Monday, December 20, 2004

Credibility problems

I have been reading John Grisham's The Summons. It's a tolerably interesting read: 'classic Grisham', the Times called it. But I found myself wondering, as I went along, how it would fare if it were to turn up in some agent's slush pile, written by an unknown.

Let's see now. It's pretty well written, especially at the start. But before long the agent would scribble in the margin 'too much telling, not enough showing'.

Then there's a big credibility problem. The main character is a professor of law -- a well educated fellow, ultra respectable -- and yet before long we find him doing something not only illegal but pretty damn silly and more or less guaranteed to lead to trouble.

Now, Grisham being Grisham you go along with this and see where he is taking you. But if it was in a slush pile? Nah. The agent would want you to fix it.

And then there's the big surprise that comes at the end. Or it should do. This is where the bad guy is revealed. It's a 341-page book, and I had it figured by page 215, so I'm afraid that isn't too impressive either.

All in all I reckon the agent would call it a good try but not quite up to snuff. Have you got anything else you could show me, John? Please let me have a look at it when you do.

Then there's Agatha Christie. Some enterprising television-production company has decided to remake some of the Miss Marple stories, in two-hour format; very glossy, with lots of top British stars, even in the bit parts. What is more, the producers seem to have decided to update the plots. Or at any rate they did in the first one, The Body in the Library, shown a week ago yesterday.

There's a problem with credibility in this one too. The book was first published in 1941, and the plot turns around the decision of a millionaire to adopt a working-class girl as his daughter.

Now, anyone who knows anything about English life in the 1930s and 1940s would know that such a decision stretches the credulity. And yet somehow, over all these years, Agatha has persuaded us to swallow it. Perhaps it is easier to take in the novel format than in the two-hour TV film. Anyway, it's certainly a big problem. However, Agatha was Agatha, and she got us to believe that black was white so often that it's scarcely surprising that she got away with this one.

Once again, an agent reading a slush-pile submission with a hard-to-believe plot device like this would either want it fixed, or pass on the privilege of offering the book to publishers.

So what am I saying -- that new and as yet unpublished writers have to work to higher standards than established names like Grisham and Christie? Well yes. I'm afraid so. Listen, I never said that this business was fair, OK? Or easy.

By the way, in the latest TV version of The Body in the Library (there have been others), the scriptwriter has changed the plot and given us a new villain. Or rather two new villains: a lesbian couple if you please. This is a smart move, because otherwise the whole thing would be so creaky and old-fashioned that only the most determined Christie fan cum couch potato would watch it. If you want to know who the original murderer was you'll just have to read the book.

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