A Test of Wills, Charles Todd (1996)

I do hate it when writers are sloppy. This post relates to my recent post about writing historical fiction. A Test of Wills is a crime novel set in 1919, with the detective a Scotland Yard police inspector who is also a shell-shocked veteran, desperate to keep the shell shocked bit a secret from his superiors. With a set up like this, it should be good, and it is, mostly. But Todd is an American and I can tell from the spelling and vocabulary that looks so wrong in a British context, and there are several very sloppy mistakes that really ruin it for me because they are key to the plot. To be fair, one is something that probably only a person with some knowledge of the Great War would pick up on, but the other… Oh boy. The chief suspect makes a remark that indicates he is operating under the delusion that the Scottish verdict of Not Proven (except he calls it ‘not proved’ (wince)) is available to juries in England. That just about prompted me to fling the book at the wall, but I was nearly finished so I didn’t. This is almost as bad as a book that did hit the wall just after a coroner’s court was convened on Skye.

The other issue relates to the cause of the detective’s shell shock, which apparently dates from his involvement in a shot at dawn case. What is described is so wrong it’s laughable, but I only know that because I’ve had the 1916 version of the Manual of Military Law for bedtime reading for when one of my characters is court martialed. It’s great for insomnia.

Furthermore, it annoys me intensely when a sloppy piece of research is key to the plot. Ben Elton brought out a WW1 novel last year, the title of which escapes me, but the key to the plot on the last page or thereabouts was wrong. I know because I thought it might be and checked. It took me ten seconds on Google. The historical/geographical/cultural background of a novel is part of the creation of an illusion, an illusion that I’m reading something that might have happened. Every time I pick up something I know is wrong, it chips away at that illusion, until I can no longer sustain it. But even the smallest thing can start the process, because if that one thing is wrong, what about all the other things that I don’t know enough about the period to pick up on? Might they not be wrong too?

And yet the author can completely redeem themselves in my eyes, by putting a historical note at the end, by acknowledging xyz didn’t happen quite like that, but that the reality would have caused unnecessary complications, or whatever the reason was. Nobody is perfect, of course, and there are always things that escape the eagle-eyed researcher that somebody knows, but that little historical note can really clear things up.

ETA. And yes I know I am setting myself up as a hostage to fortune.


2 responses to “A Test of Wills, Charles Todd (1996)

  1. Gah. I spotted three mistakes in the first two pages of ‘The First Casualty’. Clearly this is indeed truth. And accuracy. And an overreliance on your previous writing…

    Noooobooody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

  2. The First Casualty was pretty dire – and they really were modern people running around in period costume – the whole set up with the police inspector was ridiculous.

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