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Author Topic: Research in Crime, or "Never lets facts get in the way of a good story"  (Read 5387 times)
moneill
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« on: August 15, 2006 »

Sort of a crap subject but what I'm trying to get at and what I'd like to hear from other readers and writers is this: How important is getting it "right" in a book you're reading? I hear a lot of people talk about the importance of research and making sure that everything the cops/detectives/lab techs/etc do in a book dead-on accurate but I'm not convinced that is necessary for a good story.  The way I see it, a journalist is bound by the facts and a storyteller should not necessarilly be constrained by them.  The great crime books in my mind are the ones that are about character, family, plot and story.  James Crumley, Ross MacDonald, Raymond Chandler (I'll leave out Hammett since he actually was a Pinkerton and had some experience), Jim Thompson, and many others wrote some of the seminal texts in the genre but almost never got into any specific details about procedure.  Why do you think it is that that it seems as if more and more frequently, crime books spend so much time with the procedural details and less and less time telling a story? That may be a broad and sweeping generalization, but I do think it is pretty true.  I think some of this gets to what George Pelecanos was talking about in terms of pressure from publishers and market driven needs (i.e. if you're paying 25 quid for a book it had better be 300+ pages long and have lots of facts) but at the same time goes to what John Connelly was saying about most crime being crap (sorry to paraphrase, but that was the gist).  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.  Are research and detailed facts required for good crime fiction? How important is it to you when you read a book?  Why do you think authors can't just let their minds do all the work and leave the nonfiction details to journalists and true crime writers?  I cite, again, the example of "The Godfather," which Puzo says he spent "maybe a week" researching and made up the rest.  A good writer never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Anyhow, I look forward to your thoughts on this subject.
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rockrebel
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« Reply #1 on: August 15, 2006 »

I don't think the police procedures have to be totally accurate to make a good story. I do enjoy books by 'specialists' such as Kathy Reichs and Tess Gerritsen for the insight into the work that they've done in their fields of experience. I also enjoy the likes of Chris Ryan and Andy McNab when they write about secret intelligence work. As I said, when someone has 'been there' it's a great insight.

The one thing that really really turns me off is ridiculously far fetched plot lines when common sense tells you that what a character is doing is beyond the bounds of possibility. Save that for kids TV. When I read I like to think that what's going on is at least feasible, even though it's fiction.
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Mary
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« Reply #2 on: August 15, 2006 »

I'm kind of on the fence on this one.

On one hand, I wouldn't want to be reading a storyline which was totally unrealistic, where I would end up thinking "That would never happen in real life".  I go to the cinema for that kind of stuff.

I think that the reason I enjoy Mark, Rankin, Robinson etc is because it's believeable fiction.  The characters in them come across as "real" people, not some kind of Superman character. They manage to weave the procedural stuff into the storyline in a non-dominating way, so I'm aware of it but not bogged down by it.

On the other hand, I don't think I would enjoy a book which leaned too far towards detailing the procedural stuff.

As I said ............. on the fence!
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NickQ
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« Reply #3 on: August 15, 2006 »

I'd agree with the above. I want to be convinced enough by the author that he/she knows what they're talking about, but excessive research isn't going to cover up a poor plot/character.
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Jade
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« Reply #4 on: August 15, 2006 »

I don't think the police procedures have to be totally accurate to make a good story. I do enjoy books by 'specialists' such as Kathy Reichs and Tess Gerritsen for the insight into the work that they've done in their fields of experience. I also enjoy the likes of Chris Ryan and Andy McNab when they write about secret intelligence work. As I said, when someone has 'been there' it's a great insight.

The one thing that really really turns me off is ridiculously far fetched plot lines when common sense tells you that what a character is doing is beyond the bounds of possibility. Save that for kids TV. When I read I like to think that what's going on is at least feasible, even though it's fiction.

Well said RR!!

I know nothing of pathology, criminology or the in's and out's of police proceedure but it is nice to know the author used to be a policeman or an anthropologist if only for the interesting stories they may have.
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Sandra mre
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« Reply #5 on: August 15, 2006 »

I'm going to be different than all of you and say it puts me off when the author is an "expert".  First off, authors have a job, to make stuff up.  And one of the things discussed at the research panel at Harrogate this year was that the most important research is what you never use.

Kevin bought a few fiction books this summer, written by 'experts' and we decided not to let him write reviews of them.  Because I think referencing the writing as 'complete shit that's almost unintelligible' was the nicest thing he said about them.  I had a look and had to agree.  A novel can suffer if the author is more about showing off their knowledge than about being a damn good writer and storyteller.

Not saying there aren't some who do well, but I just don't automatically warm to the idea of reading books by experts myself.  There's one author that I know a lot of people like, but my one attempt at her stuff turned me right off, for a variety of reasons.

