I recently read an article http://tinyurl.com/m8e8f7z claiming that readers who flip to the end of a thriller to check what will happen have more fun than those who endure the suspense to eventually learn the outcome. I found this difficult to believe. The study cited research done by the University of California at San Diego’s Psychology Department, which gave subjects short stories by Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl and John Updike.
To quote from the article, “Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man’s daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck. The same held true for mysteries. Knowing ahead of time that Poirot will discover the apparent target of attempted murder is, in fact, the perpetrator not only didn’t hurt enjoyment of the story, but actually improved it.”
The article goes on to say, “Quite often when reading horror novels, I get so frightened I need to check the hero/heroine is still alive at the end of the book, and I usually take a sneak peek at the end of romance reads just to make sure who is going to end up with whom.”
The study’s psychologists speculated “once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier—you’re more comfortable processing the information—and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”
The article further states “the reason spoilers don’t matter is because plot is overrated, and plots are just excuses for great writing. The plot is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing.”
I find this postulation rather absurd.
I agree beautiful writing can carry a novel a very long way. I’ve re-read Next, by James Hynes many times, and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral more than once. These novels are so beautifully written that on the second or third read, I focused on the exquisite prose and appreciated the novels’ finer points and ironic twists more than on my first encounter. Conversely, I found Donna Tarte’s The Goldfinch, somewhat disappointing because the essential plotting elements were overwhelmed by the excessively written, albeit, gorgeous word-pictures.
And of course, we read and watch Shakespeare’s plays and re-read Poe’s stories not only for the beauty of their language and depth of thought, but because the stories (plots) continue to connect with intrinsic elements of the human experience.
As for mystery, suspense and thriller novels, viewing the plot as “(almost) irrelevant” seems an extraordinary stretch. Frankly, I find that conclusion preposterous.
These novels weave character and plot into a matrix meant to capture and hold our attention. If written well with a strong storyline, the reader “lives” the twists and turns in “real” time, as if dwelling within the story. Suspension of disbelief and not knowing the story’s outcome make for tense yet delicious anticipation, and compel us to keep reading, even to the point of not want to be interrupted—let’s say, for dinner.
That’s why these books are called thrillers, page-turners, suspense novels or mysteries. It’s the not knowing that provides super-charged propellant for the reader—the eagerness to keep reading, the hunger for the reveal, the insatiable need to learn the consequences of the protagonist’s character-driven mistakes or foibles.
Resisting the temptation to turn to the last page deepens the novel’s pleasure when the denouement is finally revealed. We all know people who cannot delay gratification. Maybe some participants in the study were in that camp. But for the rest of us, spoilers are just that: revelations that take the wind out of the sails; the bubbles out of champagne; and the thrill out of the thriller.
Life brims with mystery, with enigmatic twists and infinite possibilities. Our lives teem with ambiguity. Who among us knows what waits around the next corner? For me, a thriller, suspense, or mystery novel reflects life with its uncertainty, apprehension, and the tension of the unknown.
I definitely don’t want to know the future. That would spoil everything.
I was making psychiatric rounds at a nursing home where I visited weekly. Occasionally, elderly residents became agitated, as much a result of confinement and lack of stimulation, as from dementia.
One morning, while I was reading charts, an aide approached me saying, “Mrs. Barnes hasn’t come out of her room in three days. I looked in on her and she was crying. I think you ought to check her out.”
Helen Barnes was a 91 year old woman who was admitted to the facility two years earlier. She had two sons who rarely visited. She was living an isolated life of emotional deprivation. Over the time I had seen Mrs. Barnes, her memory had worsened. As often happens with dementia, her recent recall was poor, while distant events remained retrievable. She could relate incidents of 30 or 40 years ago, but couldn’t recall eating breakfast that morning. She was genial, outgoing, and had never presented with problems before now.
I knocked on the door and entered her room. Sitting in a chair, Mrs. Barnes was a portrait of emotional desolation. Her hair was disheveled; her face was drawn; her eyes were bloodshot and the lids were swollen. Her face and body sagged with despair. It was obvious she was depressed and had been crying.
“Mrs. Barnes. How are you feeling?”
She shook her head and cast her eyes downward. Her hands were shaking.
“Can you tell me what’s got you so down in the dumps?”
She raised her head slowly, looked into my eyes and said, “I thought we had a good marriage…”
She burst into tears and placed her hands over her eyes.
