This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Limits of Realism

            Watching an episode of Elementary recently, I perked up when it got to a scene where the detectives were visiting a witness who had just emerged from a coma after being shot by a multiple killer. Sherlock Holmes had already deduced the identity of the killer and the detective in the hospital room whipped out a photo of the perp and held it up, at which the guy in the hospital bed pointed to it and said “Yeah …”
            So not right.
            Also not so big a deal.
            It wasn’t right because any competent defense attorney could have raised questions about the identification; the victim was essentially asked a leading question of the type not allowed in court. That’s one of the reasons most modern police departments seeking an ID from a photo give the witness a half-dozen pictures of potential perps to choose from. That way the identification does a lot better if the case ever comes to trial.

When a Mistake Doesn’t Hurt Too Much

            On the other hand, the scene occurred in the context of a show in which the basic premise is that the New York City Police Department is using Sherlock Holmes and his associate, Dr. Joan Watson, as consultants on major crimes. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s a certain amount of reality avoidance in the show to start with.
            From that perspective, a violation of police procedure for the purpose of wrapping up the story within an hour is at most a minor infraction. Had the scene occurred in a drama that prided itself on being grittily realistic about the details of police work, it would have been a howler.
            Similarly, in the novels of Golden Age writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey, a mistake about the effects of arsenic on the spleen is not a deal-breaker, provided, of course, that the solution to the mystery doesn’t revolve around the reader catching the mistake. Those authors were more concerned with the motives of the suspects, and having one of the suspects behave out of character would be far more serious in their books than getting a scientific detail wrong.

Yielding to the Story

            Nobody who writes a book wants a glaring and laughable mistake in it, and a certain due diligence in that regard is important for all authors. But there are ways of dealing with it other than rigorous research. For example, Catriona McPherson, author of the Dandy Gilver mysteries, said in a newspaper interview that one of the reasons she did a series set in the 1920s was so she wouldn’t have to waste a lot of time learning forensic stuff and writing it into the books. Like Christie, Tey, et. al, she wanted to focus on the characters and situation.
            In the course of doing the final revision for my first mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, I had to make a call in that regard. Re-reading the book, I realized that at one point I had the local sheriff doing something the FBI chief on the scene would surely have done himself. The scene was unrealistic in the same way as the one-photo lineup in Elementary.
            On the other hand, the story was at that point barreling toward its climax, and introducing and developing a new character at that point would have sapped its narrative drive. So, reality be damned, I let the sheriff go ahead and do the FBI chief’s job. When you’re writing fiction, there are times you can’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.