Sunday, July 06, 2008

Noir at the Bar II: Counteracting the C.S.I. effect


Back in January, I wrote about the excruciating experience of being trapped in front of a big screen showing Law & Order: Special Victims Unit at a pizzeria, and the ordeal had nothing to do with the pizza, which was fine. Rather, my agita was induced by the show's massive information dumps, the scenes in which crime-scene investigators spout facts rather than talk like real people.

That's why I was pleased to host Jonathan McGoran at this evening's Noir at the Bar reading in Philadelphia. Under the pen name D.H. Dublin, McGoran writes carefully researched forensic thrillers, but he never forgets that his job is to tell a story, and that stories are about people.
His series about Philadelphia forensic investigator Madison Cross, now up to three books, adopts the clever strategy of following Cross from the beginning of her police career. This, McGoran says, lets the reader learn along with her. In practical terms, it means there is little need for the globby blocks of story-stopping information that make forensic TV shows hard to watch.

McGoran, while acknowledging that his novels are in essence police procedurals, said he hates the word procedural because it reminds him too much of manual, "something I'd get with my microwave." That's another indicator of the human touch he brings to his work and another indicator that forensic, scientific crime fiction can have heart, and not just severed body parts.
Why not make this a question to readers? What writers manage to make difficult, highly technical, potentially dry material interesting? How do they do this?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008
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10 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

In sci-fi circles the infodump disquisitions have acquired a name: "As You Know, Bob."

Typically the lead character spends a page or two of dialogue explaining the necessity to do something about the whatever or terrible things will happen.

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

... the scenes in which crime-scene investigators spout facts rather than talk like real people.

It's a sure sign of a poorly planned story when a character rattles off a paragraph or more of exposition out of the blue. One of the worst crime-movie examples I can think of is City By the Sea, wherein Robert De Niro breaks into gritty details of his upbrinking in the middle of a date. I think it was a second date.

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've heard such dumps referred to you as as-you-knows, but bever with the charming addition of Bob. It's a clumsy term, which is perfectly suited to the phenomenon it describes.

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A poorly planned story or a poorly written one. Perhaps the failure of a scene with even such a good actor as Robert De Niro points up the little-noted importance of good writing to movies. Or maybe De Niro is better at the emotional side of acting than at that old-fashioned stuff about delivering lines.

If the De Niro character's information dump took place on a second date in real life, there would have been no third date.

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Further writing sins expounded upon here, from Bruce Sterling via the SF Writers Association. There are a lot of highly-amusing crimes listed and explained, with occasional samples (and attribution!).

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for that list. I recommend it whether or not one reads science fiction. Some of the sins apply equally to crime writing, and others are universal. Still others are just plain fun.

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Oh, yeah, the offenses are genre-neutral. Herman Melville was guilty of some of those!

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, the nineteenth century allowed much that would not pass muster today, especially in the way of broad sweep, omniscient narration, florid diction and lots and lots of description.

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Speaking of Melville, I had a literature professor with a love of sweater vests who would always deride Moby Dick. When I asked him why, he replied, "I have no patience for interminable works."

July 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I might add that he expressed his sentiment in commendably few words.

July 07, 2008  

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