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Recent Reading: Anne Perry and Dick Francis and How to Use Research in Writing Fiction - Mo's Journal
October 23rd, 2010
09:00 am


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Recent Reading: Anne Perry and Dick Francis and How to Use Research in Writing Fiction
I am a pretty eclectic reader and among the genres I read is detective fiction. A variety of sub-genres appeal to me, from the psychological detective story to the police procedural to the historical mystery. There are a few popular mystery writers I can't stand (Agatha Christie, for one) but a lot more I really enjoy. I also enjoy some of the lesser known mystery novels and some sub-genres like lesbigay mysteries and scifi mysteries. I read two mystery novels recently by two authors who both do a lot of research for their novels They represent very different approaches to how they use that research and that's most of what I wanted to talk about here.

The first of the two books was Anne Perry's Buckingham Palace Gardens. It's one of her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mysteries. Perry writes historical detective fiction, set in Victorian England. She's a pretty prolific author and I've only read a small portion of her work, perhaps 10 books altogether. This is the latest book in this series.

My original interest in her was not because of any recommendation of her books or reading any reviews. It was kind of a morbid interest, in fact.

When a story hit the newspapers that a middle-aged novelist now called Anne Perry had, under a different name, been convicted of murder as a teenager, I was intrigued. I wondered what kind of murder mysteries a convicted murderer might write, as well as why she would choose this calling when she apparently wanted to reinvent herself with a new name and so on.

I was even more intrigued when I found that she writes historical mysteries, a sub-genre I've often enjoyed. She writes, as far as I know, two series of mystery novels, each featuring a detective in Victorian England. The first I tried was the first in the series featuring Thomas Pitt, a police detective who falls in love with a woman much above his station, who returns his feelings. They get married early in the series, maybe even in the first book, and the backdrop to the mysteries is their domestic life. Charlotte is very smart and having been raised in a different class has access to information and people Thomas doesn't, which he accesses when he is assigned a murder of someone of the upper classes to solve.

I quite liked Charlotte and Thomas and the detective in her other series, William Monk, as well. I think she writes fully realized and interesting characters. And she clearly does a lot of research on her time period for each book. However, I find that Anne Perry has two major flaws in her fiction, flaws that I usually think of as rookie mistakes, although she is still making them, some fifty books in.

Flaw 1: She cannot bear to leave out anything she finds in her research. Don't get me wrong - I'm a big believer in research. I think an author should make a strong effort to get all the details right. "Write what you know" is good as far as it goes, but you've got to know more than just living your life teaches you. And with historical fiction like Perry's, understanding the details of everyday life in the place and time she's writing about is essential. So I'm glad that she learns a lot about that.

However, I'm a big believer that the research should inform the writing, not get dumped wholesale in it. In general I'd say that 95% of the research I do for my fiction never shows up directly in the story. Yet knowing so much more than I write about teen prostitution or Russian poetry or Samurai sex means that when those topics are alluded to in the story, they are accurately represented.

With historical fiction more of the historical detail will show up in the story than 5%, but a whole lot of it ought to be unsaid but known. Perry's characters have the most unlikely conversations, just so the author can work in a long explanation of Victorian house cleaning methods or clothing construction or whatever. It makes the story sound clunky and unnatural. It makes the characters seem to be having the conversation to lecture the reader on the topic, rather than because it fits in with their lives and conversational patterns. And it's just so unnecessary. A passing comment about the use of tea leaves in cleaning would be interesting, intriguing, and give the sense that the author knows whereof she speaks.

Flaw 2 is a related issue, in that it also comes from an inability to inhabit the characters and represent them in a natural way. Perry's Victorian characters are often way too modern in their views of gender roles, social class and so on. She reflects the structure of the society in her novel, but her characters' comments on society so often sound like they are the author's mouthpieces, somehow developing a late twentieth or early twenty-first sensibility on these issues, commenting as outsiders. Again, she seems unable to trust that her readers will understand the differences between the society she writes about and the one they inhabit without the author - in the person of the characters - telling them directly.

