A Very Weird Murder

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.

Some examples:

-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.

31 comments

  1. I wouldn’t expect a copper from Victorian London to know anymore about horses than his professional descendants know about cars, so I’d grant the author that one, I guess. It’s been a long time since I read anything in that series, but it tended to make Pitt look like an idiot in general, so not surprised that he came off badly here.

    Repetitive pointless questioning of the persons of interest was a standard style of padding in the Golden Age mystery writers as well. (Although Agatha Christie mostly only did it in the sixties/seventies books where she seemed to be losing her edge.) I don’t know what copper browbeat Dorothy Sayers into giving more airtime to local police in her books, but there’s way too many cases in where you have a couple of spectacularly boring local policemen doing really boring shoe leather detective work all throughout the middle part of the book. She only makes it work in her last long form mystery by making one of the local police a suspect, and his superior a somewhat more detailed character than usual who is understandably uncomfortable with the situation.

    It kind of feels like a mechanism for brainstorming your way to a solution, a mechanism that somehow or other didn’t get replaced in the editing process.

    1. Considering the book was written in 1993, she doesn’t have the excuse of being Golden Age (and she started writing in 1979).

      BTW, I wouldn’t consider either Sayers or Christie as wordy (unless you think RLS is wordy). Dickens, on the other hand…

      1. Sorry, I meant that it was a problem already present in the books that were probably read by that author growing up.

        Didn’t say the classic mysteries were wordy in the Dickensian sense, just Christie and Sayers have books where there’s a lot of repetitive questioning of the witnesses that doesn’t amount to anything more than blah, blah blah.

        No idea who or what RLS is in this context. Real Life Stuff? I sure as heck expect escapist fiction to be less wordy than Real Life Stuff! 🙂

  2. Yeah, mysteries are hard. I’ve somehow ended up writing a sort of one as the last short story of the thing, and it’s been a strange thing to do.

    A lot of characters wandering about asking people questions about things, then going to the next person or thing that suggests. The only saving grace is none of the characters involved are professionals at this, so mistakes, wondering if they’ve been chasing snipes all day, incomplete logic, etc are all reasonable, but I’m pretty sure I need to take a rotorooter to it in the second draft.

    Oh well: learning experience.

  3. I’ve read most of this author’s work, so I think I can say that this is actually fairly typical for her. There is slow, frustrating lack of progress in the investigation, and lengthy meditation on things that don’t advance the story, until things suddenly start to move toward the end.
    Pitt is no Sherlock Holmes. He isn’t that bright and frequently goes down the wrong track and gets lost in the weeds. It’s often his somewhat smarter wife who helps him crack a tough case. He is, however, dogged and persistent in his search for the truth, and has an excellent sense of when the various clues do or don’t fit together.
    As police procedurals, her stories are so-so. Where she excels is in her depiction, examination, and dissection of Victorian society, mores and culture, and the criminal investigation is largely an excuse for it.

    1. I generally found that author too preachy and lecturey about the cultural stuff, after the first few books at least. Too much authentic Victorian telling, not enough showing.

  4. Person X’s club foot turns out to be important, but it’s not mentioned until his second or third appearance on the page.

    A friend took Dean Wesley Smith’s writing class, where he described the principle addressing this issue as Order of Information. Describe a person, place, or thing the first time you mention it so the reader doesn’t get a different picture in his head. You can’t leave out something as noticeable as a club foot.

    1. It can be interesting though necessary. What will the point of view character notice. . . .

    2. For doing the club foot, you can have a character not notice it specifically but notice a somewhat odd gait where the character seems to take a long stride with one leg, then shorter stride with the other. Club foot not noticed, but the hint is there. Especially if the club foot isn’t as severe as most of the diagrams go. (I have a cousin with a club foot, somewhat corrected with surgery. It was mild enough to be hidden by shoes, but even after correction affected how he walked. Less so today, but he’s almost 40 so lots of practice.)

      1. Something like “he’s moving oddly” or “favoring X foot” can work, too.

        There’s some movie actor who had a club foot, I think I was told, but may have been some other reason to “walk oddly” that didn’t fit the character — they hid the “moving oddly” from the audience by putting a (hidden) splint on the other character in the first scene you see him off of a horse in, so everybody noticed Other Guy that can’t walk right because one knee won’t bend at all, not the actor that’s supposed to be healthy.

