The importance of being earnest – realism in crime fiction
Most of us believe that we know when we are being lied to, that we are good judges of character, that we can easily identify falsehoods; in short, that we are excellent judges of what is real and what is not.This belief creates a challenge for writers. One of the worst things that could happen to a writer is that readers abandon his book because they think his plot could not happen in real life.
As a thriller writer, I am very aware of this: You have to be credible, you have to draw a plot that is “real” and that readers can believe is plausible. One way of dealing with it is by doing thorough research. Not only does good research greatly enrich the story, it gives the book a high level of credibility. As for myself, I do not start to write before doing research. As part of writing my books, I meet and interview policemen, ADAs, judges, journalists, and scientists. I try to learn how things “really” work.
However, I question whether getting close to what really happened makes the book more credible? Are we good judges of what might happen?
Let’s imagine a book that starts like this: The president of a small, Middle Eastern democracy is a serial rapist with a tendency to attack the women who work for him. One day, one of the women decides to blackmail him. He goes to the attorney general and files a complaint for extortion. A police investigation begins, resulting with the president’s conviction for rape, removal from office, and subsequent incarceration.
It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? A rapist president? How did he reach such a distinguished position without anyone having complained? People just had to have known.
If you are not Israeli or do not follow current events in Israel, this story seems far-fetched and imaginary. If you are Israeli, however, you are aware that I have just described one of Israel’s most painful and shameful chapters: Moshe Katsav, Israel’s seventh president, was convicted of rape and is currently serving a jail sentence for that crime.
This is an extreme example, but I came across many others during my writing years. Not only do I work as a lawyer, my sister is a public defender in Jerusalem. There have been many times when I thought it would be interesting to incorporate stories that really happened in our careers as subplots in my novels. Time and again, editors have stricken these stories from my books, claiming “the story isn’t believable.”
A similar thing happened to me in Lineup. The novel begins with a story that I came across while reading court decisions as part of my legal work: A young woman is raped and the police don’t have a clue. The victim’s father keeps vigil outside her apartment to protect her. One day he sees someone suspicious in the street and convinces his daughter, the police, and the attorney general’s office that this person is the rapist. As I said, this novel is based on a true story. Nonetheless, I quickly left the real story behind. I think that if I had described the behavior of the Israeli police in this case—their negligent investigation and how the attorney general’s office collaborated—my readers would have pooh-poohed the book as slanderously unrealistic.
I think that as a thriller writer, one must be credible and in order to be credible, one must emulate reality. However, the reality I attempt to approximate is not necessarily the “real one,” but rather the common perception of reality.
This is also the reason I have refrained from introducing serial killers into my books and, as far as I know, no Israeli crime writer has written a crime novel involving serial killers. The reason is simple: Israel has yet to be victimized by a serial killer and, even more importantly, the Israeli public is convinced that such a monster cannot grow from within them. If I were to write a novel about a serial killer, I am convinced that people would react with dismissal. “Among us? A serial killer? Not possible!” is what they would say.
People often ask me about the difference between legal and fictional writing. When I wrote my first book, the answer was clear to me: As a lawyer, you are constrained to the facts of the case; as a writer, you can run with your imagination. Today, after writing six thrillers, I came to realize that as a novelist, you are also constrained. No matter how much research is done, people will continue to believe that they are good judges of character and can readily identify the truth. Thus, a writer is limited to the reality people believe in.
Liad Shoham is Israel’s leading crime writer and a practicing attorney with degrees from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and the London School of Economics. All of his crime novels (five to date) have been critically acclaimed bestsellers. Lineup (Harper, 9/3/2013) is his first novel published in English. He lives in Tel Aviv and he is married with two children. For more on Shoham and his books, visit him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/liad1971.