Overview of '11.22.63'
Stephen King is often referred to as "the master storyteller" and for me this is never been more evident than in his epic novel 11.22.63. An lengthy 734 pages long, the book examines the "butterfly effect” that results when one man tries to change the past. To quote from the back narrative: ‘In 2011, Jake Epping, an English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, sets out on an insane – and insanely possible – mission to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Leaving behind a world of computers and mobile phones, he goes back to a time of big American cars and diners, of Lindy Hopping, the sound of Elvis and the taste of root beer. In this haunting world, Jake falls in love with Sadie, a beautiful high school librarian. And, as the ominous date 11.22.63 approaches, he encounters a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald.’
Into his portrait of the Kennedy era, King weaves the love story of Jake, now known as George, and Sadie, one that never becomes overly treacly but instead is detailed with humour and realism. In 11.22.63, Jake travels the classic hero’s journey, from a jaded high school teacher, bruised from his divorce from his alcoholic wife, to a man who discovers the love of his life and the courage to do what hurts in order to put right the problems he’s caused.
Rich details of 1950s and 1960s American Life
King is a master at evoking small-town America from the 50s and 60s. We are treated to a rich portrayal of a past life; from Jake's first taste of homemade root beer, through the music and dances of the era (Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’, lindy hopping), to the cars (Jake's beloved Sunliner). In contrast to this nostalgic idyll, King also gives us the downside - prevalent domestic violence, racial prejudice, the fug of ever-present cigarette smoke. Idyll and anti-idyll are set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the bogeyman figure of Nikita Khrushchev. Besides the darkness, King provides plenty of lighter moments in the book – absurdly quaint slogans (Drink Cheer-Up Coffee!) and sidesteps such as the fun of George teaching Ritchie and Bevvie how to lindy hop. The humour is more evident in the first half of the novel, before the narrative takes a dark downward twist in the months leading up to Lee Harvey Oswald's attack on Kennedy. The richness of detail is amazing, like tracing the path of a fractal. The blood and sweat of King’s depiction of the prize fight between Case and Tiger. The shat-HOOSH sound of the machines at Worumbo Mills and Weaving. The taste of the root beer and ribs. At times, the narrative is so evocative I felt I was deep inside the novel, embedded in the heart of 1960s America.
Remember the butterfly effect...
Ah, let's not forget we're not supposed to tinker with time. What about the butterfly effect? King provides plenty of hints about the impact George's presence in the past is having, and it's not always a beneficial one. Take what happens to Vince Knowles; the changing colour of the Yellow Card Man's card; the subtle differences in the conversations George has every time he returns to September 9, 1958. This is no Groundhog Day – instead of opportunities to improve his situation, King provides George with more and more chances to screw up the future by messing with the past. As Al Templeton tells him: "The past is obdurate. Doesn't want to be changed". It’s no coincidence that the entrance to the rabbit hole into 1950s Lisbon Falls is chained off, posing as a broken sewer pipe. A metaphor for George’s sullying of the world’s future by meddling with forces he doesn’t understand. A salutary lesson for all of us (not that any of us are likely to go time travelling any time soon!)
High tension, moving towards a perfect ending
Throughout the narrative, the foreboding figure of the Yellow Card Man, a foul-mouthed wino, stands guard over the mysterious portal from Jake’s present day life into 1950s America. It is late in the novel before the Yellow Card Man’s secret is revealed, along with his instrumental role in safeguarding the future of the world. The tension mounts as the past becomes ever more obdurate in its attempts to thwart George’s interference in the Kennedy assassination. Will he succeed or won’t he? As we discover the answer, King sweeps us along to the novel’s ending, which for me was perfect. Very moving.
Why genre fiction is overlooked when it comes to the major literary prizes, when it can produce novels of this calibre, is beyond me. I highly recommend this book.
I'm delighted to welcome my friend Ellis Shuman to my blog today. Ellis is the author of the gripping suspense novel 'Valley of Thracians' as well as a collection of short stories entitled 'The Virtual Kibbutz'. He also writes a popular blog, where he posts book reviews, articles about Israel, Bulgaria, and anything else he fancies. You can find it here. https://ellisshuman.blogspot.com/
Reading one of Ellis's posts got me thinking. Which is the better medium for e-books, a dedicated e-reader or a tablet? Me, I love my basic Kindle. The battery life is amazing; I can go weeks between recharges, despite using the device most days. I also love e-ink; I can read my Kindle in bright sunshine, whereas the shiny screens on tablets render that difficult. Kindle Paperwhites also have a backlight facility, which enables readers to use their devices in the dark, and are also waterproof. Once my basic model stops working, I'll upgrade to a Paperwhite.
I also like the fact that I can't access the Internet. Sure, my Kindle is wi-fi enabled, allowing me to browse Amazon for new books, but that's as far as it goes. For me, the fact I can't access Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads or any other of my favourite websites, is great. I can lose myself for hours in social media!
Ellis prefers to read via a tablet
Ellis has a different take on the subject. 'I don't own a Kindle,' he says. 'I am a late adapter, if I adapt to a new technology at all. I have recently considered purchasing a Kindle, but feared that I would be falling behind the times with a single purpose device. In the end, I've elected to buy a tablet, giving me a handheld unit that will enable me to read digital books comfortably, as well as interact with the Internet when I see fit to do so.'
I mentioned above how my Nook allows me to read in the dark. Ellis, of course, can do that as well with his tablet. The rest of this post is given over to him; he's written an article about why he enjoys reading digital books in bed at night. Seems his wife prefers the more traditional paperback, though! Over to you, Ellis.
Reading in the dark - 'Lights out!'
When I was a young boy, this parental request meant an end to my nightly reading adventures, whether they be solving mysteries with the Hardy Boys or traveling 20,000 leagues under the sea with Jules Verne. In those days, I was obedient to a fault. The lights in my bedroom invariably went out at chapter's end. I never read books by flashlight because I could barely breathe under the covers. Four decades later and my reading preferences and habits have changed. Now, the words "Lights out" declared in my conjugal bedroom signal a start to the night's literary activities. My wife and I fire up our tablets, turn off the lights, and start reading in the dark. While my wife reads a family drama set against the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, I read fiction as well as non-fiction, having selected recently published titles that will not only give me pleasure but which I will also review for my blog.
Books delivered seamlessly and instantly
I was the first in our household to purchase a tablet, not for its Internet connectivity or for the ability to play games and watch videos on a handheld screen, but purely for the joy of reading digital books. While I appreciate the look and feel of flipping through the physical pages of a paperback, I also find pleasure in selecting a title to read, clicking a button, and having that book delivered seamlessly and instantly to my tablet. As a book reviewer, I frequently bookmark passages that I will consider quoting or paraphrasing in my reviews. This function is not available when I'm reading an advance reader copy (ARC) of a new book received in PDF format. Just the other day, my wife asked me how I keep track of passages to include in my reviews when reading a hard copy of a book. I realized that reviews of those books rely on my often faulty memory, rather than my leaving paper notes between the pages.
