Post January 19, 2007, 10:13:34 PM

Cold Stone Killer by Craig Cornwell

I think I'll start with plot on this one.

Verisimilitude, or the appearance of truth (not actual truth), is a cornerstone of the Speculative Fiction genres. That is, no one really has a ten-legged cat that cheats when you play poker with it, but if one can slap down even a teeny tiny bit of possible reason, readers will buy it. Say you own the genetic design shop next door to a casino in the year 2074… and everybody will suspend their disbelief and just read on to hear how you've been training it to beat the house.

This story never suspends belief, at least not that I saw.

A detective that travels through time, ok, sure. I can buy that, but not when the 'magic' door just appeared. Magic and future technology together is a hard sell. It can be done, but doing them convincingly is difficult. Warning bells should sound in your mind when writing. Then, clients appear out of history to hire Handel, but how they knew about time travel is never explained with more than a 'It happens. I'm just a detective and don't know these kinds of things.' kind of reason.

My problem with that concept is that detectives want to detect, to solve mysteries. If they just liked thumping bad guys and talking to hot chicks, they could be bouncers. Instead, Handel chose to be a detective. He must have wanted to solve things. To me, a mysterious door to the past would be maddening. I'd resent being unable to figure it out, being forced to use it to earn a living. I'd distrust the thing intensely. What if it went wrong? Would you be stuck in the Jurassic period? Are you constantly changing history? Wouldn’t anyone want to know?

Slings and slingshots are not the same things. I refer you to the wikipedia:

In the section on "how to sling" you'll see it is unlikely that David would have attempted to hit Handel. He would have needed wind-up space and room to step. Since Handel was next to him, David would have been better off to try to strangle Handel with it rather than try a sling bullet.

Moving to setting, I look for world-building that 'feels' convincing. I like to see the world perceived with all the senses. I like interesting set details worked into the story, even if it's only a few descriptive phrases here and there. Reading this, I could only wonder what the world of David & Goliath was really like. Was it the sort desert-like, poor, peasant town tales would lead us to believe, or something else? Did everything reek of oxen poo? Did the Philistines really want to take over because the area was beautiful, and lush? Does a sling whistle when it swings in the air? What did the awful beer taste like? These little details make a setting leap off the page for me, or in this case, the screen.

On characterization, I look for believable, sympathetic characters that grow and change in order to solve their problems. I say characters need risk. They need flaws just as much as strengths. There has to be something a character isn't good at, or maybe is downright bad at, if one wants to draw in readers. Handel drinks a little too much, but other than that, it's like he's an invulnerable, unstoppable god in the past. I never once feared for his safety, and honestly, I (a little bit) wanted David to beat him up.

When Handel goes on these adventures, what translates for him? Maybe next time that device can malfunction so that he only gets every 3rd word, or better yet, it translates everything wrong, or gives all the wrong inflections. He wouldn't be so sure all the time. Or perhaps next time, he really does wind up in what seems like the wrong place, but it turns out right. For example, some history professor sends Handel to get photos of Lancelot and Guinevere cheating on Arthur (because they'd be worth millions, maybe billions, in book sales) but instead he winds up in Italy or rural France in the 13th century. There Handel finds a poet hung up on the concept of courtly love, and he turns out to be the one who really penned the first story of Lancelot and his queen. The detective saves the poet from some deadly scrape, gets a snapshot of him, and accidentally inspires a tale of a hitherto unknown knight, Sir Handel, who catches King Arthur screwing the maid.

Dialogue should be believable, and should help develop characters or plot. Imagine if everyone asked Handel about his clothes--it becomes a running gag. But also imagine if no one says anything: it detracts from the plot. Another thing I watch for is different voices in characters. I like it when I can tell who is talking, even without the identifier tags. This doesn't mean accents, BTW. An accent done wrong can kill a story.

In short (if I can get away with such a phrase after all this), I like the idea of a time detective. It's got great potential--Handel can go anywhere, any time, and face any foe from history. However, I think he needs some weaknesses, some risk. Also I needed to see more verisimilitude to really get into this story.

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