the exercise bike and in the tub with a glass of crappy red wine. I was hooked. And there were two linked mysteries, one current, one in the past, and they solved the current one and I cheered and I turned the page and the book was over.

And they never solved the first mystery. The one they started the book with, the one about what horrible thing happened to the detective’s two childhood friends and the shoes full of blood, the one that looked like the linchpin to the second mystery, except it wasn’t, and then the book was over and you never found out why there was a twelve year old with shoes that looked like someone had poured his friend’s blood into them and then made him put the shoes back on and what the hell, man?

It broke the promise. It violated the contract. You can wave things about ambiguity and the reader’s imagination around all you want, but those are pretty damn flimsy threads–as far as I’m concerned, if you write a murder mystery and detail the heck out’ve the murder and then go “And the murderer is….THE END” then your readers will come by and egg your house and furthermore you will deserve it.

Now, your murderer doesn’t have to get punished. You can have him walk away a free man, grinning at your hero, and the hero can grit his teeth and take it because it is often a dark and cynical and gritty world out there and this is fully within your authorly rights. But you still have to solve the mystery, or else you didn’t write a mystery, you committed literature and your books should not be shelved anywhere where an innocent bystander might happen upon them.


This made me sad, because it was really a wonderfully written book. But that’s not enough.

And then there was Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Writing was piss-poor, as far as I was concerned. I don’t think the author ever met a sentence fragment he didn’t like. However, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt–it might have been positively lyrical in Swedish, and the translation just didn’t do it justice. Parts of it bored me, parts of it were somewhat predictable, the heroine was sympathetic in that you felt sorry for her but you still didn’t want to get within a hundred yards of her, her computer skills were improbable and the hero slept with most of Sweden.

Nevertheless, it was ALSO about two crimes, one past, one present, (with a little vaguely gratuitous horrible rape-and-revenge thrown in as a minor plot point) and despite every complaint I have made, a writing level about on par with Da Vinci Code and my sorrow of the state of the American reading public that both of those were on the bestseller list for a thousand years, I will give it full and complete marks–it kept the promise.

We found out whodunnit (and what was in fact dun) and god help me, I may not read any of the rest of the books in the series–if I want to watch a horribly abused heroine make good, I’ll re-read De Lint’s early work, which will at least involve fewer tedious Swedish business transactions–but I cannot argue that it worked as a crime novel.

Whew. Okay. I feel a bit better now, except that now I am sad because I have read both thrillers and one wasn’t great and one was brilliant but failed and I want to read one that really works but I’m kinda burnt out on the lovechild of Batman and Hannibal Lector Detective Pendergast so if you have any other suggestions, I would love to hear them.


Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

Tags: writing
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