Doing the twist…

IF a novel contains a good twist, do you want to know about it beforehand? If not, look away now.

Personally I think it is much better not to know, but sometimes you can’t escape being told. A popular crime book of the moment is I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh, a former police officer turned writer, a thriller based round a hit-and-run incident in which a child dies. Her first novel has been a great success. The cover has a quote from Peter James: “Compelling with an astonishing twist”, while Mark Billingham obliges on the back with “a twist that made me green with envy”. Val McDermid said something similar while introducing Clare on her New Blood panel at last month’s Theakstons Old Peculier crime writing festival in Harrogate.

The blurb for this novel says: “Did you love Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train? Now lose yourself in the twisty, enthralling psychological thriller that everyone is talking about.”

I haven’t read those two or Some Other Book With Girl In The Title either. The last book with a titular girl I read was The Shining Girls by the South African writer Lauren Beukes, which was very good, if rather gruesome.

I like a good twist as much as the next reader, and one of my favourites leaps from the pages of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, a lovely salted tale of thievery on the streets of London in the 1860s.

Reading Fingersmith benefited from knowing nothing about the narrative turn-around, which jumped out precisely because it was a surprise.

No such mystery surrounded I Let You Go. This was a shame as I guessed the twist within a few pages and then had to wait for many chapters before finding out that I was right. This is not to boast. This is not to suggest any particular perspicacity on my behalf. It’s just that if you are told a book contains a twist, you set about trying to work it out. I kept hoping that Clare Mackintosh was going to trick me with a surprise I hadn’t seen coming, but it wasn’t to be.

It would have been more gratifying to read this novel without knowing it was “the one with the twist”. That way I wouldn’t have been trying to second-guess the unexpected development and would have been genuinely surprised at the revelation.

In publishing there is a tricky balance to be struck, I guess. Advertising a thriller as being a member of the twist club intrigues and stirs up interest, while at the same time devaluing the reading experience.

Is it better not to know that Ian McEwan’s Atonement contains a shocking twist or that Gone Girl does too? Almost certainly, but most readers come to such books already armed with that knowledge.

I Let You Go is worth reading, not so much for the plot turns (there are one or two more in there) but for the interestingly choppy narrative that moves between characters, voices, perspectives and periods without explanation. This builds up the tension, and allows for a taut psychological study. Of exactly what it is better not to say, as that would spoil another slowly revealed surprise.

So if a writer’s doing the twist, do you want to know? Book groups can have that one for free.

Incidentally, Clare Mackintosh has a big advantage over many crime writers. As an ex-cop, she knows the behind-the-scenes details of police work. This means she doesn’t have to do wearisome research/make all that shit up. Mind you, I once read that the great Ruth Rendell said she had never been in a police station in her life, and preferred making up that aspect of her novels. So if it was good enough for Ruth…

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