I would also agree that sometimes, you can't let the facts get in the way of a good story.  But you can also take that too far.  I don't typically enjoy a lot of amateur sleuth offerings, particularly if they're "cutesy" because I can't believe in books that portray all the cops as idiots and some baker or cheerleader just stumbles across all the clues and says, "Oh, Gee, maybe this means something" and they've solved the crime.  Those books drive me nuts.
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Zigster
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« Reply #6 on: August 15, 2006 »

Yeah, guess I am kinda on the fence with this too. Too much detail in a specialist area can lose a lot of people. Especially abbreviated depts etc can sometimes be confusing when you are not familair wth the area, but on the other hand you dont want to be really way off the mark otherwise it goes way beyond believability. Luckily I have a few friends in the field (don't we all) such as medical, lawyers and I was kinda working for the police at one point.  So I guess I like to keep fairly on track so I don't make a horrible mistake that would put people off. Guess it depends what you are reading really. Sci fi can be really way out there and of course fantasy, as there are no known facts and the imagination can run wild.. If the story is based in the 'real' world, if there is such a place, I guess for me you can stretch the truth quite a ways, but if a character survives being blown up a few times or has too much happen to them I guess it might put me off. Depends on the character, his career etc. Although I guess everyone likes the under dog who has to fight every step of the way. Who is put in situations that would not be normal for them. Okay now I have done a complete 360, not sure what I think anymore. Good topic though.
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norby
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« Reply #7 on: August 15, 2006 »

My biggest concern is the science end of things ( big surprise!).  I prefer that the book be realistic enough that I'm not completely disgusted by the falsity of it, but even I get bored by lengthy descriptions of DNA testing, and I've voluntarily taken genetics classes.  So I guess I think there needs to be some research for a note of realism, but there is a line where it becomes overdone and it just becomes boring.
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chelbel
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« Reply #8 on: August 15, 2006 »

Without getting into a religious debate.... Isint the BIBLE the best selling book in the world. How much fact would you think is in that, and we won't get into the science. I dont think fact matters at all, i agree with the "believeable" and "good story" comments. Story telling is not fact, so why should it be factual?
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darkdoug
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« Reply #9 on: August 15, 2006 »

I think that writers that really know their stuff can use their knowledge in a really nuanced way.  It doesn't interfere with their creativity at all.  I like it, for example, that Mark took the trouble to talk to some detectives, that he gets the police ranks right, and knows what forensics they're capable of.  I think that if you write a police procedural and you make glaring errors, you will lose your reader's respect. People know a lot these days because of the CSI stuff on TV.

There are some writers that are light on the forensics (Ruth Rendell) and who succeed brilliantly through character and insight.  But when she does use procedural knowledge, it is accurate.

I think it is possible to tweak certain aspects of the truth.  Most cops will tell you that the only unbelievable thing about, say, CSI, is the speed with which they get labwork done, fast enough to furnish plot points in a one hour show.  In reality, labs are backed up like crazy, and it takes months to get stuff processed.  Also,the samples under analysis are less pure in the real world: they always seem to be perfect on TV. With these things, the viewer/reader is willing to suspend disbelief, but only because the methods are essentially correct.

In terms of composing a novel, I think the writer should not initially encumber him/herself with research until the book is written; worrying about the nit picky stuff during the initial draft will make you crazy. I believe that most creative writers do their research later.  But they do it.

MHO
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Rock chick
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« Reply #10 on: August 16, 2006 »

As with any form of communication, you have to consider your audience. As Darkdoug says, those of us who go in for this kind of writing are pretty well informed - we're willing to suspend belief to a certain extent (bit of a glut of serial killers sometimes, and the crimes generally get solved, for example) but any glaring errors are going to stand out.

There can be too much detail, however, which makes my brain slide away - for example, Michael Connelly's 'Chasing the Dime'. I adore MC usually, but this book had (imho) so much unintelligible scientific detail I spent most of the time trying to absorb this rather than the plot - I kept getting lost and having to re-read bits - very unsatisfying!

Sometimes less is more.

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PracticeJack
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« Reply #11 on: August 16, 2006 »

Doesnt have to be spot on but has to be believable.. unless its a fantasy or scifi book i suppose.. I like a bit off realism with the stuff i read... but if it went too in depth it could maybe go over my head..
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moneill
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« Reply #12 on: August 16, 2006 »

On a side note here, would you agree or disagree that over the last 20 years, crime writing has become more and more dependent on these sort of forensic accuracies? If so, why do you think that is? Tom Clancy? CSI? Michael Connelly? Thomas Harris? People expect more out a book than just a good story? Are any/all of these reasons for the change? I know I may be harping on about this but read something like "Nightmare Town" or any of the Continental Op stories or anything by Donald Westlake or Ross MacDonald and compare that to anything by Pelecanos, Connelly, Crais, Lehane, et. al. written in the last 5 or so years.  I think you'll see an increasing reliance on spending time in court rooms, interviewing detectives, researching at Quantico, whatever it might be.  In the past books were dedicated to a wife, a father, a mother...now they are always dedicated to a slew of professionals who helped with the research. Don't you think that may be taking some meat out of the stories?
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through the darkness of futures past
the magician longs to see
one chants out between two worlds
fire, walk with me.

moneill
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« Reply #13 on: August 16, 2006 »

Apropos of all this, I came across the following quote today from Otto Penzler (a wonderful man who publishes the annual "Best American Crime" and "Best American Mystery" series):
Years ago, I asked Elmore Leonard how he was able to replicate the speech of the low-life Hispanic, black, and white street thugs and drug dealers so perfectly. He responded, "How do you know I do? Do you know a lot of guys like that?" "No, of course not," I said. "Well," he said, "neither do I. I make it up."
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through the darkness of futures past
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fire, walk with me.

betty
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« Reply #14 on: August 16, 2006 »

For me once the story is believable, I'm not too pushed about total accuracy.  Obviously you don't want something to catch you up short and think to yourself that couldn't possiblly be true.  I don't like court room books - I read the Perry Mason books years ago, and that's it for me.  I'm not adverse to learning something from a book, but it is fiction after all, not an academic text.
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