Some of the books I've recently reviewed have been quite good and I gladly recommended them to my wife. This was a bit difficult when we were a one-tablet family and I was the only one reading in the dark. My wife purchased her own tablet and some of the ebooks I received made their virtual way into her hands as well. My wife hasn't totally warmed to reading digital copies of books. "What percentage are you up to?" I sometimes ask her, comparing how far each of us are in our respective reads at the end of the night. My wife doesn't see any benefit in a note informing her that she is three minutes away from the end of the chapter. She would much prefer to skim ahead through physical pages to determine when she plans to put down her book for the night.
Time to go to sleep
There are other things you just have to get used to when reading via tablet, whether it's the size of the font, the way you hold the device, and how to swish your finger to turn the pages. It's not the same experience as reading a paperback, that's for sure. But, there is one thing that my wife and I both experience at the end of the night, and it doesn't matter if we're reading a physical book, or a digital one on our tablet. When our eyes become tired, we end up reading the same sentence over and over, not comprehending the text or remembering what we've just read. It's time to shut down the tablet for the night, extinguishing the small light of its screen. At that point, the words "Lights out!" signal, just like they did in childhood, that it's time to stop reading and go to sleep.
More about Ellis Shuman
Ellis Shuman was born in the United States but moved to Israel as a teenager. He served in the Israeli army, was a founding member of a kibbutz, and now lives outside Jerusalem. For two years, 2009-2010, Ellis and his wife lived in Sofia, Bulgaria. Ellis writes frequently about Bulgaria, Israel, books, travel, and other interesting things on his blog, which you can find at https://ellisshuman.blogspot.com/
And about his books, starting with The Burgas Affair
She’s an Israeli data analyst. He’s a headstrong Bulgarian detective. Together they must track down those responsible for a horrific bombing.
In the wake of a deadly terrorist attack at Burgas Airport in Bulgaria, Israeli and Bulgarian intelligence agencies launch a joint investigation. Detective Boyko Stanchev on the police task force teams up with Ayala Navon, a young Israeli intelligence analyst on her first overseas assignment.
The two must establish whether the terrorists were assisted by a Bulgarian crime organization in laying the groundwork for the attack.
It should be a routine investigation, but shadows of the past keep interfering.
Boyko’s interactions with a crime boss pursuing a vendetta against him threaten to throw him off track. Ayala’s pursuit of the terrorists and their accomplices brings up painful memories of a family tragedy.
Boyko and Ayala form a shaky alliance, one that evolves into growing cooperation and affection as they desperately race against time to uncover who was behind the Burgas bombing.
The Burgas Affair is a fictional account of the aftermath of a very real terrorist attack. On July 18, 2012, a deadly explosive rocked a tourist bus at Burgas Airport, killing five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver. The terrorists responsible for this murderous attack have never been brought to justice.
Valley of Thracians
A Peace Corps volunteer has gone missing in Bulgaria and everyone assumes he is dead, everyone except his grandfather, who refuses to give up hope. Retired literature professor Simon Matthews launches a desperate search only to be lured into a bizarre quest to retrieve a stolen Thracian artefact—a unique object of immense value others will stop at nothing to recover. Matthews travels through a Balkan landscape dotted with ancient tombs and fortresses, unaware that his grandson has been confined to an isolated mountain cabin, slowly recovering from a severe head injury. Nothing can be taken at face value, as the woman assisting Matthews in his quest and the nurse caring for his injured grandson may have ulterior motives in helping the two reunite. Even when Matthews succeeds in joining up with his grandson, departure from Bulgaria is only possible if the missing relic can be found.
The Virtual Kibbutz
In this debut collection of stories, the author introduces you to kibbutz residents challenged with adapting to new realities. Along the way you'll see how kibbutzniks face up to the violence of the Intifada, cope with the Internet, and struggle to have more control over their lives.
Marriage can be a killer...
'Gone Girl' is Gillian Flynn's third novel, a dark, disturbing tale of dysfunctional relationships. It's as fine a portrayal of a psychopathic character as you're ever likely to read. To quote from the back blurb:
'Who are you? What have we done to each other?
These are the questions Nick Dunne finds himself asking on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, when his wife Amy suddenly disappears. The police suspect Nick. Amy's friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn't true. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. He says they weren't made by him. And then there are the persistent calls on his mobile phone.
So what did happen to Nick's beautiful wife?'
A sharply written portrait of a psychopath
The first half of the story is narrated from the present-day viewpoint of Nick, under suspicion from the police, spliced with Amy's historical account of their relationship taken from her diary. We see how incidents from Nick's point of view take on a very different twist when told by Amy. Her journal entries show her growing disappointment with Nick's emotional reticence, ending with her revealing that she wants a gun to protect herself from him. There are doubts woven into the first half of the book, however. Nick is clearly no angel, being shallow and self-absorbed, but is he warped enough to murder his wife? On their wedding anniversary?
Maybe not. After all, the beautiful and brilliant Amy has attracted unwanted attention in the past, from a copycat schoolgirl friend to the stalker-like obsession of her ex-boyfriend. Could someone from her past be responsible for her disappearance?
'Gone Girl' is sharply written, with language designed to stimulate all the senses. 'The smell of salt and factory-farm meat floating on the warm breezes'. 'Snow like sugar clouds'. Noelle Hawthorne's triplets trail behind her like a kite; Maureen Dunne's knitting needles click-clack while she 'talks in her contented-cat voice, all deep, sleepy purr'. Flynn paints vivid word pictures as she hustles the narrative along, her pace relentless.
My only criticism of the book is one echoed by other reviews I've read - the ending didn't sit well with me. Such a high-tension novel would, I think, be better served by a different finale, although I won't say what or why as I don't want to be a plot-spoiler! Other than that, though, 'Gone Girl' is a tremendous read, one I thoroughly enjoyed.
Other novels by Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn's first novel was 'Sharp Objects', which won a Crime Writer's Association Dagger Award. The book tells the story of reporter Camille Preaker, who searches for the truth behind the murders of two pre-teen girls whilst confronting her own tragic past. Whilst doing so, she finds herself identifying with the young victims - maybe too strongly...
Flynn's second novel is 'Dark Places', in which the thoroughly unlikable character of Libby Day earns money by selling details of the slaughter of her mother and two sisters, a crime that took place when she was still a child. Her brother, Ben, was imprisoned for the murder, but clues soon surface to show he may have been wrongly convicted. How reliable are Libby's memories? And if Ben wasn't the killer, then maybe his sister poking around in the past might prove dangerous...
More about Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn was born in Kansas City, Missouri, with a great deal of her childhood being given over to reading and watching movies. She studied English and journalism at the University of Kansas. Eventually she moved to New York City, with a ten-year stint writing for Entertainment Weekly . She has also worked as a TV critic. She now lives in Chicago with her husband, their son, and a giant black cat named Roy. You can find out more via her website, www.gillian-flynn.com.
Have you read 'Gone Girl'?
If so, let me know what you thought of it! What did you think of Amy and Nick? Did you see the plot twists coming? How was the ending for you - did you think it fitted what went before? Leave a comment for me!
