“Things in life are both big and small in equal proportion.” The New York Chronicle
“Suspension of disbelief” is a phrase that is often used by book reviewers, and when it is, it’s usually not good news. When someone states that they could not suspend their disbelief, it means that the story they were reading (or the film they were watching) never felt real. I don’t know about others, but when I begin to read a fictional work that does not feel real, I get a mental picture of the writer in question at a computer struggling to figure out the next word, sentence, paragraph, chapter… The choppy feeling of a not-quite-true creation overwhelms the potentially positive experience of encountering a new world.
I suspect that it’s hardest for someone to suspend their disbelief when they’re reading a novel about the very world that they inhabit. Let’s say, for example, that I was to write a novel about a major, fictional rock star. I think that actual rock musicians would be the toughest critics as they likely would find the story to be too “over-the-top” (not every rock band tears up hotel rooms), or find that it failed to reflect the tedium of life on the road. Most likely, a musician would want to find a story that he or she could relate to – one that would equally balance the drama and boring aspects of the professional music maker’s life. And, he or she would want to read a story in which – as in life – what comes next is never predictable.
My experience of having worked in many aspects of the criminal justice system may explain why it is usually the hardest for me to locate the supposed realism in courtroom dramas and crime novels. I usually find fault from two different perspectives. Firstly, these novels often start off with plot lines that are far too tricky; too many authors seem to have been influenced by the shenanigans of John Grisham, who seems to need overly complicated and unrealistic stories to grab the reader’s interest. The same is true for the too-clever endings inspired by another successful writer, Scott Turow.
The plot for these books often centers around something that’s not going to happen – like the killing of a major U.S. senator’s wife (at a time when the senator just happens to be having an affair). But most of what goes on in the criminal justice system is not so dramatic. If I were to attempt to write a book about the average case, it might involve a young man who has experienced numerous small scrapes with the law before some friends encourage him to ride along with them on a lark. It’s during this ride that someone gets killed and our young man – being the only one with a criminal history – takes the fall. Yes, I know, many publishers would think this is relatively dull stuff, but as John Lennon used to say, “…that’s reality.”
The second issue I have with these novels is that despite the dramatic plots, the characters often seem to be cut from cardboard. They’re pretty lifeless compared to the often big personalities that inhabit the criminal justice system. There are public prosecutors who wear $1,000 suits and drive cars meant for millionaires. There are prosecutors and public defenders who don’t necessarily love their co-workers, and some prosecutors and public defenders have been known to have a drink together. Some deputy district attorneys don’t always get along with law enforcement officers. In other words, life in the halls of justice and the courtrooms is a bit messier than it’s portrayed in the latest crime novel. It’s also certainly not as “clean” as a typical episode of Law and Order.
I think what’s forgotten is that these are real human beings, with great strengths and corresponding flaws; and they live and work in an imperfect world, a somewhat less than perfect criminal justice system.
What’s the moral of this article? Simply that I’d love to see criminal justice system-based fiction that tones down the overly dramatic plots while raising the volume on the unique individuals who make their living within the law. Is there a writer who gets the characters right? Yes, I’m glad you asked… Interestingly, former prosecutor Marcia Clark (Guilt By Degrees, Guilt By Association) seems to portray some very realistic figures in her novels, although she cloaks them in the guise of sarcasm and humor. Still, it’s a start and want-to-be crime novelists would do well to read her work, and/or spend some actual time with the prosecutors, public defenders, defense attorneys, and policemen and policewomen who work very tough jobs that are so very rarely accurately portrayed.
Pictured: Guilt By Degrees: A Novel by Marcia Clark (Mulholland Books). One courtroom drama that was highly recommended by this site is Tell No Lies: A Novel by Julie Compton (Minotaur Books, $19.99, 368 pages); also available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.
This article is one in a periodic series called Turn The Page.