As Jim Kelly’s new novel, Death Toll, appears from Penguin, he talks to CT about a sticky problem…
I have a problem with “Acknowledgements”. This is in addition to the two most obvious problems – that I can’t spell the word (I leave out that awkward second ‘e’) and the fact that when that heart-stopping, pristine first copy arrives from the publishers I immediately recall the name of someone I’ve left off the list, despite the endless aides-memoires of report cards and sticky labels. No, this is a more fundamental problem. In order to produce a full set of acknowledgements I increasingly find I come perilously close to giving the plot away.
Take my latest book. The central plot mechanism at the heart of Death Toll is not revealed until two thirds of the way. (This problem isn’t going away. The next book leaves this crucial point, what I call the ‘fulcrum’, until fewer than fifty pages from the end.) So the last thing you need is a fulsome acknowledgement to some arcane professor of – say, Medieval Dutch art – which will alert the reader to look out for the relevant plot thread, and so linger over every reference to art, history and all things from the Netherlands. Every windmill becomes important.
I have resorted to moving the ‘ackys’ to the back of the book and inserting a warning to the reader not to scan them until they’ve finished. This works – although it is a shame that those people you really owe a debt of gratitude to have their moment of glory reduced to a coda. For some readers it may also prove an intolerable temptation – like reading the last page. Another tactic is to thank people by name – leaving out the relevance of their expertise. Again, the disappointment here is that their specific contribution is lost to time, and many experts – particularly academic ones – are attached to their titles like barnacles to a ship’s keel. In Death Watch, last year’s offering in the Shaw and Valentine series, a hospital administrator took me on an bizarrely Gothic tour of the basement of a modern hospital, the chillingly named Level One, finishing up in the incinerator room. Without that one day of eye-opening reality the book would never have been written.
This problem is unique to crime and thriller writing. I suspect some dedicated readers may even pick over acknowledgements for clues. How have the great crime writers dealt with the problem? I reach – as always – for The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers and find no ‘ackys’, just a forward. It contains just one acknowledgement – but it is an elegant classic: “My grateful thanks are due to Mr W.J.Redhead, who so kindly designed for me the noble Parish Church of Fenchurch St Paul and set it about with cherubims.” A hint here of the final denouement – but no more.
What about Kolymsky Heights, Lionel Davidson’s unparalleled thriller? By my calculation he spent sixteen years working on this masterpiece, although the result never smacks of research, just knowledge. Acknowledgements? None. At least no one could complain they’d been left out. By contrast look at Elizabeth George’s For The Sake of Elena. Here the acknowledgements are copious, perhaps designed – even subconsciously – to prove that the California-based George has done her stuff in preparing to enter the world of cloistered Cambridge. And what of cloistered Oxford? I note that in The Remorseful Day Colin Dexter thanks Alison Dexter for “sharing with me her expertise on coronary care” – a bit of a giveaway, as we’re dealing with the last Morse book. But beyond that Dexter proves his often made point: that he just didn’t do research. The books, after all, were all in Morse’s head.
So I fear this problem may be peculiarly mine. I try to build plots which, as well as having the usual accoutrements of the genre, also have a defining Eureka moment: not the Poirot moment, when we learn whodunnit, but more a Damascene moment, when the underlying plot suddenly rises up out of the darkness. I would judge the success of any of my books on how well I have disguised the nature of this revelation.
So if it is my problem perhaps I should devise a solution. I could write fictitious acknowledgements – designed to lead the reader astray. Just imagine the fun: red herrings that are not even in the text. A kind of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd subversion of the rules. And while we’re having fun with the subject, one other innovation – and I should, in the spirit of this piece, acknowledge that the idea comes from my non-fiction writing wife. I could include a list of all those people who have gone out of their way not to help. I have in mind a particularly snooty Oxford don who thought crime fiction beneath him. Or the man who sits opposite me in the University Library at Cambridge drumming his long fingernails on the wooden table-top. The list could go on. And I could happily put it at the front of the book.
Death Toll is published by Penguin