Can you have too much realism in crime fiction?

toilet.jpgI’ve written before about my love of the police procedural. At its best it’s one of my favourite genres, but there seems to be a trend now to go very heavy on the procedure. It seems some writers feel they have to prove they’ve done their homework by regurgitating every painstaking detail onto the page. Sadly, there have been a number of recent high-profile cases which suggest that the actual police are rather less concerned with procedure than the aspiring crime author.

If, to paraphrase Hitchcock, fiction is life with the dull bits cut out, why are some crime writers, in their quest for verisimilitude, zealously putting them back in? Part of making a story move is shaping the narrative, knowing what to select. A bright eight-year-old might question why no one ever goes to the toilet in stories, but most of us know the answer.

When does messing with reality become a problem? I read a Stephen L Carter novel where he changed the timing of a battle in Vietnam to suit his character’s arc. I thought rewriting history was going a bit far. On the other hand, Sharon Penman once moved Richard the Third to a different castle on a crucial date and I felt much less strongly. Because the historical record was less clear, or just because it was a long time ago?

I felt let down by Force of Nature because I found the premise unconvincing, but was happy to watch Paul Abbott’s No Offence where rules are gleefully abandoned – suspects questioned together, vulnerable individuals left unsupervised in interview rooms, a pathologist who also happens to be their IT expert and is not averse to turning his hand to forensics – because it fits the anarchic nature of the programme.

I think it’s okay to deviate from reality if it complicates a story, but not if it miraculously resolves one. If a career criminal refuses a lawyer, bursts into tears and confesses everything, that’s a disappointment, but if he’s illegally interrogated in the car on the way to the station and gives up a significant piece of information that is now inadmissible, that may be a lie, that would force the police to take the case in a whole new direction, then that is great storytelling.

Even the most casual reader or viewer of crime fiction these days is well versed in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. If we’re expecting gritty realism, we need to be confident that there is a solid procedural framework underlying the drama. What we don’t need is authors over-zealously showing their workings.



  1. I’m not a crime reader so can’t really comment on that but my tolerance of inaccuracies or a loose reationship with history very much depends on the quality of the writing. My historian parnter would beg to differ, though!


    1. I agree with this absolutely. I can suspend disbelief if the book is really good. What does put me off, though, is lazy/lack of research – a plot that revolves around/is resolved by something that couldn’t legally happen. I’ve read a few of them recently. I don’t mind a bit of ‘deviation’ in history, though. Phillippa Gregory got away with making Anne the eldest sister in The Other Boleyn Girl, somehow; it was a bit annoying but I still loved the book.

      To answer Kate’s original question, the vast majority of police procedural/crime novels that I’ve read have bored me to tears; the endless discussion between detectives about how they have/are going to find out whodunnit. I know crime is most people’s favourite genre, but it took me a while to realise that I just don’t like it. I’m interested in the reasons why the crime was committed and how it affected the victims, not every tiny forensic detail.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I remember having to write a piece on a Michael Connelly book for work and feeling downright weary at the endless description of the road layouts which had no bearing on the plot whatsoever.


      2. I guess some people like all the detail – hence the success of authors like Kathy Reichs and TV dramas like CSI. Perhaps people feel as if they’re learning something as they read. But I’m with you – I’m much more interested in the characters.


  2. I like the detail on television. I like it in documentaries. But what I don’t like about it in books is the way the writers always use long, detailed conversations between the detectives to explain to the reader how the crime was solved. Before I gave up trying to read them, I used to find myself skipping to the end to find out whodunnit. I’ve only ever read one murder/crime/mystery in which it wasn’t totally tedious, and that was Block 46 by Johanna Gustawsson.


  3. I’m a big police procedural and crime books reader and I will honestly say that when things start to get too technical (ie Kathy Reichs describing a very scientific process) I tend to skip over most if it… I get the idea, but do I really need to remember all the technical jargon?? Maybe I’ll regret it the next time I need to retrieve some bones, or match some DNA or something.. Because THAT happens every day.


    1. Yes, it’s a fine line. A bit of jargon makes it real and it’s fascinating what can be learnt from forensics, but I don’t want to feel like I’m reading the office manual!


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