23 April 2022

Enough with the Murderer's Point of View, Already!

Some people may not like this post.  Some might even call me a 'cranky author.'  And that's just fine, because I'm all about open discussion when it comes to fiction writing.  In fact, I think the main thing wrong with the world these days is too many people want to shut down open discussion on every subject.

So here goes:

Was gabbing by phone with my friend Cindy, another writer, about the usual Covid-Writer fare.  What are you writing… what are you reading… what disasters have befallen your publisher, etc.

(And just to give you an example… Remember last November, when all the ships were crowded around the docks off California for weeks and weeks, unable to unload their goods in time for Christmas.  Well, remember at the same time there was one container ship foundering off the coast of Vancouver, that dumped 117 containers into the ocean?  One of those containers contained the second reprint of my 16th book with Orca Book publishers.  Yes, I couldn't make this up.  Hope the fishes enjoy eating my royalties.)

Back to the main beef of today.

This discussion with Cindy inevitably led to what 'What do we hate' in fiction these days.  Cindy surprised me by saying: "You know what I really hate?  Books written in third person, that all of a sudden dump the murderer's point of view in the middle of everything!  In first person, no less.  Drives me nuts."

"Me too!"  I said, delighted to find another fellow cranky writer.  "Not to mention, it breaks all viewpoint rules."  (Okay, the cranky college prof can't resist the opportunity to lecture.)

What are we talking about?  You're reading a book - police procedural, usually - that starts with the protagonist - a cop - in third person.  The book carries on very nicely in third person for several chapters, and then suddenly, you get a chapter written in first person, by some unnamed character, that is completely self-focused.  Gradually you figure out it must be the murderer talking, because he's going on and on about his awful childhood.  Oh Sweet Jesus.  How the heck did that get in there?

It's like they wrote the whole book and then thought, I'll just go back and plop in some chapters of a completely different book into random spots.  The critics will love it!

I say police procedural because the last book I read - Oranges and Lemons by Christopher Fowler - did exactly this thing.  Now normally, I love the Bryant and May detective series by Fowler.  (The Peculiar Crimes Unit takes place in England.)  It's a hoot.  But I didn't like this added 'device'.

I say police procedural, but I've also seen it done with an amateur detective novel.  In fact, I read a recent book by a very well known Canadian author who used the same 'device' (note how nice I am in calling it 'device' instead of the words I am really thinking.)

'Recent' is the key word here.  The first time I came across this was about five years ago.  Really threw me the first time. Who the hell was speaking?  I thought it was a misprint.  No, truly.  I thought the printer had made a mistake and inserted part of another book into this book.

"Why do they do that?" said Cindy.

Believe it or not, being in the middle of writing my 18th novel, I had a logical explanation for that.

"Word count," I said confidently.  "They finish the novel at 70,000 words, and they've got to get it to 80,000.  I know from wence they came."

Some famous crime writer - it may have been Spillane - said that most crime books are perfectly written at 50,000 words.  In other words, a lot of mystery or crime stories end themselves naturally at that word count.  And that pushing them to 70 or 80 thousand means adding stuff that doesn't have to be there (which is a nice way to put it, I think.)

I ascribe to the Spillane school of thought.  My own work settles nicely between fifty and sixty thousand words.  I have to work hard to get it to 70,000.  And my agent and publisher usually push it to 75,000 in the editing process.

So I figure these writers who slot in the murderer's point of view are doing so to add word count.  What a nice way to avoid thinking of another plot twist.  Problem is, these chapters are usually static.  They are internal monologue.  All narration.  They interrupt the story.  And worse, they don't exactly move the story forward.

Not to mention, they break viewpoint and drive me and other cranky veteran authors crazy.

Not that we have far to go.

How about you, Sleuthsayers?  What do you think about this newfangled device in fiction?

Melodie Campbell sticks to the viewpoint rules in her otherwise loopy crime fiction that almost always involves the mob.  You can find her books at all the usual suspects.


