Breaking the Promise

So I found myself at the used bookstore this week–I had a few dregs of credit left from the last time I sold ’em books–and decided that I was in the mood for a thriller. They had both In the Woods and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I bought them both, I read them both, and now I am going to say a few words, which may count as spoilers, so if you’re still planning on reading these, now would be a good time to go water the begonias.

Still here?


Here’s the thing.  When you set out to write a crime novel or a mystery novel or whatever, you have made a covenant with the reader, and that covenant says “The crime will be solved by the end of the book.”

This is not the only genre that makes you a promise when you pick it up–if you’re writing a romance, then you promise that the hero and heroine will have fallen in love with the book, probably with each other. (You are occasionally allowed to have them fall in love with other people–Heyer’s Sprig Muslin does this very charmingly–but you usually have to introduce those other people early on and make them very sympathetic. Big age gap also helps.)  Write hard sci-fi and you will not make the alien fleet vanish because of voodoo or casting Fireball. Write historical fiction and you must make at least a token nod to researching said history and not have Alexander the Great conquer Hawaii, unless it’s alternate history, in which case, eh, Aloha, knock yourself out.

Heck, it’s not just promising to stick somewhat to your genre–if you write a sequel, you promise to hold true to the first book and not ret-con stuff because you’ve decided that it would be much cooler if your hardened atheist worshipped Anubis so that you can have giant black dog ghosts roaming around in Book Two, Dan Simmons, I am looking in your direction.

And if you’re writing a whodunnit, you gotta tell us whodidit.

Now, if you wish to write a story of a terrible crime and not tell us who did it at the end, because your heroine has grown and matured and decided that she doesn’t need to know, she just prefers to put it all behind her and get on with her life and ditch this unhealthy obsession and perhaps build a better relationship with her sister/mother/therapist/estranged offspring, this is fine. Write it. Just shelve it in Literature, because that’s where it belongs.

If you are writing a classic mystery, you have in fact TWO promises to fulfill–first of all, you must solve the mystery, and second of all, you are required under the Poirot Act of 1934 to provide enough clues that the reader can potentially figure it out in advance and feel smart.

You don’t have to do this with a thriller, because of course sometimes you won’t actually meet your killer until you flush him out through smart detective work–Caleb Carr’s The Alienist does this just fine and I have no complaints, because there’s not really a way we COULD have met him, and at the end of the day, all is solved and there are tea and crumpets with leading industrialists.

But you have to solve the mystery. Failure to solve the mystery = Novel Fail.

In the Woods is beautifully written. It is lyrical. The heroine is genuinely likable and the tormented narrator, while he does occasionally get carried away on his own purple prose, is still sympathetic. I read it in line at the post office and on the exercise bike and in the tub with a glass of crappy red wine. I was hooked. And there were two linked mysteries, one current, one in the past, and they solved the current one and I cheered and I turned the page and the book was over.

And they never solved the first mystery. The one they started the book with, the one about what horrible thing happened to the detective’s two childhood friends and the shoes full of blood, the one that looked like the linchpin to the second mystery, except it wasn’t, and then the book was over and you never found out why there was a twelve year old with shoes that looked like someone had poured his friend’s blood into them and then made him put the shoes back on and what the hell, man?

It broke the promise. It violated the contract. You can wave things about ambiguity and the reader’s imagination around all you want, but those are pretty damn flimsy threads–as far as I’m concerned, if you write a murder mystery and detail the heck out’ve the murder and then go “And the murderer is….THE END” then your readers will come by and egg your house and furthermore you will deserve it.

Now, your murderer doesn’t have to get punished. You can have him walk away a free man, grinning at your hero, and the hero can grit his teeth and take it because it is often a dark and cynical and gritty world out there and this is fully within your authorly rights. But you still have to solve the mystery, or else you didn’t write a mystery, you committed literature and your books should not be shelved anywhere where an innocent bystander might happen upon them.


This made me sad, because it was really a wonderfully written book. But that’s not enough.