Today's post is a collaboration between myself and my novelist friend Jerry Byrum. Welcome to my blog, Jerry! Together we’re going to examine how author gender affects reader perception.
Personally, I don’t care whether men or women write the novels I read. What does it matter, so long as they provide great content? To me, gender, when it comes to authors, is as relevant as hair colour or shoe size; it simply doesn’t matter. I’ve never agreed with the Mars/Venus approach, preferring a philosophy of life that emphasises similarities instead of differences. I’m betting, however, that if you’re someone who views the world in terms of male/female dichotomies, you’re likely to have a strong preference for either male or female writers. Fair enough if you choose male authors because you enjoy spy thrillers, or female ones because romance is your thing. There's no denying men and women dominate certain genres. What's more suspect is when people won't read espionage novels if they're written by a woman, such as Gale Lynds, or romances when penned by male authors, such as my friend Jerry Byrum.
Stereotyped gender attitudes definitely exist towards novelists. When I told a friend I’d completed my first novel, his first question was ‘Is it a romance?’ Then there’s the time I told somebody I intended to write novels. ‘What sort?’ she enquired. ‘Children’s books?’ This person knew children don’t feature in my life. So why the presumption I’d write fiction for them?
I find it a shame that in 2019, there’s still such strong gender stereotyping. Women are clearly supposed to write soft, fluffy material, whilst men stick to hard action topics. Shouldn’t we be past this nonsense by now? Fair enough if the Bronte sisters had to write under male pseudonyms in Victorian England, but for gender still to matter in 2019? I don’t get it.
Initials have no gender bias
Other writers report similar issues. Author Joanna Penn writes thrillers using her initials J F Penn because she doesn’t want buyers to judge her work based on her gender. She writes in the Action Adventure category, one dominated by male writers. Her books contain violent scenes; one features a psychiatric patient being disembowelled. She’s received comments about how the reader thought a man must have written the book, or that they expected something more ‘delicate’. Joanna says on her blog: ‘The author’s gender shouldn’t impact the way the story is read so it’s best to make it a non-issue. Initials are neutral. They have no gender bias and I like that approach.’ So how do these prejudices operate when it comes to men?
Here’s where I step aside and let Jerry Byrum take the floor. I asked Jerry, as a male romance writer, to give us his take on the subject. Here’s what he had to say.
There is no sacred ground or ownership
The notion that women or men writers/authors are better at particular genres is almost as mythical as saying short people should only write about short people and the same for tall people. Or that only doctors who've had a dreaded disease are permitted to treat it. Men and women have successfully broken through all kinds of areas or endeavors traditionally reserved for the respective genders. In my view, neither has a monopoly on a particular genre. There is no sacred ground or ownership. Creativity, such as writing, takes place on a broad playing field, and it's okay to break the rigid rules and color outside the lines, or write in the margins and off the page. But what about writing romance? That shouldn't make a whit of difference. Even though real-time hetero romance fiction is composed of 50/50 male/female, the bias exists that only the female 50% can write better romance stories. That's hard for me to buy into. However, a piece of information that shows up regularly across the internet is that women writers write approximately 95-98% of all romances, leaving a single-digit percentage to male writers. That high percentage alone, though, does not confirm that women are better at writing romance than men.
So why don't more men write romance?
I believe that question takes us back to how we raise boys and girls in the home and culture/society. Boys and girls are usually directed into certain activities, and heavy emphasis is placed on "behaving" like a male or female. One of the criticisms often leveled at men who have written in the romance/erotic romance/erotica genres is that men writers tend to be rough-edged, abrasive, abrupt, or a combination in their writing of romance. Nicholas Sparks puts that argument to rest, and so does James Waller, of ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ fame. Both capture the "softer" edges of romance, and reflect well the female perspectives of their characters. Their works are immensely popular among women.
On the other hand, you've got Sandra Brown who writes edgy romance-suspense with a strong storyline, but with an impulsive romance angle. As well as a good dash of explicit description when things get intimate. Very popular with women.
The process of writing is gender neutral
Then we've got the current BDSM/"billionaire-bad-boy" trend now popular. Both sub-genres have received criticism that they foster a "harsher" portrayal of romance, and rough treatment of women. However, those bestsellers that have hit the New York Times and USA Today hallowed lists are authored not by men, but by women, and women readers drove those authors to the top of the lists. (There are deeper currents as to why the popularity exists, but I digress.)
So who writes better romance, men or women? I say both can write excellent romance, and have. If we as writers, male and female, take our craft seriously, we'll quickly realize the process of writing has no gender; it is gender neutral. Men and women writers are equally capable of learning how to be flexible with words as they capture the full dimension of their characters. I think it's fair to expect all writers to get inside the head of each of their characters, male and female. I don't think writers can hide behind the solitary advice of writing "what you know," but we should also feel free to write what we don't know, and with a bit of research and imagination no telling what wonderful stories we can share with readers. Fiction is our invitation to do that.
Thank you, Jerry!
It's been a pleasure having you on my blog. So what do readers think? Does the gender of a novelist influence you over whether to read their work? Do you expect women writers to be more ‘delicate’, as was said to Joanna Penn, and men more aggressive? Do you have a strong preference for either male or female writers, and if so, why? In which genres?
Or perhaps you're a writer who's encountered gender stereotypes when it comes to your work. Are you a male romance writer who find people expect guns and not roses from your fiction? Or are you like Joanna and me, surprising others with our choice of disembowelment and psychopaths as subject material? What do you think about novelists concealing their genders behind initials or pseudonyms? Leave a comment and let me know! Meanwhile, thanks for reading!
More about Jerry Byrum
Jerry Byrum is a native of North Carolina who now lives near Washington DC. He is a graduate of High Point University, and East Carolina University. After service in the U.S. Army, Jerry taught public school science six years, and served as science consultant four years. He enjoyed a 25-year career as a National Representative of the American Federation of Teachers, with assignments in more than 30 states. He is a member of the Romance Writers of America, and enjoys writing edgy contemporary romance, with strong female protagonists and other runaway characters usually on a mission to satisfy their passions.
For my fourth novel, 'The Second Captive', I adopted a two-part structure, together with a prologue and epilogue. Not particularly unusual, but it got me thinking. Just how weird and wacky can a novelist get with the way he/she constructs a novel? And are there any examples I could share with my blog readers? It turns out there are plenty. Here are five examples of novels that take a different approach to the classic chapter-by-chapter structure.
1. 'Dolores Claiborne' - Stephen King
'Dolores Claiborne' is a 1992 thriller by Stephen King, narrated by Dolores herself. The novel is unusual in that there are no chapters or other section breaks. Instead, the book is a single continuous piece of prose that reads like a monologue. It sounds strange, but it works. Here's a summary of the plot.
Dolores Claiborne is being interrogated by the police, under suspicion of murdering her wealthy employer, an elderly woman named Vera Donovan whom she has looked after for years. The two women had a difficult yet close relationship. Dolores is adamant that she is innocent; however, she does confess to killing her husband, Joe St. George, almost thirty years before, after finding out that he sexually molested their fourteen-year-old daughter. Dolores's confession develops into the story of her life, her troubled marriage, and her relationship with her employer. Along the way we also get glimpses into the personal lives of the police officers interrogating her, disclosed through Dolores's commentary, which demonstrates an astute grasp of human nature.
