Dark Passages: Dissecting the Detectives, Part I

My newest column for the Los Angeles Times reflects what was some unconscious gravitation on my part towards non-fiction that looks at contemporary detective fiction, and so it’s the first of a two-part series, this time concentrating on the relationship between author and reader and how series characters are viewed by their creators. Here’s how the piece opens:

In an essay for the Wall Street Journal last spring, Alexander McCall

Smith explains the curious relationship readers have with characters

created by other people and the expectations that build up for authors

as a result. He describes one encounter with a reader highly critical

of a plot turn in one of his Isabel Dalhousie novels, to the point

where McCall Smith muses, after the fact, “that was me put in my place.

After all, I was merely the author.”

The phenomenon McCall Smith described — best exemplified by the hordes

of fans clamoring for any new speck of information on the next

“Twilight” novel by Stephenie Meyer or the conclusion to the “Hunger

Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins — is what I term narrative

investment. The author creates a world whose story and characters ring

so true and inspires readers to care a great deal about what happens

next that they enter a fugue state mixing reality and fantasy — with

readers’ needs placed far ahead of writers’ — especially if said

stories are adapted for movies and television, expanding the

narrative’s reach and cementing the level of investment by potential


Though the larger world of science fiction, fantasy and comics attracts

more fans with heavy emotional and wallet-based investments in their

chosen genre, crime fiction is hardly immune. Last month’s column

touched on what authors do when a series threatens to go stale, and

some of their choices drive their readership into apoplexy —

especially when a beloved supporting or main player is disposed of. The

total amount of time readers spend with a given series character,

however, is dwarfed by the years of writing required to set each

installment down on paper. And if writers don’t always know best about

their detective alter-egos, they usually know better because they have

access to inside information lurking inside their minds that readers

simply do not….

After that I spend more time on Otto Penzler’s anthology THE LINE-UP, where 21 of the best and brightest in crime explain their protagonists’ origin stories. The quality is very high, and the best pieces are the most essayistic. I also have a funny feeling it’ll make a good gift for the holidays, too…

As for Part II – coming next month – it’ll be on PD James’ TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION. More anon.