And then there was Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Writing was piss-poor, as far as I was concerned. I don’t think the author ever met a sentence fragment he didn’t like. However, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt–it might have been positively lyrical in Swedish, and the translation just didn’t do it justice. Parts of it bored me, parts of it were somewhat predictable, the heroine was sympathetic in that you felt sorry for her but you still didn’t want to get within a hundred yards of her, her computer skills were improbable and the hero slept with most of Sweden.

Nevertheless, it was ALSO about two crimes, one past, one present, (with a little vaguely gratuitous horrible rape-and-revenge thrown in as a minor plot point) and despite every complaint I have made, a writing level about on par with Da Vinci Code and my sorrow of the state of the American reading public that both of those were on the bestseller list for a thousand years, I will give it full and complete marks–it kept the promise.

We found out whodunnit (and what was in fact dun) and god help me, I may not read any of the rest of the books in the series–if I want to watch a horribly abused heroine make good, I’ll re-read De Lint’s early work, which will at least involve fewer tedious Swedish business transactions–but I cannot argue that it worked as a crime novel.

Whew. Okay. I feel a bit better now, except that now I am sad because I have read both thrillers and one wasn’t great and one was brilliant but failed and I want to read one that really works but I’m kinda burnt out on the lovechild of Batman and Hannibal Lector Detective Pendergast so if you have any other suggestions, I would love to hear them.

13 thoughts on “Breaking the Promise

  1. Wolf Lahti says:

    At least Tattoo made a decent movie.

    It was the same with the first Harry Potter book. I tried to read it but slogged my way through questionable assaults on the English language as far as page 147 when I finally realized nothing had yet happened and gave up.

    Then i heard it was going to be made into a movie, and my first thought was, “That should be pretty good.” My critic is possibly a schizophrenic, but I understand that books are books and movies are movies, and the two don’t necessarily share the same criteria for excellence (or even plain goodity).

    In the same vein (again), The da Vinci Code was watchable primarily because one didn’t have to suffer the tortures Brown inflicted on every other word.

    And The Girl Who Played with Fire wasn’t a bad flick either.

  2. TanitIsis says:

    “or else you didn’t write a mystery, you committed literature and your books should not be shelved anywhere where an innocent bystander might happen upon them.” LMAO

    Thank you, thank you so much. I always feel vaguely ashamed of my extreme distaste for literary endings.

  3. Ellis says:

    Ooooooh crap, if you lived in Canada we could be really good friends and go for coffee at Tim’s and then get kicked out for laughing too much. I’ll try to remember to tell you when I run across books that are mis-shelved in the mystery section (some of which should actually be shelved in the garbage can).

    I rather like the Harry Potters but I got to the end of the first one and went – Hey, this whole bloody thing was a mystery, of sorts, not straight fantasy and no one told me so now I have to read the whole damn thing again so I can look for the clues and try to figure it out.

    But I’m not offended when other people don’t like what I like. Except for Twilight. No body should like Twilight. Stephanie Meyers should go to jail for not only murdering grammer but tourturing it into forms not meant to be presented to literate people. Really. Grammer jail. Life with no parole.

  4. woollythinker says:

    Kate Atkinson manages to do the Literary Crime Novel really well. Her Jackson Brodie books have a tendency toward endings in which personal growth happens and solving the mystery is almost incidental, but it’s still solved. You get that satisfaction, plus the satisfaction of character development and irony and such. And her characters are *wonderful*. Flawed, real, funny, sad human beings who manage to be dumb and smart at the same time, in painfully familiar ways.

  5. woollythinker says:

    …but they’re more thrillers than classic mysteries in that you don’t have a hope in hell of figuring it out for yourself. Doesn’t matter though. She plays games with the genre in a way not unlike Sprig Muslin, possibly my favourite Heyer.

  6. Kim says:

    When harry potter came out, I was in elementary school. This was the appropriate age to enjoy the first 4 books thoroughly. However, by the time book 5 came out not only had the writing become stale and the characters become angsty, annoying, teenagers, I had developed higher standards. I read 5-7, but they just weren’t as good as the first 4.

