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.


The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn

the woman in the window aj finnThe opening of The Woman in the Window has a pleasing dissonance. The narrator is watching her neighbours through a camera lens, describing them in a cool ironic voice. The set-up is reminiscent of a classic movie but you gradually realise the references are sharply contemporary.

Anna is an agoraphobic, living alone in her affluent New York home. When she isn’t observing her neighbours or engaging in various online forums she is watching her favourite black-and-white films.

She becomes particularly fixated on the neighbours who move in across the road. On first impression they seem a happy family. Then she believes she witnesses a crime in their home. Her condition, her medication, the alcohol she is not supposed to drink, all mean that no one, including Anna herself, is sure that her account can be believed.

This is very stylish, clever and intriguing book. What I liked about it most was that distinctive narrative voice. There are a number of satisfying twists. Some of them I saw coming (that’s not necessarily a bad thing as it allows me to feel smug) but others were genuinely shocking.

I was fascinated by Anna and by her story and although I’m not a big movie fan I did pick up many of the cinematic references. (Some of them are spelt out in the narration – I think devotees of the genre might feel cheated of their opportunity to feel smug.)

My only reservation is that it is a very long book. Those Hollywood classics are very spare and fast-paced, and I think the book should have mirrored that structure. If it were a hundred pages shorter I would have loved it even more.


fear dirk kurbjuweitthe woman in the window USOne final thought – I don’t understand the UK cover (top) – it doesn’t capture the feel of the book at all. Seeing the title and that image, I thought it was a dark thriller about a woman trapped in a downtown warehouse, maybe a victim of trafficking. The US cover may not win awards (and it is very similar to the cover of Fear) but it does at least suggest a domestic setting and a retro feel.

I received a copy of The Woman in the Window from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Woman in the Window on Goodreads



London Rules by Mick Herron

london rules mick herronI’m struggling to write a review of London Rules. On the one hand I love it so much I want to tell you all about it. On the other there are so many clever twists that I don’t want to give anything away at all.

If you’re new to this series, it features the ‘slow horses’,  intelligence service staff who, for a variety of reasons – trauma, addiction or just temperament – have been deemed unsuitable for their occupation. They are kept on the payroll but are exiled to Slough House, a rundown building where they are expected to do mind-numbing tasks bereft of danger or challenge.

In London Rules, Britain is in the grip of Brexit madness, random terror events and most shocking of all, slow horse Roddy Ho, computer genius and social failure, has got a girlfriend. And slightly less shocking, someone is trying to kill him. The slow horses feel bound to intervene, and chaos ensues as they are not only up against killers, but their own employer.

From the stunning prologue to the long, leisurely first chapter worthy of Dickens, the prose is beautiful and creates a pleasing tension. You want to race ahead to what happens next but also to savour what you’re reading now. The political characters are brilliantly – if brutally – observed and would make you weep if you weren’t already laughing out loud.

Most of all, for me, it’s the series characters that keep me reading – their talents, their flaws, the endless machinations of the people in power and the bloodymindedness of those pushed out.

When I finished reading, I immediately felt bereft and eager to know what’s coming next.

I received a copy of London Rules from the publisher via Netgalley.
View London Rules on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Check out my review of Spook Street by Mick Herron. He also features on  my list of favourite crime fiction writers.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

force of nature by jane harperForce of Nature is about five women from the same company in Melbourne who go on a team-building hike and camp in a remote forest. At the end, only four return. Alice, the woman who is missing, is a witness in a separate investigation run by series protagonist Aaron Falk so he and his partner hotfoot it up to the site to join the investigation.

Of course the five women, all of different ranks within the organisation, have a complex network of conflicts and relationships, and they are placed in a highly stressful situation, and, just to crank up the tension, this is the stamping ground of a now-deceased serial killer whose last alleged victim was never found, so this should be an intriguing read, but it never really came alive for me.

Firstly, I don’t buy the premise. It’s a matter for debate how much realism matters in a work of fiction, but if you have to suspend disbelief before you’ve become involved into the story, that’s a big hurdle. We are expected to believe that a respected corporate events company sent a group of women off into the cold and rain with one map, which wasn’t even laminated (it ran in the rain), no mobile phones, no way of raising the alarm in the event of a medical emergency, and ran no checks on their progress over the four days of the expedition. I’m not saying this would never happen, but if it did, surely the police’s first thought would be to investigate them for at best criminal neglect and at worst complicity in a crime or its coverup? However, it’s taken as read that this is all perfectly fine.

