Does good writing matter in a doorstep novel?

Over Christmas my parents lent me a Jeffrey Deaver novel. If you've heard of him, you've probably read him; if you haven't heard of him, then you might never have done so were it not for this blogpost. People who read doorstep thrillers read him in their millions, but you're unlikely to stumble across him if you prefer chick-lit or Bohumil Hrabal.

Let me say right now that the book—The Vanished Man—was very compelling, a real page-turner. I read it from cover to cover in a couple of days, while also spending my last day of the holiday with family and travelling on four separate trains. It was consumable and wanting to be consumed, much like the Harry Potter series. Although, come to think of it, the twists and turns at the end were surprisingly flat: maybe the point is that they'll read better on the big screen.

The dialogue is generally fairly believable, and it's that which brings characters to life. But the quality of the rest of the prose... oh, my. Most of it reads as though a very literate but excitable teenager had been asked to sit down with a straight-to-DVD thriller and a fresh pot of percolated coffee and then transcribe everything that happens.

You get a lot of suddenly explanatory paragraphs, which try to fill you in with "he had to do X because you see Y was a Z and A, B and C which happened ages ago meant that D was impossible for Y"; meanwhile, technical descriptions of exactly what protective suits do, and exactly how particular bits of evidence were bagged wrongly, jostle for space with the plot; and the narrative voice tends to veer towards vocal sympathy with whoever has just been talking or acting in each scene, like a sort of leaky, empathic, internal monologue.

The evidence seems to be all that matters: it drives the change of scene, the lingering or hurrying of narrative, and in fact the plot as a whole. In small doses that would be understandable in a book about forensic pathology, but the relentless concentration on forensic methods and results, and the history and provenance of every detail, and how you work out histories and provenances of details, makes the whole thing read like fact porn.

It sounds awful, but I read it in its entirety: so does it even matter? Why am I bothering to complain? Well, Jeffrey Deaver is a rich and successful chap: people like his books; buy, read and recommend his books. And others then read them too. But the same could be said of Conan Doyle, yet his books are still very popular indeed some eighty to a hundred years after they were written.

And maybe that longevity isn't essential to a doorstep novel, but: wouldn't it just be a bit nicer if your book might last a hundred years rather than ten, while still earning you a similar wodge of cash? Not only that, but I was frequently tempted to throw the book from me as hard as possible. How many people put down a Deaver novel because of its terrible writing?

Here's a bit of Deaver's prose from early on in the novel. I've marked with obelisks the points at which I was tempted to throw the book off the balcony.

Chapter 2

'He's listening to music.'

'I'm not listening to music. The music happens to be on. That's all.'

'Music, huh?' Lon Sellitto muttered as he walked into Lincoln Rhyme's bedroom. 'That's a coincidence.'

'He's developed a taste for jazz,' Thom explained to the paunchy detective. 'Surprised me, I have to tell you.'

'As I said,' Lincoln Rhyme continued petulantly, 'I'm working and the music happens to be playing in the background. What do you mean, coincidence?'

Nodding at the flat-screen monitor in front of Rhyme's Flexicair bed, the slim, young aide, dressed in a white shirt, tan slacks and solid purple tie, said, 'No, he's not working. Unless staring at the same page for an hour is work. He wouldn't let me get away with work like that.'

'Command, turn page.' The computer recognized Rhyme's voice and obeyed his order, slapping a new page of Forensic Science Review onto the monitor. He asked Thom acerbically, 'Say, you want to quiz me on what I've been staring at? The composition of the top five exotic toxins found in recent terrorist laboratories in Europe? And how 'bout we put some money on the answers?†'

'No, we have other things to do,' the aide replied, referring to the various bodily functions that caregivers must attend to several times a day when their patients are quadriplegics like Lincoln Rhyme†.

'We'll get to that in a few minutes,' the criminalist said, enjoying a particularly energetic trumpet riff.

'We'll get to that now. If you'll excuse us for a moment, Lon.'

'Yeah, sure.' Large, rumpled Sellitto stepped into the corridor outside the second-floor bedroom of Rhyme's Central Park West town house†. He closed the door.

As Thom expertly† performed his duties Lincoln Rhyme listened to the music and wondered: coincidence?'

This still reads so badly to me that parts of it make me giggle a bit. I was originally thinking of going through the whole excerpt line by line and explaining precisely why; I'd love to annotate the bits that clunk, the bits that boing, the bits that shudder almost as if they want to rattle themselves to pieces in sheer linguistic embarrassment; but instead I want to just go ahead and try to fix it.

