Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Reality in Measures

We were watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Kevin and I were sitting there, pointing out all the things that would never really happen.

Like, Stabler pulls up at a crime scene he just happens to drive by. He’s not dressed for work, and he doesn’t show identification at the scene but he takes control and the uniforms defer to him? Then he starts touching the body with his bare hands.

Uh, yeah. This’ll be a slam dunk at trial.

There were other things as well in the episode. Conclusions drawn from minimal information, violations of procedure, disclosure of what would have been considered confidential information people could have been sued – and cases could have been dismissed – over.

I don’t mean to pick on this show in particular, because as far as formulaic TV goes I tend to like it when I do watch it. But I was thinking about some of the criticisms I’ve seen leveled at books for mistakes far less critical to plot and storyline than this. It goes to the heart of what I’ve harped on a zillion times from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death - what is written is assumed to have more serious intent than what is spoken. We consider written sources referenced to carry more weight than words spoken in an interview. What is spoken can be more easily retracted.

Or, in this case, what is on TV can be blamed on the confines of the medium. We expect our shows in 48 minutes with commercials interspersed and we need to have just the right dramatic build-up in the opening of the show. In this case, Stabler lifts a sheet over the victim’s face and his daughter screams, because she got out of the van and approached the crime scene. Now she’s been traumatized. Oooohhhh, drama. Cue the show intro.

That’s where it started, but my brain works like the looping rollercoasters, so it isn’t long before my thoughts have shifted from TV shows that cheat a bit on procedure to the fact that, despite the pressures on crime fiction authors to ‘get it right’, most books aren’t very realistic.

Seriously. Think about it. When it gets into narrative, it’s all so damn relevant. Characters are thinking about the setting. Or they’re thinking about the case and how witnesses/suspects reacted in questioning. Or their impressions of their new co-worker. Or some deeper meaning behind the case.

But the reality is, if you were to track the train of thought for the average human being at any point in time, it would go something like this:

Didn’t like the way she looked when she heard her son was dead. Didn’t seem to bug her. Sure seemed more pissed with the interruption to her breakfast than the fact that her firstborn had kicked the bucket. And by God, the smell in that house. Phew! What is she, like a human gas factory, just lets ‘em rip and keeps the doors and windows shut so the air quality won’t improve. Lowering the resale value of the place. Fuck, if I had to live with a cow like that I think I'd top myself. Some things really are worse than death. Can’t say that to Tiffany though. She’d be all serious and asking if I needed counseling and maybe tell the boss she doesn’t think I can handle it anymore. Like to show her just what I can handle, he he, what I’m capable of. I could make her eyes roll into the back of her head any night of the week. Been a while, and Tiffany sure would beat a hand job. I’d take the hand job over that cow of a mother, though. Jesus, what the fuck’s the problem with the traffic today?

Part of the reason I got thinking about this was I was arguing with evilkev. Our arguments are always brilliant, because I’ve discovered that if I jump up and down like a two-year-old he’ll laugh and when he laughs he can’t stay mad and argue with me seriously. And if you actually listen to how a lot of people talk, the conversation is all over the place, much like people’s thoughts, and arguments are especially bad for it.

It’s a rare thing that you can write an argument where relevant information can actually be put across in the dialogue and it works, because most heated arguments become irrational quickly.

All of this has me thinking about the fact that with some things we expect accuracy and precision, and with others we actually expect a complete lack of realism. If you read enough of the lists you’ll see that some people expect the body to drop in chapter one, others like to get to know the characters first so they have a reason to care about the investigation. Some expect the cop protagonist’s personal life to never intersect with the case, others think anything unrelated to the case shouldn’t be included in the story.

The moral of the story is, you can’t please everybody.

But we all have our own little bugbears. So, what are your pet peeves? The things you can’t stand?

One of my grievances is with things that are over-hyped. Kevin Wignall’s just done a post about that over at Contemporary Nomad.

I’m sure that, once started, I could come up with a long list. But I have a suggestion. If you’d like to chat about how real is too real or how fake is too fake, why not head over to Crimespace pull up a stool, order a pint and chat. Everyone is welcome – reader, writer, even reviewers. And I think that the group dialogue aspect over there could be a lot of fun.

And there's a video over there, of the Bearded Wonder Boy.

Certainly beats the heck out of just talking to me. I mean, unless you just want to talk to me. Then that’s fine. Talk away.

My bookmark is in The Hackman Blues by Ken Bruen. “Sip it… okay… nice and slow.” I’m laughing my ass off reading this book (and if you've read it you might get that quote). Brilliant.


JamesO said...

True to life police procedure is ditch-water dull. I saw a documentary recently about a forensic team working in Essex on a single murder scene. They spent two weeks in one house, nineteen hours a day looking for evidence. That's not going to work in fiction.

The trick is making the deliberate errors either easy to overlook or believable, while you sweep up your reader in the excitement of the chase. Why worry about the case being thrown out of court on a technicality when you're in control of the courtroom scenes anyway?

Bill, the Wildcat said...

Since I work as a Communications Officer (that's a fancy way of saying I work in a 911 center) for a police department, I really appreciate the mistakes I see in terms of police dramas.

I read a book where a police officer ran a guy's license plate for her relative to find out who the guy was and where he lived. The relative claimed she had a friend who thought the driver was cute. There is no way this would happen. People who get caught doing this get fired. It's happened where I work (shortly before I started working there, in fact). Knowing this made it impossible for me to give the book any serious credit beyond that point (and it already had plenty of other issues, too).

I have to agree that real police prodedure can seem rather boring, but there are also golden opportunities to be mined from the reality. Just look at "Homicide: Life on the Streets." I think this one of the first police dramas to actually acknowledge that some cases just don't get solved... that detectives have more than one case they're working on at a time.

I'm still waiting for the drama that blows away this myth. An idiot calls 911 and says, "You need to send the cops here now!" and then hangs up. Cops show up with lights and sirens. The reality: we call back and go, "You want police, then you need to tell us what's going on." Otherwise, we don't send police speeding down the road (which endangers other motorists). It just don't happen, people.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well, I do agree James that you don't want to bore people to tears. There has to be balance, for sure.

I take it that documentary was probably an hour long...

Bill, interesting points. Totally agree about Homicide - great show. And I think you'd find The Wire to your taste. It's a very fine line. Reality is, people will overlook a few things if they're really interested in your work, but as you said about the one book you couldn't take seriously, if it already has issues a glaring technical error will just compound the problems a reader is having.

It's a very delicate balance!