I’m currently reading one of the shortest books that I’ve read in a while and, considering how short my usual books tend to be, that’s saying something. Can You Ever Forgive Me? runs at under 200 pages yet I still couldn’t finish reading in time to review it. I’ll be honest, it’s been an odd week and I’ve been pretty up and down. Which has all meant that I haven’t made as much time for reading. It also didn’t help that my book club has been postponed until later this month. Now that I have no deadline I’ve lost all energy to finish it. All of which means I needed something else to write about. Thankfully, I’ve been thinking of this for a while.
I don’t read a great deal of genre fiction these days. It’s not something that I purposefully decided to avoid but it just happens that I read more so-called literary fiction than anything else. However, I do tend to pick up quite a bit of crime fiction. When you combine my rereading of Agatha Christie novels with all of the contemporary crime novels that I read, it’s definitely the genre that I most often turn to. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I actually enjoy it. If you’ve read my reviews you might have seen something of a trend. I absolutely love classic cosy crime but most contemporary books just leave me annoyed. And I think I know why.
The answer comes down to one thing: authors are trying to be too clever these days. Now, that’s not to say that writers like Agatha Christie were just phoning it in but I do think there was less of an emphasis on trying to shock their readers. Instead, Christie focused on writing plots that made sense. She, and many other writers at the time, focused on people and why they commit crimes. So, the final reveal always made sense. I don’t think that’s the case with a lot of crime fiction written in the past few decades. Writers are mainly bothered about creating narratives with shocking plot twists. The biggest plot twist is that they’re not actually surprising.
It might just be me but the more a writer tries to put me off the scent the more obvious the truth becomes. For example, you read a book and one of the characters is never even considered to be a suspect or is generally overlooked in the story. Odds are pretty high that it will be that character who did it. Take one of my most hated books in recent years: One Of Us Is Lying. We’re presented with a story in which there are only 4 suspects. What does that tell us? Well, it definitely tells us that none of them did it. Most of the time, I’ve found that when a writer directs your focus somewhere it’s because they are trying to manipulate you.
They want you to believe the most logical thing so they can write an even more shocking ending. After all, a crime novel without an Earth-shattering plot twist isn’t worth anything these days. As far as publishers are concerned, people only pick up crime novels for the twist. However, in order to do this, the writer must pick the least likely person to be the killer. Call me old fashioned but I’d prefer to read a crime novel that makes sense. Crime writers should live by Occam’s razor because it just works better.
After all, if you pick the most obvious killer then the plot just works quite naturally. All you have to do is put a few red herrings in there to make it slightly less obvious. On the other hand, when you’re working from the least likely outcome the whole narrative becomes something of a red herring. It’s as if the writer has to work backwards from the twist to make everything fit. This also means a lot more legwork to cover up the truth because you have to make is plausible. To make the implausible seem plausible you have to drop in more hints and references along the way.
Getting to the end of a book is the same as any other journey. Yes, it’s not always about finding the shortest route but it should be about the easiest route. Pick a straight road instead of one with the most twists and turns. When you take the former, you can just enjoy the journey and feel comfortable that everything is in hand. With the latter, you need more signposts along the way to ensure you end up in the right place. When a writer decides to go for the most shocking twist ending they can think of, their narrative is littered with signposts to help the reader reach their destination.
I have a confession to make: I never finished Gone Girl. Why did I never finish Gone Girl? Because it was so painfully obvious that the first half of the book was all just a big lie and I was wasting my time reading it. After reading a few of Amy’s diary entries I was left without any doubt that it was fake and she was setting her husband up. Once that was clear there didn’t seem many points in carrying on. Same with One Of Us Is Lying. There was a line in one of the early chapters that made it super obvious what Simon was planning to do. It needed to be included to make the final reveal make sense but it stuck out so much.
Of course, my ability to see through these plots might just be down to the fact that I’ve read so many crime thrillers. Or that I’m just too cynical. However, I’m also incredibly gullible and I don’t think I’m so clever that I can solve all of these books in a few chapters. There’s got to be something about these books. It’s no longer about being clever and writing engaging narratives. Crime fiction novels are all about the twists and it’s ruining the genre. The more authors try to prevent readers from guessing the ending then the more obvious the ending is. Why can’t we just go back to good old fashioned murder mysteries? You know, ones with an actual mystery?