I recently finished a book that has me scratching my head and trying to figure out why I didn’t like it, yet found it compelling enough to read through to the end.
Farrier’s Lane is a Victorian murder mystery, published in 1993. It deals with the murder of an appeals court judge who was re-examining the fictional Farrier’s Lane Murder, in which a man was stabbed, then crucified to a stable door. The detective on the case, an experienced copper named Thomas Pitt, has to go through both cases to find who’s responsible for each death.
Unfortunately for Mr. Pitt, and for the reader, this requires not-very-meticulous (more on that later) but repeated questioning of seemingly everyone involved in both cases. I swear, these characters had the same conversation at least half a dozen times.
The saving grace of this book, and what prevented me from losing interest, was that I skipped to the ending when I was on chapter two or three. The murderer’s identity was… interesting, enough that I wanted to see how the author got to that conclusion. Otherwise, I think I would have given up after the fourth repeated conversation.
The story suffers badly from bloat and iffy editing; it would have been better had it been half its length, which wouldn’t have been difficult; my edition is over 400 pages. It was so long and drawn out that I started thinking while I was reading. That’s not a good thing; I started trying to figure out why it wasn’t keeping my attention. Aside from the length and repetition of information that had been clearly conveyed a few chapters back, the author was telling us a great deal, but not showing very much.
-Many characters talk about anti-Jewish sentiment (the man convicted of the Farrier’s Lane Murder was Jewish) and how the good people of London were panicking about the blasphemy and general horror surrounding the crime, and putting pressure on the police to secure a conviction as quickly as possible. But because that murder happened five years previously, the reader has to take the characters’ word for it, and there was no particular reason to. After a while, repeating that the stakes were so high and the police wanted this whole thing to go away as fast as possible, actually made me start to doubt whether the characters were serious. ‘The lady doth protest too much,’ and all that.
-The main character, Thomas Pitt, is supposed to be an experienced police officer. But he accepts without question (until one moment in the last fifty pages of the book) that horseshoe nails would be long and strong enough to go through a man’s hands or wrists and hold his weight in a crucifixion pose for a few hours. They’re not; horseshoe nails are only about an inch long. Pitt also doesn’t think to question the eyewitnesses accounts of the murderer, who was seen fleeing the scene. He also thinks that because the supposed murderer was seen by someone else, half a mile away, that adds to the evidence against the supposed murderer. Half a mile away. In London. Do you know how densely populated London was in 1890? If everyone within half a mile of the murder was a suspect, they’d never manage to interview everyone, never mind get evidence from them.
-Similarly, all of the police and law enforcement related characters insist that the original investigation was carried out meticulously, when it was plainly not. They never found a murder weapon, the supposed murderer had only a flimsy motive, and the timing of the case rested on a clock known to malfunction at odd times.
I’ll stop my rant there; it suffices to say that this was a very weird book, and I suspect the editor gave some bad instructions to the author (repeating conversations to pad the word count, etc). But it was a good, albeit daunting, learning experience.
Things I learned, or was reminded of:
-Foreshadowing is good. Too much obvious foreshadowing bores the readers or makes them feel like you’re being condescending. Three mentions of the twist or important information is about right for a novel; two is fine for a short story. Don’t write the same conversation six or more times, only changing the speech tags, and expect readers to swallow it.
-Know the markers of competence for characters who are supposed to be experienced in their professional field. That’s why, ‘write what you know’ is decent advice. If you’re insisting that a character is competent or well-respected, and they’re making obvious mistakes, that breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief (I’m struggling with this one in the time-travel story, because, civilian writing military).
-Don’t introduce vitally important information that should have been obvious from the beginning, in the last few chapters- unless it is The Twist. Person X’s club foot turns out to be important, but it’s not mentioned until his second or third appearance on the page. Also, see above about the horseshoe nails being too short to hold up a body.
-Show, don’t only tell, that the stakes are high. Farrier’s Lane would have been dramatically improved if Pitt had walked into an anti-Jewish riot, been violently accosted by a friend of one of the dead men, or even read a newspaper headline about a debate in Parliament about the public’s declining trust in the rule of law.
Okay, I think I’ve finished tearing apart this poor author’s book. I’m glad I got it- fifty cents at the thrift store!- and I learned a lot from it. Now I’m considering acquiring more of the series, to see what else I can learn from them. If nothing else, it’s cheaper than taking writing classes.