Review: The Antiquarian from a Writer's Perspective

I thought I’d start talking about some current and some older mysteries that I’ve read from the perspective of the craft of mystery writing. Even though I can say “liked” or “didn’t like” in the same way other reviewers do, for this blog I want to talk about what the book taught me about “the craft.”

This month, I want to talk about The Antiquarian by Julián Sánchez.  Click beneath the cover image for a free preview of the book.

What did I learn? First, I know that a book can elicit both raves and pans, and this book is no exception. For a writer, going through another author’s reviews after reading the book provides insight into the standards of excellence for that particular sub-genre. In this case, the sub-genre includes such well-known examples as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Here the standards of excellence include esoteric credibility and a clear danger built into the search for the arcane object at the center of the narrative.

I found myself applying the standard of “pacing.” For me, a sense of danger is provided by a thriller-esque pace. The arcane object must be found quickly, or else. That urgency must be credible, so that the reader is rooting for the protagonists to get to the object before ‘the bad guys.’

Here, I think Sánchez didn’t pull it off. Even though he created a credible artifact, I couldn’t bring myself to care about its recovery. If the central premise isn’t super-strong, at least let me have characters I feel a vibrant connection with. In this case, none of the primary characters were intriguing or dynamic. One writers’ guide I was looking at recently said something like, ‘Great characters aren’t just one of many elements of great fiction – they are the primary and most important feature.’

This, then, is the yardstick I’m applying to working on the second Father Ambrose mystery – are my characters memorable and are they pursuing goals that drive the narrative?

Again, inside the issue of pacing, I found The Antiquarian too sluggish and, therefore, too long. Pacing intertwines delicately with the issue of setting/background. While Sánchez provides a lot of context about the city of Barcelona and its environs, too much is repetitious or unnecessary. I’m learning that economy and precision of language are more important than exhaustive description. Too much turns a would-be page-turner into a slog where the sense of urgency is diluted or overwhelmed completely.

This second lesson is key: I need to focus on providing the exact background that’s needed to propel the story going forward and not allow any context to apply the brakes to the momentum.

Finally, on background research in general: as an author, I need to know much more about my subject and my characters than I put out in the text. Too much and the effect is ‘show-off-y.’ Sánchez gives me way too much. It’s good that I know he’s very conversant with the eco-sphere of Barcelona, but I don’t need to know the names of every street the protagonist walks down.

For my own manuscripts, then, I must research thoroughly, but continue to ask myself ‘What is important to include about this, in order to set the right tone or create a scene visual?’ The good thing about working with Beta readers is that they’ll immediately pick up on places where more detail is needed, where what’s left unsaid isn’t strong enough to carry the story forward.

If you’re a huge Dan Brown fan, you might find The Antiquarian compelling. If you’ve read it already, I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

Next month, I’ll likely be talking about Christopher Fowler’s Wild Chamber, book #14 in his Bryant & May series. See you then!