The oops file
After thirty yards, the road curved and the shade trees vanished. To his left, the hedge continued as before. On his right, the houses disappeared, replaced by a pond trimmed with reeds and pitch pines. Ospreys floated on the calm surface of the water.
This description comes from Chapter 6 of The Icon Thief, when Ilya is casing the mansion where he and another thief will shortly stage an elaborate heist, and it strikes me as a nice image, one that clearly evokes the setting, a peaceful neighborhood in the Hamptons. It isn’t flashy, but the writing is efficient and clear. The trouble, unfortunately, is that it contains a mistake, as a reader pointed out to me in a terse email, which read in its entirety: “Ospreys do not rest on the water; they rest in trees (preferably dead ones).” Well, I hope he liked the rest of the book. But I can’t deny that it’s a definite error on my part. In the months since The Icon Thief was first published, I’ve noticed a few factual lapses like this, some of which I’d rather not mention, although I’d like to correct the record to reflect that the woman to whom I refer, in passing, as “a dead patron of the arts” is actually very much alive.
And yet I’m strangely relieved that there aren’t more mistakes. The Icon Thief contains hundreds of factual statements that, even outside the context of the story, can be independently checked, verified, or disproved, and so far, the errors I’ve been told about or seen on my own amount to only a handful. I’ve been especially gratified to hear from a number of readers in the art world, including two experts on Duchamp, who would be more than capable of pointing out any inaccuracies. So far, if they’ve found any serious ones, they’ve been too polite to say so—allowing, of course, for the occasional liberties I’ve taken in the interest of constructing a fictional narrative. (I should also confess that my readers caught a number of similar mistakes before the book was published, which only demonstrates the necessity of subjecting any manuscript to thoughtful critical review.) But I’ve put a lot of effort into making sure, within human reason, that this book is correct in its details, even in points that are likely to elude the attention, or interest, of even the most diligent reader.
In this regard, I was motivated throughout by the example of the ferociously observant readers of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Arthur Conan Doyle was not what we’d call a great researcher, and he had trouble keeping even his own continuity straight. The most delightful aspect of the field of Sherlockian studies is the energy that these readers invest in both fact-checking and justifying any discrepancies they uncover, which include issues ranging from the location of Watson’s wound to the species of the speckled band to whether the weather in London was, in fact, drizzly and gray on a particular morning in 1895. (Sometimes they go a little too far: I’ve gone on record as saying that The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould is the best book in the world, but if it has one shortcoming, it’s that the editor rearranges the stories into his own eccentric chronology, ignoring narrative logic and character development to order them based on, say, contemporary weather reports.) And whenever I go back to check my own work, it’s with an eye to such a reader: highly intelligent, endlessly skeptical, and blessed with a seemingly unlimited amount of time.
Of course, the odds of my novels ever receiving even a fraction of the attention of the Holmes stories is pretty remote. All the same, the habit of reading your own work with this kind of audience in mind is a useful one. As I’ve noted before, all novels, especially in the suspense genre, tend to use factual information and accuracy in small details as a kind of synecdoche for the credibility of the plot as a whole, and any lapse will throw not just the disputed passage but the entire story into question. Even the tiniest mistake will pull the reader out of the fictional dream. As a result, I’ve found myself checking weather reports for the day in which a certain scene takes place, usually with the assistance of the invaluable Wolfram Alpha, and poring over maps and photographs—or, better yet, visiting locations in person—to make sure the action is plausible, or at least physically possible. While writing Ulysses, James Joyce wrote a letter to his aunt asking her to verify that an ordinary man could climb over the fence at No. 7 Eccles Street, and it’s that kind of diligence toward which we should strive. And all the while, we should remember that, unlike the Navajos, there’s no need for us to weave deliberate flaws into our blankets—they’ll have plenty of flaws of their own.