A little while ago I received an Amazon comment on one of the R&M Files that said something about DI Romney NOT being Harry Bosch. (I wish I could reference it here but I can’t find it! Typical. I know I didn’t imagine it.) Of course Romney isn’t Bosch. Romney is Romney. He’s from a completely different culture, place and system. He’s a different person. Although I understood the comment, what the reader was getting at, I didn’t really appreciate the reader in question saying that Romney isn’t Bosch. It comes across as a negative thing. Maybe it was for that reader. It’s a bit like saying a VW beetle isn’t a Ferrari. (I like beetles and I like Ferraris but a beetle isn’t a Ferrari. I doesn’t have to be for me to like it. It’s just a different type of car.) Romney is a different type of policeman. He was never meant to be anyone but Romney and the inference I took from the comment was that as the creator of Romney I’d tried to make him something Boschlike and failed. Have I ever mentioned that I can be over-analytical sometimes?
I’d heard of Bosch, of course. I say ‘of course’ because Bosch has been a hugely popular detective fiction character for years. (Harry Bosch is the creation of Michael Connelly. Bosch is a detective working for the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department.) Maybe I should have read him before. I have now and am glad that I have.
Rather serendipitously soon after reading the afore-mentioned comment, Amazon sent me a voucher for a free book. They gave me the choice of three, I think, and the first Bosch was one of them. You don’t need to be a detective to guess what happened next. And then I actually BOUGHT the next four in the series! I was that impressed with the writing and the character.
The first three were really good. For my money, books four and five have just gone off the boil a little. The writing isn’t quite as sharp, as cutting, as decisive as it was in the first three. Just my opinion. And Bosch the character comes across as more of a dick (that’s dick as in British slang than dick as in American slang) in these books than hard-nosed as he did in books 1-3. I realise that’s a fine line to walk for an author. A lesson for Romney and me. Romney can be a dick (British slang) first class. Actually, come to think of it, so can I. (Yet another thing the Dover DI and I have in common. Sigh.) It’s important that even when your central protagonist is being a dick he’s still got some appeal. It’s crucial for the reader. Harry lost some of his appeal for me in book four. I got a bit irritated with him. He clawed some of it back in book five. I will be reading more in the series.
It’s often said that writers need to be readers. Writers can learn from reading the writing of others. What works and what doesn’t. As well as having enjoyed the reading experience, I’ve learned some things from working my way through the first five Bosch novels back to back. (As an aside, I think a writer has to be bloody good to make a reader want to plough without interruption through a series and then to make the reader follow through with that want.)
Swearing: less is more. Bosch and a couple of people he interrogates get very sweary at times, particularly in book five, and it does lose the impact of the language for me. There’s ALWAYS going to be a place in contemporary crime fiction for bad language. It’s simply the reality of contemporary life. (Curiously enough I had another comment on Rope Enough (R&M#1) not so long ago that said: Did not like the blasphemy. If the ebook wasn’t in my nice Kindle I’d have chucked it down the loo! Cussler & Wilbur Smith manage to put the word “expletive” where appropriate – we know what they mean. Well sorry mate but that’s bollocks. I can’t think of many more intrusive devices in a narrative than for an author to spoil the flow by using the word ‘expletive’ instead of …er…an expletive.
Character empathy: The reader must not be encouraged to become alienated from the central character of a series. That’s literary suicide. I see it time and again in comments readers make on Amazon: ‘didn’t care about any of the characters.’ I might have pushed that at times with the R&M Files and Romney. I might still be pushing it. I think that having a crime fighting duo like Romney and Marsh can help here as opposed to a lone ranger like Bosch. Romney might be dick sometimes but Marsh is there as the reader’s foil to manage his dickishness, to bring something out of it for the reader to enjoy. I hope so.
Repetition: I read a few comments that readers have made on the Bosch novels. Naturally I gravitated to the negative and luke-warm, like one does. One reader said that Connelly has a habit of telling something then repeating/explaining it with a summary sentence or another unnecessary paragraph. That struck a chord. A couple of readers whose opinions I trust have levelled the accusation at me. I’m mindful of it and I try to weed that sort of thing out of my writing when I go back during the editing process. And I had noticed a few instances of this in Connelly’s books. You’ve got to be a bit brave as a writer and take a leap of faith – believe in your readers’ ability to understand something first time round. As a reader I find it satisfying, pleasurable even to get it without having it explained and then rammed down my throat.
