Maria and Lawrence have been expressing different opinions about Robert Crais’ THE WATCHMAN and part of their exchange has centered on the issue of believability and suspension of disbelief.

Quoting Maria: I didn't have trouble with the suspension of disbelief because none of it is supposed to be terribly believable. For me, it was no different than a space story--lots of guns, lots of fighting and action, good guys against bad. Or no different than a completely made-up fantasy novel with a setting that has a lot of sword and sorcery.

Quoting Lawrence: Why is it not supposed to be believable? It is not like Robert Crais set out to write a satirical take on the thriller novel, no this novel is pretentious in that sense. Sure, if we were dealing with a satire, than I would take everything with a healthy grain of salt, but since we're not I do take this novel serious. Likewise I also expect Robert Crais to be serious about his work, and not throw a mumble jumble of random coincidentally connected events in the gigantic mixer.

Quoting Maria I probably said that poorly. Let me see how I can explain. I don't "believe" fiction--it's fiction. I don't find a guy having 12 karate belts any more or less believable than a guy who can win a sword fight that is 5'2" and has little practice against a trained warrior. But those types of things exist in these types of books. The underlying theme is somewhat the same--you have to be able to read a certain amount of it knowing that real life is set aside in order to concoct the story--whether that is "little guy finally comes out on top" or "there are heroes bigger than life out there willing to protect the vulnerabe innocent." That's partly why I referred to it as escapist fiction. The reality factor is much less so than in a "normal" thriller type where perhaps your belief is more grounded in more realistic events.

This exchange reminds me of the review criteria discussion I started last month.

Question: Should there be different reviewing criteria for the different subgenres? Within crime fiction, for example, some people do not feel any book classified a thriller needs to be realistic. Thriller protagonists are allowed to display superhero-like qualities - an ability to go for days without sleeping or eating, etc, and still defeat their adversaries.

Now, I do believe that ideally, we assess a book for what it’s trying to be, not what it obviously isn’t. I remember this from some responses to SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, from people who said they hoped my next book would be darker, and hoped I didn’t mind them saying so. No, but I also didn’t take it as a serious criticism of SC. SC was always intended to be a mainstream book. After all, I didn’t want to write sex, didn’t want characters who swore and the nature of the characters I was dealing with had a bearing on the nature of the content I included in the story.

It’s the difference between my very first short story published online,Breaking The Christmas Curse (which I dread the thought of reading more than three years later) and more recent offerings such as Bull’s Eye and Childhood Dreams.

I’d be bored to tears writing the same thing all the time… but this is a tangent. The only point to make here is that a book can be criticized as a failure if it tries to be dark and spooky and isn’t. A book can’t be fairly criticized for not being dark and spooky if it’s trying to be something else.

It seems to me what’s at the root of Maria and Lawrence’s debate is a question of reader expectations, as well as reasonable expectations from any book. Consider my review of Queenpin which produced a similar question about question about believability.

Quoting MattD: I have not read this book nor indeed much crime fiction, but the signals I'm picking up about this book -- based just on what you included in your review -- all make me think that it's not something that is meant to be believable. It looks like a book that is trying to have a dialog with the mid-20th century pulp fiction hardboilers -- from the cover to the title, the basic plot, even the 1950s prudishness when it comes to sexual description. It seems, in other words, to be thoroughly aware that it is fiction; playing with the tropes, narratives, and character archetypes of the genre's formative past; giving them a twist; and perhaps trying to say something thereby. I wonder if the lack of a name for the POV character and the use of apparently out-of-place details like "Mounties" aren't meant to contribute to that sense of fiction, to signal to the reader that it's not meant to be taken as real by making it impossible to do so. Those are the kinds of signals that, as a reader of speculative fiction, I'm used to having to decode in order to determine how to read a book. Is there any reason to take this book as attempting to be believable as mimetic fiction other than the fact that it is crime fiction?

There are certain books that scream from page one, “I’m just good fun, don’t try to take me seriously.” Within crime fiction there are whole subgenres that rely on suspension of disbelief. What springs to mind automatically is Canada’s love of the amateur sleuth story. Books that rely on idiotic police departments who, though employing all of their resources in investigating this most serious crime, are barely more than keystone cops and thank God we have Sally the baker or Timmy the dog-walker or Pastor Pete or Helen the hairdresser tripping over clues until they have that, “Gosh-darn-it-all” moment where suddenly they snap their fingers and know who-dunnit.

They are what they’re trying to be, Sandra. You said yourself you can’t fault a book for not being something it isn’t trying to be.

Actually, that is why I have a problem with some of these amateur sleuth books. I’ve read all of H. Mel Malton’s Polly Deacon books and thoroughly enjoyed them (Down in the Dumps, Cue The Dead Guy, Dead Cow in Aisle Three, One Large Coffin To Go). How does the puppet-maker get a pass while others have left me rolling my eyes and shaking my head, if not tossing the book against the wall?