2. 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' - John Fowles
'The French Lieutenant's Woman', written by John Fowles in 1969, is a historical fiction novel. It's unusual in that the narrator intervenes throughout the novel and later becomes a character in it. Furthermore, he offers three different ways for the narrative to end. (No plot spoilers, I promise!) After the first ending, the narrator appears as a character sharing a railway compartment with the male protagonist. He tosses a coin to determine the order in which he will portray the other two possible endings, emphasising their equal plausibility. Here's a summary of the plot.
Sarah Woodruff, the 'Woman' of the title, also known as 'Tragedy', lives in Lyme Regis as a disgraced woman, supposedly abandoned by a French ship's officer named Varguennes who has returned to France and married. She spends a lot of time on The Cobb, a stone jetty where she stares out at the sea, thus increasing her mysterious reputation. One day, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman, his fiancée, see Sarah walking along the cliffside. Ernestina tells Charles something of Sarah's story, and he becomes curious about her. He has several more encounters with Sarah, and ends up falling in love with her. Returning from a journey to Ernestina's father, Charles has the choice of either returning to Ernestina or visiting Sarah. It's at this point that the first possible ending kicks in, triggering the appearance of the narrator in Charles's railway carriage and the other endings. Intriguing!
3. 'Slaughterhouse Five' - Kurt Vonnegut
The novel boasting the unwieldy title of 'Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death' was written in 1969 by Kurt Vonnegut. It's a satirical novel that's partly autobiographical, being based on Vonnegut's World War Two experiences, particularly the fire-bombing of Dresden. Its structure is unusual in that the story is told in a non-linear order and events become clear through various flashbacks (or time travel experiences) involving the narrator. He describes the stories of Billy Pilgrim, who believes himself to have been in an alien zoo and to experience time travel. Here's a summary of the plot.
Billy Pilgrim is a disoriented, fatalistic, and ill-trained American soldier who refuses to fight in the Second World War. He is captured by the Germans and transported to Dresden where he and his fellow prisoners are housed in a disused slaughterhouse in Dresden. Their building is known as "Schlachthof-fünf" ("Slaughterhouse Five"). During the fire-bombing, the prisoners of war and their German guards hide in a cellar, causing them to be among the few survivors. After the war ends, Billy suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and is put into psychiatric care.
Once released, he marries a woman called Valencia Merble, and they have two children: a son, Robert, and a daughter named Barbara. Years later, on Barbara's wedding night, Billy is captured by an alien space ship and taken to a far-off planet, where he meets a porn star. She and Billy fall in love and have a child together. He is then sent back to Earth to relive past or future moments of his life. In 1968, Billy and a co-pilot are the only survivors of a plane crash. Whilst recovering, he shares a hospital room with a Harvard history professor. Billy talks about the bombing of Dresden, with the professor claiming it was justified. After Barbara takes him home, he sneaks out and drives to New York City. That evening he wanders around Times Square, visiting a bookstore featuring pornography, which brings back memories of his former love. Later, he guests on a radio show where he talks about his time-travels, culminating in being kicked out of the studio. He returns to his hotel room, falls asleep and time-travels back to 1945 Dresden, where the book ends.
4. 'Pale Fire' - Vladimir Nabokov
This novel, written in 1962, is unusual in that it's presented as a 999-line poem entitled "Pale Fire" by the fictional John Shade, with a foreword and lengthy commentary by an academic colleague of the poet, Charles Kinbote. Together these elements form a narrative in which both authors are central characters. The reader can chose to read 'Pale Fire' in the normal linear fashion, or by jumping between Kinbote's notes and Shade's poem. The interaction between Kinbote and Shade takes place in the fictitious town of New Wye, Appalachia, where they live close to each other. Kinbote writes his commentary in a tourist cabin in the equally fictitious western town of Cedarn, Utana.
Canto 1 of Shade's poem includes his early encounters with death and what he believes to be the supernatural. Canto 2 centres on his family and the apparent suicide of his daughter, Hazel. Number 3 focuses on Shade's search for knowledge about an afterlife, whilst 4 offers details regarding his daily life and his poetry, through which he attempts to understand the universe.
Kinbote acquires the manuscript, overseeing the poem's publication, telling readers that it lacks only line 1,000. In his role as co-narrator, he tells three stories, one being his own, especially his friendship with Shade. Kinbote's second story deals with King Charles II, "The Beloved," the deposed king of Zembla, claiming he inspired Shade to write the poem by recounting King Charles's escape to him. The final story is that of Gradus, an assassin dispatched by the new rulers of Zembla to kill the exiled King Charles. In the last note Kinbote makes, to the missing line 1000, he tells how Gradus killed Shade by mistake.
Isn't that all weird and wonderful?
5. 'The Unfortunates' - B S Johnson
B.S. Johnson's 1969 experimental novel 'The Unfortunates' consists of 27 unbound chapters in a box. The first and last chapters are specified but the other 25 can be read in any order. These range in length from a single paragraph to twelve pages.
The author explained this unusual structure by saying it was a better way of conveying the mind’s randomness than the imposed order of a bound book. Here's a summary of the plot.
A sports writer is sent to Nottingham on an assignment, only to find himself confronted by ghosts from his past. As he attempts to report an association football match, memories of his friend, a tragic victim of cancer, haunt his mind.
Let's hear from you!
As I mentioned above, this post is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unusually structured novels. What ones have you read that go beyond the norm in terms of structure? Perhaps you're a novelist yourself who's written a book that's a bit different. Leave me a comment and let me know!
I'm a plotter, not a pantser
I'm frequently asked to what extent do I plan my novels, and how I plot them. That's what I'll be covering in this week's post, focusing on my fourth novel, The Second Captive.
So do I plot my novels in advance, or am I what's known as a 'pantser'? (The term refers to authors who write by the seat of their pants, never quite knowing what will come next). Well, I've tried being a pantser, of sorts. My first novel, His Kidnapper's Shoes, was written from a rough plan thrown together in Microsoft Excel, with a tab for each character and a line summarising what I intended to happen in each chapter. Not really 'pantsing' it, but hardly very organised either. My first draft ended up at 146,000 words. To get to the final novel, which is 82,000 words long, I had to chop out a lot of dead wood and characters, and editing was a far more painful process than it needed to be. Had I planned the novel better, I'd have avoided all that extra work. I resolved to mend my ways, and to plot more thoroughly in future! For me, it works well. I like having a solid plan for each novel before I start work, and I believe it helps avoid writer's block. There are no excuses for not writing when you already have a blueprint for what comes next!
The Snowflake Method explained
In common with many novelists, I use the Snowflake method to plot my books. Pioneered by Randy Ingermanson, it's a ten-step method of arriving at a coherent plot outline, complete with character sketches. Why is it called the Snowflake Method? Let's look at this way of drawing a snowflake. Take a triangle, add new triangles along each side, and it's not long before a snowflake emerges. The principle is the same for plotting a novel. Each step of the Snowflake method builds on the one before, and within ten steps, you end up with a fully-fledged outline for a novel.
