The Last Lie, published by Stephen White in 2010, isn’t really either a thriller or a murder mystery. It’s actually a rape mystery. What makes it unique for me, though, is that the protagonist is a clinical psychologist, like the author, and writes from a personal point of view. Every encounter entails detailed analysis of everybody’s facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Most people probably register such things, but much of it is unconscious and not so thorough. You might think, “I get the impression that she doesn’t believe me,” or “something seems to be bothering him this morning.” Of course if you want to explain your conclusions to a reader you might want to describe every little sign that you took into account.
The continual in depth analysis of almost every remark anyone makes has a definite effect on the style of writing. In particular, it’s impossible to give the impression of a fast-paced plot and provide on-going analysis of each character’s psychological state at the same time.
I was once given a tip about writing that seems so obvious, once you think about it, that I immediately took it to heart. The tip I now pass on is that if you’re trying to give the impression that an incident happened quickly, don’t describe it in a long-winded way. Writing about a mugging, for example, you might say, “She barely had time to register movement behind her before a violent shove knocked her to the sidewalk. Her purse was snatched out of her hand as she fell and a pair of legs in jeans and sneakers flashed by as she hit the sidewalk.”
Alternatively, you could write, “She barely had time to register a change in the shadows formed by the moonlight shining through the leafy trees that lined the road before a hand in the exact center of her back shoved her with enough force to push her off her feet. She fell to the sidewalk of the quiet residential street, only a few yards from the path leading to the door of a brick house whose dark windows indicated that no one was home. As she fell she thought, ‘Oh no! He’s going to take my purse, and I just took my shopping money out of the ATM!’ Sure enough, her purse was snatched out of her hand in spite of her attempt to resist, and whatever else the mugger was wearing as protection against the evening chill, all she could see as he ran by her was a pair of legs in jeans that looked dark blue in the poor light and a pair of sneakers that also looked dark blue, but might have been black.”
I’m exaggerating to make the point, but doesn’t the second version seem to happen in slow motion?
P.S. The book has what I assume is supposed to be a happy ending – everybody’s in therapy.