Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The devil is in the details

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker)

Leigh’s last blog raises several interesting points. Accurate research can be crucial, and poor or no research can destroy an author's – or a book’s – credibility.

One classic example is 'The Da Vinci Code', where the albino monk escapes from prison in Andorra and walks down to the railway station in Spain. Well, he was obviously very fit, because the closest railway line in Spain is at Barcelona, about 130 miles away. On the French side, it’s hell of a lot closer. Finding that out on the internet would have taken Mr Brown what, ten seconds? He also didn’t know that the Andorran prison is only a holding facility. Long-term prisoners, apart from Andorrans, are shipped off to their countries of origin to serve their sentences, not the other way round. OK, I live in Andorra most of the time so I know this, but it's not exactly a secret. Mind you, Dan Brown never had much credibility anyway and, with his sales, I don’t suppose he cares that he’s writing arrant nonsense.

I remember reading bits of a book by another American author who beautifully described the local Andorrans walking down to the harbour in the morning to buy fresh produce from the returning fishing fleet. Again, it’s quite a walk – Andorra is about 100 miles from the Mediterranean coast, and it’s mountains all the way.

Then we have the people who carefully fit silencers (the correct word is actually ‘suppressor’) onto revolvers, or snap off the safety catch before they fire such a weapon. You can’t silence a revolver, because most of the noise comes from the gap between the cylinder and the barrel, and modern revolvers don’t have safety catches. I should know – I’ve got two and I shoot them regularly. This was even a classic howler in the James Bond film 'Live and let die', where Bond tells one of his associates that she should have 'clicked off the safety catch' on her revolver. It's just a shame she didn't ask him to show her how ...

And sometimes you see people who pull back the hammer on a semi-automatic pistol to cock the weapon. What you actually do with a semi-auto is pull back and then release the slide, which chambers a round and cocks the hammer. Again, I own a 9mm Browning Hi-Power, so I’m very familiar with the technique. Guns, in case you hadn't guessed, are kind of my thing.

I remember being asked to read and comment on one finished thriller by a well-known author and being somewhat surprised at several technical gaffes that hadn’t already been picked up by the editors. The one that really stood out was when the hero, who was a demon lover, qualified diver, crack shot, excellent pilot and all the rest of it, obviously, landed a helicopter and then climbed out of it while he waited for the rotors to stop. This is analogous to climbing out of the driving seat of a car at thirty miles an hour while you wait for the car to stop. No pilot would ever even contemplate doing this, because it's completely senseless.

In Leigh’s field, being able to draw on the technical expertise of police officers, forensic pathologists and so on is absolutely invaluable, just to make sure that the procedural and scientific stuff is right. I don’t know how many people watched the recent TV adaptation of Mark Billingham’s novel ‘Scaredy Cat’, but there were a lot of technical and other errors in that which were glaringly obvious even to a non-specialist viewer like me, and certainly reduced my enjoyment of the programme.

And it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of sources of information. Every time any reader contacts me and points out some error in one of my books - and there have been quite a few! - I thank him and add his contact details to my 'research' database, so that if I ever write about that subject again, he can vet the text for me before I make a fool of myself in print.

The internet is the biggest and most comprehensive reference source the world has ever known, with information readily available about every possible subject. OK, you have to check the ‘facts’, obviously, but if you find three or four separate websites all saying the same thing, then I think it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s fairly accurate.

Obviously you still have to be able to write a decent book, but at the very least if all the technical stuff is accurate, that's one hurdle less to jump. The devil, as they say, is in the details.


  1. Just so you know, Peter, I've added you to my 'research' database as a contact who knows about guns!

  2. Thanks, Leigh. I'll do my best to help! And if you ever get out to Andorra, you can come down to the range and blast away with my pistols and rifles. Peter