I recently finished reading a novel that, while overall very well-written and a fun read, still left a bad taste in my mouth. This was a surprise because this author is usually very good and I’ve always enjoyed his work.
Why did this novel become the exception? Because the author broke one of the preeminent rules of narrative fiction: he lied to me, the reader.
Let me show you what I mean.
One of the primary protagonists (from whose point of view much of the story is told) is a prosecutor in the D.A.’s office. In a moment of weakness, he has a one night fling with a high-end call girl, who also happens to be a witness in a murder case. When she decides to blackmail him, he doesn’t know what to do. If she tells all, not only would it destroy his marriage and family, it would effectively end his career.
Unsure of what to do, he consults his mentor, an old family friend and (as it turns out corrupt) judge, who tells him that if he killed her, all his problems would go away. The judge also tells the protagonist that he (the judge) has friends who will make sure he never gets charged with the murder.
We are then shown the protagonist agonizing over the decision: to kill the prostitute and end his problem, or lose everything, over several pages. He doesn’t want to lose his career and his family, but he has dedicated his entire life to fighting crime and enforcing the law. It obviously isn’t an easy decision.
He finally decides he has no real choice but to kill the woman. He returns to the judge, who tells him exactly how to commit the crime. The protagonist follows the judge’s directions and successfully murders the prostitute.
Then (and this is where the author loses me) the author reveals that the prostitute is not dead at all. The whole episode was set up by the Feds as a sting against the judge. The protagonist had been working with the Feds the entire time and never had any intention of murdering the prostitute, who was also working with the FBI.
And, you may be asking, what is wrong with that? It’s a nice plot twist. I agree, it is a nice plot twist. But I have a caveat: the plot twist only worked because the author lied to us. An author should not lie to his/her readers; he shouldn’t need to.
What lie? When did he lie to us?
This is the lie: if the entire situation was a sting against the judge and not only did the protagonist never have any intention of killing the prostitute, but she was never actually blackmailing him, then why the depiction of his agonizing moral dilemma? It never existed. It was a lie delivered to the reader with the purpose of misleading him. Misleading me.
I have no problem with authors misdirecting readers, or leading them down false paths. It’s one of the basic devices of suspense fiction. Agatha Christie was brilliant at this. I don’t believe I’ve ever read one of her stories and correctly figured out who the killer was. The difference between what Ms. Christie and this author did was with Ms. Christie’s ending, I say: “Oh, of course! All the clues were there. I just didn’t interpret them right.” When I’m lied to by an author, I say: “Well, that wasn’t fair. I didn’t have all the information.”
The author has an unwritten contract with the reader. When he/she lies, that contract is broken and the reader is left feeling unsatisfied, or even cheated. Cheat the reader often enough and the reader will go elsewhere for their reading material.
Our goal is to attract new readers while keeping the ones we already have, isn’t it? The best way to do this is to make sure we are always honest with our readers.