When I was 11 or perhaps 12 Dad drove us from Sheffield to Bicester, and I read the whole of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (although it then bore its more offensive original title) in that three hour journey. From that point, I was hooked by the idea of murder mystery and I’ve read them as either an innocent or guilty pleasure ever since. (At fourteen I wrote one of my own, Spiders in the Bath, and sent it off to a publisher, who returned it with a pleasant critique including the judgement “this writer has a taste for buckets of blood” – which, at fourteen, was probably true.
Some are murder mysteries are formulaic and superficial, some are sophisticated and psychologically deeply judged. Some rely on clever twists, some on detailed knowledge of police procedure, some on engaging characters. My friend Helen Cadbury pitched a near perfect approach with her ‘To Catch a Rabbit’ (I’ve yet to read the follow-up, Bones in the Nest, despite it glaring at me for months) where there’s a central mystery, intriguing but flawed characters, good local colour, good underlying research, convincing procedure and knowledge of the underworld and, more than anything else, a plot that makes you want to read just one more chapter till you reach that final satisfying denouement, long withheld but coming disappointingly too soon.
But I’ve just read one such book which, if I’d had any hair left, would’ve made me want to tear it out. I’m not sure whether to name the book or author, because he’s clearly successful in what he does, as he has something like 30 books to his name, so readers must like him. But I finished it thinking: “if that is publishable, almost anything I can write clearly has a market, too”.
Suppose a detective believed that a major accident had been created in order to murder one person, and that accident killed twelve people. Would it not seem logical to investigate those twelve victims to see which was the intended death? That doesn’t even occur to this detective, or anyone else in the book, or, it seems, the author, who instead pursues three key survivors which (it rapidly becomes clear to any tuned-in reader) are going to turn out to be red herrings. There are, in fact, three separate major crimes being carried out, two centred on one of these characters, one on the true target. Each is revealed towards the end (in an attempt at drama which in each case feels to me very flat, but that’s perhaps a matter of taste) and turns out to be perpetrated by a character we’ve not met anywhere else in the book. Three completely new characters have to be wheeled in in the book’s closing chapters in order to make the story work.
Timescales are messed around in order to keep the plot moving – in at least two cases, events are reported out of sequence, and there’s no attempt to match the timing of events in one location to those in another – we simply have to take it on trust that the sequence makes sense in some real world or other. Almost every character is introduced with the same formula: “Mrs Bland was short, red-haired and cheeky” – a three part characterisation which stands on place of any sort of psychology in their behaviour. To counter-act this, all characters have one, or at the most, two, core characteristics which they deploy in every situation: right-wing arrogance or dastardly immorality or loving-kindness or loyal efficiency. Character POV can change from sentence to sentence, with characters being described in ways that don’t make sense, given their situation or knowledge. And so on and so on.
From one angle, this is hugely depressing, because this author commits just about every sin of writing that a student writer would be exhorted to avoid, yet he’s made a career out of it. From another, it’s quite encouraging, because it suggests that “the story is everything” and as long as you string together a series of events which more or less carry the reader forward, no matter how badly they’re expressed, you’re in with a chance of publication and a readership.
I’ve always tried to write well, even in my sporadic blog-posts. Even in emails, in fact, which I very often revise until I’ve got the tone in decent shape for the person or purpose I’m aiming at. And I’ve had my words complimented (just yesterday someone I’d never met before told me he always found my poetry reviews enjoyable, which was pleasing, especially as reviews tend frequently to the formulaic, and it can sometimes be hard to find a way through the potential clichés). And, I suppose, I’ve made a reasonable career out of writing – as an academic, at least, and a passable accomplishment as a poet. But I find it hugely disappointing that bad writing does well, whilst better writing (note that I don’t call it “good”) finds it harder to succeed.
Does this mean that rather than “must try harder” I’d be better off “not trying at all”? That testing the ins and outs of a narrative, which I’m quite good at doing with other people’s work (but less able with my own) is a waste of time? That we might as well lower the bar for publication, because poor work will get published anyway so, in what I think are the words of Homer Simpson, “If at first you don’t succeed, give up?”
The only real positive I can draw from this is that I now have identified 29 books I never have to read.