Sunday, May 18, 2014

Should crime writing include more clean-living cops?

'Realism' - it's something I've always found fascinating about the stories we absorb for enjoyment and entertainment, whether on page or screen - the whole idea is to suspend our disbelief, but within those broad parameters we often want the story to be 'realistic' as well. Over the years I wondered about this dichotomy - especially since many stories are inherently super-unrealistic (fantasy, sci-fi etc), at least in terms of their worlds if not the character interactions, conflicts, development, and emotions - but if you think about it, the seeming contradiction does make sense; because we want to be swept away in the story, no matter how fantastical, and not see the writer's hand pulling the strings. Anything that pulls us out of the story, whether crappy dialogue, cardboard characters, or something that seems 'too unrealistic' will kind of jar, distract us, and makes us realise we are reading/watching a story, rather than being absorbed in it and fully enjoying the ride. We become conscious of it... rather than being fully 'in the moment', where time just passes...

I was thinking about this today when I read a semi-recent article in The Guardian (hat tip to the amazing Graham Beattie) about a British police Chief Constable saying crime writing needed more clean-living cops. "I'd quite like to see some cheery, well-balanced, well-adjusted, equally successful investigators," said Nick Gargan of the Avon & Somerset Police. Gargan, who was speaking at a literary festival, noted that there were "pretty damaged individuals in too many of these books", and that the way they worked (including the amount of work they did - Gargan said some fictional detectives did the work of 40 people in stories - doing things solo, bending the rules, etc) was also completely unrealistic.

We can't really argue that the hard-living damaged detective fills the pages of crime fiction - it's become a cliche in many ways, and perhaps is a 'go-to' archetype for the less imaginative, although the best crime writers manage to keep their (anti)heroes fresh and interesting within that form.

But is the high-ranking Garland, who has received a Queen Service Medal, right? Should there be more clean-living detectives in crime fiction? Or would that sort of 'reality' be too boring for readers, who, let's be honest, want thrills and drama as part of turning the page and following interesting characters? As an analogy, I remember when I worked in a large commercial law firm as a young solicitor, we joked that if anyone made a TV series about what our document-filled lives were like - nothing like Ally McBeal or Boston Legal - that no-one would ever watch it.

But isn't the essence of drama in general - stories are in a way a hyper-reality, a compressed/more exciting version of even the most realistic parts of life? Screenwriters and authors tighten dialogue (internal or external), setting, and action to heighten drama or comedy, so that we are engaged, our emotions and minds are pricked into greater life, as an escape, an entertainment, an education, or a mixed platter combo ... I guess it's just a question of where we draw the line - the sheen of realism that means the story can flow along and not pull us out of it, while still being dramatic enough to hold our attention and make us turn the page or keep watching?

What do you think about Garland's call for more clean-living cops?


  1. I agree with him. I read mysteries for the story, the plot, the puzzle and the working out of that puzzle. Too many times, authors spend either as much time or even more time depicting the plight of the damaged investigator and his disastrous home life and domestic foibles than on solving the crime. When that happens, I say goodby.

  2. I have the opposite problem with my writing in that it's usually too real and the characters speak and behave like normal people. I have to consciously dramatise and do that hyper-reality thing you mentioned. And put much nastier obstacles in the hero's way to make him struggle. I'm learning not to be so nice - and you know what? It's really fun!

  3. Absolutely. I am proud of Wiki Coffin, who does not drink, and does not swear -- and though he likes the ladies, he does not indulge in graphic sex. He keeps it intimately private. Does he sell better because of that? Nope. But he solves his crimes, even though he doesn't have these moments of black angst. And I am very happy with that.

  4. Someone should introduce Nick Gargan to the Cozy section of crime fiction (and also, explain to him the concept of dramatic license).