I have 115 unread novels on my bookshelves. Even if I buy no more (and I shall certainly but the new Discworld) it will take me more than two years to complete them. Perhaps I should be a bit more choosy in what I read.
I am currently comparing Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell, the queens of gory fiction. Both have female protagonists who are experts in forensic pathology, which was always the best attended of undergraduate lectures at medical school.
“Reichs is not just ‘as good’ as Cornwell, she has become a finer writer” says the Daily Express on the back cover. One is tempted to ask how they would know. It is certainly not true. Cornwell at least writes mostly in sentences; Reichs writes in phrases. She even has sentences comprising a single word. Really! Many paragraphs consist of a single sentence, sometimes without a verb.
Here’s an example picked at random:
“Flashbulb memory. Gran, shuffling to bed with her Dearfoam slippers and her chamomile tea.
My gaze shifted to the body.
Parent looked small and pitiful on the perforated steel. So alone. So dead.
Stab of sorrow.
I pushed it down.”
I am tempted to put it down.
Although both ‘Blow Fly’ and ‘Monday Mourning’ are a similar size and weight, Cornwell fits over 300 words on the page; Reichs fewer than 200. This is not to say that Cornwell doesn’t go for the one-word, verbless sentence, but she holds it in check and uses it for effect. Reichs comes over as in a breathless panic, and Tempe Brennan, her heroine, as an empty headed woman ruled by her emotions. Scarpetta, who I guess is the prototype for this type of fiction, has become world-weary. No, I think it is Cornwell who is bored with it all; all the characters are tired of life. They have been around too long. Like the regular actors in a TV soap they need killing off and burying under the patio and some fresh blood introduced (pun intended).
What did I get from reading them? A snippet of information about carbon dating and the strontium content of teeth, which I guess I would not have picked up otherwise.
The success of this kind of book is that it sticks to a formula. Every book is the same. We know that Brennan will never settle down with Ryan, that there will always be trouble between Scarpetta and Benton; that Chardonne, like Moriarty before him, will keep escaping. And why not? Dick Francis wrote the same short book about 20 times and each one was a best seller.