Thursday, May 03, 2007

Crime Fiction or Science Fiction?

Crime fiction writers depend on information from cops to make their stories plausible and realistic. This may be true but movies and books also affect how cops act. In my case movies have affected me in a different way. The last crime movie I watched was Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I liked it on a number of levels. Professionally, emotionally and the confused Karmic injustice. I’m not saying realism is paramount to making me like a book or movie. Story and characters are the key but sometimes I get frustrated when an author thinks that TV provides all the insight into the world of crime that they need too write a book.

Some of the crime fiction books out there should, more accurately, be classified as Science Fiction. Here are a few simple clues to decide if what you’re watching or reading is crime fiction of science fiction.

If a cat solves the crime it is science fiction. I don’t know what your experience with cats is but in my world my kids ignore them, I feed them and they sleep like twenty-two hours a day. My cats never really struck me as ambitious enough to solve a crime. In one book a cat fires a pistol. How is that possible? They don’t even have opposable thumbs. If you’re reading a book where a cat does anything more than provide companionship it’s science fiction.

If a character in a book or movie can shoot or fight without ever practicing, it is science fiction. James Bond is a great character. I love Bond movies. The real Bond. This guy, not the others. They are purely science fiction. I don’t think I need to argue the Bond point but sometimes I read about these cops who twist guns out of people’s hands on a regular basis while working eighty hours a week, raising kids, staying married and still having enough time to eat. In the real world very few cops study any martial art. They get some simple training from their agency and a refresher once a year. Maybe. The cops who do attend their own karate classes are the ones who realize they don’t want to have anything to do with close combat if they can avoid it. A cop may, in fact, twist a gun out of someone’s hand in real
life. Once. It does take speed but it takes a lot of luck too. Plus the opportunity. Most cops never have a gun pointed at the from arm’s distance. Believe me, it’s easier to shoot from cover and wait for help.

If a character in a book uses the phrase, “Bring him in alive,” the book is science fiction. Unless it’s set pre 1970. Today the goal of every manhunt or arrest is bring everyone back alive. Unless that’s not feasible. If a bad guy is threat to the cop or someone else’s life then deadly forced may be used. If, for whatever reason, no one wants to bring the criminal in alive then that is left unsaid. But no cop will risk his life because the guy that is being arrested might have important information. If they pull a weapon and the cop has no choice. He won’t be brought in alive.

The last thing, and I admit this is a personal issue but true none the less. If someone in a book or movie racks the slide of an automatic pistol just before going into action, that is the dumbest cop or criminal in the country. Today’s semi-automatic pistols are designed to carry a round in the chamber ready to go. If someone is racking the gun that means they were walking around with a useless weapon. If they know enough to pull the slide back to charge the weapon then they will do it as soon as they are ready to stick the gun in a holster. This one tactic is science fiction because I refuse to believe any cop is really that stupid in real life.

Now let me say there is nothing wrong with science fiction or horror for that matter. Horror movies have influenced me as much as crime fiction. I won’t go into a dark attic first. Even armed. I run at the sound of a growl no matter how much firepower I’m carrying. And if some old lady says she'll put a curse on me if I arrest her, she’s pretty much free to go.

But that’s just me.


  1. Mornin' Jim!

    Wonderful post! Yep, I go to the movies and read books for the characters. Some details might throw me if they are wrong, too unbelieveable to even fit the story, let alone reality, and just too darned 'way out there'. I believe in good, even great, writing - which is why I like to hang out with you guys. :-D

    I've tried a couple of books that have cat 'detectives' or centre around cats. Most I've given up on around page five, or when the mystery/murder happens. Talking cats - UGH. Mind you one of my most favourite mystery authors is Garrison Allen who writes the Big Mike cat mysteries set in Arizona. I love the characters and all their quirks, Allen's writing and delivery are spot on, and the cat is very much still a cat: sticking his nose in here and there, like a regular cat does; demanding food, and turning his nose up when he's in a bad mood. The cat does not solve the crime! In fact he's quite peripheral except that he's the beloved companion of a mystery book store owner who sticks her own nose in where she shouldn't. The police get very exasperated.