Mrs. Barnes was a widow. Her husband had died at age 90, three years earlier. They had been married for more than 60 years. Yet she was now lamenting the state of her marriage.
“I don’t understand, Mrs. Barnes. What do you think was wrong with your marriage?”
“I’m here all alone. My husband just picked up and ran off without me…” she sobbed.
It dawned on me suddenly: her memory had deteriorated to the point where she no longer recalled her husband was dead. She now thought he’d abandoned her.
“Mrs. Barnes, your husband didn’t desert you…”
“No. He passed away three years ago.”
Her eyes widened. “You’re sure…?” she whispered. “He died?”
Yes, I’m sure. He died peacefully in his sleep.”
Her face seemed to light up. Her eyes danced with life. Something ignited in her brain—the memory of her husband, or perhaps his funeral. “That’s right,” she said, suddenly smiling. “I remember…yes, I remember…”
I spent the next ten minutes asking about her life with her husband. She talked volubly; and by the time I left, she was a different person. It was amazing: paradoxically, being reminded of her husband’s death cheered her up.
At the nursing station, I said to the head nurse, “Please tell the staff to remind Mrs. Barnes her husband died three years ago.”
“Why…?” she asked. Her brow furrowed and her tone registered confusion. Reminding a patient of a significant loss was a most unusual “doctor‘s order.”
“She’s forgotten he died. She thought he’d abandoned her. Just mention it to her every day… even a few times a day. It’s better she knows he died than if she thinks he left her.”
On my way to the parking lot, I couldn’t shake the feeling there are many people like Mrs. Barnes in nursing homes, everywhere. People, who because of failing memories coupled with isolation from family and close friends, suffer terrible emotional sorrow. Often, they do so needlessly, because no one takes the time to talk with them and listen to what they say, or inquire about their thoughts.
One spring morning, while entering the nursing home, I held the door open for a middle-aged man who was leaving. As he crossed the door’s threshold, an alarm sounded, and two security guards emerged, then guided him back into the facility. A petite, dark-haired woman approached, thanked the guards, and spoke soothingly to him. I could tell she was his wife.
“He’s new, Doc,” said a guard. “He’s much younger than the other residents and people don’t think he’s a patient. They let him out. So we have an ankle monitor on him.”
Approaching the couple, I spoke with his wife as Charles was escorted to his room. He’d been a resident for only four weeks. At 55, he suffered from early onset dementia which had progressed rapidly.
“It’s terrible,” said his wife, Helen. “He doesn’t recognize me anymore; he just seems comfortable around me. He gets worse every day,” she said in a quivering voice.
“Tell me a bit more about him,” I said.
“He was an art historian and taught at Yale. He began deteriorating two years ago and now he’s completely out of it. He can’t even find his way around the nursing home…but has a knack for getting to the front door. The only thing he remembers…and it’s all he talks about…is art.”
After seeing the other patients, I went to his room. The sight greeting me was astounding. Every square inch of wall space was covered with reproductions of paintings from virtually every era of art. At least 50 pictures hung on the walls. Books were stacked everywhere—all were about art and the history of painting and sculpture.
A closer look at Charles revealed a vacant look of befuddlement in his eyes. He approached me tentatively, shuffling, slightly bent, and smiled vacuously. I introduced myself. He looked confused.
“Do you know where you are?” I asked.
He shook his head.
Pointing to a reproduction of Renoir’s painting Luncheon of The Boating Party, Charles’s posture changed dramatically; he straightened up and assumed a professorial stance. “This was painted by Renoir in 1881,” he said. His eyes sparkled with life. His voice rose, was no longer flat or lifeless. “This painting includes some of Renoir’s friends in his circle. Aline Charigot was his favorite model, and she’s shown toying with the little dog in the painting’s foreground. Renoir married her shortly after this picture was painted.”
Charles described in exquisite detail, Renoir’s virtuosity of technique in the painting, and talked enthusiastically about the artist’s life. Charles was a compendium of information about Renoir and the era’s impressionists. It was as though he was giving a college lecture. He was vibrant and full of life. He was truly a changed man as he went on about Renoir, Degas, Monet and the others.
“He only talks about art,” his wife told me later. “It’s all he remembers. He can’t find his way to the dining room or recognize anyone, but he can talk about schools of painting. It’s like he’s teaching again.”
Helen knew her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease would worsen progressively. Yet, she treasured this window of time when his ability to retain—at least for the time being—the love and memory for art, which had been so meaningful in his life, remained.
