Friday, August 06, 2010

The Great Gaping Hole

by Barbara D'Amato

In CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON [1930] by Earl Derr Biggers, seventeen men and women come together in London to begin a round-the-world tour. One is killed at the outset, in London. When no culprit can be found, although the killer is pretty clearly one of the tour party or its leader, the sixteen continue their travels. Some days later a second man dies, possibly a suicide, but the death is soon shown to be murder.

Inspector Duff travels with them, wrestling all the way with theories about who the killer may be and worrying about whether someone else may be killed. We are shown the suspects over and over with the question—is it this one? Is it that one?

Duff contacts the widow of the second victim by phone. She has not been on the tour, but will meet them at the next stop, San Remo. She says can identify the killer. She knows him from “Years ago, when we met him in – in a far country.”

She and Duff arrange that she will point him out that night when the party reaches San Remo.

But wait! The suspects are not identical twins or even similar in characteristics. One is sixty years old, with white hair. One has a facial scar. One is middle-aged, with a hawk nose. One is in his thirties and handsome. One is in his twenties. One is “dark and stocky.” Well, you get the idea. She had only to describe him on the phone to make identification obvious, save Duff’s anxieties, and save her own life. [Naturally, she is shot and killed as she and Duff go to view the suspects.]

Now this is not they type of problem that is simply the result of trying to heighten suspense. Nor does it produce merely a failure to suspend disbelief. It’s not the sleuth going out to the graveyard at midnight or the climbing the barbed-wire fence to investigate the factory grounds where no investigator has come out alive. This is a failure of logic, a logical disconnect.

I like the Charlie Chan books. I’ve specified Biggers mainly because I don’t want to point at living writers by name, but the problem lies in wait for all authors.

For instance, a recent crime novel concerns the kidnapping of a young boy. He is held in a large house whose doors and windows are impregnable, but he is more or less free to wander around inside. The police, frustrated, decide to plant a listening device inside to find out what the kidnappers plan to do with him. They send a man in to plant the bug by way of the boathouse entrance—the house is on a river. Wait! Send a man in? Why not just slip the boy out through the boathouse entrance?

In another book, a detective is trying hard not to be heard as he creeps up on the bad guys, but the building is next to the airport and every time the aircraft take off the roar would cover the entry of an army.

And another – I wondered why didn’t the police just cut the electricity to the apartment?

I think writers have all had this happen, at least in a first draft. Some perfectly obvious explanation we’ve overlooked makes a plot point ridiculous. Writers are focusing on so many elements at once that a serious glitch can slip right past them. Probably we’ve all found something at the last moment that made us horrified at the thought we might have let it get into print.

Your editor may catch a glitch, but I’ve read a lot of edited books where something major slipped through. No reader, including an editor, can pay attention to everything at once. Same with copyeditors. And anyway, wouldn’t we all prefer to catch that big, embarrassing goof before our editor even saw it?

If we work with a reading group, a big error is likely to be caught early, I think, but many writers don’t have a reading group. Also, most reading groups work section-by-section and the participants may not get the big picture. Probably the best thing is to develop a couple of forthright, close-reader friends who will read the almost-final manuscript.

Have you made—and saved yourself from—a big blunder? How did you catch it?


Dana King said...

This is why I outline the plot. I'm not too concerned about how most things happen at that point, just that everything makes sense. It;s a lot easier to fix a few index cards than to wade through 50,000 words on a screen.

I still find things like this once in a while. Working numerous drafts helps with this, as does leaving several weeks between drafts at least once in the process. I also like to set aside a long weekend and read the whole book, more or less at a sitting, so things fall closer together in my consciousness and may stick out more.

Julia Buckley said...

I don't think I've made huge logical errors, but a member of my writing group once noticed that one of my characters had breakfast twice. :)

Ironically, she was the ONLY member of the group to notice it.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thank you, Mr. Lonely, Dana, and Julia. I used to find that I had eight days in a week in a few books. Thank goodness I or a reader caught it before it went to the editor. Some picky, smart, frank, painfully honest readers help a lot.

Anonymous said...

And her next novel is . . .


(just kidding, Barb. Anyway, your blog is a day old so no one will notice it.)

Tony D'Amato