    I've been a science fiction fan since I can remember, and usually like a good retro-style story ala the golden years of SF. Fantasy is a bit different: too many princes and princesses who 'must' achieve this or that. Some are brilliantly written, and some are drek. About usual for any genre, really. But I get picky, so I havnen't read any fantasy in nearly two years - just can't find time to sift through new authors in that genre anymore. And I even know a good few of them personally. :-) I've been spending time indulging my mystery authors - and I've not been disappointed yet. :-D On the SF front, I've been reading near future and speculative young adult science fiction that's pretty good. My husband has to paint covers for two Heinlen reissues, and we just got the books, so I'm going to abscond with them when he's not looking. He doesn't mind: I often read the manuscripts and books, marking descriptions of things and such that he'll be using in his art for the cover.

    Anyway, I've rambled enough. Thanks for a great post Jim - very informative about real life vs reel life use of police force and armament.


  2. I think it was John Connolly who once pointed out another reason cats don't solve mysteries: unless you're the one who feeds them, they really don't give a damn if anyone else lives or dies.

  3. So, Jim, does this mean the idea I had for a mystery series about a blind ex-cop who opens up a detective agency/Taekwondo dojo/gourmet cookie shop and solves crimes with the help of her psychic dachshund guide dog might need rethinking?

  4. Call me crazy, but your cat looks like she could kick ass and take names.

  5. Meeow. Meeeeowwww! Tsisssssss!

    Thomasina, T.O.

  6. Great Post much as i love cats, i have to admit, I don't know any cat who's McGyver/Ms Cleo/Sherlock Holmes/ Walker Texas Ranger
    Query.....what do you think of this new NBC show, staring Jeff Goldblum, RAINES?

  7. Our cat, Taxi (found under a cab by my wife), can barf torpedo-shaped hairballs across the room. With good aim, she could put out the eye of an intruder. Or at least gross him out.

    As for guns, I seldom write about them because I always get stuff wrong. That's why I'd have Jake Lassiter kill someone by jamming a lawyer's fountain pen through his eye.

    I made some dumb mistake in my first book, "To Speak for the Dead." I can't remember the weapon or the mistake, but in those pre-email days, I received a bunch of letters. The kindest was from Maynard MacDonald, in New Zealand. He liked the book but gently pointed out my weaponry ignorance. (He's the son of John D. MacDonald).

    In "The Deep Blue Alibi," I put a safety on a Glock 9mm, which doesn't have one, separate from the trigger. Well, maybe it should!


  8. I appreciate the comments. I was in no way saying that realism is the most important factor. I prefer character. Usually I prefer the character to be human.

    Jon asked about a TV show which I must confess I've never heard of.

    I watch some TV but no police shows. Even Reno 911 is getting a little stale. Right now the Tudors is my favorite. Henry the VIII soap on Showtime.

    And yes, those are my own training photos.


  9. Oh, so true. My own thrillers have been complimented for the "realism" and research and yeah, I suppose, but Derek Stillwater's still a "hero" in the heroic fantasy mold, which is to say, pretty damned unrealistic. But that puts him in a large club: Jack Reacher, Travis McGee, Jack Ryan, Doc Ford, Spenser (Don't get me started; would you let him investigate anything in YOUR town?), Lincoln Rhyme (who regularly defies timetables in labwork, again, don't get me started)...

    That's okay. There's different types of fiction for different types of readers.

    As for fighting, well, I study martial arts. I was working with my oldest son on a form and he said, "What if the person was carrying a knife?" I looked to our instructor and said, "What do you think?"

    I said, "Knives are nasty. Don't get into a knife fight. They jab, they cut, they slice, they do damage from all over the place. Run like hell. If you have to fight, get hold of the knife arm and break it as fast as possible. Don't screw around."

    Hey, I love a good sword fight in a movie, but really, those things kill people. What are you screwing around for?