Saturday, March 31, 2012

The way too damn many people die in crime novels

How many crime novels have you read that begin with a prologue in which a character never knew when he or she woke up that fateful day that it would be his or her last?  The only suspense in such prologues is whether the last thing the character sees will be a red mist of pain or a murky pool of blackness.

I read yet another such prologue this week, and it reminded me of one of the great exceptions to the rule, Stuart Neville's Collusion. Yes, that novel begins with a prologue, and yes, that prologue ends with the point-of-view character dying. But here's how Neville writes the death, ends the prologue, and segues into the novel's main action:
"He barely registered the detonator's POP! before God's fist slammed him into nothing."
Besides avoiding cliché and writing a prologue vastly superior to most, Neville is arguably more respectful of and serious about death than many crime writers. Who the hell knows if black pools or red mists are really the last things a murder victim sees? Until some crime writer dies, comes back to life, and reports the proceedings in a prologue, I'll accept Neville's punch into nothingness as a more accurate description of death.

How do you feel about prologues? About death described from the dying character's point of view? Does anyone do it well?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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35 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I've heard readers say they detest prologues and skip them.
I use them when it seems to help. Mine tend to describe a violent incident relevant to the rest of the book. Usually I enjoy writing them because I tend to pull out all the stops, as in the case of the blind woman walking home with her killer on her heels.

I'm not happy about pov-characters dying in any case. If they die in the prologue, I don't have much reason to go on reading. The journey into death, no matter how fascinating to the person who takes it, does little for anyone else. And the sense of doom and gloom is very demoralizing.

March 31, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I regard most prologues as something to be skimmed as quickly as possible. Neville's is an exception in this respect, too. His prologue is a suspenseful little story all by itself, thematically related to what follows -- a violent incident relevant to the rest of the book, in other words.

March 31, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

Prologues, when well written, can serve a useful purpose in jump-starting a story while laying out a little exposition. Too many are too long and blatantly expository, which is why I think people tend to skip them.

March 31, 2012  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

I submit that prologues are useful if they describe a life-changing event the protagonist experienced years earlier.

March 31, 2012  
Blogger Fred said...

I read the prologues, because I think the author has a good reason for writing one. However, I often find I'm wrong.

Sometimes I don't understand why it wasn't the first chapter.

March 31, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, what are some of your favorites? And less favorites? When you don't like a prologue, why don't you like it? (To be fair, my target in this post is at least as much cliches as it is prologues.)

March 31, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I don't think I've ever skipped a prologue, though I do sometimes wonder, as you do, why the author didn't just call it the first chapter and find some graceful way to integrate it into the story.

March 31, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I'd probably feel better about prologues if authors just called them "Chapter One." I don't object so much to their content as I do to their presentation. Somehow the word "Prologue" smacks of umseemly authorial self-consciousness.

March 31, 2012  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

I've seen Chapter One with a date in italics at the top, followed by Chapter Two with "ten years later" also in italics.

I'd rather have that first one labeled Prologue, but that may just be personal preference.

March 31, 2012  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Definition 4 of prologue at dictionary.com:

an introductory scene, preceding the first act of a play, opera, etc.

March 31, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't care what it's called as long as it's integrated well into the story, as long as it tells a little story in itself, and as long as it doesn't feel like a set-up or a cheap effort to create suspense -- and as long as it doesn't end the same old red- mist, black-pool way.

Another I like is Adrian McKinty's prologue to Fifty Grand.

March 31, 2012  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

interesting debate, Peter. I do it as a scene-setter, for added atmosphere and to introduce some questions into the reader's mind.

I can understand the comment which says why not make it chapter 1. I've asked myself the same thing. And the exposition some people go in for, yeuuch. Kinda like a cheap voiceover in a movie.

April 01, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I used to write fairly long chapters, but my prologue was always short. I couldn't very well call it Chapter One, especially since there was a significant break in setting and characters between it and the first chapter.
I have also used "Epilogues". I see what you mean by "authorial self-consciousness," but the novel is the author's blood, sweat, and tears. (Cliche, but I like it). He's entitled to feeling self-conscious about it.

I don't like prologues that don't link up rather quickly with the investigation. Who wants to read half the book wondering what that first bit was all about?

April 01, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I don't have anything against prologues, although I doubt that the word prologue has to be written out.

I seem to have more trouble with epilogues, because though I think I want to know what happens after, in practice its often a summing up which dramatically falls a little flat. Often it is best left to the reader's imagination.

I do agree that Stuart and Adrian's prologues that you mention are very good.

April 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, I wonder if too many prologues fail precisely because they are like cheap voiceovers in a movie.