Sadly, Helen and I knew the day would come when Charles would lose this one remaining domain of intellectual functioning, but until that time, art would continue to nourish and sustain him. And, perhaps art, in all its richness and beauty would bring comfort to Charles, until this last vestige of memory would be lost to him.
I occasionally read a novel in which there are many references to popular culture in the storyline. This is particularly true in James Hynes’s hauntingly disturbing and must-read novel, Next. Among other popular cultural references, Next reads:
“…so he orders an iced tea.
“With legs?” says the golden blond, absently pressing a key on the register.
“Pardon?” Starbucks is like its own country, you have to know the silly argot.
“To go?” says the fortysomething woman, in a rising Texas singsong. “’With legs’ means ‘to go.’”
Dina Tartt’s beautifully-written novel, The Goldfinch is replete with popular references. Early in the novel, the narrator’s mother says to Theo:
“Upper Park is one of the few places where you can still see what the city looked like in the 1890s. Gramercy Park too, and the Village, some of it. When I first came to New York I thought this neighborhood was Edith Wharton and Franny and Zooey and Breakfast at Tiffany’s all rolled into one.”
For me, the value of pop-culture references is their ability to make the novel come alive, providing the social and cultural backdrop for enriching the read. I can relate to ordering in a Starbucks or browsing online at Amazon. These references link me tightly to the novel’s characters and situations, and draw me deeper into the reading experience.
Popular culture references can be a shorthand way of conveying vivid images. In their own unique way, they can enrich the read, if they’re not over-used. Incorporating the names of people, products, films and television shows within the story can bring immediacy to the narrative.
We all know what comes to mind when we read recognizable names. They’re already embedded in our consciousness.
If a character says, “Bada Bing,” we think of The Sopranos; “Yada Yada,” we’re back watching a Seinfeld episode. “You’re fired!” we see Donald Trump. If a protagonist is being patted down by a TSA agent at an airport, we relate immediately. The images and situations provide more than atmosphere; they place us in the contemporary novel.
An older reference to an earlier time can provide a sense of nostalgia. If you say a particularly evil woman reminds you of the Wicked Witch of the West, doesn’t that conjure an instant image? Imagery is crucial. It’s what opens the eyes of the reader’s imagination.
Bada Bing fits perfectly When the Moment is Right.
It dawned on me that I’ve been remiss by not thanking those who’ve written favorable reviews of my novels. Over the last few months, I’ve been thanking people for taking the time to express their pleasure in reading my books.
To all those who wrote positive reviews before this thought came to me, I want to thank you for your kind words. They are very much appreciated.
Author of Mad Dog House, Love Gone Mad and The Foot Soldier
I was on Barry Eva’s podcast, “A Book and a Chat.” Bu clicking on the link below, you can hear the entire interview.
Mark, thank you for being such a great guest on today’s program, the show went really well and we both enjoyed it, which is always a very important thing and makes the time just fly by. It was such fun to chat about so many different subjects, thank you so much.
You can listen to the show (as I am now) at this location where all the archived shows are kept
Writing is an emotionally draining and solitary business. You spend hour upon hour alone with your thoughts and fantasies, doing your best to order, re-order and transform them into coherent stories people will want to read. Like any other endeavor, you have good days and bad days. Sometimes you feel exhilarated; at other times you feel frustrated and exhausted. As they say, it goes with the territory.
My wife has noticed what she’s called “carryover” from a day’s writing. She can tell if I’ve been working on an intense scene or chapter—one with plenty of action or anger, or one brimming with life-altering (even murderous) conflicts between characters. She picks up on the energy writing has generated within me. It doesn’t simply dissipate when the day’s writing is finished. It carries over for a while.
Linda says she can tell from my mood where the writing has taken me: whether to a love scene, an interchange between close friends, or a violent confrontation (verbal or otherwise) between characters in the novel I’m writing. It’s not that I become the characters I’ve been dealing with all day, but some of what makes them real spills over, at least for a time, into my life.
Linda can tell whether or not I’ve had a good or bad day writing. It’s not very different from what any spouse can perceive about a partner’s day. But, maybe it’s even more pronounced for a writer. My boss and unforgiving taskmaster is my imagination.
My characters and their dynamisms derive from some hidden (or maybe not-so-well buried) place within me. They flow from my thoughts, fantasies, feelings, and experiences. I cannot “leave them behind” at the office.
