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What Turns a Police Thriller into a Bestseller? Lessons from Faceless Killers

Discovering Henning Mankell (here)

Let me start with a confession: I’m not a habitual reader of police thrillers and murder stories. Like everyone, I’ve read Agatha Christie when I was young, I’ve gone through all the classics from Arthur Conan Doyle to Ngaio Marsh but I’m not a fan, call me a dispassionate reader.
Why? Because too often, I can see through the plot and it all looks depressingly formulaic.

When Henning Mankell died this month (see this excellent article in the Atlantic Monthly, here),  I was reminded of his stature in Scandinavian literature – the Atlantic Monthly calls him the “dean of Nordic Noir“, with 30 million copies of his Kurt Wallander series sold since the first one came out, 25 years ago, in 1990.

Of course, I’m familiar with the character of Kurt Wallander, an ordinary, middle-aged policeman working in a small town in Southern Sweden, having seen several episodes of a series featuring him on ARTE TV. But now I wanted to find out more, I thought I would try and uncover the roots of his success by reading that first book in the Wallander series, the one that “made it”, with the arresting title Faceless Killers.

Here’s what I found – the main “lessons learned” to ensure that your next thriller is going to rise above the genre and make it as a global bestseller.

As you will see, there are only two rules to follow.

First, let me say it’s a great read, the pace never slackens. When it does slow down – as inevitably it must if you’re following a police investigation step-by-step, an indispensable aspect of making this novel realistic – then Kurt Wallander’s personal life butts in. He has problem with his senile, grumpy and lonely father, a landscape artist endlessly painting the same landscape, his cool wife Mona who has just left him, causing him to dream of making love to a black woman (inexplicably black but then dreams are not always explainable) and his complicated daughter Linda, an independent young woman who lives with her boyfriend from Kenya and can’t make up her mind about attending college. You get the sense that Kurt Wallander, ordinary as he is, has in fact a complex life and you, the reader, feel for him.

This observation leads directly to:

Rule #1: establish empathy with your main character – even if this is a police procedural and the implications are that police procedures and the thrill of the chase should trump characterization.

To transcend the genre and establish credentials as a genuine, world-class work of literature, follow Mankell’s example: develop your main character. Kurt Wallander soon becomes someone you feel you know, someone who goes through the same (often depressing) experiences so many of us go through our lives as a marriage grows stale, as a child turns into a rebellious teenager, as a parent slowly sinks into old age.

The other striking aspect of Faceless Killers is its social dimension. 

This is a book that has deep roots in Swedish society, and by extension, in the society of any advanced country that calls itself (like Sweden) a democracy, that believes it has humanitarian traditions. And it’s a book that does not shy from raising deep, uncomfortable questions. In fact, Mankell himself had lived in Africa and brought his own views to his books and the character Kurt Wallander. As he explained on his website,

“Racism for me is a crime, and therefore it seemed natural that I wrote a crime novel. It was after that the idea of a policeman was born.”

The book is peppered with Mankell’s personal opinions about racism and how refugees are viewed and ill-treated in refugee camps in Sweden. One, a Somali, father of nine children, while walking alone down a country lane near his camp, gets his head blown off  by a ruthless killer with an accomplice in a near-by car ready to whisk him away from the crime scene.

But the book does not merely “show”, Mankell is not afraid of “telling”, here are some examples:

  • [One character says:] “We have a refugee policy in this country that must be followed.” [The other answers:] “Wrong. It’s precisely the lack of  refugee policy that creates chaos.”
  • [Then this character amplifies his thinking]: “Right now we’re living in a country where anyone with any motive at all can come in anywhere in this country at any and in any manner. Control of the borders has been eliminated. The customs service is paralyzed. There are plenty of unguarded strips where the dope and the illegal immigrants are unloaded every night.”

Sounds familiar? Yes, it’s amazingly relevant to our own times and the current migrant crisis in Europe. Germany expects to have to take in one million refugees this year, Sweden less of course, but it is still a favorite destination of the millions of migrants pouring into Europe through Greece, the Balkans and Italy – most of them from war-ridden countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan (Darfur, remember it?)

I wonder if any of those migrants has read Faceless Killers?

The book gives you the whole range of feelings – pro and against – caused by waves of migrants, here are a few more samples:

  • “For brief moments [Wallander] could also detect contradictory sympathies in himself for some of the anti-immigrant arguments that came up in discussions and the press while the trial was in progress [trial about the murder of the Somali man]. Did the government and the Immigration Service have any real control over which individuals sought to enter Sweden? Who was a refugee and who was an opportunist? Was it possible to differentiate them all?”

And then comes the conclusion, one that is haunting all of us these days in Europe as we watch waves upon waves of migrants entering the continent:

  • “How long would the principle of the generous refugee policy be able to hold without leading to chaos? Was there any upper limit?

Indeed, that is precisely what we wonder about now. And we are all like Kurt Wallander, who, as Mankell writes:

  •  “He realized that he harbored the same vague apprehension that so many other people did. Anxiety about the unknown, about the future.”