The first few stages
Step 1 is to write a one-sentence summary of the novel. This is a useful exercise in itself, as it concentrates the mind on the essence of what you're trying to convey. For The Second Captive, Step 1 read like this: 'A young woman and her family suffer the effects of Stockholm Syndrome.'
Step 2 involves taking that initial sentence and expanding it into a full paragraph, detailing the story set-up, major events and the ending. Step 3 involves writing a paragraph for each of the characters. This is when I created Beth Sutton, the protagonist of The Second Captive, as well as Dominic Perdue, her antagonist and a dark, disturbed individual. It's always fun creating the bad guys!
In Step 4, you take each sentence from Step 2, and expand it into a full paragraph, thus ending up with a one-page summary of the novel. In four steps, we've gone from a sentence to a page. See how the snowflake is growing? Step 5 takes us back to the characters again, fleshing them out into a one-page summary for each of the major players and half a page for the rest. The result should tell the story from the point of view of each character.
Developing the snowflake
Steps 6 - 9 build on the previous ones. The one-page synopsis ends up as a multi-page one, complete with a paragraph for each scene. The characters are also rounded out as well, with the author preparing charts/notes about each one.
I like to go into plenty of detail when I do this. Not just the standard stuff, such as height and weight, but what their motivators are, how they will change by the end of the novel, their interactions with other characters, etc. Their mannerisms, their likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears. I also draw a chart mapping their relationships. Anything and everything that will help me understand them better.
And Step 10? The most important one of all - write the novel, using the Snowflake outline already created!
Thing can, and do, change...
Once I have my outline, I create a manuscript file in Scrivener, the writing software I use (more about Scrivener later!) I set up a tab for each chapter, with a sub-tab for each scene, and transfer in the notes I've already made using the Snowflake Method. I usually base my novels on being around thirty chapters long - that can, of course, change, but it's a useful starting point. I also set word targets for my chapters, aiming for 3,500 words for each one.
The screen clip illustrates what I did for the prologue and first few chapters of The Second Captive. Should I choose to, I could colour-code each chapter according to which character was the narrator, or label it as draft, finished, etc. It's also easy to move chapters and text around in Scrivener.
Titles, timelines and mission statements
What else? Well, I write brief notes about what I want to achieve with each novel. The Second Captive is the first one I've written using scenes, so that formed my mission statement for the book. My previous novels are in whole chapters, so I was keen to play around with using scenes. It was fun! The Second Captive is also different structurally from my other books in that it has a prologue and epilogue, with the main narrative being split into two parts. Each novel teaches me something new. At the planning stage, I also make notes of possible titles (I find naming novels very hard!) Subplots get worked on, too, and I map out a schedule of events linked to a timeline. Getting my timeline right is something at which I'm very bad, so maybe that'll form my mission statement for my next novel!
A guide, not a ball and chain
Even with a comprehensive outline, I find I need to make changes as I write. The Snowflake Method is a guide, not a ball and chain. It provides a useful framework, but it's hard to see exactly how a plot will work until the writing process starts. Sometimes, an event makes sense at the outline stage, but when I write the relevant scene, it doesn't work so well. I certainly found that with The Second Captive, needing to make big changes to several chapters. Again, Scrivener is immensely useful here, allowing me to move chunks of text easily, more so than in Word, and I can duplicate documents to play around with new ideas.
A donkey cart and a Ferrari...
So that's the Snowflake method, and it's what I used to take The Second Captive from a one-line summary to a fully fledged novel, using Scrivener. I praise Scrivener a lot, but I think it's the best writing software on the market, because it's so versatile. I mentioned above that I wrote His Kidnapper's Shoes using Microsoft Word. Once was enough! I'd never go back to doing things that way. Word is to Scrivener what a donkey cart is to a Ferrari, in my opinion. I do use Word for some stages of the editing process, but as Scrivener evolves I foresee that becoming a thing of the past. I can structure my document files however I choose, making it very flexible.
Another great feature is that I can add my research notes, pictures, videos, etc, directly into the software, rather than having to flick back and forth to other programmes. In fact, I can split the screen in Scrivener, so I can have my notes in one part and my manuscript in another, making writing much easier. Another way of avoiding writer's block!
When I've finished the editing process, the software compiles my manuscript into Kindle format for me, or any other format I choose. Wonderful!
Any comments or questions?
I hope that this blog post has given you some insight into how a 'plotter' like me plans their novels! Other writers, what's your approach? Are you a planner, a pantser, or somewhere in between? Readers, any questions about the plotting process? Leave me a comment!
Today's blog post is a guest offering by Michael Nutt, who has very kindly reviewed Patricia Highsmith's novel 'The Two Faces of January' for me. The novel has been made into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst. Take it away, Michael!
A rather curious title...
Patricia Highsmith was the finest exponent of the psychological thriller. Her most famous works - 'Strangers on a Train' and the Tom Ripley cycle of novels - are some of the most enjoyable reads of my life. And now I must add the recently filmed 'The Two Faces of January', her ninth novel, first published in 1964, as one that I can thoroughly recommend.
The rather curious title refers to the connection between the month of January, in which the story unfolds, and the Roman god Janus, in whose honour the Romans named the month. Janus is usually depicted as having two faces, as he looks both to the future and to the past. To the ancient Romans, Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions, and thereby associated with gates, doors, and passageways, as well as endings and time. You can find these themes appearing throughout the novel. The story begins with a passenger ship slipping through the Corinth Canal at night. On board are an American couple - Chester MacFarland and his young wife Colette - taking a vacation in Europe and arriving now in Greece. The opening descriptions are of a passage from one world to another, a transition between countries, but also an image that evokes birth, a new beginning. We soon learn that the man is a shyster on the run from the American authorities, trying to escape his past.
Locked in an unspoken pact of murder
They are observed by a slack young American, Rydal Keener, who is struck by Chester's resemblance to his recently deceased father (whose funeral he chose to miss), while Colette reminds Rydal a little of his cousin Agnes, his first, ill-fated love from some ten years ago.
Rydal is using an inheritance to fund a couple of years away in Europe writing poetry and avoiding a planned career in law back in the States. He amuses himself by playing games of chance, and starts to include the American couple, so uncannily reminiscent of those people from his past, in his latest scheme even if he is unsure quite what it might be yet.
Rydal is a particularly Janus-like character, looking both to the past and to the future. He carries the psychological scars of his relationship with his late father and his cousin Agnes, and this unfinished business in his past keeps drifting into the present and casting a fog over his future. Unwittingly, Chester and Colette drift onto his radar. By chapter three their worlds have collided - or dovetailed, it would be more accurate to say, as Chester and Colette find themselves locked in an unspoken pact with Rydal over an incidental murder.