Writing is demanding—even depleting. Although I don’t commute to a job, I’m at a desk in my home, all day, every day. I don’t take a day off. Ever.
When I practiced psychiatry, I also worked in a kind of isolation. Seeing patients was never a true social connection. It would have been inappropriate to share my personal life. The nature of psychotherapy prohibits social interaction. After all, you are not a patient’s friend. When I had a private practice, I relished opportunities to get out and socialize with friends. However, as a writer, I find the work immensely satisfying, but emotionally draining. As a carryover, Linda has noticed a decline in my willingness to spend time with dear friends. After enjoying a good meal at home, I want nothing more than to settle in with a book, surrounded by my dogs, until bedtime.
This is not the case for every fiction writer; after all, Elaine’s (the once-famous New York eatery) used to be packed every night with literary luminaries. But for me, creating conflict-driven characters, placing them in daunting situations, providing them with action-oriented dialogue—using my imagination and telling high-octane stories of suspense and tension—seem to have spilled over into my real life.
I won’t be surprised if Linda posts a “Do Not Disturb: Writer at Work” sign on our front door. I’m glad she loves and understands me and the characters I create.
Martin Walker is a senior fellow of a private think tank for CEOs of major corporations. He is also editor in chief emeritus and international affairs columnist for UPI and has been a journalist for the Guardian for many years. He has written five previous novels—all international best sellers—in the Bruno, Chief of Police mystery series. He lives in Washington, D.C. and the Dordogne region of France. His most recent Bruno novel is The Resistance Man.
Tell us about Bruno Courreges, chief of police of the small town of St. Denis in the Dordogne region of France.
We’ve had a house in the Perigord region of France for about fifteen years. One of my great chums, Pierrot, is the village policeman for our small town. He’s a hunter, a wonderful cook and a very decent man with an idiosyncratic method of law enforcement. He’s also my tennis partner. He’s very much the inspiration for Bruno.
Bruno is the village policeman and a former soldier. He built his own house, cooks, loves his horse and his basset hound, Balzac, and has two very attractive and strong women in his life. In The Resistance Man, he must deal with a sudden crime wave leading to revelations about his country’s past, and his own, as well. The Dordogne is a lovely region with great food and wine, a beautiful landscape, and incredible history. It struck me as an almost inescapable opportunity to write about Pierrot and the area, in a fictional way, of course.
Bruno is certainly an expert cook and oenophile. How much of you does he represent?
I wish I was as good a cook or had such knowledge of wine as my friend. Or, played tennis as well as he does. There’s a certain wistfulness about any writer of mystery stories if there’s an attractive hero. These days, particularly with Scandinavian noir, the idea seems to be to have an alcoholic protagonist who can’t get along with women, and never speaks to his children. I prefer a likable, even admirable hero, someone like Bruno.
However, the women Bruno finds attractive are extremely independent and strong-minded. One, Isabelle, is passionate about her career and determined to let nothing stand in its way. She wants to live in Paris, which Bruno would hate. The other, Pamela, is a divorcee who has no intention of marrying, though she’s quite happy to share her bed with Bruno from time to time. Bruno is desperate to become a father, yet he keeps falling for women who don’t want to marry and have children.
Your novels tap deeply into French history. They’re almost historical mysteries.
I studied history at Oxford. My earlier non-fiction books were historical. I wrote one about Gorbachev and Perestroika. Another involved the history of the United States in the Twentieth Century, while another was about the Cold War. History has always been a passion for me. As a foreign correspondent I would dive into a new culture and read its history.
I’ve always been fascinated by French history in particular because of its grand divisions—pro and anti-revolution of 1789; or pro-republic or anti-republic after 1870. There’s still a division between those who were Vichy collaborationists in 1940, and those for De Gaulle and the Resistance. In my village there are still families who will not speak to each other because one was collaborationist and the other was with the Resistance. Some of this friction is reflected in the Bruno novels.
You’ve been a journalist and a non-fiction author. How did you make the transition to writing fiction—specifically mysteries?
When we bought a home in the Perigord region, I felt a compulsion to write about the area, but not in a non-fiction venue. I wanted to convey something about the extraordinary local lifestyle and culture, landscape and the region’s wealth of history. The area’s human past goes as far back as pre-historic days and the famous caves of Lascaux which are just up the river from our home. There are more than a thousand medieval castles in the Dordogne valley. The region is drenched in history.
