Signals from Fred

by wjw on June 11, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 10.14.28 PMIn critique, “Signal from Fred” is shorthand for those moments in a text in which the author’s subconscious issues a cry for help, usually by pointing out that the action doesn’t make any sense.  A character might say, “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it!” or “This was unbelievable!” or “I can’t make any sense of what’s going on!”  All leakage from a mind disturbed by a plot gone terribly, terribly wrong.

I recently encountered an entire chapter in which Fred was signaling like mad.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this was also a chapter in which a detective’s daughter was kidnaped and taken hostage.  (For my previous thoughts on what seems to have become a genre cliché, see here and here.)

The chapter was written from the point of view of the daughter, who has become a police cadet and is assisting her father in investigating a series of crimes in which one of her (the daughter’s) friends seems to have got tangled up with a murderous cult.

The daughter turns out to be a good detective, and in fact uncovers most of the significant clues, her chief problem being her overbearing father, who bullies her and refuses to take her ideas seriously.  (I found this to be one of the most realistic elements of the novel.  I’m sure we all know families just like this.)

(I suppose I may as well mention that the characters in question are Linda and Kurt Wallander, created by huge international bestselling novelist Henning Mankell.)

So anyway Kurt and Linda have a blowup at the police station, and Linda goes out to look for her missing friend after stealing her father’s car.  (It’s that kind of relationship.)  She goes to her friend’s apartment and sees lights on, but decides not to go in because for all she knows the place might be filled with maniacs.  This is the last sensible decision she takes all night.

Her friend leaves the apartment and gets in a car, and Linda decides to tail her.  Fred, popping up out of her subconscious, reminds her that tailing a dangerous person in the dead of night without backup is against everything she learned at the Police Academy, so she tries to call her father on her cell, but he doesn’t answer.  She calls other police, but they’re all busy.  (In Sweden there is apparently no voicemail.)  So she texts her dad to tell him that she’s with her friend, which sounds a little bit different than what she’s actually doing.  (“M in pursuit murderfiend N hwy 16 TTFN.”)  Her battery is running out of juice, so at this point she gives up.

The friend turns off the highway and down a spooky old road, so Linda pulls over and goes in pursuit on foot.  (Fred keeps pointing out that this is stupid and dangerous.)  She goes through the spooky old woods and lurks on up to the spooky old house, where she luckily finds herself in position to overhear the two chief villains discussing their plot, which is to simultaneously blow up every cathedral in Sweden in order to reboot Christianity.  (According to the rules of fiction, religious maniacs don’t have to make any damn kind of sense at all.)

Linda decides this is a good moment to make her exit, but she gets lost in the spooky old woods.  Then Fred clues her in that it’s maybe time to call dad again, but it turns out that she’s dropped her cellphone in the spooky old woods, so she tries retracing her steps to find her phone, and then she’s immediately caught by the villain’s chief henchman, who grabs her so thoroughly that she has no chance to resist.  (By which I conclude that self-defense is not taught in Swedish police academies.  I mean, this is the second time that our police cadet is grabbed by a bad guy in this volume, and doesn’t resist either time.  The first time, okay, it was a surprise and she wasn’t prepared, but this time she was sneaking up on a spooky old house full of murderers, she had to have at least thought something bad might happen, just as Fred kept telling her.)

The bad guys lock her in a cellar, but her friend slips her a phone with an actual charge on it, and she calls her father.  In another moment of convincing realism, he’s so busy chewing her out that he won’t listen to her explaining that she’s been kidnaped and held hostage (again!), but eventually he calms down, and they work out what’s going on and where, Kurt charges in with the entire Malmö PD, and Linda is rescued.  The cathedrals of Sweden are saved!

By the way, the two principal villains escape, because “nobody dared to stop them.”  Never mind that there were dozens of heavily-armed police surrounding the building whose job it was to stop them, the baddies escape anyhow.

(As an aside, I have to wonder of Swedish police really are so completely different from American police, who admittedly would probably have riddled the place and maybe killed the hostages by accident.  Is “surrender” really the first and only thing Swedish cops are taught?)

Anyway, Fred is in the narrative continually, reminding Linda that she’s behaving stupidly, just like a movie cop.  I’ve never before seen so many intrusions by the author’s subconscious in a single scene, and the chapter’s noteworthy both for how sensible Fred is being, and how thoroughly the demented protagonist ignores Fred’s advice.

