I’m close to the end of a book I’ve been reading for almost a week, and in a lot of ways I’m looking forward to finishing it.
It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed it; life’s too short for books that fail the fifty-page test, and this one had me gripped by about page 20. The obvious reason I want to get to the end is so that I can untangle the final knots and find out what really happened. But it’s taken s-o-o long to get there, and has become s-o-o complicated. The book is nearly 600 pages long, so I suppose in order to hold the reader’s interest it has to go a long way round and a lot needs to happen. But, if I’m honest, now I’m past page 500 and still mystified, there’s a strong element of ‘Get on with it – I’m ready for something else now.’
Maybe this is because a) I read so much, and b) I read a lot of stuff for review, so there’s almost always a part of my mind which stands back, deliberately detached from that total absorption in the characters’ world, which to me is the mark of a really good book.
But it’s also because some crime fiction leaves me with a sense of the author trying to outdo his/her peers, or cap his/her last book. I notice it a lot in the aftermath of a book which has made big headlines and huge sales, when everyone starts trying to be the next of its kind. They rarely succeed, since those big hitters are usually one of a kind, and the ‘follow that!’ attempts tend to become fewer and eventually stop altogether after a year or so.
And then there’s the ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ factor. My plot is twistier and more unlikely than yours. Your serial killer’s graveyard has nine bodies in it, so mine will have fifteen. Your psycho murderer carves a Maltese cross into his victims’ stomachs; mine reproduces the Mona Lisa. Your bad guy chops off finger ends; mine removes both ears. None of which, I should say, is guaranteed to make me – the real me, not the imaginary author in those examples – read much beyond the first indication, because my imagination can be plenty gory and violent enough to fill in the gaps without having every detail spelled out.
Let’s set aside minor issues such as the protagonist not sleeping for over twenty-four hours, which seems to happen amazingly often in fiction. Been there, done that, couldn’t cope with boiling a kettle, much less chasing down a bad guy. Have you noticed how many fictional murders are elaborately set up, with a unique message which means nothing to anyone but the victim? (And the investigating cop or amateur sleuth, of course, at least in the last thirty pages or so.) I’m not sure whether my favourite is the torture wheel on which the victim was slowly pulled apart, or the catapult which fired full wine bottles at a guy who had been staked out on his own lawn. Somehow I can’t see many real-life murderers bothering...
So why, you may be asking, do I continue to devour crime fiction at the rate of two or three books a week (unless they’re meaty 600-page tomes that take longer) if that small, slightly cynical part of my brain keeps kicking in and making sardonic comments? I think one answer is that if I asked myself that question very often, I’d probably seek out alternative reading matter. And, hands in the air on this one, sometimes I do find myself losing patience very early, in which case I simply stop reading and move on to the next book in the pile. There’s always a pile.
But surely it’s the mark of a good crime writer – and of the quality of most of the crime fiction that comes my way – that however extraordinary the circumstances and off the wall the bad guys’ methods or motivation, I remain willing to suspend disbelief until the end, and go on caring what happens to the characters. (Jeff’s post earlier in the week about bringing characters to life said a lot of wise things about that aspect of fiction.)
Anyway, you’ll have to excuse me now. I have about seventy pages to read, so I can find out what really did happen in that rich and complex 600-page tome.