A tale of two Ripleys
It is typical of Highsmith that these are deeply flawed characters, psychotic anti-heroes whose appearance of normality hides psychopathic personalities and murderous tendencies. As in her 'Talented Mr Ripley', she describes a world of European exoticism, as her characters tour the sun-drenched Mediterranean; the novel was published a year after its American author had permanently relocated to Europe. Highsmith keeps the reader guessing about the games these three con artists might be playing. It is a tale of two Ripleys, as Chester and Rydal manoeuvre warily around each other, with a devious woman thrown into the mix for good measure. Gradually, insidiously, Chester becomes increasingly dependent on Rydal as the trio go on the run to Crete, while taking in a spot of tourism along the way as they travel the island. And all the while Colette seems to be taking a seductive interest in Rydal... You know that things can only go badly for these people, and it is not long before the body count rises and events take on their own crooked logic.
Highsmith is always adept at pulling off a surprise, taking the story in an entirely different direction from where you thought it was heading. Like a card sharp flicking an ace from the palm of her hand, she throws in a key scene set in the deserted Temple of Knossos that causes the narrative to lurch into a crazy, unexpected turn, tying the two male characters to each other in a mutually destructive relationship. Rydal now plays a dangerous game with Chester, who finds himself unable to free himself from the deadly grasp the other has on him.
Dark but humorous stuff...
This is dark but humorous stuff. You suspend any feelings of disbelief and go along with these miscreants for the ride, which takes us across Europe. Rydal works out his latent hatred and resentment of his father on Chester, who has assumed the role of his substitute father. It is a poisonous relationship reminiscent of that between Guy and Bruno in Highsmith's 'Strangers on a Train', except here both parties are as cracked as each other. Who will come out on top? The drink-addled con artist or the hate-filled chancer? And what sort of game is Rydal playing by the time the players get to Paris? Each chapter leaves you eager for the next and every time I picked up the story again I was excited to be reacquainting myself with these rather nasty people. Highsmith conjures a strange yet satisfying ending that tidies up some unfinished business, completing a transition of sorts. I look forward to reading more of her novels someday soon.
Thank you, Michael!
Thanks to Michael for a very thorough and informative book review.
I'm delighted to welcome bestselling crime novelist Tony Forder to my blog this week! Thank you for letting me interview you, Tony. Let's get going with the questions!
I’d like to know more about your latest novel, the fourth in a crime series featuring DI Bliss and DC Chandler, called The Reach of Shadows. What can readers expect to encounter in its pages?
What readers will find is a Bliss under pressure physically, professionally and personally, with each of these looking to consume him. In fighting to solve a possible stalker-murder case whilst recovering from being mown down by a car, Bliss also has to ward off an IOPC investigation which focuses on the murder of his wife many years earlier. With help from a loyal team, Bliss resolves the murder in a way he might not have envisioned, and puts to the sword all of the questions asked about his involvement in his wife’s murder. Here's a taster:
Recovering from injuries sustained in a road collision, DI Bliss is taken directly from hospital to a fresh crime scene and ordered to investigate the vicious stabbing and murder of Jade Coleman.
When Bliss realises the victim had reported being stalked, and that two of his own team had been drafted in to take her statement, he is given the unenviable task of interviewing both of his detectives.
Increasingly it appears that the stalker may be her killer. However, several other people soon become part of the team’s suspect list. Bliss also finds himself being questioned about his own past and has to battle to defend himself whilst continuing to investigate the murder. Soon more questions arise. Why would anybody target Jade Coleman? Why are the team unable to identify the victim’s close female friend? And why did Jade recently leave her job without any explanation?
With his work cut out, and his team under pressure, can Bliss solve the case before more victims show up? Or will the shadows of his own past reach out and drag him under before he can succeed?
What about your second Mike Lynch crime thriller, Cold Winter Sun, published in November 2018?
Mike, who in the previous book started out as a character worn down by life and striving to avoid hitting the bottle again, became the man he had once been across the course of that novel. In his second outing, he and his friend and comrade in arms, Terry, fly out to New Mexico to find someone important in his ex-wife’s new life. Hunted and plagued by people who appear to be seeking the same individual, Mike and Terry use their military skills to extricate both themselves and their target from harm’s way. Here's another taster:
A missing man. A determined hunter. A deadly case.
When Mike Lynch is contacted by his ex-wife about the missing nephew of her new husband, he offers to help find the young man with the help of his friend Terry Cochran.
Arriving in LA to try and track down the young man, the pair are immediately torn away when the missing man’s car shows up, abandoned on the side of a deserted road in New Mexico.
When two fake police officers cross their path, Terry and Mike know there is more to the case than meets the eye, and soon they find themselves asking exactly who it is they are really looking for…
Tell us about yourself and what you get up to when you're not writing.
I read, though not as much as I would like. I’ve played guitar since I was ten or twelve, and still practice most days – though I no longer have my fleet of guitars and equipment. I love music and listen as often as I can. I enjoy many sports, and follow Chelsea and the England rugby union team. I am now 61, live with my long-suffering wife in Peterborough, and I write full time. I love well-made films and TV, especially oddball stuff like Boston Legal, Fargo, Breaking Bad, Killing Eve, etc.
What is your all-time favourite novel?
The Silence of the Lambs. Thomas Harris recognised in Red Dragon the impact a villain like Lecter might make, and then added a beautifully observed character in Clarice Starling. Add suspense and tension in just about every scene, plus razor-sharp prose and dialogue, and you have a piece of magic. I loved Red Dragon as well, but for me Lambs just takes the prize.
What are you working on at present?
I wish I knew. I’m close to finishing my final edits for the next DI Bliss, and also working on a brand new story and character – my first female lead – but only recently had an idea for another Bliss book which I cannot stop thinking about and had to start writing immediately. I always have plans for 2-3 books ahead, and I always change them. I need there to be 48 hours in a day or for someone to clone me.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to see where an idea takes you?
It entirely depends on the book at the time. My most recent release, The Reach of Shadows, began with two ideas: a possible stalker murder and an internal investigation against DI Bliss. It really was no more than that when I started, but it ended up being what I consider to be my best book so far. Conversely, with the book I am editing, slated to be the next Bliss, the entire story was pretty much in my head and significant incidents noted before I wrote a single word. It all came to me within about fifteen minutes, shortly after reading an article about a bizarre true-life murder in the US. I didn’t so much write about the murder itself, but instead used a similar incident here in the UK as the reason other murders take place.
Do you think the cover plays an important part of the buying process?
From what I’ve read, most people claim not to be influenced by covers. However, even with those who say it means nothing to them, I do believe they may be subliminally drawn to certain colours, fonts, and images. It may catch their eye without them even realising it, but there’s no doubt in my mind that readers can be drawn to a book by a cover.
I don’t, however, believe they buy a book because of the cover. But being drawn to it can be enough, because that may then lead them to read the blurb and go on to buy it.
What kind of research do you do?
I actually enjoy research, and the volume and kind entirely depends on what sort of book I am writing. For Degrees of Darkness I had to interview a taxidermist, for my current DI Bliss book it I needed advice from an embalmer; prior to that, I’ve used a solicitor, a paramedic, and a variety of police organisation units. The Met, NCA and RAF have been extremely useful. Then there’s good old Google and Google Maps. I almost got caught out by the maps, though. In If Fear Wins I have DI Bliss visit a police station in Essex. I wrote a whole scene, part of which described the exterior which I studied in street view online. A week or so afterwards I read a piece that said the station had been closed down and the whole lot moved elsewhere – you forget how out of date those maps and views can be.