Padding: Connelly doesn’t seem to do a lot of this but just now and again I think he does touch on things that it really wouldn’t have hurt the narrative and story if he’d left them out. I read a few passages that made me frown with their apparent lack of connection to what was going on. I kept expecting them to show their relevance later in the story but they didn’t. (Maybe I just didn’t get it and needed it explaining and then rammed down my throat.) Another note to self. I don’t think I do much padding anyway. I don’t like it as a reader.
Similes: Connelly is pretty good generally, but there were a few times that I didn’t like his attempts and I think that the narrative would have been better for their absence. I am reminded to beware of grating home-made similes. If in doubt, leave them out. I think that home-made similes are a literary device that have the ability to separate the best writers from the rest of us. It’s something that I really appreciate in Chandler’s writing. He was one of the best. And while a brilliantly original and apt simile is worth a thousand words a poor one that jars can jolt the reader out of the flow. Another lesson for me: often plain words instead of clichés and flowery language are far more effective and less distracting for the reader, unless you have something really special to offer.
Humour: This is a big one for me. A big issue. In The Concrete Blonde (Bosch #3) there were a couple of very nice and welcome touches of humour. I was encouraged to chuckle to myself in a public place. It wasn’t the author being funny; it was Harry Bosch. And it really made a difference, this tough cop having a sense of humour. The incidents were subtle. But maybe what the touches did more than anything was to highlight the lack of humour anywhere else in the series. Humour suddenly became notable by its absence. And that realisation made quite an impact on me as a reader. Not in a good way.
Humour is important to me in my R&M Files. I understand that introducing humour in crime fiction is going to be fraught with difficulty for many reasons. But I think that if an author can bring it off it’s worth its weight in the story. It’s worth more than its weight. I’ve tempted my idea of what’s funny out of the shadows once again into R&M#5. It works for me. Funny humour always works for me as a reader. It’s one of the things I like about reading Elmore Leonard. That man could write a line that made me hoot and re-read it again and again just to appreciate the subtlety of it. I’m talking about a serious line of dialogue that was just so perfect it became funny. That kind of funny is a writer at the top of his craft.
Freshness: It’s not easy to keep books in a series fresh, to prevent them and the characters from becoming stale and predictable. It might be the biggest challenge for an author. I’m about to start book six in the R&M Files. I’m about to find out. Or maybe feedback on #5 will indicate it.
If someone with a hankering to write s series of detective novels asked me for advice I would say: read a few series before you even pick up a pencil. Get the feel for how characters develop over a few books. Read the books critically. Search for what works for you as a reader and what doesn’t over the course of, say, the first five books. Do I regret not doing that? (Wrinkles nose in thought.) No. But it might have helped me as a writer to think longer term for my characters. Then again when I wrote Rope Enough I had no idea there’d be #2 never mind a #5. And there will be a #6. I have to start that next. (More on that in September.)
Amazon have made a television series of the Connelly novels. It’s called Bosch. I haven’t seen any but I want to. The guy who plays Bosch looks appropriate as I see the character, although in the books I’ve read Bosch has a moustache and Titus Welliver doesn’t. Good move by whoever made that decision for Amazon. When I learned in book three (?) that Harry had a tash I had to take a break. Facial hair definitely works for anyone Tom Sellick plays (Magnum and Jesse Stone) but I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy learning that Bosch was anything other than clean shaven or (often) stubbly with several days’ growth.
And finally, while I’m thinking about actor/character choice I’ve been asked and I’ve sometimes wondered who I’d like to play DI Romney on the small screen. I know who. I saw the guy in something a little while back and instantly thought he would be perfect. Nearly. Trouble is he’s now too old and he’s Irish. (I’ve no problem with the Irish but the accent would be an issue. That said the guy is an actor. Maybe he could have dealt with it convincingly. I’m sorry that the man who would have been my current first choice for DI Romney will, by cruel dint of time and place, not now get a sniff at the role. Liam Cunningham.