This is what makes this book so extraordinary, and enables it to rise above the “genre” of mysteries, leaving behind the usual tropes and reaching out to the level of “real” literature – not pure thrills, not entertainment for the sake of entertainment but applying a lens to reality that makes you understand reality better, and perhaps in a way you have never understood it before. In short, great literature.

And this brings us to:

Rule #2: Root your story in reality – address real life issues.

In this case, migrants, what to do with them, how to integrate them in our society. In a globalized world shaken by war and injustice, this is the kind of issue that will stay with us a long time. Think of it, Faceless Killers was written 25 years ago, yet the issues it raises are incredibly relevant to our situation today.

From BBC article: “What can Europe Achieve?” (see here)

You may wonder whether those two rules actually apply beyond thrillers and mysteries.

Of course they do!

In my view, applying those two rules to any genre novel will lift it to the level of
(a) a bestseller; and
(b) literature with a capital “L”.

You may make a lot of money with strictly genre books, selling by the millions like 50 Shades of Grey did, but you won’t reach the top. To achieve that, as Menkell shows, you need to go beyond mere thrills and open the doors of the real world for your readers, you need to make them think.

And you may ask, what is the benefit for you, the writer? Not much beyond some splendid obituaries like the one Henning Mankell got in the Atlantic Monthly or the New York Times and of course, why should you care?

But if you’re an activist who would like to see the world become a better place, then you do care. I know I do. How about you?

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Filed under Literature, politics

Why Science Fiction is Important

This morning Amazon reminded me of what matters in Science Fiction and why it is not useless fantasy but a very serious literary genre that is able to raise deep existential issues and make us think

Here is what I got in my email box:

Amazon.com
Your Amazon.com Today’s Deals See All Departments
Customers who have shown an interest in classic sci-fi might want to know about this selection of popular Kindle books.
Ender's Game: 1 (The Ender Quintet)
Ender’s Game: 1 (The Ender Quintet)
Orson Scott Card
Price: $6.49
Learn more

Add to Wish List

1984
1984
George Orwell
Price: $8.46
Learn more

Add to Wish List

Animal Farm: A Fairy Story
Animal Farm: A Fairy Story
George Orwell, Ralph Steadman
Price: $7.97
Learn more

Add to Wish List

The Forever War
The Forever War
Joe Haldeman, John Scalzi
Price: $5.37

Just four book, two historical “classics”, Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, and two “moderns”, both winners of numerous awards, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game

It so happens that two of those books are my all-time favorites (Orwell’s) and the other two are on my TBR list – I just had samples downloaded to my Kindle…which goes to show how effective Amazon’s marketing is.

Just to show you why these four books raise fundamental issues, here are excerpts of the book descriptions. Please note I’ve just retained the phrases that refer to the issues raised and italicized the high points:

Ender’s Game: “In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race’s next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine…Ender’s skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity…Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders.” As the Amazon.com review put it: “Yet the reason it rings true for so many is that it is first and foremost a tale of humanity; a tale of a boy struggling to grow up into someone he can respect while living in an environment stripped of choices.” (italics added)

The Forever War: “… a science fiction classic that chronicles the life of William Mandella. Due to the time distortion associated with deep space travel, he is present during both the first and the last battle of a thousand year old conflict with the alien Taurans. A masterpiece of not just science fiction, The Forever War illustrates the futility of all wars and their effect on the human soul.” (Italics added) As Iain Banks put it, this is a war novel that happens to be science fiction.

Animal Farm: “…classic satire of the Russian Revolution is an intimate part of our contemporary culture. It is the account of the bold struggle, initiated by the animals, that transforms Mr. Jones’s Manor Farm into Animal Farm–a wholly democratic society built on the credo that All Animals Are Created Equal…The climax is the brutal betrayal of the faithful horse Boxer, when totalitarian rule is reestablished with the bloodstained postscript to the founding slogan: But some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.” (Italics added)

1984: “… a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell’s nightmare vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff’s attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell’s prescience of modern life–the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language–and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell.”

It may come as a surprise that Animal Farm was included in this short-list of popular classic science fiction – it is more fantasy and satire than anything else, but it certainly uses the same Orwellian approach to novel-writing: logically extending to its extreme, violent version an observable current trend in human society, which is exactly what he did for 1984. And that is what makes Orwell’s writing so effective and frightening. You recognize the world he describes, and he forces you to think through all the implications of what is happening. 

The underlying message is this: if you don’t stop the trend, that is what will happen. Hell on earth.

That strong warning is at the heart of the other two books as well: the perennial futility and pointlessness of war (The Forever War), the challenge of growing up, of becoming a just person in a world ridden with small-minded jealousy and pettiness (Ender’s Game).

Yes, in my view, good science fiction, like good climate fiction, is all about alerting the readers to basic issues that threaten our continued existence on this planet. The debate is around political issues but also around bigger issues, like what is the meaning of civilization? What is at the heart of humanity?

These are very big questions normally associated with literary fiction. Yet science fiction addresses them too and does so with the additional dimension of unbridled imagination – no holds barred, everything is possible! And that makes good science fiction particularly suspenseful and fun to read…

Do you agree? Do you read science fiction and if so, why? What do you get out of it?

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Filed under genre fiction, Literature, science fiction