        Would’ve been before the mid-60s, because my dad saw it in theaters and that’s how he knew what had happened, but that also means it may not have been a club foot. 😀

  5. Yeah, while I have a bit of a soft spot for the author (and she has a very…fascinating history herself–as a teen, she and her best friend were convicted of murdering the friend’s mother, which in fact they did), but she does trend hard towards too dry and too wordy. She actually wrote a fantasy novel that is quite beautiful, and suits the ‘tendency to get wordy’ rather better. But…her mysteries are what paid the bills 😀

    1. One of the reasons she gets dry and wordy is because of the detailed, sensitive examinations of ethics and morality in difficult situations where there are no easy answers. That can be fascinating, but it’s not the material of an action story. I’d love to know how her early experiences shaped that sense, but rather like war stories from veterans, I don’t think it’s something she could or would talk about much.

      1. Yeah, I don’t imagine she does. I expect she got enough of that when she joined the LDS church (because if you’ve done something like commit murder, that doesn’t disqualify you by any means…but they do want to make sure you’ve faced up to it and actually repented, because making a vow to God when you haven’t is a Very Bad Idea, heh).

        And to a point, I always did like her philosophizing on difficult morality, etc–but all things in moderation…

        1. She doesn’t show off her religion much in her fiction, but it’s there. Somewhat like all the Catholic references in Tolkien, you pretty much have to be an insider to spot it. The only direct reference I’ve seen, and my first clue, was when one of the murder victims in one of her earlier stories was an LDS convert.

          1. Heh, her fantasy novels, Tathea and Come Armageddon, are VERY obvious, at least to a church member (or someone familiar with the more arcane bits of our faith)

  6. As I recall, although everyone insisted that the investigation had been carried out thoroughly and Pitt was inclined to trust his colleagues, the more he dug into the facts, the more he found that things weren’t adding up and started wondering just exactly how thorough that investigation had been. He started looking into that, sort of an “internal affairs” investigation and that’s what finally broke the case. Part of it was dirty cops running a coverup.

  7. OK, to talk about the craft, at what point does dropping hints for the reader turn from “Gee, I’m clever, I spotted that clue before the detective did” to “Gee, that detective is dumb, why didn’t he see that fifty pages ago?” I know of authors who can pull off a surprise even when the development was foreshadowed enough to be obvious in hindsight, and others who use such common tropes that you get “I saw how that was going to end by the second page.”

    1. I still remember the book where I picked out the Least Likely Suspect on no other clues.

      1. You see that a lot in hour long mystery programs, which don’t have time for anything more complicated, like Don Matteo or the much less family friendly Kommissar Rex (well, actually the title character is pretty family friendly, he’s a dog after all; it’s his Eurotrash human partner and various suspects, perps and victims who are the problem).

    2. heh. “I saw the ending coming/whodunit a hundred miles off” was one reason I quit reading Mary Higgins Clark when I was in high school. She’s a decent writer (as I recall) but…kind of obvious. (Well. She only has, like, two plots, so…)

      1. The heroine will have two, or possibly three, potential love interests. The one she’s actually supposed to get together with usually shows up about midway through the story, and their connection will be obvious. The other love interest will be the murder. If there’s a third love interest, he will be responsible for some creepy and possibly criminal but not rising to the level of murder activities around the heroine. I could usually predict who the murderer would be by the end of the dust jacket.

        To be fair, though, her early works weren’t nearly so formulaic. And even when she reached the formulaic phase of her career, she did the formula well. She was like someone who only knows how to make Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies—but she made really good chocolate chip cookies.

        1. Agreed. And I’ve thought about rereading some of her stuff–I got frustrated with the formula as a teenager, but nowadays I find formula a bit more comforting 😀

      2. I was reading an author as a famed and bestselling author of Gothics and I recognized the villain by her type in the second novel.

        1. I am less disappointed by that than I used to be. I mean, for example, Elizabeth Peters’ gothic farces are pretty obvious, plot-wise (rarely is the villain hidden or unknown), and they tend to share more or less the same plot beats…but they are so much fun, it’s hard to get upset about that. (Legend in Green Velvet is particularly hilarious–not many authors can take a torture scene and turn it into pure farce–and lampshade it IN the scene, no less.) Same with the straight-gothics she wrote as Barbara Michaels. I finally learned that if the writer is compelling enough, they can tell the same story a dozen different ways and still entertain the heck out of the reader 🙂

        2. Also: which Gothic author? I once found a repository of gothics from the 70s online, but lost it. Alas. Especially since I found that the author of one of my favorite childhood books was, in fact, a gothic writer 😀

    3. It’s hard, no question. The twist ending is hard: “I never saw that coming, but now that I see it, it makes everything make sense.” Usually, you get either, “Well, that was obvious, I saw it coming a mile away,” or, “I never saw that coming, because it came out of nowhere and makes no sense!” I wish I knew how to avoid those traps and get the “WHAM!” every time.

