Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Have you ever cried reading a novel?

No, I don't mean your first draft. I mean, has someone's work moved you to such a point that you shed real tears?

It doesn't happen often to me. Although I am a sucker for an emotional one-two punch. I remember reading Amy Tan's "Joy Luck Club" on a plane and getting to a scene where the mother explains why she abandoned her babies by the side of the road. Well, I had to get up and go into the bathroom to compose myself. What a wuss. What a good book.

I know this is hard to believe, given my reputation (see previous post) as a hard-hearted bitch. But I cry at books, movies, and commercials (that one where the Army guy comes home for Xmas and wakes the house up making coffee gets me every time.)

Maybe it is because movies are more inherently commercial, but they seem to evoke tears more readily than books. Why is that? Are novelists more leery of the "cheap" reaction of tears? I think that is certainly true in crime fiction today. It is rare to find a novel, in these days of neo-noir aping and dick-lit posturing, that we get crime books that appeal to the emotions. The last crime novel I can remember actually bringing a lump to my throat was T. Jefferson Parker's Silent Joe. Why is that? We are dealing with the themes of death and loss all the time. We describe blood and guts with clinical accuracy. Why do we pull our punches when it comes to showing the emotional outfall of death?

I was thinking about the place emotion had in fiction tonight because I happened to catch the last half-hour of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Now I know that movie reeks quaint in today's world, but that scene where Spencer Tracy delivers his speech saying, "If what you feel for each other is half of what I felt for my wife, you'll be all right." With Katherine Hepburn all misty eyed in the background...great stuff.

Other movies I get the Kleenex out for:

Breakfast At Tiffany's: Holly searching for the metaphoric Cat in the rain.
Roman Holiday: Princess Audrey, pauper Gregory Peck. Hopeless love.
The Vikings: Dead Kirk Douglas getting his Viking funeral sendoff.
Field of Dreams: Kevin Costner playing catch with his father's ghost. Waaaa...
Sophie's Choice: Stingo reciting Emily Dickinson over the death bed.
Old Yeller: Well, you know what happened to the dog.

Why doesn't fiction evoke the same response? I don't believe it is because movies are more visual. What is more powerful than the blank screens of our own imaginations? I think it might be because today's crime writers are leery of being labeled as soft when we go into matters of the heart.

I had a conversation with a high-placed editor recently. She told me she has noticed two trends in crime fiction recently: the decline of hardboiled "guy books." And the rise of romantic suspense. Now, let's not kid ourselves. There is some terrific hardboiled stuff being written right now, books that don't turn up their noses at emotions. Likewise, there is some utterly putrid romance suspense on the shelves these days, stuff that gets everything about police procedure and forensics wrong and gets really messy treacly about the romance part. Eeeewwww.

Maybe I am wrong. Or just reading the wrong stuff. What has gotten to you? What has made you cry? Movies are easy. But give me some books as well.

Or am I wrong in my belief that there is still room for well-wrought (as opposed to over-wrought) emotion in today's crime fiction?


Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

I have to admit I've been blubbering all weekend, due to the story that took the nation by storm--Barbaro's fight for his life. I can blubber about a horse at the drop of a horse shoe.

I have cried at a couple of books by J.A. Jance. Sometimes you wonder if crime and crying mix, and you wonder what's wrong when you get to the end of a mystery novel and you find yourself tearing up. I think one of those books was SKELETON CANYON. Actually, I felt deeply for Charlie in AN UNQUIET GRAVE.

I'd like to see more heart in crime novels. I guess I should start by writing my own.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

It probably depends on what makes you cry. I've cried in Andrew Vachss's books, which are as hard-boiled as they get. And not because the protagonist has "gone soft" (the Burke series), but because the author always tackles the ugliest of crimes, child abuse and exploitation, and it's almost this bigger existential (for lack of a better word) reminder of how ugly the world can be. But it's a different emotional reaction than, say, crying over a single character's loss or death (such as Sophie's Choice).


P.S. Can't watch Field of Dreams without welling up when he asks his dad to have a catch.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I love it when you're writing and really in the zone and your own words bring tears to your eyes as you're writing them. There's nothing quite like it. It's almost as if you're taking dictation or something, the words just flowing from the muse.

