Do you want people in the criminal justice system to read your book or throw it across the room with great force? Maybe your book has criminal justice stuff in it and you know that the stuff in it is fake but you keep it that way because you think the “story” demands it. Or perhaps you have watched CSI: Trader Joe’s and you think that’s how they always do it. Or perhaps you’re not sure, but you don’t know who to ask.
But the number of people who have shrugged and said, “Well, of course this is never how it happens in real life, but I have to put it in the book this way to keep the reader engaged!” could fill a stadium.
Can realism ever work in crime fiction? Well, there’s The Wire, which admittedly is TV. There is also Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1992). Those are two examples. They both were created by David Simon, a police reporter with the Baltimore Sun. Then there are some of the books written by Patricia Cornwell. These present a realistic picture of the criminal justice system—unlike, say, Scooby Doo.
Some crime fiction, some police procedurals, some thrillers, are Gilligan’s Island pretending to be Sir David Attenborough. They are what Mystery Science Theater 3000 is to NASA. Yes, Pearl Forrester is funny, but MST3K doesn’t pretend to be anything other than science fiction humor. So it’s best to make sure that your police officer hero isn’t doing the equivalent of driving a Winnebago into outer space.
And it is tempting to say, “But the readers aren’t smart enough to handle realism! It will bore them!” But do we really need to display that much contempt for our readers? We do not. Especially since readers are so happy to return the favor.
Of course, sometimes the setting is an excuse to put the characters together for moments of sex and suspense. Grey’s Anatomy is a perfect example of this in the medical world. In Shondaland, nurses don’t actually do anything but stand around, unless they are having an affair with someone. There are no phlebotomists, so doctors draw the blood. No radiologists, so the oncologist who will operate on the patient and remove the tumor to save her baby is the same person who is operating the MRI machine. And she has plenty of time to sit around and talk about the patient’s romantic life. Let us not speak of Denny Duquette, the LVAD wire, and Izzy Stevens.
Am I saying that every story has to be a documentary? Does every book have to pass muster with the pickiest nitpicking subject matter expert of every field or be written off as an abject failure? Nonsense. But you have to decide whether the reader is going to notice the factual error and, if they do, whether they are going to care. When you go through that process, it’s important for you to know whether you are dealing with a factual mistake before you make the conscious decision to ignore it.
What’s more, readers are more sophisticated than they used to be, so lawyers in books can’t give impassioned speeches when they have a witness in the box. If they do, readers are going to respond with, “Uh, is that, you know, a question?” because after a squillion televised trials, readers know what direct examination is supposed to look like.
If you mean for your readers to take you seriously, it’s important that you not have a detective with a test tube taking an air sample that may contain the DNA of the perpetrator who left the room hours before. And yes, one real prosecutor once mentioned in despair that they had to strike a juror who said that police could always tell who was guilty by taking an air sample. While it may be tempting to have a detective do this, it also insults the reader. And enough of your readers will notice this as a problem for them to mistrust you. Either the reader will think you really believe in air samples, or the reader will know that you don’t but that you have enough contempt for them to put a test tube in your character’s hand.
To assist me, I have asked some of my fellow editors for examples of errors in books that they thought were significant enough to affect the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief.
Of course, there are errors that can afflict any book:
Faye Lougher: Errors in books can be really jarring. I read one recently where the lead character was washed ashore on a beach and opened with him lying face-down in the sand, yet when his eyes opened, the sun blinded him! Clever, eyes in the back of his head!
That kind of problem isn’t as rare as you might think—and often it’s because authors make revisions to their books in a piecemeal way and some parts stay in that should be deleted. Obviously, it’s going to be difficult for a reader to stay with you for this one. And sometimes errors may seem less obvious but will be just as jarring:
Amy Schneider: Published novel, best-selling author (not one of my projects). The critical clue to the murder is discovered by closely inspecting a photograph. A newspaper photograph. With a magnifying glass.
All together now: what do you see when you look at a newspaper photograph under magnification?