How long do you spend on research before starting your book?
I try not to write about anything about which I have a complete lack of knowledge, so I’d say I write the book with a general awareness and minimal research behind me, fill in some specifics during the first draft, but mainly add my research material via the edits. In full flow at the keyboard I leave notations inside square brackets where something needs checking or adding.
What advice would you give to would-be novelists?
Persevere. If you have imagination then you can pluck an idea out of thin air and turn it into a story, which means you must write as often as possible. Learn as you go, but produce. Nothing need be wasted, as it can all be revisited later, after which you can polish your work. I’m not sure everybody gets the fact that, as with most creative things, you have to actually learn your craft. You do that by writing, and although some writers claim not to read, I do think you also learn by reading. Certainly you can learn about structure and pace from reading. Finally, grow a thick skin, because when you present your work you must be prepared to be criticised.
Thank you, Tony! Here's more information about Tony and his books:
Tony J Forder is the author of the critically acclaimed, international best-selling crime thriller series featuring detectives Jimmy Bliss and Penny Chandler. The first three books, Bad to the Bone, The Scent of Guilt, and If Fear Wins, are now joined by The Reach of Shadows, published in January 2019.
Tony’s dark, psychological crime thriller, Degrees of Darkness, featuring ex-detective Frank Rogers, was also published by Bloodhound Books. This is a stand-alone novel. Another book that was written as a stand-alone was Scream Blue Murder. This was published in November 2017, and received praise from many, including fellow authors Mason Cross, Matt Hilton and Anita Waller. Before it had even been published, Tony had decided to write a sequel, and Cold Winter Sun was published in November 2018.
Tony lives with his wife in Peterborough, UK, and is now a full-time author. You can find out more from his website, https://www.tonyjforder.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/TonyJForder @TonyJForder
Amazon Author: https://www.amazon.co.uk/l/B01N4BPT65
Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/tony+j+forder?_requestid=248936
How do you define a happy ending?
''I won't read a book with an unhappy ending,' a friend once told me.
'So how do you define a happy ending?' I asked.
'Well,' she replied, 'I guess it's a broader issue than everyone living happily ever after, like in a romance novel. For me, in order to have a happy ending, good has to triumph over evil.'
This got me thinking. Is it really necessary for every novel to serve up a morally nutritious dessert at the end of the fictional feast? Must good always emerge the victor? Real life, as we're all painfully aware, isn't like that. So why should we expect fiction to paint an unrealistic picture of the world we live in?
A place for unhappy endings
Genre is important here, of course. I'd bet that most romance readers prefer happy endings for their novels. After all, isn't that the point? Character A meets Character B, they're attracted, but obstacles abound along the path of true love. Eventually A and B conquer their issues, declare their love and live happily ever after. Death, unpleasant divorce statistics and marital disharmony would be unwelcome guests in the soft-edged and fluffy world of romantic fiction.
'I remember reading a romance book back when I was a teenager and it had the heroine dying at the end in childbirth and the hero being sad and never finding someone again. What the hell kinda ending is that!?' A comment made in response to me posing the question about happy endings in a Goodreads group. Hard not to see her point, really! In the same group, someone mentioned a romance in which the hero gets shot two chapters from the end, totally ruining the reading experience. For romance novels, a stereotypical 'happy ever after' ending is almost implicit.
Not always, of course. Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' is the obvious example of a doomed romance, but there are plenty more. Take 'The Fault in Our Stars', a novel by John Green. No happy endings here, not given the death of Augustus Waters from cancer. But then, with this novel, the reader is primed from the start to wonder whether a feel-good conclusion is in the stars. After all, the protagonists meet at a support group for cancer patients. And let's not forget many readers enjoy a good weepie. There's definitely a place for unhappy endings, even within the romance genre, provided they're done sensitively and don't come as a shock to the reader.
A world without hope, an unthinkable future
Let's stick with the issue of genre. If happy endings are the norm for romance novels. the opposite is often true for dystopian ones. Dystopian novels are, by their definition, about unhappiness, with the protagonist primed to fail in a world without hope. The point of such a novel is to portray a an unthinkable future, one that can serve as a warning.
In his dystopian epic 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', George Orwell allows us to glimpse the horrors of a totalitarian world. I've written in a previous blog post about how affected I was by reading the novel with the expectation that good would triumph and that Winston would eventually defeat Big Brother and the Party. I was a teenager at the time and the final chapter came as a huge shock to me, destroying my adolescent expectations for a different, less bleak, ending. I've sometimes wondered what kind of novel it would have been had Orwell delivered the ending my teenage self expected. Personally, I found the long, boring passages about Ingsoc a chore to read. What if they had been replaced by Winston and Julia fighting the good fight and overthrowing the Party? In the hands of a master like Orwell, the reader would still have been assured of a great read. Would it have been a better novel? Impossible to say, of course.
Life isn't all roses and honey
Reader requirements are important too, of course. In a world where there's hunger, poverty and cruelty, many people employ fiction as an escape mechanism. For a few short hours, they can forget the awfulness portrayed on the nightly news as they lose themselves in a happier world between the covers of a book.
Other readers may disagree. After all, real life isn't all roses and honey. Not everyone wants to read books that deliver a moral message, preferring to escape the pervading political correctness of our times with a book that doesn't attempt to sugar-coat life. Novels that reflect the myriad problems affecting our world can reach out to readers more authentically, because they enable them to identify more strongly with the plot-line.
An unhappy ending also avoids clichés. We're almost conditioned to expect a neat, happy wrap-up at the conclusion of a novel, so when the author delivers something quite different, it can come as a refreshing change.
Unexpected endings can jar the reader
Not always, though. Sometimes endings can jar the reader. I suspect this is often because they don't deliver what my friend requires - the triumph of good over bad. Perhaps that's why the end of Gillian Flynn's novel 'Gone Girl' (review here) has attracted so much criticism, with many readers hating it. Without wishing to give spoilers, Flynn doesn't provide a neat wrap-up in which the novel's resident psychopath meets a well-deserved comeuppance. Her finale is refreshing for that very reason, although I confess I also found it somewhat unsatisfying.
Let's look at another example. Take how Thomas Harris concludes 'Hannibal'. OK, so the final chapters of this book have been derided as being totally unrealistic - 'that would NEVER happen!' is a typical response - but like with 'Gone Girl', I suspect some of this is because the ending offends many people's sense of morality. Where is Lecter's punishment for his terrible crimes? What's more, not only does evil come out on top, the closing events portray the corruption of Clarice Starling, a former federal agent, someone supposed to defend right versus wrong. Lecter perverts whatever's decent in Clarice by leading her to share his cannibalistic depravity as well as making her his lover. End result - evil triumphs over good. Unacceptable to many people, I suspect; hence the criticism.