Off the top of my head, I can name a few books that brought tears to my eyes the first time I read them:


Stephen King's THE TOMMYKNOCKERS (I think I'm the only person who actually ever made it to the end of that book). Some of King's other books, BAG OF BONES, CUJO...

James Patterson's THE LAKE HOUSE (all right, you can stop laughing now, Kris)

Erich Segal's LOVE STORY

Many others. The most recent movie I can recall making be blubber the first time I saw it was DEAD POET'S SOCIETY.

I'm not mentioning the parts of these pieces that brought on the waterworks, in case I might spoil it for somebody. Anyway, that's sort of how I gauge if something's good or not--the emotions stirred by getting caught up in the author's fictional world.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm inclined to think that the book that caused me the most tears was my college biochemistry testbook, which I distinctly remember flinging across the room and breaking into tears (manly tears, I assure you). But I don't think that's where you're going here.

I'm a sucker for movies and it probably embarrasses the hell out of my wife. We were both in tears at the BEGINNING of "Sleepless in Seattle," but I can get choked up at the end of "Armagedon," so I'm not the guy to ask.

I don't know if I've ever cried while reading a book. The only thing that really comes to mind was "Sophie's Choice." For some reason I was thinking of Robert James Waller's second book, and I can't even remember the title, but I remember the main character getting seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and the "...butterfly gone..." line. Or was he killed in the motorcycle accident? Don't remember.

I've actually wondered about this since about 5th grade when my social studies teacher, Mr. McKenzie (look up "grouchy old bastard" in the dictionary and it'll have him there, but he was a great teacher) who dared anyone to read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" without crying, a dare I took him up on and, if you want to call it a victory, read without even a lump in my throat.

So, with the exception of certain science textbooks, I'm not often brought to tears by books.

Mark Terry

10:00 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I got choked watching Barbaro as well. There is something about watching something so powerful yet so fragile that brought even those who don't care about animals to the brink. But why the hell do they have to keep replaying his mistep?

11:02 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...


I cry at Patterson novels as well. But for a different reason, I suspect.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I think I know what you mean about Patterson, Kris. He'll never win a Pulitzer for his prose, but there's something raw and primitive there, pure storytelling I think, that appeals on a mass level. If you take a paragraph out of context, you might think it was written by a 5th grader. Then again, some of Picasso looks like it was painted by a preschooler. I had to force myself to read Patterson at first, strictly out of curiosity as to why he sells so big. Then, somehow, I got hooked.

How does he do that?

Another book that brought tears to my eyes, by the way, was THE ROOFER by Erica Orloff. Powerful story, and the prose is first-rate too.

12:33 PM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

If you were lucky, you never saw the filly Go For Wand break down in the Breeders Cup many years ago. She fell---and they played it more often than they played the first space shuttle disaster.

The story of Barbaro, I think, is the story of redemption. The focus on his surgeon, the incredible things they can do, and his attitude (lookin' at the ladies already!) has remade tragedy into hope. It's been like a do-over.

I think that's why it has been such a big deal. Because it has "story" written all over it. A story and a journey, fraught with perils, and a hero to root for.

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Karen Olson said...

The most recent book that made me cry was Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's memoir, GIRLS OF TENDER AGE. Fantastic. Written like a crime novel, since she's a crime novelist, this book about the violent murder of a classmate when she was 10 evokes all sorts of emotions.

1:33 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

You should talk to my sister Kelly. She is very articulate in defending him, for the same reasons you mention.

I get bitchy about Patterson a lot and he is an easy target. I have only read two of his books, both later ones and I am told I should give his earlier stuff a go. Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Tami said...

I remember crying over one of the Women's Murder Club series by James Patterson, I just don't remember which. If you've read this series, you probably know which i'm talking about (I don't want to give anything away just in case.)

The last book that made me get misty eyed was The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

I will also admit that I've cried over a few of Dean Koontz's books. Odd Thomas being one of them.

As far as movies are concerned, I'm a sap for romantic comedies. I'm with Mark on the Sleepless in Seattle thing and it's so sad but I'll admit that I've cried during You've Got Mail when Meg Ryan's character is closing her bookshop for the last time and she sees the memories of her mom dancing with her when she was little. Sappy, i know.