Next, the disappearance of Alice is being investigated by the state police, which means Falk and his partner, as federal investigators of financial crimes, have only a tangential role in her investigation. They wander around with no clear sense of purpose, occasionally interviewing witnesses and suspects who have already been interviewed. In their downtime, Falk stares mournfully at his father’s old maps, which he happened to bring with him in his old rucksack (along with, implausibly, Alice’s bank statements) and thinks about their relationship.

The novel alternates between the points of view of Falk during the investigation, and the women during the hike. This kind of structure can work, but here it leads to quite a lot of repetition and the suspense is not that great. It’s neither a police procedural, where we can follow the clues, nor a psychological thriller where we have strong empathy with the women, wondering if and how they will all survive.

If Falk is the protagonist we might expect him to solve the mystery, however one vital clue comes when one of the women admits to something she’d earlier kept quiet, and at the denouement he makes a deduction based on a flimsy piece of forensic evidence for which there are any number of plausible explanations.

I haven’t read Jane Harper’s first novel, The Dry, but I’ve heard good things about it so I was looking forward to this one. Force of Nature feels like it was either written in a hurry or is a rehashed novel-in-a-drawer. It’s obviously tempting to get another book out quickly when you’ve had major success, but I wonder if publishers might do better to take the long view.

I received a copy of Force of Nature from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Force of Nature on Goodreads

For a more interesting take on being lost in the wilderness, here’s my review of The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens

Her Secret Rose by Orna Ross

her secret rose orna rossHer Secret Rose is the first in a trilogy based on the lives of the poet WB Yeats and actor-turned-political campaigner Maud Gonne.

From their first meeting they are united by their passionate commitment to Irish nationalism, but there is much that divides them. Gonne is independently wealthy, worldly and confident. She has the resources – bolstered by an unconventional upbringing – to break through many of the constraints facing women at the time.

Yeats, by contrast, is naïve and sexually inexperienced, living at home in genteel poverty and struggling to make a name for himself. He becomes infatuated with Gonne and she looms large in his thoughts and fantasies even though they rarely see each other. She, in turn, seems to need his friendship, though it is never entirely clear, perhaps even to Gonne herself, whether she feels a profound connection to him or whether he is just another plate she has to keep spinning.

The story is narrated by Rosie Cross, a woman who reveals little of herself in this first volume, except to say that she was also involved in nationalist movement and was a servant at that time. This frame works well – Rosie is close enough to know their thoughts and feelings but also has a nice ironic distance. She is clearly not blind to the faults of her subjects.

Yeats, like his artist father, is concerned that his art should not be tainted by banal concerns such as earning a living. The burden of supporting the household therefore falls on his long-suffering sisters.

Gonne is portrayed as a more complex and enigmatic character. For all her strength and charm, she is embroiled in an abusive relationship with a married man in France who is happy to use her to further his own political agenda.

Gonne elects to keep her private life a secret. She is constantly aware of her public persona and its importance to her political activity. She tells Yeats – and presumably the world at large – that her children are orphans she has adopted. His lack of knowledge of her real life allows him to mythologise her further.

Their vision for Ireland draws on Celtic myth and mysticism which can put them at odds with other nationalists (Gonne is conflicted about whether to share a platform with a socialist, and at times people criticise her interventions in the evictions of tenant farmers as more theatrical than constructive).

The story is interwoven with extracts from original documents and Yeats’ poetry. It portrays two fascinating but not necessarily attractive characters, and gives an insight into an important period in Irish history.

I received a copy of Her Secret Rose from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Her Secret Rose on Goodreads


Snow by Mike Bond

snow by mike bondSteve and Zack are on a hunting trip in the wilds of Montana with their guide, Curt, when Zack discovers a crashed plane with cocaine in it. Steve persuades him not to tell anyone and that they can sell the cocaine themselves to make a profit. They both need the money. Steve’s investment firm is going down the pan and ex-footballer Zack has gambling debts. So when Curt goes into town to report the plane crash they stay behind and begin to execute their plan.

One of the things I liked was that Steve and Zack were pretty inept in their dealings – they were about as good at being cocaine traffickers as I would be. This felt real and plausible but it left me wondering why it took the police struggled as they did to get to them. (There is a sort-of justification – the police want to catch the big-scale traffickers who chartered the plane – but that would be a major federal operation, not one police officer and a mobile phone.)

