(The Toronto Star, July 30, 2000)

Byline: Jack Batten

Today's class: How to insert information of a technical nature into a
crime novel without confusing, irritating, boring or otherwise alienating
all readers except those with Ph.D.s.

Attention, class.

Our topic for discussion in today's lecture is titled How To Insert
Information Of A Technical Nature Into A Crime Novel Without
Confusing, Irritating, Boring Or Otherwise Alienating All Of The
Readers Except Those With  Ph.D.s In The Inserted Technical Subject.

And, class, as our texts for the discussion, we are examining two new
books of crime fiction: Deadly Decisions by Kathy Reichs and Demolition
Angel by Robert  Crais.

Deadly Decisions is Reichs' third novel featuring Tempe Brennan, the
forensic anthropologist who works out of Montreal. In the new book,
which will no doubt follow the first two on to the bestseller charts, Tempe
scurries around the city sorting out the messy murders that result when
outlaw motorcycle gangs do battle for Montreal's drug-dealing market.

In the search for clues, Tempe must bring herself, and the reader, up to
speed on such esoteric subjects as the ailment popularly known as water
on the brain, the tattoos favoured for anatomical decor by bikers, and the
patterns etched by the splattering of blood on the walls of a room where
the villains have whacked a victim.

Now, class, how do you suppose Reichs handles the imparting of information
on these technical matters?

Well, here's the beginning of a lengthy dialogue between Tempe and an expert
at the Montreal Neurological Institute, where Tempe has gone seeking the inside
dope about water on the brain.

"Our McConnell Brain Imaging Centre," says the expert, "is rated one of the
world's leading facilities."

"What other research do you do?" asks Tempe.

 "A tremendous amount of groundbreaking work has emanated from the MNI,"
says the expert. (webmaster's note: you bet they have. I've been there. I had a class
there. So it's  cool, even if Dr. Wilder Penfield blew it when he thought that lobotomies
could cure epilepsy... but I'm sorry. We were talking about Kathy Reichs and Robert
Crais. Back to the article.)

And in the same mind-numbing vein, the two drone on about water on the brain
for several pages in which they get the subject down on the ground and break its

Class, this is not the way to do it. This is not easing the reader into the
information. It's entirely okay to disclose technical facts by way of a two-
person conversation between one character who is in possession of the facts
and  another character who isn't. But the conversation shouldn't read like the
transcript of a Regis Philbin interview with a contestant on Who Wants To
Be A Millionaire. Subtlety is called for, class, a bit of finesse in the palaver.

Subtlety is not Reichs' long suit in any department of Deadly Decisions.
Contrivance and coincidence are more her plotting speed. When Tempe's
impetuous teenage nephew from Texas comes to visit his aunt and happens
to mention how much he likes choppers, it's guaranteed the kid is going to get
himself instantly tangled with the very motorcycle thugs his aunt is tracking.

And when a new employee turns up in Tempe's office, a wasted young woman
who dresses all in black, it's a certainty this person is wired in to the bikers.
The reader can see this stuff coming a mile off.

Tempe herself is an attractive character of a harried, plucky sort. Since she also
possesses a sense of style, she registers as a more agreeable Kay Scarpetta (the
coroner from the Patricia Cornwell series) with a Martha Stewart gene thrown in.
That's not much perhaps, but it's something to hang on to when Tempe gets into
another of her interminable fact-dropping chats with the blood-splatter whiz or
the guy who knows more about Harley-Davidsons than Eviel  Knievel.

By contrast, class, let us turn to Demolition Angel. Robert Crais'  novels usually
feature the Los Angeles crime-sleuthing duo of Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. But in
the new book, he drops them in favour of an LAPD detective named Carol
Starkey, who used to work for the bomb squad.

Three years earlier, an accident blew up a bomb that left Carol physically
scarred and psychologically jangled. Now she works as a bomb investigator
for the department's Criminal Conspiracy Section, and in that capacity,she
draws the case of a serial bomber named Mr. Red. This guy is brilliant and
twisted and specializes in blowing up people for fun and profit all over the
United States. According to all signs, he seems to be currently in Carol's neck
of the woods.

Naturally, class, the book's plot depends on the dispensing of much information
about the building and exploding of bombs, and the way Crais deals out the details
makes the subject thrilling and engrossing. Carol Starkey and the other bomb people
talk about their favourite subject in a manner that suggests Maureen Dowd's New
York  Times columns about Monica and Bill: ironic, bitter, incisive, funny. The
conversations are also tied inextricably to the plot.

Every new tidbit of information about Mr. Red's bomb-making technique nudges
things ahead by another tiny increment. What happens is that each time we learn
something new on the subject of bombs, we are hooked a little deeper into the

And this, class, is the model for handling the problem of technical information
in a crime novel.

With such in mind, your next assignment is to write a short story that involves
a computer hacker with a Macintosh iBook who brings the Bloor subway
system to a halt at rush hour on a Friday afternoon as a diversion for robbers
who stick up a bank at Lansdowne and Bloor. Include all technical

Class dismissed.

    Jack Batten's Whodunit appears every two weeks.

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