Literature 101: A String of Beads

Thomas Perry‘s series of mystery-thriller novels stars Jane Whitefield, raised in the Seneca culture and professional disappearer: she helps people get away from real trouble and change their identities, with their pursuers close behind. Neat premise, competently executed for the most part. Not great, but generally good. In the latest installment, A String of Beads, Jane helps her childhood friend Jimmy escape first from being framed for killing a man, then from the Mafia, complete with guys with titles like Don.

One of the conceits of the series is that when Jane sleeps, figures appear to her in dreams and help her solve problems related to the case. Jane, and the dream figures, are well aware that they’re figures of Jane’s imagination, not actual visitations from spirits. It’s actually pretty well-done and works within the context Perry provides. If only someone from my childhood would manifest and tell me where my prescription sunglasses went.

Also throughout the text are allusions to Jane’s past attempts at rescuing/disappearing people, standard for a series of novels like this. Two that keep coming up are one where she was shot (the wound is still bugging her) and another where the guy she was helping to disappear ended up dead. Okay, no problem: it adds flavor and nuance.

But about 85% of the way through the novel, she’s visited by the avatar of the guy who got killed. Again, this is fine within the novel’s context: both the visitations and the existence of the guy have already been brought to our attention. The way it’s done, however, completely breaks the narrative:

Harry stood in the shadow a few feet from her at the corner of the porch, leaning against the redbrick [sic] wall. “Of course you’re dreaming.”

Harry Kemple was the runner she had lost. He was the only one who had been found by his pursuer and killed, and his death had been Jane’s fault. Harry died about ten years ago, and he had visited her in her sleep many times since then. Harry was still wearing the bad gray-green sport coat he wore the first time she’d met him. He had made his living running a floating poker game…

Let’s ignore the verb tense problems and focus on the structure. If Harry is important enough to give background for, the background should have been given back when his existence was noted earlier in the book. We’ve never seen Harry’s name yet, nor any details at all about him; just that he was the one who got away—or rather, didn’t get away. This is fundamentally bad form: this far into a narrative, we really shouldn’t have a new character at all, and if we must, then they need to have been foreshadowed in some way.

Also, a key feature of sloppy writing in mass-market fiction is to introduce a character in mid-scene with a single line of dialogue, then stop the flow dead in the water to give us a paragraph of clunky and mostly-irrelevant background. Show us details about the character, or leave them out, or introduce the background gradually, or do it first, before the dialogue starts. It’s lazy, and it breaks the narrative.

Unbelievably, the backstory continues for another page and a half of text. There’s one nugget of information: the guys who tracked down and killed Harry were Mafia, just like the guys after Jerry, though a different branch of the group. For Harry to reveal this to Jane (or really, remind her of it) is fine, but all of this backstory could be condensed into a sentence or two: “Jane had helped Harry escape after he’d witnessed a Mafia hit; ultimately, a contract killer for the organization had deceived Jane in order to track Harry down and kill him.” See how easy that is? Just enough information to give us the right context for why Harry is there this late in the book. We don’t need the recap of Book 4 in the series, including a long paragraph about just how Harry had been tracked down, because none of it is germane to A String of Beads, book 8, except that they both involve the Mafia.

Resist the urge to fill out a word count by giving too much background; find an organic way to put background in the story if you must.

Literature 101: Hush Hush

Yesterday I spent a lot of time reading the new novel Hush Hush by Laura Lippman, who in addition to writing very good literary mystery fiction also has an ongoing mystery-thriller series starring PI Tess Monaghan. Lippman’s work is all set in and around Baltimore; like Tess Monaghan, she used to be a reporter for the Baltimore Sun; she is married to David Simon, executive producer of The Wire.

The Monaghan novels are decent but not great, but then again, she sells a lot of them and I’m not in the center of her target matrix, anyway. Hush Hush was well-done, matching a narcissistic, terrible mother up against Tess, who is sure she’s doing a terrible job with her own three-year-old. Right near the end, however, I sat up and took notice when…


…Tess’ daughter and aunt were held hostage by a not-yet-identified guy with a gun. The scene of her sneaking into the aunt’s house and taking the guy out was fine and well-timed. But then the guy turns out to be some dude who was peripheral to another case: he’d lost everything and used squirrel logic to blame Tess, and had been stalking her. He had nothing at all to do with the crimes at the center of the main plot; it was pure coincidence that he showed up on the night Tess was worried someone from the main plot might try something.


