Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Homicide

“The boy in the cooler was looking rather the worse for wear…”

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"The boy in the cooler..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-first installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 30. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Everybody loves a good autopsy scene. There are few narrative tropes, in fact, where our experience of something in fiction bears such a slender relation to what our feelings about it would be in real life. We’re all fascinated by autopsies in novels or onscreen, when we might not last more than a minute or two in an actual morgue, and resent being confronted by images of real death or decay. It isn’t hard to pin down the roots of this fascination: an autopsy scene provides a safe zone, within the comforting confines of the crime procedural, for us to look squarely at issues of death, disease, and the human body that we otherwise might like to forget. Forensic pathology has its own lore and body of knowledge, like any technical trade, and in this case, it’s being applied to a machine with which we’re all intimately familiar. And although it’s ultimately a form of voyeurism, it strikes me as relatively harmless, as long as it’s kept to the confines of fiction. Speaking for myself, I can say that while I was eager to research most of my locations firsthand, this is one instance in which I was happy to rely on secondary sources for most of my information.

The trouble with autopsy scenes is that anyone who has read more than a few thrillers or watched a police procedural on television has probably seen dozens of them. We’re bored by the Y-shaped incision and the medical examiner’s detached commentary into the tape recorder, so any author who decides to write such a scene has to take the reader’s familiarity—and potential boredom—with the genre’s conventions into account. I’ve written two autopsy scenes in my published work, and in both cases, I did my best to make them at least somewhat distinctive. For City of Exiles, I decided to focus on the specifics of forensic procedure in the United Kingdom, which meant reading several books on the subject, many of which I plucked from the true crime shelves in bookstores in London. I also based certain details on coroner’s reports for similar crimes, in which the victim’s body was set on fire. (Incidentally, the best account of an autopsy I’ve read is in David Simon’s great Homicide, which I highly recommend to any authors who want to write such a scene for themselves, and my favorite fictional autopsy is probably the one in Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event.)

"They were standing in a small room..."

The autopsy scene in Chapter 30 of The Icon Thief was a late addition to the plot, and resulted from a number of narrative considerations. As I’ve mentioned before, in the first draft, the figure of Powell was only dimly realized, and much less interesting than either Maddy or Ilya. One of my objectives in the rewrite was to invigorate him as a protagonist, both by going into his inner life in more detail and by giving him interesting things to do. A previous chapter, in which he engages in a bit of illegal entry to obtain a piece of crucial evidence, was created from scratch with this in mind, and this scene was conceived for the same reason. In the initial draft, this was a much weaker chapter with Powell and Wolfe having a conversation at the office about the progress of the investigation, which was about as interesting as it sounds. Reading over the novel again, it occurred to me that conveying the same information at an autopsy would at least give me a colorful background, and would serve a secondary purpose by reintroducing the plot point of the three Armenians whom Sharkovsky kills in Brighton Beach, a scene that I’d written to insert a necessary action beat in the first act of the novel, but which, in earlier versions, was never mentioned again.

The result was a chapter that solved a number of story problems at once, and it was a pleasure to write, despite its gruesome content. To give the scene some additional interest, I decided to set it in a part of the morgue that novels don’t normally visit. In a previous chapter, I’d depicted the use of multislice computed tomography to examine a mummified body; here, I decided to show the decomp room, where bodies in an advanced state of decay are brought. This was partially due to the fact that at this point, the victims in question have been dead for quite some time, but also because I wanted to describe a location that was distinct from the autopsy rooms that we’ve all seen before. Writing a good autopsy scene, I discovered, was not so different from describing a murder: it’s the specifics that make a familiar scene memorable. I focused, then, on some necessarily gory details—such as the fact that the loose skin on the hands of a decomposing body has a way of slipping off altogether, like a glove—and the look of the room itself, with its gray acrylic floors, exhaust fan, and gently sloping tables. The result isn’t all that essential to the plot, but it’s a nice little set piece that serves its intended purpose. I certainly won’t forget it soon…

Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2013 at 9:50 am

Fact, fiction, and truth in labeling

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Last year, I wrote a couple of posts about the strange case of Q.R. Markham, the suspense novelist who was later revealed to have constructed his debut thriller, Assassin of Secrets, out of a crazy patchwork quilt of plagiarized passages from other novels. Since then, the unfortunate author—under his true name of Quentin Rowan—has been featured in his own New Yorker profile by Lizzie Widdicombe, which quotes an unnamed fan as claiming that Rowan’s book is actually a secret masterpiece: “What might have been just another disposable piece of banal commercial trash has now been lifted to the level of art.” Others thought that it might have been a deliberate prank, a work of stealth literary criticism, or simply an impressive act of construction in its own right. And these are, in fact, all things that it is possible for a novel to be—just not this particular novel, which was clearly a case of plagiarism born of insecurity and fear. And to Rowan’s credit, he has never tried to claim otherwise.

Yet the idea of a novel constructed out of other novels, like a longer version of Jonathan Lethem’s famous essay in Harper’s, is an interesting one. I might even buy and read it. But the issue is one of truth in labeling. If Rowan had been honest about his method, he’d deserve the ironic accolades that he has subsequently received, but the fact remains that until his exposure, he never claimed to be anything but a suspense writer in the vein of Ian Fleming, which makes his book a work of plagiarism. Similarly, there’s always a place for works of art that mix fact with narrative imagination in pursuit of a larger artistic goal, as long as it’s properly labeled. Norman Mailer beautifully mingles journalism with artistic reconstruction in The Executioner’s Song, and much of the appeal of Frederick Forsyth’s spy novels comes from his use of real historical figures and events. But both works are clearly shelved in the fiction section. It’s when a story with invented elements is shelved with nonfiction—even metaphorically, as in the case of Mike Daisey—that we start to get into trouble.

Labels matter. By stating that a work of art is fiction or nonfiction, novel or memoir, the author is entering into a contract with the reader, one that can be violated only in very rare cases. Now, it’s true that a work of art occasionally benefits from ambiguity over whether what it depicts is real or not. I wouldn’t give up a movie like Exit Through the Gift Shop, for instance, which gains much of its fascination, at least on subsequent viewings, from the question of how much the director has manipulated events behind the scenes. But such cases are extraordinarily uncommon. In film, the result is more often a movie like the loathsome Catfish, in which the inherent interest of the story itself is suffocated by the filmmakers’ palpable vanity and dishonesty. Meanwhile, in print, even as some authors claim to be constructing a more challenging synthesis of artifice and reality, in practice, it’s often a case of a writer combining the easiest, most obvious elements of fiction and nonfiction to get cheap dramatic effects or a marketing hook without the trouble of well-constructed storytelling or real journalism. See: Three Cups of Tea, A Million Little Pieces, and now Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.

The fact is, journalism is hard. Writing novels is also hard, in different sort of way. And it’s accomplishment enough for a lifetime to become good at either one. Before a writer decides to operate in some kind of hybrid mode, he needs to ask himself whether he’s tried to master the infinite complexities inherent in the practice of straight fiction or nonfiction, which, when honestly pursued, are capable of almost anything. For those who claim that it’s necessary to depart from the facts to tell an artistic and moving story, I’d ask them to first check out our many works of truly great nonfiction, ranging from David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure to David Simon’s Homicide, all fully reported and documented, and see if there’s any way they could possibly have been improved. And for those who believe that the conventional novel, unadulterated by plagiarisms, appropriations, or winking narrative shortcuts, is exhausted, well, I can only quote what Borges said, through his editor, to the translator who claimed that it was impossible to render one of his poems properly: “Borges thinks you should try a little harder.”

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