I do see those as major flaws, but I still find her books diverting, the main characters interesting. The mysteries themselves are pretty good, as well, with the right level of clues dropped that the reader catches on just before the detective. So I'm not a big fan of Perry, but when I see one of hers in the library that looks interesting I take it and generally find I enjoy it in spite of the flaws.

Dick Francis is kind of the anti-Perry. He's an author who does research right.

I resisted reading him for a long time. He's a former steeplechase jockey who became a mystery writer. His mysteries generally are set in or around the world of English horse racing. Much as I love murder :-) I have no interest in racing and thought I'd be bored with the books. But once I tried one I found that wasn't the case at all.

Francis mostly has a new, usually amateur, detective in each book (he has reused a detective in a second book only once, that I know of). Each book is about horses and something else. And the something else is meticulously researched, with just the right amount of detail in the book. Francis completely inhabits his characters, painting a realistic picture of their world without falling into the Perry mistakes. The one I just read is called Second Wind and is about, of all things, meteorologists. They, of course, get involved with horses and murder. It all unfolds in a perfectly natural way. The characters are engaging, the plot exciting, the mystery believable. The reader learns something about weather forecasting along the way and is left in the certain knowledge that the author knows a whole lot more about the subject than he's telling.

That's how it should be done.

(12 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:October 23rd, 2010 02:30 pm (UTC)
I have loved Dick Francis books my entire life :) My father, who has never attended a horse race in his life, introduced me to them! I love that you learn about wine or banks or steeplechases or whatever in a totally natural way.

Sid Halley appears in four or five books. But Kit Fielding appears in two, I believe. I could have sworn that someone else appears twice, but since I can't think of who, I might be wrong.
[User Picture]
Date:October 24th, 2010 02:02 pm (UTC)
Sid Halley was the one I knew that had repeated, and I didn't realize he'd used him more than twice. One thing about an author as prolific as Francis - I'm always finding ones I haven't read.
[User Picture]
Date:October 23rd, 2010 06:22 pm (UTC)
Have you read P.D. James? She's the only mystery writer I've read extensively (actually, I have read her completely). Such a fine writer! And one who delves deep into the existentialism of murder and its ramifications for the living.
[User Picture]
Date:October 24th, 2010 02:04 pm (UTC)
Yes, I do like P.D. James. Sort of a blend of the classic detective and the psychological mystery.
Date:October 24th, 2010 04:26 am (UTC)
Regarding Anne Perry, did you hear that she was one of the two teenagers convicted in a very famous murder case which took place in the 1950s in New Zealand and which became the basis of 'Heavenly Creatures' by Peter Jackson? Yes, he of the 'Lord of the Rings' fame).

When I saw the movie, which I can recommend by the way, I was really impressed by this horrible story -which had a lot in common with 'Rope'* by Alfred Hitchcock- and stunned to hear it was based on a real event; I was even more surprised to learn that the 'instigator' of sorts had, after eventually being released years later, moved to the UK and had become a very financially successful writer under the 'Anne Perry' nom-de-plume.

However I gathered her writing is average at best and your remarks confirm this. Her characters never struck me as engaging and her stories seemed very formulaic, so I never went beyond skimming a few back cover summaries.

(*) Some spoilers for the movie: the two main elements these movies have in common apart from both being very good and very depressing are:
- a very strong homosexual vibe between the accomplices
- a senseless murder which is more a result of the obsessive relationship between said accomplices and their adolescent frustrations/over-the-top selfishness than any real financial/material motive

On the other hand, I must admit to being very partial to Dick Francis thrillers, partly because I do appreciate the fact that each of his books is grounded on reality: yes, initially all his books centered on the life of professional jockeys, which he understands intimately since he used to be a champion jockey himself, but as he started diversifying in order to avoid repeating himself (since he is also -like Anne Perry- a high volume writer who used to average a book per year) I too noticed that besides being entertaining, his books managed to teach me something about whichever environment he was using as a background, in a way that showed he had researched and thought about the result of this research and drawn smart and reasonable conclusions. If that makes any sense...

