The Book With No Name by Anonymous

If you’re anything like me then you’re probably put off by a book that’s marketed as strange and mysterious. Anonymous author, being called ‘The Book With No Name’, stuff on the back about a dangerous book with no name… it all made me suspicious that this was going to be cheap style over substance. But the friend who pushed it on me also leant me the excellent Murder One, so I thought I’d give it a go.

I was right. This was a book of style over substance, though an entertaining one for all that. But it was also an object lesson in something frequently discussed in the Writing Excuses podcast – the importance of expectations.

Marketing mis-step

The Book With No Name is not what it claims to be on the cover. The atmosphere isn’t one of darkness and mystery, it’s a twirling Tarantino-style crime drama with elements of fantasy and horror. The in-story Book With No Name, touted on the cover as a significant part of the story, doesn’t turn up until halfway through, so using it as the name for the novel, putting so much weight of expectation on it, feels like cheating. And the mysteries around the characters are seldom as interesting as they want to be.

In short, this book doesn’t live up to the expectations it sets, and is frankly trying too hard to be something it isn’t.

The fun parts

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. My enjoyment was reduced by that marketing mis-step, but once I got reading it was a fast, fun, easy read. It’s a story that’s told like an action movie, with short chapters and an emphasis on action over introspection. It’s carried along by a pseudo-Tarantino style, with cool yet oddball characters, criminal antics, jumps of time and logic, and some fun dialogue. I was never bored.

The missing parts

I was also never terribly engaged. This sort of thing often works on screen because the actors help us to engage with the characters. In a book the writer needs to get us inside their heads, and that seldom happens. I wasn’t given much reason to care about the characters, and there wasn’t much substance to the story. Just a lot of slick and speedy action.

To read or not to read

Despite that I enjoyed this. It’s a bit like reading Steve Aylett lite – neither as incomprehensible nor as interesting as his work, but with a similar emphasis of weird characters and fast-moving strange events. It’s a fun, easy read that reminds me in theory of Dan Brown’s writing style, but that somehow doesn’t annoy me like he does.

Still, I think I’ll stick with From Dusk Till Dawn for my supernatural crime adventures – whether it’s the medium of TV or the way that show’s written, it just works that bit better.

And as a writer what did I learn? As is often the case, nothing terribly new. Remember to match the expectations you set to the place your story is going. If you want people to care then you need to get them invested in the characters. And a new one for the danger list – don’t try to cram in dozens of significant characters, however cool they are – it won’t leave you time to give any of them depth.

From Dusk Till Dawn – another Netflix hit?

Netflix have created a TV series of From Dusk Till Dawn, the crazy gangster vampire film. Having just watched the first episode, it seems to be doing the same weird thing the film did, which is to give us a crime drama at the start and will move on to the other stuff later, rather than mix the two smoothly together.

I don’t have a problem with this in principle, but it creates some problems with audience expectation. Viewers looking for horror and supernatural mayhem may get turned off by this first episode, which revolves around a stand-off at an isolated roadside store. Those who find themselves enjoying this interesting crime drama may get annoyed when it goes crazy later. Or maybe everybody will go in with full knowledge of the original, and it’ll work out nicely. Who knows?

It’s a weird thing to make in many ways, but Netflix have proved that they know what they’re doing with drama, and even supernatural drama. House of Cards is astonishingly good, and Hemlock Grove showed that they could do a decent version of urban fantasy. The supernatural element is much better foreshadowed here than in the From Dusk Till Dawn movie, and it looks like the central characters will run into the vampires for more reason than just accident. Kudos to the show’s writers for building a smoother setup than their source material.

One of the great advantages of TV streaming services like Netflix is that they have the confidence to make interesting TV. The fact that they’re dipping into genre drama is a great thing for those of us who want to see gangsters fight vampires. And maybe if we’re lucky, next time Netflix will try mixing up their dramas in newer ways. After an evening of House of Cards and From Dusk Till Dawn, I would love to see the supernatural hit Washington next time. Who’s up for vampires in the White House?

Anyone else been watching any of the Netflix original shows, and if so what did you think?