The Suspension of Disbelief

The crime genre is divided into many different subsections. The one I currently find myself inhabiting, it seems, is ‘Golden Age’/’Fantastic’, although I’m not quite sure why this label has been attached, as it seems very arbitrary. I’m doing a panel at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival later this month, and have a slot which is apparently about science fiction and urban fantasy. Personally, I don’t think Bryant & May fall into either category. But for many people, the crime procedural is the genre’s default mode, although it’s really only one sub-division. This is probably due to the large number of procedurals that appear on TV.

But when you think about it, all crime novels are fantastical. Real crimes are solved by teams, not individuals, and it’s a rare case that throws up an unexpected killer. Most murders are committed by people immediately known to the victim, and the motives are sad and sordid; sex, poverty, addiction, desperation – there are very few genius murderers hiding clues all over the city. Crimes are solved by boring hard work, an examination of circumstance and forensic evidence.

The investigators rarely have a murdered wife or daughter. They do not act alone. They don’t find the killer while they’re in a situation of personal danger, in a sudden eleventh-hour twist of circumstance. There aren’t usually three or four other murders committed by the same person while the investigation is ongoing. So even the most supposedly realistic crime novels are utterly untruthful to life.

One of the few exceptions I can think of is AD Miller’s brilliant ‘Snowdrops’, in which it’s hard to decide if a crime has even been committed, and who really occupies the moral high ground. This book was a genuine game-changer, and should have won the Booker Prize.

So, if most ‘realistic’ crime novels are no such thing, where does that leave Bryant & May? Their unit is based on real units created in the postwar period (like the one my father belonged to). All of the characters are based on real people I know. All of the factual London details are true, as are the historical details. There are no real elements of the supernatural (those only existed in the non-canonical volumes, ‘Rune’ and ‘Darkest Day’) and even the whimsical humour, like Bryant’s rudeness and Maggie’s barminess, stems directly from the real-life originals. If anything, they’re greatly toned down. I know some genuine London eccentrics who are far too strange to be put in the books.

So how did this series end up being regarded as urban-fantastic? All I’ve done is exaggerate the characteristics of investigation. On this front, having a killer obsessed with Punch & Judy is less outrageous than Hannibal Lector swanning about Italy attending classical concerts and sawing off the tops of people’s heads. What we’re talking about is the suspension of disbelief, and while many authors go to great lengths to create an ultra-realistic background for their plots (detailing office routines, workplace politics and technology, for example) I simply go for the pleasure-points, ensuring that readers don’t have to wade through lots of dull stuff to get to the parts they enjoy most.

Suspension of disbelief is a strange thing; I get occasional letters from readers demanding to know the exact ages of Bryant & May. Do they also need to know why the Simpsons don’t age or how there could be more than one murder in Midsomer? I think my characters found the level of belief appropriate to the books, which is why in my graphic novel ‘The Casebook of Bryant & May’ we’ll be making the story more fantastical and colourful, as suits the comic genre. And if, God forbid, the characters ever end up on film, I have no doubt they’ll both be about 21 years old, to appeal to the cinema going age-group.

The moral? The best way to have your readership suspend disbelief is to make the characters true. The rest follows.

16 comments on “The Suspension of Disbelief”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Yes, exactly.
    Reading this post was like a great game of pinball, with no table tilting. Your points went “Ping”, “Ping-Ping”, “Ching” in the back of my mind as I read.
    Creating suspension of disbelief is definately not ultra-realistic writing, which is boring, if not off-putting. It is really about an author supplying the reader with “telling detail(s)” and drawing the reader in. As you do. Whatever readers skip should probably be cut out, which can be painful, or rewritten if important later.
    Hate books that weigh 3-pounds and every third chapter is a full course on nose cones, chemical reactions, gun slide oils, or the proper tubing for a state execution. Even worse the life cycle of the vole unless one was found crushed to death when the victim fell. (That might, and had better, be relevant. Bryant would know.)
    If people write you asking for B&M’s ages frame or album-up those letters! Next stop are letters written TO you FOR Bryant or May.
    (Lastly, re. the procedural: Ed McBain created the tpe back in the mid-50s with Cop Hater, which I read, and then read every 87th book after; all 50 or so. Not only did the series change crime novels, it changed TV and movies and how people saw the police. And the series pretty much killed Elley Queen and company.)
    But we are here not to praise other men; and I have a shelf cleared for B&M #11 – through #60.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    And I was going to say: That is a great illustration. Like those guys in the background. Are Bryant and May in Madame Tussauds’ place or what? And when does the book come out? Waiting…

  3. glasgow1975 says:

    Bryant & May. . .coming 2014 . . .starring Justin Bieber & Zac Efron. . .

