Thriller Bugbear #69: Plot-Point Techno Madness!

Much as I love Nordic crime fiction, the Europewide megaseller “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson made me want to throw knives like the Swedish chef on The Muppet Show. Why?

Two reasons.

First, the minor reason. Written by a (tragically deceased) Swedish journalist, the book is entirely in the style of a magazine article. Complete with page after page of “research.” It’d be enough for the author to tell me that Swedish women are often assaulted by men. I don’t need five pages of real background. A writer ought to understand that the greater the temptation for the reader to skim, the worse the book is. You end up with a good 250 page mystery trapped inside a 600 page monster.

Overloading with journalistic background is a common technique in contemporary thrillers and mysteries. It’s as though making things up was somehow a distortion of reality. Whereas it actually gets you a lot closer to reality than journalism or journalistic techniques, because it opens up the reader emotionally. (That’s what I’ve found with my Palestinian detective series.)

Second, the major reason. The Internet.

In “Dragon Tattoo,” the eponymous heroine is the now generic thriller/mystery character: the Internet hacker genius. Whenever Larsson needs to inject some new information or to unravel a tricky plot point, his hacker opens up her laptop and links into, the well-known (to fiction writers) site where all governments, in particular their intelligence networks, store material they want to be sure is available only to fictional hacker geniuses (and by proxy to thriller writers).

“Dragon Tattoo” isn’t the worst offender. Just the biggest seller.

But I’m only naming names here because poor old Larsson is dead. Those (here unnamed) living writers who use this technique ought to be ashamed of themselves.

In my novels the only time the Internet comes up is when detective Omar Yussef’s granddaughter sets up a website for him in her attempt to make him seem more professional. “The Palestine Agency for Detection,” as she calls her site, is merely embarrassing to Omar. No plot-point-shifting Houdini act there.

The Internet has essentially taken over from the Mossad as the thriller writer’s cure-all. In the old days, if there was something your main character couldn’t figure out, all he had to do was get in touch with the nearest Mossad agent, who’d be sure to know all the secrets in the world and was happy to pass them on with a few dark words about never forgetting the Holocaust and a cheerful “Shalom.”

As a resident of Israel, I can tell you the Mossad doesn’t operate that way. Neither does the Internet.

So stop writing books that pretend it does. (I wonder how you say that in Swedish...)

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Comment by I. J. Parker on June 19, 2009 at 12:50am
Well, the Larsson thing is hype, partially resting on the solid performance of other Scandinavian writers. And yes, the book is flawed in just that way.
Getting the research right for the experts who will read the book is always a problem. It's not so much doing the research but rather incorporating it. I've had to deal with it myself in historical novels. You cannot count on any reader knowing anything about Japanese history (or Sweden, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but you can count on it that the few "experts" will be looking for mistakes and omissions.
Comment by John McFetridge on June 19, 2009 at 12:28am
So true. It's funny, thriller writers are often obsessive about getting the weapons right, but I guess that says as much about thriller readers and what concerns them the most.

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