Thursday, June 05, 2014

Of Cops and Robbers: Now, THIS is the way to integrate reality into a crime novel

This new thriller by Mike Nicol is both tangled and straightforward, so chilling and so entertaining, that I don't know where to start.  Perhaps its most impressive accomplishment is that it offers a rich and credible account of what South African government and society are really like behind the headlines, both before and after 1994.

It can't be easy for an author, especially in popular genres such as crime and thriller writing, to work real events into the story without turning the book into a Movie of the Week. Nicol gets around this by choosing events less likely to be familiar, at least to readers outside South Africa. The novel never mentions Nelson Mandela, for instance, though one of his highest-profile colleagues figures in a subplot.

And he endows real events with the magic and imagination of fiction, whether they be the overseas assassination of an anti-apartheid activist, or the Miss Landmine Angola beauty pageant.  He knows, in other words, that his job is to tell an entertaining story.  That's a hell of a lot more effective than didactic, statistic-spouting chapter headings.

What should an author keep in mind when making real events parts of a novel? What crime novelist are best at it, other than James Ellroy?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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9 Comments:

Blogger RT said...

Real events have a shelf-life in that they run the risk of being incomprehensible or inconsequential or laughable to readers in subsequent decades or generations. Authors must choose such details wisely.

June 05, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Because time has a way of lessening the currency of current events. Nicol chooses his events wisely and integrates them into the story quietly, by a side door, one night say.

I had no idea that some of the incidents depicted or alluded to were, in fact, based on real events until I read Nicol's informative afterword.

June 05, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

But should an afterword be necessary? This suggests some use of arcane and obscure real-life-tidbits. Isn't there some concept about writing that needs an explanation is not well written?

June 05, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

Good to separate out Ellroy at the start. He does it so well it's almost impossible to tell what's true and what isn't.

After him, I thought Adrian McKinty did it as well or better than anyone in his Troubles Trilogy. JOhn McFetridge's BLACK ROCK seamless integrated Dougherty's story into two actual event plot lines

Jack Bludis's SHADOW OF THE DAHLIA deserves mention here, as well. It's about a fictional murder investigation in LA at the same time as the Dahlia case, and how the threads sometimes intersect, but this cop's case always gets short shrift. He did a hell of a job there.

June 05, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: The afterword is in no way essential to the enjoyment of the excellent book. One could remain ignorant of the events on which parts of the story are (loosely) based without one's enjoyment being hampered in the least. That's what makes Nicol's accomplishment so impressive: He integrates the real-life stuff so unobtrusively.

Indeed, I had no idea any of the book was based on real events until I read the afterword afte I'd read the novel.

June 05, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, Ellroy is a bit of a cheat. He does not integrate historical events into a story. Rather, he uses them as the taking-off point of his novels.

I would love to get Nicol, McKinty. and McFetridge on a panel about crime, fiction, and history.

June 05, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Peter, perhaps you should write more postings about the often disparaged subgenre, historical novels. Those books are truly psychophrenic with identity crises.

June 05, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Oops.....schizophrenic....

June 05, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know quite what psychophrenic would mean, but I like it.

I have posted often about the odd phenomenon of historical crime fiction, here, for instance, or here, where I grill three authors of historical crime fiction about the problems associated with their genre.

June 05, 2014  

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