The fun that a good villain provides
For some readers, it's easy to set aside questions of good versus evil, of course. Many people adore a villain. There's something about the bad guys and girls of fiction that's oddly compelling. Take the popularity of Patricia Highsmith's series of Ripley novels. Tom Ripley is a psychopath who kills as and when it suits him, but he's also a charming and engaging individual. Polite, cultured, moving in a glamorous world of travel and luxury, he delights the reader with his total lack of a moral compass. When he fails to get his due desserts at the end of Highsmith's novels, we don't mind, because Ripley has entertained us so much along the way.
Perhaps that's why we also love Hannibal Lecter. He's a depraved cannibal, sure, but he's also intelligent, witty and cultured, a dichotomy that intrigues us and draws us in, as we endeavour to understand what drives such a man. We're revolted by the idea of him eating Krendler's brain, but also filled with admiration for his brilliant mind and ruthless cunning. Ah, the contradictions of human nature! Aren't they fascinating?
Do you prefer a happy ending?
Let's hear from you! What do you require in order to be satisfied with a novel's ending? If you're a romance reader, do you need A and B to live happily ever after, or are lots of tears and a death or two OK? If you're into dystopia, do you believe a happy ending runs contrary to what the genre should deliver?
Are there any novels that ended in a totally different way to what you'd expected, and if so, were you pleased or disgruntled? Do you read to escape real life, or are you somebody who prefers novels to deliver a social commentary in line with the world's issues? Leave a reply and let me know!
As part of my 'Five' series, today's blog post examines some of the devious ways fictional murderers endeavour to conceal their crimes. Warning - by its nature, this post contains plot spoilers. If you're OK with that, then read on...
1. Apparent lack of motive
One way to escape detection as a murderer is to have no apparent motive. A great example is portrayed in Patricia Highsmith's 1950 thriller 'Strangers on a Train'.
Architect Guy Haines is in love and wants to marry. There's just one catch - he already has a wife. What's more, she's unfaithful. On a train journey, Guy meet Charles Bruno, a psychopath keen to kill his father. They get chatting and Bruno proposes an ingenious solution to their issues - an exchange of murders. Bruno will kill Guy's errant wife if Guy returns the favour and murders Bruno's father.
Bruno is convinced this will work because neither of them will have a motive for the murder they commit, meaning that the police will have no reason to suspect either of them. Guy's mistake is that he doesn't take Bruno seriously. However, Bruno kills Guy's wife while Guy is away in Mexico, and then informs Guy of his crime. Although shocked, Guy hesitates to turn Bruno in to the police. The longer he remains silent, though, the more he implicates himself. In the coming months, Bruno makes increasing demands to pressurise Guy into fulfilling his part of the bargain. After Bruno starts writing anonymous letters to Guy's friends and colleagues, the pressure becomes too great, and Guy murders Bruno's father.
What an ingenious idea! Of course, Bruno's plan begins to unravel once a private detective establishes a connection between Bruno and Guy - but otherwise it might have worked...
2. An unshakeable alibi
Many novels exploit the idea of an unbreakable alibi, one firmly placing the culprit elsewhere when the murder was committed. An obvious way to do this is to make the time of death appear different from what it really was. Even skilled medical examiners can’t always pinpoint the time of death exactly, after all. Let's look at Agatha Christie’s 'Evil Under the Sun' (1982).
Arlena Marshall, a famous and beautiful actress, is strangled while she, her husband Kenneth and her stepdaughter Linda are at the Jolly Roger seaside hotel. At first, it appears that no-one staying at the resort could have been responsible, but in fact the murderers have manipulated time so it provides a solid alibi for them. Until Hercule Poirot steps in to investigate...
How did they do this? Easy. One of Arlena's murderers set Linda's watch 20 minutes forward. Then she asked Linda to check the time, thus giving the guilty pair an alibi for the supposed time of the murder. Later, the same person adjusted the watch back. Simple yet clever, don't you think?
3. Death by natural causes
If you're a fictional character about to commit murder, what better way to conceal your crime than making it appear a natural death? No murder investigation, a quick burial... it has its advantages.
One of the best-known examples is Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (1902). When Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead on the wild moorland near his home, the cause of death is pronounced a heart attack. The elderly man suffered from a weak heart and blame is placed on a family curse after the footprints of a giant hound are reportedly near the body. According to legend, a spectral hound from hell patrols the moors, ready to bring death to the men of the Baskerville family following an ancestral pact with the Devil. Can Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson protect Sir Charles's heir from meeting a similar fate?
Sir Charles's death is, of course, no accident, but murder made to look like a heart attack. Sir Charles was known to be frightened by the curse, elderly and with heart problems, something his killer used to his advantage. The murderer reckoned without Sherlock Holmes's legendary powers of deduction, though! The plot is contrived, sure, but the descriptions of the bleak moors are so incredibly atmospheric and the narrative so creepy that somehow the reader overlooks the unlikelihood of the novel's events.
4. Making murder appear an accident
Following on from the above, another popular fictional murder method involves faking an accident. I recently read Peter Høeg’s 'Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow' (1993), which demonstrates this kind of murder.
In the novel, a young boy, Isaiah Christiansen, falls to his death from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment building where he lives. Isaiah had captivated the heart of the normally rude and surly Greenlander Smilla Jasperson; he seemed the only person capable of penetrating the hard exterior she presents to the world. Distressed by his death, Smilla is drawn to the scene of the accident. When she gets there, she finds clues in the snow that lead her to believe that the boy’s death was not accidental. Thanks to her Greenland upbringing, Smilla is an expert in all matters snow and ice-related, knowledge that she brings to bear as she begins to ask questions. Before long, Smilla discovers that some dangerous people are determined to hide the truth. Her search for answers leads her back to her homeland, where she uncovers the connection between Isaiah’s death and some long-hidden secrets.
5. Making murder look like suicide
A notable example of this murder method occurs in the 2013 novel by Robert Galbraith, 'The Cuckoo's Calling'. (Robert Galbraith is the pen name of J K Rowling, famous for the Harry Potter series of novels). In the book, Cormoran Strike, a private investigator with more than a few issues of his own, is hired by John Bristow, the adopted brother of famous supermodel Lula Landry, otherwise known as 'Cuckoo'. Lula's death is the result of falling five stories from the balcony of her Mayfair apartment building and has already been ruled a suicide. John Bristow, however, suspects otherwise.
Strike is initially reluctant to take on the case, having read extensive media coverage of it. At first he's unwilling to reopen such a thoroughly investigated case. As he talks to those close to Lulu, including her security guard, personal driver, uncle, friends and designer, doubts emerge in his mind. Gradually Strike comes to realise that the circumstances of her death are more ambiguous than he imagined. Who wanted her dead, and did her personal fortune of ten million dollars provide a motive?
What fictional murder methods appeal most to you?
What kind of dastardly demises do you prefer in the novels you read? Do you like ones that are simple and perhaps more realistic, such as faking an accident or suicide, or do more complex killings float your boat? Perhaps something along the lines of the classic 'locked room' sub-genre of crime fiction, in which the murder seems impossible and has usually resulted from a contrived yet ingenious set of circumstances. Leave a comment and let me know!