Because some of them try to justify themselves to make the set-up plausible. There is a delicate balance here, because every book establishes its own level of believability. It is the job of the author to give signals to the reader to tell them where the book falls on the spectrum. If the author goes to great lengths to justify why we should accept that a hairdresser is investigating a murder, we subconsciously begin to expect there to be a certain level of believability to the story.

Even works that fall in fantasy and sci fi or that have paranormal elements face the believability issue. They establish a certain type of truth about how their society runs, of the mechanics, the laws, the environment, etc. To make a simple but extreme example, a critical element of The Lord of the Rings is the fact that nobody can have the ring without being corrupted by it. It is inherently evil, and from Galadriel to Elron to Gandalf to Frodo, none of them could dare hope to possess it and not be affected by it.

Imagine if Frodo had gotten to Mount Doom and then slipped the ring on his finger and said, “It’s okay Sam. I figured out how to control it.” Then he snaps his fingers and all Sauron and Saruman and all the forces of evil disappear and the earth is restored with grass and flowers and beautiful sunshine, gentle streams running through the land.

I mean… who could take that seriously? I’d feel cheated and irritated, and lose respect for the writer.

Part of the problem with fiction is that readers often pick up on the signals subconsciously, and we’re not always good at expressing why we interpret a book the way we do. Readers are individuals, and there are different things that stand out to different readers as sore spots. For example, my familiarity with firefighting procedures and arson investigation make it hard for me to suspend the level of belief required for many works that deal with arsons. Last year, I read a book by one author and watched a TV episode based off of a popular crime fiction series by another author (that I read) and both made me laugh. When efforts are made to present believable police procedurals that work within the confines of legalities and technicalities in all other aspects of the investigation, seeing obvious mistakes with arson investigations isn’t something you can dismiss. Even Homicide - arguably one of the best network TV shows ever – made mistakes with arson investigation. For one thing, people are not crawling all over the scene within hours of a huge fire, particularly people who are not arson investigators. Structural engineers must determine the safety of the building before anyone is allowed to go traipsing through the building… Not to mention the idiocy of swinging from charred beams and cops entering the scene without protective footwear and helmets. There are usually hotspots and flare-ups can occur hours after a fire is labeled “out”. There’s debris everywhere that can cut through typical footwear.

Where I live, not even the RCMP have full authority at the scene of a fire, even if it’s a suspected or confirmed arson. The arson investigator has the right to order them out and off the scene if they deem it unsafe, for any reason.

The bi-product of my knowledge about arson investigation is that I’ll be less forgiving for slight errors, or attempts to justify the lack of standard procedure in an investigation.

That does not mean that I even aim for every aspect of my own work to be realistic. There’s a difference between being realistic and being believable. The simple truth is, if those of us who write police procedurals adhered to the procedure 100% our books would be ten times as long from writing out all of the steps required to execute search warrants, etc. and the books would be incredibly dull and boring. More specifically, we’ve all seen movie after movie (or CSI) with police dogs in the US having an item of clothing held up to their nose so they can find a scent trail.

The RCMP do not train their dogs this way. They use no item of clothing or a personal belonging. The dogs are trained to seek out the strong scent trails. Someone who’s being chased, been kidnapped, fleeing a crime scene is going to sweat, and leave a stronger scent trail than someone who was just out for a walk. I did my research with the top trainer for the canine unit for the RCMP, so I know how it’s done.

However, over-exposure to a different approach means I have work to do to close the gap between what many people believe really happens, and the actual procedure we use.

As a writer, it’s a delicate balance. The question is, for you as a reader, what allows you to fully suspend disbelief? Is it a love of the characters that enables you to overlook an implausible storyline, or is the willingness – and advanced knowledge – that you’re sitting down to indulge in something meant to be completely silly and fun?

What makes you apply a standard of realism to your assessment of a book, and what makes you suspend disbelief and just enjoy the ride?

(I've posted part of this in the forum at MBS and I hope Maria, Lawrence and others chime in with their thoughts. Opinions wanted.)

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Comment by Pepper Smith on February 24, 2008 at 2:08pm
For me, it's whether or not I feel like people would really act that way. Some authors are very good at getting real actions and reactions down. Others seem to sacrifice that for unlikely circumstances that let the heroine or hero come out on top, but those sorts of stories are ultimately unsatisfying to me.

I don't necessarily mind amateur sleuth stories. But I do think that amateur sleuth series should have a limited lifespan. After a while it gets to be unbelievable that so many dead bodies would turn up around the sleuth.
Comment by Sandra Ruttan on February 24, 2008 at 11:17am
Generally speaking Pepper, I agree with you. I'm not a great big fan of amateur sleuth stories, although some work for me. The trick is figuring out why some work and others don't so that I can be more successful in my reading.