  4. snowy says:

    People love mysteries, and real life can be very dull. Everybody would love to be able to fly, free and unaided, this is a fantasy. Everyone would love to be able to see hidden places. But we can’t.

    A skillful writer can transport us anywhere, and show us anything, but not too much, that would spoil it. Until the finale where the whole thing is revealed.

    And then sadly we have to put down the book and resume our weary trudge through life. Until we can snatch another few moments of excitement. I’ll stop there, I seem to have turned into Marvin.

  5. Clarissa says:

    I never know where I’ll find Bryant & May in the US (especially in used bookstores trying to find UK editions). Mystery, horror, f/sf, general fiction? Now that’s a mystery. The first one that caught my eye was, in fact, in the fantasy section. Sometimes I wish all books (and all music) would get shelved together, to keep me from having to play “guess the (owner’s opinion about) genre!” and so that people might try things outside of their niches. Sigh.

    At any rate, as long as things ring true to the story, my belief is well suspended and I’m carried along. I guess that’s why I can enjoy Doctor Who and Jasper Fforde.

    Oh, speaking of bookstores, I found Roofworld at The Iliad Bookshop in the LA area last week and was surprised to encounter a familiar crime right away…

  6. Clarissa says:

    I never know where I’ll find Bryant & May in the US (especially in used bookstores trying to find UK editions). Mystery, horror, f/sf, general fiction? Now that’s a mystery. The first one that caught my eye was, in fact, in the fantasy section. Sometimes I wish all books (and all music) would get shelved together, to keep me from having to play “guess the (owner’s opinion about) genre!” and so that people might try things outside of their niches. Sigh.

    At any rate, as long as things ring true to the story, my belief is well suspended and I’m carried along. I guess that’s why I can enjoy Doctor Who and Jasper Fforde.

    Oh, speaking of bookstores, I found Roofworld at The Iliad Bookshop in the LA area last week and was surprised to encounter a familiar crime right away…

  7. Clarissa says:

    Sorry, I think the internet stuttered.

  8. Diogenes says:

    Completely off-topic, but earlier Chris asked about possible plots for B & M. I’m reading a book about bridges and they say the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady” refers to the practice of sacrificing virgins and burying them at the foundations of bridges to make the bridge less likely to fail. Sounds macabre enough for Arthur.

  9. keith page says:

    Yes I agree with you that “Snow drop” is an absolutely brilliant book which stays with you long after you finished it. ( It is from Claire Page. Keith never reads this sort of novel).

  10. admin says:

    London Bridge murders, eh? A bloody good thought, that…

  11. Diogenes says:

    Chris

    This is the reference. It is probably on Arthur’s bookshelf so you shouldn’t have to look far for it.

    Henry Bett, Nursery Rhymes and Tales: Their Origin and History, 2nd edition (London: Methuen and Company, 1924), pp. 35-37.

  12. Dan Terrell says:

    Hand’s held up in support of London Bridge Murders (with heads on spikes,too?)
    (“Five of them, Arthur. How horrible. The poor souls and all from the Opposition.”
    “What do you expect? The Torres are back in.”)

  13. Steve says:

    Personally I wouldn’t want my enjoyment of fiction to be compromised by the inclusion of too much fact. Real life can be so very boring.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    London Bridge Murders, yes, another vote! There has to be enough real life for a foundation in a book. Unless you are writing real fantasy and then you spend chapters creating the ‘normal’ for the story’s world. I like the B&M world where everything is so close to real that you can shrug off anything slightly weird as a ‘one of’ incident. Do we ever get the details of the Leicester Square Vampire case or do we have to learn the grim facts from occasional references?

  15. Alan Morgan says:

    Was not the Leicester Square Vampire put to bed in Ten Second Staircase? I might misremember of course.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    It’s just that we’ve never had a proper beginning to end narration of the case. We’ve had tantalizing and horrifying bits but that’s all. I suppose if I went back through them all I could piece together the outline – and then add some description, some dialogue and voila! the whole thing. Hmm, not a good idea, I’m thinking.

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