Why, it’s almost as if the plot required that Linda be kidnaped in order to achieve its resolution, even if it made no sense at all!

Stupidity may be a human constant, but it’s unsatisfying as motivation in a drama, unless maybe it’s called Mr. and Mrs. Thickie at Home.  Characters can (and probably should) misunderstand things from time to time, or do the wrong thing out of stubbornness or misplaced loyalty or flawed character or limited understanding, but forcing a protagonist to behave completely out of character in order to shoehorn her into a constricting plot shows a constrained imagination (or possibly impending deadlines).

Listen when Fred is signaling.  He’s probably telling you something you need to know.


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Foxessa June 11, 2015 at 9:47 am


Also — eating. Not always but mostly when one finds oneself writing pages and pages around what the characters are eating, or wearing — even brushing their teeth! — one has gone Too Far and is wasting wordage, wordage that is bringing nothing to the table that is one’s fiction.

Phil Koop June 11, 2015 at 11:51 am

Hmm. I’m not as generous as you. I haven’t read the passage that sparked this post, but in general I don’t read such things as messages from the author’s subconscious; I read them as messages from the author’s self-consciousness.

What I mean is, the author is indulging in some special pleading, asking for a get-out-jail-free card. “I know this bit is strained, implausible, and out of character, but since I’m breaking the narrative voice to tell you that I know it’s strained, implausible, and out of character, that’s all right. Isn’t it?”

Jim Janney June 11, 2015 at 2:46 pm

There’s a wonderfully bad move called “She” with Sandahl Bergman, in which at one point the sidekick says “Why are we even doing this? It makes no sense.” I desperately wanted the Bergman character to say “It’s in the script” but she just said “er, that’s just the way it has to be.”

wjw June 12, 2015 at 1:03 am

Good point, Phil, especially from a writer of the caliber of Mankell. He may not be saying “Something’s gone horribly wrong,” but instead “trust me on this, I’ll get you through it somehow.”

Foxessa, food can be used to illuminate character or as world building, but I agree that when it goes on for pages it illuminates the author’s obsessions much more than his character’s.

It’s something I find myself thinking about, as in a passage in which it’s time for my protag to eat, so I have to ask myself, “Is it worth stopping the narrative while he visits Subway, or should I just go on and hope the reader hasn’t noticed the poor guy hasn’t eaten for eighteen hours.”

PrivateIron June 12, 2015 at 5:12 am

Don’t ever read Inspector Montalbano books if food digressions do not float your boat.

Foxessa June 12, 2015 at 10:41 am

I very much enjoy the Montalbano series. Food and Meals Matter to Montalbano. That he actively dislikes to eat with other people, which means all the things that most of us enjoy about dining in company: companionship and conversation, don’t operate in him. They are poor diversions away from the point of eating, the appreciation of all the nuances of the food, and how each dish and wine comports with the others.

This isn’t at all what I was referring to as eating as wasted wordage. The author knows what he is doing and why he is doing it. This is a fundamental trait of his very Sicilian protagonist, and it works.

PrivateIron June 13, 2015 at 10:27 am

I love Montalbano, though it has gotten repetitive for the last 7 or 8 books. However, I could not recommend him to someone who hates food digressions, not with any compassion at any rate.

Michael Grosberg June 13, 2015 at 2:27 pm

I don’t know who got it into their mind that EVERY suspense/thriller plot HAS to have the protag kidnapped by the baddie just before the big showdown at the end. It can be subverted with the protag seemingly doing a stupid thing and later it turns out he was thinking two steps ahead all along, but even that is becoming cliche by now. These days when you read about a character following procedure and doing the smart thing it’s almost subversive. In a recent Jo Nesbo novel I read the police detective hero received a blackmail call from the baddie and instead of going it alone the first thing he did was notify his superior about it. I was completely taken by surprise.

JaniceG June 14, 2015 at 10:56 pm

I also hate this technique when it crops up in historical fiction. (“She knew that her reputation would be ruined if…” “Although as his father’s sole heir, he ordinarily shouldn’t…”) I don’t know about other readers, but acknowledging that characters are knowingly acting as they wouldn’t/shouldn’t in that era doesn’t make me think more kindly of the author or make the character’s actions any more believable.

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