Of course, that doesn't always happen...
Comment by Pepper Smith on February 24, 2008 at 10:57am
Realism. Hmm. You mean, like, would the sheriff husband of the amateur sleuth's sister REALLY turn a blind eye to his wife and her family getting involved in a current murder investigation? LOL! That sort of thing is enough to guarantee that I've really, really got to like the protagonist before I'll spend more money on books by those authors. As my husband keeps pointing out to me when I gripe to him about how stupidly the characters are acting, "You don't have to finish reading that, you know." I should start listening.

If the protagonist is too much in the superhuman category, it's also a reason why I will probably steer clear of something. I'm a big sci-fi fan, so suspension of disbelief is not a problem for me, but when something is set on earth, in modern times, using humans as characters, they darn well better behave like humans. If the hero gets the crud beat out of him, he better not get up the next day and run a marathon.

Mystery readers tend to be smart people. I think we really have to respect that and try to make sure we don't throw them out of the story by writing something that's wildly unrealistic. MHO, anyway.

Brain-deficient at the moment. Maybe I'll think of something really useful to add later.
Comment by Sandra Ruttan on February 24, 2008 at 8:25am
That's why I have trouble with true crime. Knowing it really happened to a person lessens the emotional distance and makes it hurt. I think kids who've grown up on farms tend to have a certain pragmatism about life and death matters because they've had more direct experience with it with animals (in terms of the food chain) but with people one hopes we'll always be human enough to take it hard.

It's a very tough line, between manipulating via the murder and brushing it off. It might not seem so, but many people will not read books where a child dies because they can't take it. Someone asked me if the reason I had child victims was to make people care more. Well, it is a natural bi-product, people usually care more about kids than hookers, but that wasn't the reason. The reason was I wanted to address issues around child neglect, to touch on how hard it is to intervene in cases of abuse, etc.

You make a lot of good points. Very interesting food for thought.
Comment by John Dishon on February 24, 2008 at 5:13am
As an example for me, take Victor Gischler's Pistol Poets. Now, Gischler uses a lot of humor anyway, so I can see the argument that the reader should just take it as it comes, but I'm not like that. It has to be believable for the world as it is presented. Pistol Poets takes place in present-day Oklahoma, so all the rules of physics in real life should apply.

Yet there is a scene in Pistol Poets where a college student is riding a motorcycle and shooting a shotgun with one hand, and he kills a guy this way. Totally not believable. You don't shoot a shotgun with one hand and expect the gun to still be in your hand afterwards, much less expect to hit your target.

But I do like Terminator 2. The Terminator does the same thing in that movie. So why do I buy one, but not the other? Because, 1. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a bad-ass, not a college student. 2. The Terminator is a robot sent from the future, not a college student. 3. I actually see The Terminator spin that shotgun around and cock it with one hand on the screen, while I'm only imagining Pistol Poets in my mind. Actual visual confirmation makes a difference, I think.

Add to that the fact that the kid from the streets who moves to Oklahoma is the biggest pussy in the book while the nobody college student kid takes out bad guys with a shotgun in one hand and steering a motorcycle with the other hand--well, at that point the book became a farce for me and I didn't take the work as a whole seriously. If I wasn't supposed to, fine, but it made me lose enjoyment.

What gets me more though, is the mundane way murder is handled in so many stories. It's inevitable that a person is killed and when it happens, there's no emotion to it, no significance. It had to happen, and the person killed is just treated as an inevitability, a prop to talk about and a body that needs cleaning up.

Yet, you can go and watch execution videos from Iraq on the internet. Real people getting killed, in all the gruesome detail. Those kinds of videos are hard to watch, and I've killed many a people in video games. It just isn't even close to the same thing. I grew up on a farm and I watched as the butchers came to the farm once a year and slaughtered a cow we had raised for beef. This was when I was in elementary school, even. I watched them do the whole thing out in the driveway, from slitting the throat after the cow had been instantly killed with a .22 rifle (yes, in reality a .22 is nothing to make fun of. They will kill you dead as fast as any other gun) to the drawing and quartering.

And that didn't bother me, but I watched a video of a man getting his head cut off with a a big knife, and it was hard to watch. Afterwards, I had to watch some stand up videos to lighten the mood and get the images out of my head. Or that politician or whoever he was who shot himself at a press conference. I've seen that video, and it's unreal how the guy goes from talking to the press to dead in less than a second, his body slumped on the floor with blood gushing out of his nostrils.

And this is just video. Thank God I've never seen something like that myself. So the point is, the death of a human being is severely disturbing, yet it is rarely, if ever treated that way in the stories I've read.

And that's part of the reason I think crime fiction is so stale, because everything that happens is expected, everything is by the book and handled pretty much the same way in one story as it is in another. Yeah, I believe the murder when I read it, but I don't feel it.

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