The quality of the characterisation varies throughout the book. It starts well – on the one hand you have Zack, who generally has good intentions but is weak and self-pitying. On the other you have Steve, who is manipulative and whose privileged upbringing leads him to overestimate his own abilities. Later on though, their voices seem to merge so at times it’s hard to tell which is which.

It would have been better if the author had made more of the shifting dynamics of the Steve/Zack friendship – what brings them together and what forces them apart, but this got lost in a lot of repetition of their backstories, driving around to no clear purpose and mutual recrimination.

The implicit theme of the story could be said to show that even if you’re in a position of relative privilege, like an investment manager or NFL player or gangster, you are still a cog in an unjust system. If it had stayed implicit it might have been effective. However, all the characters articulate an eerily similar critique of predatory capitalism and the war on drugs. Clearly, these are the views of the author rather than the characters and in hitting the reader over the head with them he tends to irritate rather than inspire.

I liked the premise of this novel. There is some lovely writing in here, particularly the opening chapters in the Montana wilderness, and, by contrast, the author’s jaundiced perspective on the Vegas casinos. I just wish he’d given the characters room to think for themselves.

I received a copy of Snow from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Snow on Goodreads



Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

fire and fury by michael wolffI’ve been fascinated by US politics since the US primaries when I became interested in the Bernie Sanders campaign. This coincided with the run up to the Brexit referendum. Despite being a political anorak, I couldn’t get engaged in the depressingly content-free ‘debate’ that was taking place here.

I started listening to US podcasts (NPR Politics was my gateway drug, though my current favourite is Pod Save America). I went for Sanders but stayed for Trump, watching (or rather listening to) events unfold with fascinated horror. We have a right-wing government that is both dreary and incompetent, but at least Trump is only one of those.

So the publication of Fire and Fury (brought forward in response to Trump’s threat of legal action) was like my version of queuing up at midnight for the new Harry Potter. I’ve never paid anywhere near £13.99 for an ebook before, and probably won’t again, but it’s a book of the moment and I wanted to be part of it.

Was it worth it? I’m not sure. Most of the key revelations have already appeared in the media. There’s not much that was new to me, and nothing that was surprising, but having it laid out as one coherent narrative was a useful and oddly entertaining way of having the full horror of our situation reinforced. (I know I’m not American but Trump and his big red button loom over us all.) It’s quite readable and I even laughed out loud a few times. What stayed with me, chillingly, is the number of people, across all factions, willing to collude to keep a clearly incompetent man in power for their own ends.

The book relies on a number of sources and Wolff explains that the extent to which they were on the record is ambiguous, in part because the White House had no clear procedures in place. The later chapters in particular rely heavily on Bannon’s perspective. His criticism is most intense while discussing the role of the Trump family, especially Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner (Jarvanka). While it’s not hard to believe his portrayal of the foolishness and naked self-interest of Jarvanka, I felt the need to pause and step back.

It’s like when you’re reading a chapter in a crime novel which is narrated by the antagonist and get so caught up in the story you suddenly realise you’re cheering on a serial killer. Bannon, as represented in this book, is an evil genius, but recent events (such as the defeat of his preferred candidate, racist and alleged paedophile Roy Moore in Alabama) indicate that he may not be (a genius, that is).

There are a couple of things that annoy me. Wolff seems to have taken on one of the traits of his subject, writing long, rambling sentences with more clauses than Donald Trump has had Diet Cokes. And the book is riddled with errors. I don’t mean factual errors, I’ll leave others more qualified to comment on those. I mean typos, misspellings, words added or missed out, the basic stuff that would lead to fire and fury being rained down on an indie author on a budget flogging a novel for 99p. I know the book came out in a hurry but I would expect such a profitable title to have been within an awkward hand-hold of a copy editor.

Should you buy it? If you’re really absorbed in the soap opera, like me, then you probably won’t want to miss out. Otherwise you can read the key points in the media coverage and wait to pick it up second hand or in the library. But by then it will no doubt have been superseded by even more strange events.

View Fire and Fury on Goodreads

Don’t want to pay £13.99 for an ebook? Sign up to my newsletter and get my latest novel, The Former Chief Executive, FREE

new tfce 3d deep orange and text