  1. I like novels with multiple POVs, especially when the POVs triangulate on the same events with different lenses. I'm not a particular fan of switching between first and third person. First person is, to me anyway, a promise to the reader that they'll follow a memorable character journey.


  2. Bob, thanks for this comment! Yes, first person is a promise to the reader that the protagonist is telling the story directly to the reader. When you interrupt that with another point of view, I'm thrown out of the story. That's my frustration here.

  3. I agree with you Melodie, and I'm reading one of those right now by a new author. In addition to the POV issue, the killers are typically cocky, self-indulgent, and over-estimating their intelligence. They come across as two-dimensional in most cases. The crazy, sadistic parent backstory angle doesn't do it for me either.

    1. Oh, that does sound like it's been done a thousand times, Debra! Thanks for commenting!

  4. I hate padding in books - when I think of the rich background Rex Stout managed to give Nero Wolfe in 60,000 word novels, I think a lot of new books have a lot of smoke and mirrors to put into what's considered necessary today. And I hate reading "the mind of a murderer". I agree with Debra - "cocky, self-indulgent, and over-estimating their intelligence."

    1. Yup, Eve - I'm with you and Debra. And Rex Stout was one of my heroes. Have you seen the new series of Nero Wolfe that takes place in Italy in Italian? Really quite refreshing.

  5. You may be witnessing the influence of the ‘self-pubbers’ upon the evil mainstream press and us, their minions.

    The first time I stumbled upon the 1st/3rd person mix was more than 15 years ago, a best-seller thriller set mostly in DC. The author had two different first-person PoVs and then 3rd person dominated the rest of the book. Worse, in one of those 1st person threads, the narrator narrated his own death by a dumpster. Seriously?

    Some self-publishers strive to attain in their own lights a certain professionalism, trying hard to edit and find people willing to edit and critique. They work seriously to improve their craft, and I respect that. They want to rise above and they often share the kinds of tips we publisher here.

    But sadly, many cry out that the rules are set by the old-style ‘trad press’ trying to exert its control and influence in its final gasps. Adjectives and mixing PoVs is just fine, thank you, and punctuation is a matter of style, so there! Mere days ago, I noted another Orwellian effect upon the language, turning it upside down. They were referring to small presses, which so many of us use, as ‘vanity presses’, warning other self-pubbers to avoid them and stick with the ‘free presses’ like Amazon KDP and Smashwords. Free in this sense means not beholden to the evil mainstream publishers.

    Anyway, yay Cindy and Melodie.

    1. Leigh, I remember a book I read - written in first person - where the protagonist dies in the last scene. Huh? If he's dead, who wrote the book? Sometimes I think writers get so excited with their own prose that they forget logic! Thanks for this interesting comment.

  6. I recalled writing about the spurious DC thriller on Criminal Brief. I discussed that novel with author Susan Slater at the time. She speculated that if it wasn’t an oversight by an overworked editor, that perhaps it was part of a trend toward looser writing where action and emotion are paramount at the expense of literary construction.

    In any case… ugh.

    1. Oh Leigh - this really hit home! "Where action and emotion are paramount" - maybe these authors are trying to make it to film? That they don't want to be read so much as to attract producers with their 'action and emotion?

  7. It's difficult and unfair to criticize any author's choice of POV - although many editors believe the POV is the most important decision to be made by the author. It has become more common lately by writers like Linwood Barclay. Personally, I agree with Melodie - it is awkward, strains credibility, disrupts the flow of the narrative and is generally to be avoided.

    1. "Disrupts the flow of the narrative" - I think that's what affects me the most, John. If I'm taken out of the story by a switch, I'm out of the story, and often stop reading. Thanks for commenting!

  8. I haven't seen that Nero Wolfe series yet, but I'll check it out.

  9. Orca Books… sheesh. Some days I'm missing my mineral supplement of IRONy.


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