Friday, 30 December 2011

How thriller writers get it wrong

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Philip Berenson and Jack Steel)

I’ve always maintained that authors, and most especially the writers of thrillers which feature what might be termed ‘boys’ toys’, need to get their facts right. Over the past two or three years, I’ve been asked on several occasions to review books immediately prior to publication so that a short quote from ‘James Becker’ or ‘James Barrington’ could be included on the front, or a slightly longer quote on the back, cover.
            I’ve always taken this task seriously, and I’ve always tried to produce the right kind of ‘sound-bite’ quote, and I’ve also tried to be honest about the book, because there’s no point in saying ‘This is the best book I’ve ever read’ or some equally over the top comment if it’s manifestly true that it’s at best a potboiler. So far, I’ve probably been lucky, because I’ve actually enjoyed the books I’ve been sent, and thinking of something complimentary to say about them hasn’t been difficult.
            The other thing that I’ve done with these books is to read them critically, because I absolutely know that mine might be the last pair of eyes to see the manuscript before it goes to the printer, so it really is the last possible chance to get everything right. And what has surprised me is how many errors of fact haven’t been picked up by that stage.
            I remember one book where the hero – who was of course a qualified pilot, qualified diver, qualified lover and qualified killer – landed his helicopter on the deck of a ship and then climbed out to talk to some people while he waited for the rotors to stop turning. This makes as much sense as getting out of a car doing thirty miles an hour while you wait for it to stop. Ask any helicopter pilot.
            I’ve lost count of the number of authors who can manage to fit a silencer – the correct word is ‘suppressor’ – to a revolver. You can do it, of course, but it’ll have virtually no effect on the noise the weapon makes when it fires. On a revolver, most of the sound emanates from the gap between the chamber and the rear end of the barrel. And then there are the people in the books who cock a semiautomatic pistol by pulling back the hammer. Certainly, that will allow the hammer to fall when the trigger is pulled, but unless the weapon is first cocked by pulling back the slide, it certainly won’t fire a round.
This train of thought was sparked by novel I’m reading at the moment – not a review copy, just a book I picked up somewhere – and in the space of half a dozen pages the author, who is an internationally recognised thriller writer, whose work will be familiar to most people who read in this genre, has made several moderately glaring errors.
First, he has somehow managed to create a spy satellite which can hover over one spot on the planet. What keeps satellites in orbit is their speed. If you go outside on a dark night, shortly after sunset, you can occasionally see one passing overhead. They travel in polar orbits, so their path runs from south to north or vice versa, which enable them to cover most of the surface of the planet every twenty-four hours. They’re about 200 miles up, and they travel very fast. The only ‘hovering’ satellites are those in geostationary orbit, and they are over 22,000 miles above the surface of the Earth and enable you to watch QVC on your Sky satellite receiver. In fact, they’re not stationary at all, but are travelling at such a high speed that they appear to stay in one position when viewed from the planet’s surface.
            Second, this satellite had a sufficiently high resolution that observers in a secret building in London were able to see the individual hairs on the head of their target. Good trick. Actually, the best of the spy satellites available at the moment have a resolution of about five inches, and the reason for that is physics – a combination of the speed of the satellite, the elevation of about 200 miles (or about the distance between London and Plymouth) and the laws of optics.
            And then he had this same hovering, ultra-high resolution satellite sending video images back to its base. Another good trick that simply won’t work. The speed of the platform means that video would just be a blur, so all satellites take high resolution still images which can be built up into a composite or even a 3-D representation of the target.
            For the author or anyone else to check these facts on the Internet would have taken about five minutes, but obviously nobody, at any stage of the publication process, had bothered.
            Personally, the moment I find an error as glaring as any of these in a novel, the whole book immediately loses a certain amount of credibility, and it certainly spoils my enjoyment in reading the rest of it. I try to do better in my books, but I have had a few comments in the past that suggest I need to try harder …

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1 comment:

  1. Good post! You make some valid points! For my thrillers, I always take great pains to research the smallest details, but I'm sure I still make mistakes, just like anyone else. And sometimes you have to take a little leeway for the sake of the plot (it is, after all, fiction!).

    Brian January