It’s Not The What It’s The How

Or why crime and thriller writers shouldn’t hate those who always read the last page before they’ve read the book so much. At least not all of them.

I’m a last page turner. I do it with Agatha Christie, with Alexandra Marinina, with Jeffrey Deaver, with Stephen King, I do it with everyone. And I know, if King is to be trusted, that writers do not exactly like this. I can understand: you work hard to make the ending of your book unexpected and then some idiot goes and spoils herself by reading said ending in the beginning. Why would anyone ruin a good book like this, right? Well, I’ll be more than happy to tell you. I don’t ruin the book. I’m just a lot more interested in the how than the what.

Whenever I pick a book, I naturally want to know what happens in it. I want the story, like any normal person who reads a book. But I also really, really want to know how what happens happens. So, when I turn to that last page what I’m really doing is getting the what out of the way — patience is not among my virtues; I’m not even sure I have any — so I can focus on the how. And it is because of the how that I reread books I love a dozen times or more and I mean this literally.

I enjoy every part of a well written book. I enjoy how the author uses language, how they build the plot, how they create characters and make me forget they are not real people, and how they take me on a journey into places I haven’t been before. Okay, I’ll admit the journey metaphor is ancient and as a result lame but I’ve got no other one, so feel free to come up with something fresher. Anyway, many journeys I like so much I go on them again and it’s because of the how, not the what.

Consider this story: Police officer accidentally comes across a slave trafficking business run by a member of an influential family. He investigates and succeeds in bringing the villain to justice and freeing the slaves. Put like that, I wouldn’t touch this story with a ten-foot pole. First, because it tells me there will be tears and my capacity for absorbing fictional tragedy is full to its limit. Second, because the story just doesn’t sound like something I’d enjoy reading. But when the story has Terry Pratchett as author and Captain Sam Vimes as the protagonist things change radically. I’ve read Snuff three times since I bought it about five years ago and I’m far from done with it.

Or look at this story, the beginning of Helle Helle’s Down to the Dogs. A friend of mine translated it from Danish and told me Helle’s famous for writing books in which nothing happens. In fact, a lot happens in Down to the Dogs,  just not in the usual action-packed way we’ve come to think about as “something happening”. Indeed, from a certain perspective, nothing much happens in this book. There’s no great revelation, or a great tragedy or anything else you could pin “great” to. There is no twist at the end. And yet it was one of the best books I’ve read. I couldn’t put it down. Finished it in an afternoon. Fell in love with Helle’s work.

One final example: four siblings, a fortune teller who tells them the date of their deaths, four interconnected tales. Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it? I thought so before I started reading it. When I finished I filed this book under “The most boring thing I have read since that time I tried Cartarescu only to find out how much I dislike language used for decorative purposes.” Yeah, okay, that’s quite a long name for a book category in my mental catalogue but there it is.

Here’s the thing: a good idea, a good story, can be messed up in countless ways, just as there are countless ways to make a brilliant book out of it. It’s all in the how, not so much the what. So I will in all likelihood continue to get the what out of the way before I focus on the how when it comes to thrillers and crime stories. Dear authors, please don’t be mad at me and others like me. We just want to get the what out of the way and dive into the how.

P.S. I’ve read The Colorado Kid and, surprisingly, I found the ending very satisfying instead of infuriating. Like I said, it’s all in the how and the how of that book was brilliant.


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