I just finished judging a writing contest. The judges’ form was thorough and asked lots of good questions. The category was suspense/thriller and along at questions 21 and 22 come these two:
Question 21: Is the story fast-paced? Do you have a burning desire to turn pages?
Question 22. Are there cliffhangers, ticking bombs and mis-directions to increase suspense?
I want to scream: I don’t care.
Just give me good writing. Build suspense. Ground me somewhere in reality and make me care. Then, if anything, slow it down. Let me enjoy the suspense.
Drag it out.
The best of the seven entries I read (just the first 6,000 words or so of each “suspense” or “thriller” entry) was the slowest. The opening was simple. Wife worried about missing husband, who should be back from hunting elk but hasn’t returned. Wife calls Deputy Sheriff (this is all taking place in southern Colorado) and Deputy Sheriff at first wants to wait, give him a chance to show up. Then wife says the horse has come back to the ranch, alone, the Deputy Sheriff finds his way to the barn and saddles up.
Action? Cliffhangers? Ticking bombs? Not a one.
Suspense? In truckloads. Because we care about the wife, we’re worried. But it’s all so rooted in the details.
And that’s Michael Connelly, too. Yeah, he’s a page-turner. You bet. But when the action gets really boiling and the lid is about to jump off the pot, Harry Bosch (and now Mickey Haller) are just as likely to head to a chair and think.
“The Brass Verdict” never let up. It’s methodical, rich and smart. Connelly does exactly what we are all told not to do. He slows the action down. He make sure that we all-those of us out here in the audience, following along-that we all get every detail.
It’s okay if Mickey Haller purposely goes off by himself to think-we want to go with him and listen to him process every microscopic tidbit.
The “set up” you’ve seen before. A prominent dead guy. A prominent suspect. A prominent made-for-TV trial. The suspect is being defended by lawyer with the odds stacked heavily against him.
But Connelly respects the reader. Are mysteries about withholding information? Connelly tricks you. You think you’re inside all the key meetings, examining the evidence up close. You follow every detail as it’s acquired, evaluated and stored for future use. The fun of watching “The Brass Verdict” unfold is watching criminal defense lawyer Haller corner and pressure Harry Bosch. Connelly fans have spent so much time looking through Bosch’s eyes as he squeezes down on suspects and witnesses that it’s entertaining to watch him squirm for once. Not sure Bosch ever really squirms, but it felt like he might have fidgeted uncomfortably once or twice.
Through Haller, Connelly provides up-close-and-personal access to the rules, ethics and theater of the court process. Because the plot isn’t going at warp speed, us readers out here get the sensation of being inside the inner machinations of courts and cops. There are a few clichés, such as the recovering addict storyline, but even they are anchored in a calm reality. They aren’t given the rush treatment. There’s a scene in a restaurant between Bosch and Haller that’s tense and powerful as one of Bosch’s little “games” comes clear.
When the big reveal comes, Haller is one step ahead (at least he was one step ahead of me) and steps onto the real “proving grounds” to state his case. The jolt is enjoyable.
I wonder if you went back and separated the pages of action and evaluation in “The Brass Verdict” how big each pile of pages might end up. My hunch is that the evaluation pile would be ten times higher than the action. (As Connelly’s career has progressed, he doesn’t seem as in much of a rush to shock and make every scene jump.) The action scenes are few; most of the violence happens off-screen, in the past. But the stakes are high, we need to know if Haller will succeed. We. Need. To. Know.
(By the way, in the contest, the writers in the contest who rushed and tried to cram an entire James Bond movie into a brief YouTube clip, well, the result was a troubling, disturbing and unqualified mess.)