The only solution, of course, is to write an excellent opening, no matter what you call it. But when I see the word "Prologue," I automatically think "Formula." And I wonder if prologues put extra pressure on the author. A prologue has to make the reader ask: "My god, how did the situation get to this pretty pass?" and want to keep reading in order to find out. That's arguably even more weight than an ordinary, non-prologue opening chapter has to bear.

April 01, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

I have also used "Epilogues". I see what you mean by "authorial self-consciousness," but the novel is the author's blood, sweat, and tears. (Cliche, but I like it). He's entitled to feeling self-conscious about it

Off topic, Peter, but I was struck by I.J.'s use of the male singular to describe authors in her comment. I try to avoid such he/she problems by using the gender-neutral plural. It's not difficult to do.

I don't mind female academics or writers using she as their pronoun of choice to describe writers who might be of either sex, but when I come across male writers doing that, as I frequently do, I want to reach for the nearest blunt object so I can smash their tiny little brains into a pulp, or at least make those brains pulpier than they already are. Such pathetic obediance to political correctness deserves nothing less than cruel and unusual punishment.

PCness is strongly associated with the Academy. So how did a former Associate Professor of English manage to retain the old-fashioned use of 'he' in such an environment? Was it because a former Confederate state like Virginia is immune to such notions, or because a HBCU like Norfolk State has better things to be thinking about?

April 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., as an outsider trying to imagine myself in an author's place, if an opening chapter has to hook the reader into wanting to read the rest of the book, a prologue has to hook the reader into wanting to read the opening chapter. That's pressure.

April 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I dunno, Solo. Maybe I.J. just respects tradition in language usage. I find this commendable.

April 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I don't think about epilogues as much because I think fewer authors use them. But the "after" can be a part of the story.

I wonder if prologues are as frequent in other genres of fiction as they are in crime writing.

April 01, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Yes, I could have moved to the plural by referring to "authors". But I was going already in the singular, and I detest PC. I have no problem with male pronouns at all when referring to people in general. I do not like the "she" used to make a point, particularly when referring to God.

And generally I stay away from women's lib issues. Fussing over word choice will do nothing for women. There are far more important topics about women's rights in the news every day as our presidential candidates agitate for votes.

April 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, you have just seen further evidence that this blog's readers are an especially sensible, level-headed group.

April 01, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

There are far more important topics about women's rights in the news every day as our presidential candidates agitate for votes

I suspect you're right about that, IJ. But for the sake of clarification, what are those more important topics?

April 01, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Solo, you have just seen further evidence that this blog's readers are an especially sensible, level-headed group

Cute, Peter, but I prefer to question my own assumptions and biases and those who share them, rather than those who have a different set of biases than my own.

April 01, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I don't know if they are more frequent, but I don't associate prologues particularly with the mystery or crime novel form.

I think epilogues have a tendency to want to tie up all the loose ends too much and they often jump time in a way that isn't satisfying.

April 01, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Prologues tend to equal 'precious', or 'pretentious' in my book; especially when they're all in italics, which they invariably are

April 01, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Good. We're back on topic. It's not a good idea to get too much into politics when we're talking mysteries. :)

April 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that question about prologues' frequency in crime fiction may reflect the narrowness of my reading more than anything else. On the other hand, a genre that uses suspense might be predisposed toward prologues.

One of Jo Nesbo's recent book has a prologue so over the top that I have to think he's poking fun at the practice.

April 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, long passages in italics scream preciousness to me, too.

April 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Good. We're back on topic. It's not a good idea to get too much into politics when we're talking mysteries. :)

Unless one regards prologues as characteristic of rigidly hierarchical, top-down societies. Which I don't. I think.

April 02, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

And my reply to any sort of restriction is, "Don't fence me in!"

April 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There's an old Brazilian rock and roll song called "É Prohibido Prohibir" -- "It is forbidden to forbid." I agree with this.

Prohibit prologues, and I'd deserve to have prologues rain on my head every day for the next decade. Done well, they can do what a good overture does for an opera. But they're such a convention that it's easy not to do them well.

April 02, 2012  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

At the risk of reducing what little credibility I have, many of the lengthy romantic suspense novels I've read seem to have a prologue.

The pure romance novels often have a (to my mind, silly) epilogue to show the protagonists a year or five later, happily married and with two kids and a dog (or cat).

The most maligned part of the final Harry Potter book was its epilogue.

April 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

With the goal of restoring some of your credibility, Jonathan Mayberry, a Bran Stoker-winning horror writer and one of the leaders of the Liars Club meeting I attended yesterday, talked knowledgeably about romance and said he likes chick-lit better than his wife does and cries at sappy movies.

April 02, 2012  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

That IS reassuring. ;)

April 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, yeah, and he's a big, burly guy, too. His confession got big laughs. He said romance is a huge sector of the fiction market and was bullish on its prospects, in case anyone out there likes reading the stuff.

April 02, 2012  

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