So even though both are formulaic writers, I can totally ignore this in Dick Francis' case because he has the saving grace of knowing how to write engaging first person characters -no easy task even they are mostly quite interchangeable- as well as leaving me with the satisfaction of having learned something from the industry/situation/job of the main character of his latest page-turner. So I don't have to feel embarrassed or guilty about reading a Dick Francis novel!


Mind you, the last 3 or 4 that he wrote in collaboration with his son are just not as good as his previous 20+ output, possibly because he is now so old that his son is probably ghost writing them... but the superior research is still there, if a little less naturally introduced. I may be unfair, because his son's major het agenda is getting on my nerves just a tad. Dick Francis himself had a much lighter, elegant touch when it came to romantic plotlines.

It is worth noting that until her death half a dozen years ago, all his previous books were the result of a very close collaboration with his wife, whom he credited -whenever interviewed- with the technical and background research of his books.
Date:October 24th, 2010 04:30 am (UTC)

PS: in fairness, a necessary addendum!

Needless to say, my opinion of Anne Perry's writing is worthless since I have never read any of her books... Not exactly a fair basis for judgment!

Date:October 24th, 2010 04:39 am (UTC)

My last comment, I promise!

If you like historical fiction, and enjoy murder/detective stories that take place in the past in a way that makes you live that part of history, have you ever read Lindsey Davis?

Her stuff is great (as well as hilarious...) but you'll want to read them starting with the first one, 'The Silver Pigs' or you will get completely lost since all her books follow one chronological time line, sort of like the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brien.

[User Picture]
Date:October 24th, 2010 02:11 pm (UTC)

Re: My last comment, I promise!

I had never heard of Lindsay Davis, but will look her up.

Btw, you are showing up as anonymous. I don't know if you're choosing to be anonymous or forgot to log in, Dear Anonymouse.
[User Picture]
Date:October 24th, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC)
I did know about Perry's past. As I said in the original post, that's how I came to read her in the first place.

Rope, btw, is also based (very loosely) on a real murder - the Leopold/Loeb murder. The movie Compulsion is closer to the real event, although still fictionalized.

I have a letter from Leopold! My big brother sometimes introduces me as "My sister Dale, who corresponds with murderers." To which I invariably reply, "One murderer. One letter."
[User Picture]
Date:October 25th, 2010 06:50 am (UTC)
Then perhaps it would be interesting to write Anne Perry?

I never saw the movie -- was that by chance the one where two young women murder one of them's mother for trying to separate them? That was based on a 50s downunder murder, but the film I saw showed the young women's relationship explicitly as lovers.

Can you possibly steer me to the info about Perry? I was fond of her work for years -- and I still have three shelves of Dick Francis' novels, though I jettisoned Perry. I think you're right about her problems. I love Sharyn Newman (I think it is) who writes wonderful medieval historical mysteries where the POV of the protagonist is that of a sincere Christian -- just takes what she thinks for granted -- but whose father was secretly Jewish. I never see the "infodump" you mentioned. (btw, that's sf slang for what you describe. I commit that myself occasionally in Gates when trying to explain ecodisasters.))
[User Picture]
Date:October 25th, 2010 05:50 pm (UTC)
Yes, that's the movie in question. I never saw it, either, but read a lot about it.

The basic story is in her wikipedia entry, but there is a good NY Times article at http://www.nytimes.com/1995/02/14/arts/author-faces-up-to-a-long-dark-secret.html?scp=3&sq=perry+hulme&st=nyt&pagewanted=all

It's an article based on an interview with her after the story broke.

I have to look up Sharyn Newman. One of the great things about doing Recent Reading posts is I get lots of new book suggestions.
[User Picture]
Date:October 27th, 2010 09:21 pm (UTC)
i should check dick francis out! he really does sound worth reading.
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