Sunday, November 15, 2009

Devilish Details

by Ben Small

As a writer, I pay attention to nagging little details, not only in my own scribbles but in the writings of others. And it's nice to see even the best can make mistakes.

Take Lee Child, for instance, one of my favorite writers, someone known for his attention to detail. Lee will describe how glass doors set inside rubber bumpers swoosh-suck when they open or close, whether or not that detail is important. And his character, Jack Reacher, notices that a woman on a subway is wearing a winter jacket when the weather isn't appropriate, that she has a faraway look and her hand is inside a baggy bag. To Reacher, in Gone Tomorrow, these details, along with the woman's mumbling and a stubborn refusal to meet anyone's eyes, plus a few other observations, suggest that according to Israeli checklists for detecting suicide bombers, the woman is planning on taking out part of New York City. Of course, Reacher is wrong, and instead, the woman is hell-bent on suicide, the cause of which becoming the story's plotline.

But Child sometimes makes mistakes. Do we care if Child is wrong about the construction or location of a building? No, of course not. But when his details are important to the story, one would expect he'd get them right.

Not always. Take the denouement of Gone Tomorrow, for instance. Reacher makes counting bullets a big deal. Thirty rounds in his machine gun, nine more in each of his two swiped bad-guy 9mm Sig Sauer P220s, Swiss-made, as he points out. But Child forgets that there are also two rounds left in the chambers of these guns. Frankly, I was surprised when Reacher decided to attack two butcher-knife-wielding Afghan-trained female terrorists with a knife, a Benchmade something or other, we're told, instead of loading the rounds he'd taken from these Sigs into his machine gun, or indeed, his decision to leave those two silenced weapons behind. But he makes a big deal of his round count, and then throws those rounds away.


Guess it's more exciting to stage a knife fight and carve up two women than to blow your assailants away.

Okay, I can buy that. But then why make such a big deal about the round count in the first place, and why get it wrong?

Doesn't make sense. Or maybe it does. Child lives in NYC, where only bad guys and cops can own a handgun.

And in Child's breakout, outstanding first novel Killing Floor, Child refers to a .22 caliber pistol, a low-end small caliber assassin's gun, as "22 gauge" and attributes its shot dispersion characteristics to a modern shotgun that would do credit to a 16th century blunderbuss. Yes, there are .22 caliber shotshells that can be loaded into a .22 caliber pistol, but the small size of the shell makes these peashooters suitable only for a rattler -- and then only at a distance that would rattle me. Moreover, his concept of evidence is weird: He considers the legitimate possession of a large quantity of a legal item as evidence of a crime.

I know: Picky, picky. But I once put a safety on a .38 snubby -- they don't have one -- and my editor has never let me forget it.

So I enjoy it when another author makes the same kind of mistakes I make. Especially when that author is successful and someone whose writing I really enjoy.

Heck, maybe if I make enough mistakes, I can be famous, too...


Sheila Deeth said...

Yes indeed!

Chester Campbell said...

Hey, and I can say I knew him when.

Ben Small said...

Right, Chester,

The funny thing is the .22 error gets worse. It's the assassin's bullet because it doesn't exit the brain. It bounces around the pan and often becomes unmatchable. And this one is supposed to be soft point. But Child has this thing flattening out to the shape of a quarter, and there's just not that much lead there. We're talking about a small grain bullet. Child's got it blowing out a big chunk of skull. And that just ain't gonna happen with this bullet. Child seems not to understand why it's called the Assassin's bullet.

But who cares. I loved the book anyway.