None of this is really problematic. The coincidence is at least within the bounds of plausibility in genre fiction, so sure, we’ll roll with it. But what did Lippman fail or refuse to do? Foreshadow this at all. In a properly-written work of genre fiction, that case or that guy needed to have come up somewhere near the beginning of the novel. Maybe only briefly, in a throwaway line or a phone call or a list of office tasks. But the lack of foreshadowing makes me, as a reader, kind of cranky. Wait: this guy hasn’t been in the book yet, and I’m like 85% of the way through the text?

In a class on how to write fiction, this would get flagged. “Link to this in the first half of the book,” Lippman would be told. But she’s a big-name author, so nobody’s going to give her crap. It’s just jarring. I’m less willing to suspend disbelief for something that’s more reflective of how real life works than something where I’m warned ahead of time. That says a lot about fiction, if you think about it.

Lazy Writing 101: The Goldfinch

If you read a lot of mass-market fiction, you start to pick up on which writers are really honing their craft and which are phoning it in. Phoning it in comes across in lazy plotting (“Oh no, I forgot to charge my phone!”), or telling rather than showing, or a particular sort of character development I’m going to illustrate here. This specific piece is from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which all told is a pretty solid novel, though she had no idea how to end it.

The passage here deals with two characters, narrator Theo and his object of desire Pippa. Years before, Theo and Pippa were both badly injured in an explosion, and while Theo appears to have recovered, Pippa still suffers from its aftereffects. Earlier in the novel, we are introduced to Pippa’s boyfriend Everett, who Theo dislikes both on principle because Everett is Pippa’s boyfriend, and on merits because Everett is kind of a whiny twit to Theo’s man of action. Much later, Pippa is visiting and she and Theo are discussing her uncle Welty, who was killed in the explosion. Pippa says:

“But Welty—he was one too. An Advanced Being. Like—not joking. Serious. Out of the ballpark. Those stories that Barbara tells—guru What’s-His-Name putting his hand on her head in Burma and in that one minute she was infused with knowledge and became a different person—Well, I mean, Everett—of course he never met Krishnamurti but—”

“Right, right.” Everett—why this annoyed quite me [sic] so much, I didn’t know—had attended some sort of guru-based boarding school in the south of England where the classes had names like Care For the Earth and Thinking of Others.

This is terrible writing. Not the prose, which is intended to reflect how people actually converse, but rather the setup. We’ve had a whole chapter with Everett in it well before. Everett is not a new character in this chapter, and Theo has had ample time to dissect him as not worthy of Pippa for all sorts of reasons that boil down to Everett isn’t Theo. So if Tartt had known that Everett had gone to a guru-based boarding school back when Everett first appeared in the book, surely Theo would have found this out and commented on it as a way of disdaining Everett, especially since Theo is a dedicated rationalist and would roll his eyes at anything guru-based.

Therefore, Tartt didn’t decide to make Everett a graduate of a guru-based boarding school until she wrote this very passage. Which is fine: sometimes we learn new things about the characters we write. But what’s not fine is her failure to anchor this new insight in the text. All she has to do here, once she’s figured out the “guru-based boarding school”, is go back to the earlier chapter where we meet Everett and have Theo find out about it, and then he can trash Everett for it. Guru-based is funny, and it’s a great piece of a character. There’s all sorts of fun things Tartt could have done at this point: for example, she could have Everett do something Theo finds baffling, and then Theo investigates and finds out about the school, and it only confirms his belief that Everett isn’t the right guy for Pippa. Then she could make it even funnier by having Everett’s guru-based knowledge actually be the appropriate response to a particular situation, which leaves Theo both angry and bereft.

This is a common trope in mass-market fiction: in detective novels, it often manifests when a new character is introduced with a throwaway quotation and then a long paragraph of narration telling us who that character is and what they like on their pizza. Since I’ve never heard a name for the trope before, I’ll show another example of it in an upcoming post.