Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“I knew you were coming…”

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"The police are downstairs..."

(Note: This post is the fortieth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 39. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I don’t write mysteries; I write suspense. The two genres are often conflated, and I’ll sometimes see myself categorized as a mystery novelist, but there’s an important distinction between the two. Mysteries are ultimately about who committed a crime, with the revelation of the killer’s identity withheld until the end, while suspense novels are more about how and why the crime was committed, and how to stop or capture the criminal. There can be an element of mystery along the way, of course, and both of my published novels include a few big revelation scenes, but they’re ultimately more about the chase than the investigation. I love a good mystery, and expect that I’ll try my hand at one eventually—I have a particular weakness for the locked room variety, like The Three Coffins or Rim of the Pit—but they require an entirely distinct set of skills, with the emphasis less on action than on constructing an airtight puzzle. In the meantime, though, I’m writing suspense, which means that I’m occasionally forced to make choices that no honest mystery author would condone.

In my novels, for instance, people tend to confess rather easily. As we’ve all learned from David Simon, a good interrogation scene is an art form in itself, and the best, at least in fiction, do a masterful job of tacking toward and away from the truth, as the suspect’s evasions and inconsistencies weave themselves into a snug little noose. This sort of thing takes time, however, and in my own work, I’m often torn between the need to make a scene like this plausible without detracting from the overall momentum of the plot. As a result, I’m sometimes obliged to stage a confrontation, interrogation, and confession in the course of a single chapter, just so the story can advance without interruption to the next phase. I try my best to make the result read as smoothly as possible, but it’s an issue that more than one reader has raised, to the point where I sometimes feel that I’ve fallen into the trap of countless bad courtroom dramas, in which a confession on the witness stand occurs at the most convenient possible time.

"I knew you were coming..."

All the same, I think it’s the right choice, especially when you take the big picture into account. A suspense novel, at least in the form that I’ve tried to tackle, is a lot like a shark: it needs to keep moving to stay alive. This results in a lot of narrative shortcuts, which, as William Goldman has pointed out, are really intended to save time. In my books, as in most television procedurals, forensic analysis takes place a little faster than it would in the real world, investigations have fewer dead ends, and a confession can sometimes be obtained in an hour—or fifteen minutes—when the demands of the plot require it. Writing a novel like The Icon Thief requires a kind of ongoing triangulation between plausibility and momentum, and having been through the process a few times on my own, I’m much more forgiving of other narratives that do the same thing. And when a book or movie is really good, like L.A. Confidential, it can stage an interrogation in a way that reveals character, advances the plot, and remains believable, all in the course of a few tense minutes.

There’s nothing in The Icon Thief as good as the interrogation scene in L.A. Confidential, but I did what I could to make my shortcuts as unobjectionable as possible. Chapter 39, for example, has to cover an unbelievable amount of ground in less than nine pages: Powell and Wolfe need to confront Natalia Onegina—a character we’ve only seen a couple of times before—and get her to confess to her sister’s accidental death, while also providing backstory and explaining how the murder ties into to the larger art world narrative. To my eyes, the result works fairly well, but it’s highly compressed, and in a true mystery novel, I probably would have spread this material over more than one chapter. Structurally, however, I didn’t have much of a choice, and although I did my best to pack the scene with as many beats of resistance, evasion, misdirection, and compulsion as possible, the fact that they unfold so quickly strains the fabric of the novel’s reality a little more than I would like. For what it is, though, it’s a tightly constructed scene, and it allows us to move quickly to what comes next. We’re going on a raid tonight…

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2013 at 8:49 am

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