      I think part of that is why a lot of mystery writers have more or less abandoned the “fair play” mystery and keep something back that only the detective knows. Something as obvious as a club foot probably doesn’t work, especially if we’re in the detective’s point of view, but something where we know the general outlines of what the final clue has to be but not the specifics. One I’m thinking of that did this particularly well was a Perry Mason where it was obvious that whoever ordered the colored contacts had to be the murderer—but we faded to black before Della Street told Perry who that was.

    4. A good compare-contrast on this is to read Strong Poison (Dorothy Sayers, 1930), Flowers for the Judge (Margery Allingham, 1936), and Sad Cypress (Agatha Christie, 1940) back to back to back in order of publication (which is the order I have given here). All three feature an innocent person falsely accused of murder, with the motive being something in their love life, all three spend a certain amount of time in court, all three give a fair amount of space to the angsty romance subplot between the accused and another character (the detective in Poison, the person who hires the detective in the other two books). Cypress is somewhat explicitly a homage to Poison, and I think it’s reasonable to assume that Allingham had read Poison as well before writing Flowers, but all three handle their elements very differently.

      Poison is primarily a howdunnit: there’s not a huge field of suspects besides the accused, and a certain amount of the book is taken up with determining whether the death might not have been suicide instead. Once the hero and his associates zero in on one particular character as being having more possibilities in the motive and opportunity department, there’s a lot of legwork (including a faked seance) to nail down what exactly the motive might be, and the logistics of how the victim was poisoned. You have to know a bit about how that particular poison works to beat Lord Peter to the solution, but probably a lot of habitual mystery readers of the period were at least vaguely familiar with the info needed.

      Cypress is primarily a whodunnit: there’s at least one major red herring, there’s Christie’s somewhat characteristic interest in identity problems, and the actual murderer is someone who I found on first (and second) reading totally repellent but whom Christie seemed to be treating sympathetically throughout most of the book. The howdunnit is somewhat more esoteric than Poison’s, in that you actually have to know something about medicine to get what happened. But the whodunnit is handled beautifully, in that you get a decent amount of clues handed to you in throwaway details, and the murderer is someone you absolutely hate, but doesn’t seem to have a motive unless you were paying a lot of attention to the throwaway details…as M. Poirot does.

      Flowers sort of splits the difference: a fair amount of the first part of the book is just establishing that there was murder done, not just some kind of accident (“howdunnit”), and tracking down people who might have tampered with the scene of the crime. You have a small group of maybe two or three plausible suspects in addition to the accused, and the actual murderer is again, an unpleasant person who doesn’t seem to have the motivation or the personality type to commit the crime…until you learn about the actual motive. This is one of the Campion books where it is possible to figure out whodunnit before the hero does (or appears to figure it out; Campion likes to plays dumb and is more convincing at it than Whimsey), and the last section of the book is the rush to get enough proof of what Campion and the reader already know before anything bad happens to the falsely accused person (a man in this book, unlike Poison and Cypress).

      The books also have different ways of filling in the time between major clues (romance track for Poison, flashbacks to the murder and events leading up to it in Cypress, general gothic atmosphere in Flowers), but mostly they show how many different ways a writer can handle the same basic problem: how to keep the reader interested until the mystery is solved.

      1. There is a reason those three are considered among the greatest masters of the mystery novel. 🙂 I love Campion, especially, and more people ought to be aware of that series! (The tv series is quite charming as well, but sadly far too short. However, Peter Davison was PERFECT casting as Campion, as was the actor they had playing Lugg.)

        1. Allingham did fair play mysteries, but she fused them with thrillers. So basically the same as a detective show that ends with an exciting chase scene or a big dangerous fight. Plus she threw a lot of “weird and true, or weird but plausible” stuff in, to cover up whatever she felt like covering up. It’s a very nice way to write books, because you never know what’s coming next.

          That said, I think that her malleable style is also why she never quite sold as much as some others. People who had read her would trust her, but it was harder to explain her to newbies.

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