I read a thriller the other day. Ken Follet’s Eye Of The Needle. As war-time thrillers go, it went. It had pretty much everything on the tick box list and rave reviews from the New York Times (‘pulse pounding”, which they cribbed directly from Publishers Weekly, who called it, er, “pulse pounding..”), going on to call it ‘frighteningly realistic’ and all the rest of the blah.
I paid £2 for it in a PDSA shop in Edinburgh, mainly to read on the train but also because I was feeling guilty about not giving the PDSA something. And I was in a hurry and I was ill. I wasn’t thinking straight.
As thrillers go, it’s alright, except you can see the end coming for about half the book. That’s the problem and the attraction of history – you know how it ends, as well as what happened next. A bit like an Oasis song.
Except it’s full of mistakes. Really, seriously basic everyday mistakes that in a thriller, where the job is to build an inclusive, logical world around the reader, smash that world to pieces as soon as the reader has to start making allowances for the writing. For me, when I have to say ‘well that’s not true but…” Then I know I’m wasting reading time. And it happens a lot.
The first, massive, seemingly compulsory mess-up was when the anti-hero as usual, thumbed the safety-catch on his revolver. Which is problematic as only one revolver ever had one. The Fosberry-Webley, a massive, unusual, anachronistic Heath-Robinson contraption which Bogart used in a single film, which was never issued to any army anywhere.
So far, so thriller. There’s a submarine in the story and the thing that anyone knows about them is that they go underwater. This isn’t really technical stuff, is it? Nor the fact that if they ran the diesel engines under water either they’d leave a trail of handy bubbles, not really being very secret, or they’d all die from the exhaust fumes, which is why submarines had electric motors for underwater use.
Then the jeep’s side window gets shot out, which is a neat trick when jeeps didn’t have side windows, or at least not back in 1944 they didn’t. It’s handily not explained quite where a civilian could have got hold of a jeep for his own use, or the wherewithall to convert it to automatic transmission anyway, but no matter.
The heroine escapes in this same jeep. Has she left the keys in it? Of course. Irrespective of the fact they didn’t have keys. She turned the starter, forgetting that she ought to have pressed it instead.
OK, so far so bollocks. It’s a thriller. It’s not a manual or a how-to. It’s not important.
Except it is.
“A marvellously detailed suspense thriller based on a solid foundation of fact.” Sunday Times
When mainstream media calls errors and inaccuracies ‘ a solid foundation of fact,’ it’s not just that the author, the editor, the proof reader and everyone else who read it didn’t know, didn’t care and didn’t check. The fact that this is called fact is fundamentally frightening. This is just a crappy thriller for the train. It begs the issue of what else gets passed off as truth. And why. And why nobody cares.