Matter of Recall

I’ve just finished Strange Affair, the second of two Peter Robinson crime novels which I’ve listened to in audio format rather than reading. I have read some of his earlier work but have not been the devotee that some of my friends are. Indeed I have one friend who deliberately saves his new novel each year for her Christmas treat and retires behind closed doors with that and a bag of fudge not to be seen again until she has finished both.

While I’ve enjoyed both books I have to say that listening to them, experiencing them in a medium in which you have to encounter every word, has made me aware of some the weaknesses of the extended series that a reader might well skim over and not necessarily notice. For instance, there are moments of verbal déjà vu when you come across the reminders of specific characteristics of the main participants, so often couched in exactly the same words as they were in the preceding book. Or you find yourself listening to the recall of episodes from earlier crimes in the sort of clunky detail that signals this is something you need to know if you’re going to understand what happens next but really you ought to have read the previous books.

I’m finding this a bit grating and beginning to wonder if one of the mark of a really good writer is the ability to orientate the reader to what has gone before in a way that is less than obvious. I remember when Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets came out cringing at the way J K Rowling handled the necessary recall from book one and then being aware as the series progressed that one indication of how she was growing as a writer was her development in this area. I’ve moved on now to Henning Mankell, also a new writer to me, and I shall be interested to see how he stacks up in this respect. Of course, it does depend on my being able to get hold of his books in audio form. Off to the library site again!

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Published in: on January 11, 2010 at 5:54 pm  Comments (9)  

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I am ashamed to say that I have never really read an entire series before! I really don’t know why, but it is something that I want to remedy soon, and I am MOST curious to see how authors manage to bring the new reader up to speed, without boring the loyal followers.

  2. I do think that audio highlights all the faults of composition that might be hidden in a reading – and particularly of a plot-driven book that encourages the reader to take the text at speed. One day I’ll have to think more about what really works on audio – whether the quality of the language is paramount, or the dialogue (or all these things). All I know is that many a book I could read I tend to discount as an audio option. Lately I’ve become very keen on BBC play adaptations of classics – they’ve been quite fun.

  3. Interesting point about listening to a work serving to highlight it’s weaknesses. I agree. Austen was reputed to have read her works aloud frequently during composition and while she was getting them ready for publication. All marks of genius aside, I wonder whether that is one of the reasons her work is so tight, lean, and perfect.

    Telling backstory in a series is very tricky and is usually clumsy–I think you’re right about Rowling though. In this and in other ways, she did develop as a writer between books 1 and 7.

  4. Interesting. I tend to be less critical when I listen to something rather than more critical; there’s something about hearing someone say the words that makes me more open to the emotions of the book and I’m less likely to hold writing problems against it. But I can see how listening to a series might highlight some clunkiness in the writing that is more easily passed over while reading.

  5. I think with crime novels this is a really tricky thing for writers. How much detail to go over and not bore your readers with? I’m up to book 9 in this series (I think it’s 9) and I haven’t noticed that so much by reading but I can see how it might get more complicated the further along a series progresses.

    I’ve only read one Mankell but would definitely like to read another. Have you started with the beginning of his series?

  6. Strange Affair was an odd book too, if I recall it involves his brother, doesn’t it? I enjoyed the mystery, but it was odd. I like the Banks mysteries, but sometimes in the later ones he moves from the past to the future in investigations, and I’ve found myself confused over which character belongs where (to which time). I admire you being able to listen to mysteries, I can’t. I’m not an auditory listener at all. Though, I know what Stefanie is saying, because Shakespeare is best understood read aloud!

    Do you find that many crime authors read better than they sound when read? Or do you think it’s the difference between reading silently and reading aloud, that plot lines etc become more obvious to you when you hear them? I find I can spot them when reading, and they do bother me!

  7. I do think audio makes certain issues more glaring. I’ve often thought this is a matter of speed. I read so much more quickly than the voice reads an audio book and I have more time to think about each sentence.

  8. Audio books invariably put me to sleep, but I do recall being irritated by some series recently that kept recapping what had been said in previous books. It seems rather lazy not to find new ways of giving you the necessary information.

  9. Ann — I realized today that I had not read your blog in a while. I wondered if there was something wrong with my reader, but noticed that you have posted in a while.

    I hope all is ok and perhaps this silence is a matter of weather and internet connections.

    I miss your thoughtful literary insights and look forward to reading another post soon 🙂


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