One of the interesting plot points authors use is the ‘book within a book.’ In stories like that, a fictional book plays an important part in the plot. In some cases, that fictional story is even told in tandem with the larger plot. It’s not easy to do a book within a book; if it’s not skillfully done, it can simply confuse the reader. When it is done well, though, it can be successful.
In Colin Dexter’s The Wench is Dead, for instance, Inspector Morse is at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, being treated for a bleeding ulcer. While he’s there, he’s given a copy of a small book, Murder on the Oxford Canal. The book tells the story of the 1859 murder of Joanna Franks aboard a canal boat. At the time, Jack Oldfield and Alfred Musson were tried and convicted in connection with the crime, and both were duly executed. But as Morse reads the book, he begins to believe that these two men might have been innocent. If so, Morse wants to find out who was guilty. So, he starts his own investigation from his hospital bed. This novel includes passages from the (fictional) book Morse is reading, woven into Morse’s own story.
Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe is a private investigator who lives in Botswana. From the beginning, she’s wanted to be the best professional detective she can and do everything right. So, she relies heavily on Clovis Anderson’s The Principles of Private Detection. Especially in the earlier novels in this series, Mma Ramotswe isn’t always sure of exactly what to do in certain situations. When that happens, she looks to Anderson’s work for answers, and uses quotes from the book. For instance, here’s what Anderson says about following a subject:
‘Keep a long rein… even if it means losing the subject from time to time. You can always pick up the trail later. And a few minutes of non-eye contact is better than an angry confrontation.’
Bits from this (entirely fictional) book are woven throughout the series as Mma Ramotswe learns her business.
Anthony Horowitz’ Magpie Murders introduces professional editor Susan Ryeland. At the moment, she’s working on the latest release from mystery novelist Alan Conway, whose main character is Atticus Pünd. Conway is a difficult client, but very successful, so Ryeland wants to do the job right. As she’s looking over the work, she finds that the book is unfinished. She doesn’t know why Conway would have sent her an unfinished story, so she travels to his home to visit him. When she gets there, though, she finds that he is dead. She can’t find the remaining chapters, so she decides to go in search of them. In the process, she finds that this new novel could be based on true events, and that someone murdered Conway because of that. In this case, the fictional novel is woven in with the story of Susan Ryeland’s search for the truth about Conway’s death and the missing chapters.
Sulari Gentill also uses the novel-within-a-novel (or perhaps, novel-next-to-a-novel) approach in Crossing the Lines (AKA After She Wrote Him). Madeleine d’Leon is an attorney who’s taken to writing. The main character of her crime novel is a literary author named Edward McGinnity. In Madelein’s novel, Edward becomes a suspect in the death of Geoffrey Vogel, an editor who ruined his first novel. As she writes the story, Edward becomes more and more real to her and we learn his backstory. And as we follow along with Edward’s story, we learn that he has also created a new character: a crime writer named Madeleine. And as he writes, Madeleine becomes more real to him. At the same time, we learn Madeleine’s backstory. In this case, Madeleine’s and Edward’s stories are intermingled, and the result is psychological suspense. Who is real and who is fictional?
Graeme Macrae Burnet takes a slightly different approach in His Bloody Project. According to the Preface, Burnet was researching his grandfather’s life when he came across a narrative written by another ancestor, seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae, in 1869. According to the narrative, Roderick was tried and found guilty of three murders in the village of Culduie, on Scotland’s Applecross Peninsula. One story (admittedly quite brief) is about the finding of the narrative and several other documents relating to the trial. It also mentions the reception the narrative got (not a good one, as few people believed that an uneducated poor boy like Roderick Macrae could write a memoir). The other story is the memoir itself, together with court records and other relevant documents. It’s an interesting way to integrate one story into the other.
There are other examples, too, of novels that include other (fictional) novels. That approach to telling a story can be engaging if both of the stories are absorbing, and if moving between them doesn’t jar the reader. It’s tricky to pull off this sort of double plot, though. If you’ve read novels like this, what’s your experience been like?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Haerle’s Tellers.