By Jenny Hilborne, author of mysteries and thrillers
Most authors I know are voracious readers. We devour books and we feel cheated when we invest time and money only to be disappointed with our investment, especially when the book came highly recommended or has a slew of favorable reviews. It's like getting bad financial advice from a once trusted source. However, there is still value in "bad" books.
My experience with books creates a change in my mood, and it's far more noticeable after I finish a disappointing book. The last few novels I read lifted me out of the blah state the previous ones dumped me into and I started to compare the difference, see what tips I could learn from each of the books, good and bad, and determine what made some books great and others forgettable.
The most important criteria of a mystery or thriller (for me) are a complex plot, compelling motive, and intriguing characters. The books I read were penned by respectable authors and the writing itself was fine. So, was the premise of the story. The problem I had was the writer's style.
Lots of people rave about the TV show "Bones", based on Kathy Reich's character, Temperance Brennan. I've never watched it and I'd never read any of her work until 2 months ago, when I stumbled across one of her books in a phone booth 'library' in Britain. The blurb looked good and I settled in. I finished the book, and wondered why the show was so popular.
The mystery seemed to be an afterthought, with the author's focus on educating the reader about her subject (forensic anthropology) rather than delivering an interesting story. The reader was required to have extensive knowledge of the human anatomy to understand much of what she wrote. I felt like I'd wandered into the wrong class and was forced to listen to the tutor ramble on about her subject. The story lacked suspense and I never got a sense of the southern charm of South Carolina. Perhaps the TV show is better than the books. Reich's is not the only author to bash the reader over the head with too much subject matter. Others do it with weapons. Too much detail makes the writing dull and slows the plot. It's indigestible to the reader.
I also read Taste of Fear by Jeremy Bates. I loved his first book, White Lies. Taste of Fear is about survival and is gripping from the beginning, with action, suspense, and danger. Bates focuses on developing the story, takes the reader on an intense trip, and fills the senses with smells, sounds and tastes. I still remember what this story is about.
I'm sure writers make the most critical readers; however, for me fiction is escapism. It's supposed to entertain. In comparing my recent reads, I note how good books engage all the senses and good authors know when to withhold information. They take the reader on a journey, but they don't hold them hostage. Fiction is a way to learn. Writers have their unique style, but reading a lot of fiction helps shape our craft and develop/improve our own style. Well read authors make better authors. They learn what works, what doesn't, and take from the best and the worst. There is value to both.