For any novel you can propose a fictive narrator: as opposed to a fictional one, which you would get in first-person writing. No character ever meets the fictive narrator, and he never enters any scene. But if he doesn't actually see all (the omniscient narrator is another argument to be had), he nonetheless sees something, and then broadly tries to relate that to the reader. How accurately he does that, and in what phrases and terminology, defines the "voice" of the narration.

If his job is to say what's happening when and where, he can also, at a stretch, say what people are thinking. But it's far more powerful if he says what people look like while they're thinking, and leave it to the reader to work it out. And if he has to pass a value judgment on some broad generalisation of current events—describing someone as "expertly perform[ing]" something when it really describes nothing—then he's basically writing like that caffeine-raddled teenager I imagined earlier, busy explaining what he totally thought was happening when that bad dude did that thing just then.

Raymond Chandler wrote most powerfully when his narrator was at his least omniscient, and that's why he was very good indeed at first-person prose. His fictional narrator always seemed a bit dumb compared to everyone else: often he'd do all sorts of thrillerish things—watch houses, discover guns, drive cars—without once giving the reader an opinion. You learnt his opinions from his conversations with other people; better, you inferred them from his tone when he had those conversations. All the objectivity was explicit, yet at the same time the subjectivity were all implicit. Such a principle ought to suit the genre of fact porn admirably.

Chapter 2

'He's listening to music,' Thom said over his shoulder. Following him along the landing was Detective Lon Sellitto. Thom was smart, young and slim, dressed in a white shirt, tan slacks and solid-purple tie; Sellitto was paunchy and rumpled, like he had swollen up once but then started to deflate.

As they both walked towards an open bedroom door, a voice came from inside. 'I'm not listening to music,' it said. 'The music happens to be on. That's all.'

Sellitto entered the room and saw Lincoln Rhyme on his Flexicair bed. A flat-screen monitor hovered within Rhyme's vision, off to one side. Sellitto and Thom both stopped by the foot of the bed.

'Music, huh?' Sellitto muttered. 'That's a coincidence.'

'He's developed a taste for jazz,' Thom said to Sellitto in a stage whisper, grinning crookedly. 'Surprised me, I have to tell you.'

'As I said,' Rhyme interrupted, 'the music happens to be playing in the background. I happen to be working. What do you mean, coincidence?'

'He's not working,' Thom countered. 'Unless staring at the same page for an hour is work. He wouldn't let me get away with work like that.'

Rhyme looked blackly at Thom, then back at the monitor. 'Command, turn page,' he barked, firing the words out much like someone else might peck at computer keys. The monitor suddenly displayed something new; Sellitto couldn't see what.

'Say, Thom,' he said acerbically, 'you want to quiz me on what I've been staring at? Only the composition of the top five exotic toxins found in recent terrorist laboratories in Europe. How 'bout we put some money on the answers?'

'No, we have other things to do,' the aide replied, looking steadily at Rhyme.

Rhyme's gaze bounced incredulously from Thom to Sellitto and back. His head moved, but no other part of his body had yet done so. 'Sellitto's just got here, Thom. You have got to be shitting me.'

Thom smiled again. 'Not quite that, but close. Hey, you asked me not to disturb you earlier. So now we're late sorting you out. So now we sort you out.'

The jazz played a particularly energetic trumpet riff. Rhyme listened to it with half an ear. 'In a few minutes, Thom. Give a cripple a break. Sellitto wants to talk to me.'

'Right now, I'm afraid,' Thom emphasised. Turning to Sellitto, he said with a slight bow: 'If you'll excuse us for a moment, Lon.'

'Yeah, sure.' Sellitto drifted back out onto the landing like an untethered balloon. As the door closed behind him, he heard Rhyme repeat loudly: "Coincidence, Lon?" But Sellitto moved on, as if blown as if by an invisible breeze, to the end of the long corridor. Not listening to anything at all, he looked out of the second-floor window instead, at the busy width of Central Park West below.

It's only a first draft, and this particular bit is longer than I like, but I hope it shows is what happens when the narrative tone is made more consistent, and some breathing space provided between the explicit and implicit. The dialogue is almost untouched, yet the scene feels to me far more real than before. And if Deaver has one eye on the film adaptation (as all thriller writers must surely do these days) then this scene now feels more cinematic, more "camera-shot", than it did before.

I'm no professional writer. I'm certainly not as successful as Jeffrey Deaver and I don't have his ideas or his commitment. But if he ever wants someone to do some sub-editing for the sake of posterity and longevity, I'm up for it.