I wrote my first novel about twelve years ago, The Caves of Perigord. But that didn’t really scratch my itch. I had this idea of writing about a policeman. I never took any writing courses. It just seemed to come naturally as an outgrowth of journalism, of simply writing. So Bruno, the chief of police of our little town was born, and I’ve been writing about him ever since.
With your busy schedule, do you write every day?
I write a thirty page synopsis for each novel before I begin. Then I set myself a daily target of a thousand words a day. When I’m on a plane or at a conference and get up early, take out the laptop, and I get my thousand words done. It’s become part of my routine.
What do you do when you aren’t writing?
I read a huge amount. I travel quite a lot—even more these days because the Bruno books have had success and impacted tourism for the Perigord. When they have museum exhibitions for the Lascaux caves, whether in Houston, Montreal or elsewhere, I help do the presentations with a team from the regional tourist board. I do the same for the international wine fairs for the wines of Bergerac. I was made chevalier of fois gras and became an honorary ambassador for the Perigord region. And, there are book tours.
Do you read other writers in your genre while writing a novel?
Sometimes. It depends on how much I’m travelling. If a new novel by Alan Furst comes out, I’ll read it immediately. I read a great deal of history, biography, and a bit of science fiction as well.
When reading another author’s prose, are you tempted to emulate that author?
Not really. If I go to a Shakespeare play, I don’t start writing in verse. (Laughter). I think having been a journalist for a daily paper for so long affected my style; it’s rather workmanlike. It’s really quite well set. I think I write naturally. It’s just the way I think and speak.
Who are the writers you admire?
My hero is Sherlock Holmes. That was the first time I came across the mystery genre as a boy. I enjoy reading Donna Leon and Peter Robinson. I very much enjoy the art mysteries of Iain Pears, and really liked the first of the Stieg Larsson trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I enjoy reading novels by Ian Rankin. I very much like science fiction and was struck when I read Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. As for non-fiction, I recently read The Man who Changed China by Robert Kuhn. I also read Bourgeois Dignity by Deirdre McCloskey.
If you could have dinner with 5 other people, either writers or historical figures—living or dead—who would they be?
First would be Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wonderful Twelfth Century woman who married two kings. Another would be Queen Elizabeth the 1st. She’d have to bring Shakespeare along with her. (Laughter). Then would come Lord Byron. A fifth would be Abe Lincoln who I think would get along very well with Eleanor of Aquitaine.
If you could invite some contemporary people, who would they be?
Bill Clinton would be one. We were at Oxford together. I covered him a lot, and he graciously invited me to join him on Air Force One from time to time. Another would be Mikhail Gorbachev. Then, someone I’ve never really understood—Angela Merkel. I find her rather shrouded in mystery, but obviously, she’s very accomplished. As for contemporary writers, I’d love to have Eric Flint at dinner, whose mind is so very interesting. He began a series called Ring of Fire, which is a wonderful historical creation. I would like to have C.J. Samson for dinner; he’s written several marvelous books about an English lawyer during the Sixteenth Century. I wouldn’t mind having Ian Rankin there.
Where would you dine and what would you eat?
I would take them all to my place and cook them a grand Perigord meal. We’d start with a soup made from a duck’s carcass. We’d then go on to an omelette au touffe with eggs from my own chickens and truffles from the hillside near our home. I would cook Aiguillette de canard, using a thin strip of meat just below the breast. I would cook it with mustard seeds and honey. I would add to that, pommes sarladaise, which are potatoes thinly sliced and cooked with duck fat, garlic, parsley and truffles. It’s all done in the Perigord style.
And the wines?
The white wine would be a Bergerac sec from Chateau Jaubertie. Then I would offer everyone a deeply robust 2005 Chateau de Tiregand. It’s made by a friend of mine in the village.
Would Bruno be there?
Absolutely. He and I have had this particular meal on several occasions. Oh, and I’d also serve some fois gras. I would serve it with a glass of chilled sweet wine, Monbazillac from Chateau de Tirecul. It’s something akin to Sauternes. I would finish it off with some cheese, of course.
What’s next for Martin Walker?
I’ve finished the Bruno number seven mystery novel. It’s called Children of War. I’m about to go off on a U.S. book tour. Then I’ll return to France where I’ll be working away on Bruno number eight. I’ll also be judging a fois gras competition. Then I’m off on a book tour in Germany for a month. I’m starting a futurology project about what Germany may look like in the future. It will all keep me happily busy. And, when I get back to France, I’ll be planting my vegetable garden.