    I haven’t read twilight, but I have seen the movies. Any book aimed at young teenage girls with a plot encouraging them to cling to their “one true love” as the only source of self identity, and follow his every command, deserves to be burned. Tweenagers have enough self esteem issues to go up against without having the expectation that “true love” is just around the corner, and looks like an abusive unhealthy relationship.

  7. Ellis says:

    I’ve never been able to figure it out to my own satisfaction if I hate Harry when he becomes a moody ass because her writing is so good or if it’s because the writing isn’t good. I’ve got rather more interesting things to figure out so I haven’t spent the time in analysis.

    Kim brings up something that has always bothered me enourmously about Twilight and which seems to get so little discussion. How is it in any way a good idea to present to tween age girls that if your boyfriend leaves/dumps you/dies/ whatever it’s okay to try to kill yourself by making fast and free with your life and that if you just hold true in the end he will come back and you’ll live happily every after? In the meantime be as selfish as possible and make everybody who cares about you totally miserable. Yeah, that’s the standard I want my daughters to live up to.

    Have you ever read the oatmeal where he calls Bella pants? He talks about how she has no personality, she could be anyone, she’s just some girl who can only live for the guy she thinks she’s in love with. How about a heroine who says fine leave I’m going to have a great life with or without you ’cause I know how to carry on. Clearly, that doesn’t bring in the cash.

  8. Liz says:

    Agree with all your notes about Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Glad to see I am not alone! (thank God. THANK GOD.) Just had to share this work though, if you’re looking for something else to read (if you haven’t read it already). It’s the best modern suspense/mystery/thriller I’ve read and is actually a comic called Death Note. Written by Tsugumi Ohba and drawn by Takeshi Obata, this is a brilliant piece of work. It’s avail through Viz or online at:

    I try hard not to cry at my on ineptitude looking at the art. Or at the brilliance of the plot. Enjoy!

  9. Ryan says:

    Have you ever read any of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher? They seem like your kind of thing, but I’ve never heard you comment about them.

    Urban fantasy, snarky wizard private investigator tries to save people from the monsters they don’t believe in and solve crimes at the same time. The first two books are really obviously his first books (so cut some slack), and you could probably stand to just kick things off with book 3, 4, and 5 (Grave Peril, Summer Knight, and Death Masks) and then go back for 1 and 2 once you have a handle on the better parts of the series…

    But anyway. Suggestion made. If you’ve read it and didn’t like it (or did) I’d be interested to hear your comments.

  10. Carrie says:

    You might want to track down “The Likeness”, which is a sequel to “In the Woods”. The murder is solved at the end, for one thing.

    The thing about “In The Woods” that bugged me? The rather strong intimation that the three kids had been attacked by, I dunno, Herne the Hunter or something.

    I second the recommendation for the Dresden Files, but I think it’s better to read “Storm Front” and “Fool Moon” (the first two) because they give background that helps with subsequent books.

  11. Lisa says:

    Dragon Tattoo was, on a side note, the first third of what the author meant to be a single book with several sections (the minor plot point you mention becomes much more involved and significant in the rest of the work, which is more of a thriller over all and is ok if you’re just reading it but spectacular if you’re familiar with other Swedish literature and even children’s novels (there’s a very strong argument to be made that, aside from his obvious references to the books, he’s actually writing a real-to-life-when-the-world-is-kind-of-an-ugly-place version of Pippi Longstocking, which just gets cool). I was also annoyed by MB sleeping his way across Sweden, but I read an interview with the author’s SO who mentioned that, and compared the MB parts of the novels to Frodo’s part in Two Towers–you just desperately want to get back to Aragorn and the interesting action (in this case Lisbeth, who is far more interesting and attractive as she develops through the rest of the book, that first sequence being the intro), so they made him come along with the promise of sex so there would be at least a little payoff to you slogging through the significant but less interesting historical bits (which, again, become more relevant in the overall work, when it starts being about Swedish government and standards and less about this one particular murder).

    But the “this is one book” stuff also becomes infinitely more inescapable in the second book, and it doesn’t end so much as cut off waiting for the third, which is the American publishers fault, really.

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