Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Why the Crawdads Stink 1 of 2

by Rob - June 24th, 2020.
Filed under: Reviews.



Last week, I finished reading Where the Crawdads Sing, the much-lauded bestselling debut novel by Delia Owens.


I understand that a great many people love this book, and I myself enjoyed it a lot, although parts of it — Kya’s abusive childhood, in particular — were very unpleasant reading, as, of course, they were intended to be.

But, as a writer, this novel bothered me because of things that perhaps only a writer would worry about — indeed, obviously they bothered only a vanishingly small number of Delia Owens’s readers.

This, of course, goes to the heart of the problem with teaching writing: we writers tend to overemphasize things that readers may not care about at all: that’s why Dan Brown likely outsells all the books by all the full-time faculty in all the M.F.A. creative-writing programs in the United States combined. In the end, all the reader cares about is how they felt, not how that feeling was accomplished.

So, as the saying goes, your mileage may vary — indeed, it almost certainly did vary from mine. In this post, I’ll talk about some of the issues that tripped me up; in another post, I’ll tackle prose and narrative voice issues. Here goes:

Of course, I bring a science-fiction writer’s perspective to some of this that simply won’t resonate with mainstream readers. But, in many ways, Kya, living alone in a swamp, is an alien being.

And so, despite briefly having a teenage teacher in Tate, who taught her to read (very late in life, so late that it would be very difficult to do), she learned on her own to become a world-class expert in marine biology? Maybeeee, but my plausibility-meter is starting to move toward the red zone.

But then Kya is also a world-class painter, without a single lesson — good enough that her first book of paintings of marsh life got her an advance in 1968 of US$5,000, and that without an agent? That’s US$38,000 today. Well, good on her, I say, but … really?

Still, ignore those superior intellectual achievements; the plot doesn’t hinge on them. But it does hinge on this: Although growing up in the middle of the last century, Kya has never heard a radio drama, been to a movie, seen a TV show, or, from what’s said in the book, read any novels or any nonfiction except poetry and science books.

And yet, somehow, she’s savvy enough to know that if she is to get away with murder she needs an alibi (and a very elaborate one, at that, involving her suddenly becoming a master of disguise and not one but two secret journeys).

Okay, so somehow she learned that you have to cover your tracks for a crime (which she literally does), and indeed, somehow learned that fingerprints are evidence, too. Bright woman!

(Although she apparently doesn’t know about fiber analysis, leaving obvious clues that the detectives say she must have missed out of ignorance: “She probably had no idea fibers would fall off the hat onto his jacket. Or that the lab could identify them. She just wouldn’t know something like that.”)

But then she does the incalculably stupid and takes from Chase’s body the one thing that links her to the crime, the necklace she had given him years before and that he’d worn every day since. For what possible reason? She either does know how to cover up a murder or she doesn’t.

And why is she the only suspect? Why doesn’t Chase’s widow Pearl fall under suspicion? Chase had been cheating on Pearl and — making it worse! — with someone far beneath what Pearl considered to be their social station. Yes, Chase attempted to rape Kya — and that is horrendous — but Pearl is the woman scorned in the eyes of the community, and the police never so much as think about her as a suspect?

And that brings us to the next problem: Kya beats the living daylights out of Chase when he tries to rape her, right? Kicks him in the balls and repeatedly in the kidneys, and leaves him incapacitated, saying loudly enough not just for him but for others to hear that she’ll kill him if he ever comes near her again, right?

So just how does she lure him not back into the marsh, and not just back to her shack, but all the way back to the fire tower, up the ladder, and onto the platform? Why did he go? When did they make up enough (in his eyes) for him to want to go? Yes, we can speculate answers — but there are none in the text.

And if Kya did want to kill him, surely there were easier ways, and ones more likely to succeed than hoping he’d stand facing her just so and then let her push him through the open grate that he’d conveniently not closed behind him (he fell backward, remember, not forward; he was not leaning over to close the grate when pushed).

So what would have been an easier way? Well, Chase was out boating alone often. Kya could have lain in wait for him — she was repeatedly portrayed as skilled at hiding in the marsh from both him and Tate — kill Chase, then dump the body somewhere where it wouldn’t be found, or just make it look like a boating accident. Done.

The elaborate murder she committed instead required Chase’s cooperation to make it possible: he had to willingly go with her to the Fire Tower. And despite all the careful planning to conceal her involvement, she chose to kill him at a location that she had no reason to believe Chase hadn’t connected to her in his bragging to the other boys. And then, again despite all her planning, she took the necklace she’d given him, the one piece of evidence that tied her to him (and then kept it in her home — she’s lucky the cops were incompetent in searching it!).

Yes, her Columbo-esque elaborate murder might have satisfied all sorts of symbolic needs, but it also led to her being a hair’s breadth from the electric chair because the case so clearly pointed to her being the culprit.

And, remember, the murder depended on a very tight schedule, made even tighter by the night-time bus she took back to Barkley Cove running twenty-five minutes late. As Tom (her defense attorney) says quite clearly:

“Those actions would have taken one hour seven minutes minimum, and that does not count time supposedly waiting for Chase. But the bus back to Greenville, which she had to catch, departed only fifty minutes after she arrived. Therefore, it is a simple fact: there was not enough time for her to commit this alleged crime.”

The Sheriff’s only rebuttal is that she could have done it if and only if she’d gone to the fire tower by land, but she did not; she was seen by the fishermen — three of them — leaving there in her boat.

And speaking of the Sheriff and his deputy, these were completely cardboard characters who spent most of the book doing classic “As you know, Bob” dialog:

“That’s very curious,” Ed said. “What was it strung with? Maybe it came off when he fell.”

“It was a single shell hung on a piece of rawhide that was just long enough to go over his head. It wasn’t loose and was tied in a knot. I just don’t see how it could’ve flung off.”

“I agree. Rawhide’s tough and makes a mean knot,” Ed said.

There was no chemistry between the cops; no conflict; no witty banter. They were just there to provide exposition and move the plot forward. Contrast them with the brilliant portrayals by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey of the two bayou detectives in the first season of True Detective.

Speaking of dialog, the constant attempt at transcription of Southern dialect got tiresome for me awfully fast, not to mention arguably being offensive:

“He’s done come sev’ral times now, Miz Clark, either brings sump’m or asks to see ya. Won’t ya see him today, Miz Clark? It’s Saderdee, no court, nothin’ to do in here the livelong day.”

The wording is evocative without all the misspellings and contractions. A little of that at the beginning of the novel would have sufficed for me, with the author then easing off and trusting us to hear the accents:

“He’s done come several times now, Miss Clark, either brings something or asks to see you. Won’t you see him today, Miss Clark? It’s Saturday, no court, nothing to do in here the livelong day.”

Robert B. Parker‘s novels are set in Boston, and if he had Spenser constantly saying things like, “Let’s pawk the caw ovah by Hawvaad Yaad,” people would have surely objected — and rightly so. So why isn’t this offensive when it’s done to portray Southerners and/or poor people?

Anyway, yes, in the end, the murder was satisfying emotionally — Kya killed Chase, the bastard who had toyed with her heart callously and then tried to rape her.

And, like most readers, I had the cathartic reaction Delia Owens intended to the fact that Kya got away with murdering this monster: Good for her!

But as a writer who wants a plot to go snick-snick-snick, as a mystery-fiction reader who expects the murderer to be clever and the murder plausible, it left me scratching my head.

Tomorrow, I’ll ruminate here on the narrative-technique issues in Where the Crawdads Sing that bothered me. But, again, let me say I did enjoy the book and am glad I read it.


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