2:59 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Ah Patterson, I can't resist throwing in my 2 cents.

1. I read the first 2 or 3 or 4 books in the Alex Cross series. They were, I think, brilliant in a very commercial, solid thriller way.

2. Somewhere around "Pop Goes the Weasel," I got totally disgusted with him and in fact, quit reading the book 2/3 of the way through, but later went back and finished it to see if I'd just been "in a mood." (I hadn't been. It still sucked.)

3. I've tried to read his others unsuccessfully.

4. Somewhere along the way he stopped writing his own books. He says he's "the idea guy" and he hires writers to fill in the rest. This is, IMHO, bullshit. Then he's no longer a writer, he's a book packager. This makes me cranky and there are other instances where it happens (Clive Cussler, arguably Janet Evanovich, although she commented somewhere that she just edits the "Full..." novels, which I have tried once to read and had I not been trapped on an airplane, would have tossed out a window). I don't approve, but that's just me. We could argue for hours about this, and you could say Henry Ford didn't build his cars, but his name's on all of them, but let me sum up my pov, which is that although the great master painters may have had apprentices finish their work, you could usually tell, and... ah, don't get me going.

5. Patterson (supposedly) wrote a pre-teen series featuring a bunch of genetically engineered kids. The first book is Maximum Ride. My 12-y.o. is reading it and he's wild about it. I'm keeping my opinions to myself, but I doubt Patterson actually wrote it. But it is, I'll give him credit, a "cool idea." They're part of a genetic experiment that gave them many of the characteristics of birds, including wings and flight.

So, say what else you can, the man does know how to sell books.

3:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rozan's "Absent Friends" made me a crier and a liar.

Ex-girlfriend: "Your eyes look puffy."

Me: " Damn allergies. Got any Benadryl around here."

Now I'm not too embarrassed about getting misty eyed over Absent Friends, it was a damn fine piece of work, but here's a collar of shame I'll wear to my grave: [And why I ain't signing my name to this here note-- confession may be good for the soul, but as a former Catholic I know it's best done from behind the curtain of anonymity.] In 1970 the edges of my sixteen year old peach-fuzz mustache got soggy at the end of ' Valley Of The Dolls.'

Hey, how about them Chicago Bears?

4:08 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Valley of the Dolls?? OMG...does that bring back memories or what. And what a GREAT movie. I mean, really. Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) flushing Helen Lawson's (Susan Hayworth) wig down the toilet.

They just don't make em like they used to.

4:21 PM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

The wigs, or the toilets? :)

4:51 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...


WHEN THE WIND BLOWS and THE LAKE HOUSE, both about the genetically engineered bird children, preceded MAXIMUM RIDE. They weren't marketed for kids, but I can't remember any content that wouldn't be appropriate for a 12 year old. Maybe your son would like those too.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Oh yeah, another movie that does it for me: THE FAMILY MAN, with Nicholas Cage and Tia Leone.

I still have incredibly vivid dreams about a love who slipped away. Don't we all?

10:55 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

There's actually a foreword in Maximum Ride that says that although those 2 books are about genetically engineered bird children, and they apparently have the same names, they were the in spiration for Maximum Ride and are completely different characters.

Which, to me, creates a lot of questions, but that's what it said.

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can add "The Color Purple", "Meet Joe Black" and Peggy Sue Got Married' to that tear spewing movie list!!!

8:00 AM  
Blogger rkcooke said...

I sobbed reading ON THE BEACH as a teenager. Some years later, I sobbed again watching the movie TESTAMENT. And it's only now that I see the connection.

7:42 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...


Oh geez. I forgot about On The Beach. I, too, read it when young and man, it floored me. I also can't watch the movie without getting very teary. End of the world movies truly upset me. Not the ones where monsters bring us to our knees; only the ones where man does it. The ending of Fail Safe is devastating to me anew each time I see it.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Carol Davis Luce said...

I can't believe no one mentioned GONE WITH THE WIND. Am I dating myself? I read it as a teenager and reread it every few years until I stopped bawling at the end. That point came when I become a writer myself, but it took a couple of decades.

10:55 AM  

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