Maybe there was a time when an author could get by with this, but probably not today.
Caroline Kaiser: In a novel I was editing, a character’s legs got broken to the extent that the bones were protruding, but only four hours later he was walking around on crutches at the police station.
Along similar lines, characters getting concussed in situations where no person would ever suffer a concussion. I’ve encountered this a few times–the author has no idea what a concussion actually is.
Concussion problems are a big subset. Readers today have a lot more awareness about traumatic brain injury, and they are less willing to tolerate factual inaccuracies, especially since they have either survived such injuries themselves or they are taking care of loved ones who have. There was a time when the protagonist could be thrown headfirst out of a thirteenth-floor balcony, hit the ground, and wake up hours later, woozy, in a hospital bed. And his eyelids could flutter open (because don’t they always?) and he could immediately realize where he was and that he had only a limited amount of time to get to the courtroom and testify. So he throws on his clothes, yanks out his IV, and runs down the hallway.
Of course, he would also find a random car with the keys in the ignition, drive it to the courthouse, successfully parallel park in an empty spot with a full meter, run through security, and stand by the hot, sexy prosecutor, all ready to testify against the big corporate mobsters. Which we know he does because the mobsters are led away in handcuffs and he and the prosecutor drive off in her expensive sports car.
Erin Crum: OK, I’ve got three off the top of my head:
1- crocuses blooming in Aug/Sept in Boston
2- heroine steering her Vespa down one road in Paris onto another one (the roads don’t intersect)
3- guy playing chess moves the rook, but he’s not sure of his move so he keeps his fingers on the horse’s head (that was Bel Canto and moved me to complain on my FB wall about it, because the book won all those awards and praise. Great book but that killed me!)
None of these made me throw the book down in disgust, but it did jar me from the fictional world I was in.
People who know nothing about Paris might not have noticed that one. But someone who does would be put out. Enough hands on knights that go diagonal and crocuses blooming in Antarctica and your reader is done with you. Some errors are big enough that it just takes one.
Then there are anachronisms.
Greg Ioannou: In a Canadian historical mystery, the action is happening in Alberta in 1915. A lead character gives a boy a silver dollar as a thank-you for a favour he did her. Very nice, except the first Canadian silver dollar was minted in 1935.
Sara Scharf: In Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle, which takes place during the second world war, there’s a scene where a woman has to repair something with nails and ends up holding them in her mouth with the sharp ends sticking out while she’s holding the hammer in one hand and the thing she needs to hammer in the other. She thinks to herself something to the effect of now she understands why men do this. DUH! Just about everyone who sews has done this same thing with pins, and if she was a woman in the 1940s, she probably had done this with pins all the time.
Replying to myself to warn people not to hold pins or nails in their mouths — it’s dangerous — if you’re surprised or distracted, it’s possible to inhale them and getting them out requires lung surgery. (Seriously — google this at your peril).
Here are other kinds of things you need to know: Would the cops need a search warrant? Can they really do forensic tests and get the DNA evidence back in an hour? Can the victim’s next of kin really tell the cops not to investigate? What can they learn about cause of death from a severely decomposed body? Does the cop have enough to charge the defendant or do they need more? Do they really allow severely impaired police officers who have been booted off the force after Internal Affairs found all kinds of bad stuff to come back to solve a crime that no one else can solve? Does every grizzled washed-up has-been retired cop who has to come out of retirement to solve the crime because no one else can do it have to look like Dennis Franz?
If your police procedural or crime novel is going to contain material that departs from reality, it is important for you to know it and to use it by choice. Otherwise, the Grand Space Tarsier will run you over, and in space, there are no washed-up detectives to save you.
 One of the dissatisfying elements of the e-book is that one cannot toss it languidly onto a night table or throw it with great force. And one of the most dissatisfying elements of that quote is that we are not sure that Dorothy Parker actually said it.
 Die Hard was a great movie, but that jump!!
 Because thirteen, of course!
 I have put the obvious fake stuff in bold.
 I love my colleagues.