Backstory adds depth while slowing down the primary action

Greg Iles Cemetery Road is a compelling thriller; I’ll stipulate that’s an early opinion inasmuch as I haven’t reached the half-way point yet.

The protagonist, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Marshall McEwan, returns to the small town where he grew up because his father is in ill health and his newspaper business is failing. (I would have used a different name since this one is too close to Marshall McLuhan, the famous media expert and philosopher). Marshall’s old friend is murdered and thus begins the current-day primary plot of the novel.

Having lived in a small town, I understand what Iles is doing when he shows how interconnected people are, including those who leave for the big city and then return. There are many kinds of loyalties and associations (including a former love interest) that make solving the murder about as tricky and running through a minefield.

The book has great depth in the development of its characters and is a page-turner when Marshall and others are up against entrenched and hostile movers and shakers who consider that murder to be a benefit to their business interests. The problems begin when the backstory segments get too lengthy; for example, Marshall was a reporter in Iraq, embedded with a group run by another long-time friend. But, my view is that when a description of what happened in Iraq runs to 16 pages, the backstory has run amok.

Suddenly, we’re in a different novel while the main story is put on hold. I think the Iraq relationship of two primary characters could have been explained in several paragraphs rather than taking us on such a long diversion. And, this is not the only time such a diversion happens. My cynical side says that without these diversions, the story would be pretty slim if it stuck to solving the murder.

I don’t know how things end up, of course. So, isn’t a review, but an an example of the problems of using too much backstory.


Backstory can detract from the primary plot


Katherine Neville (The Eight, The Fire) is generally credited with pioneering the quest/adventure novel in which the current-day and primary plot is greatly influenced by past events. Dan Brown made the style famous in The Da Vinci Code and related novels.

The Da Vinci Code had a compelling plot that kept readers engaged in spite of the fact that great swaths of text were instructional in nature, that is, one character tells another character about the history and symbolism as a device to inform the reader what the current-day plot means.

I’ve just completed reading three quest/adventure novels that, while they kept me reading, spent too much time in the backstory. I won’t mention the author because my intent here is not to trash her books. We have current-say plots which are exciting, but the meaning behind them comes from memories of part events or past lives that might have occurred many centuries ago. In general, I liked the books. However, she spent too much time with the backstory.

Imagine this. A character is trying to puzzle out a mystery and it’s kind of a page-turner. Then, the next chapter is titled Accra, Ghana, 1578. Suddenly the current-day plot is put on hold and the reader finds himself/herself reading about people s/he’s never heard of from many centuries ago. In some cases, they’re living heroic lives; in other cases, they’re everyday people doing about their daily tasks.

Then the novel switches back to the current day for a chapter before the author delays the mainstream plot with a chapter called, let’s say, Constantine, Algeria, 1830, and now we’re suddenly following a French soldier at the beginning of France’s occupation of the country.

While these past events usually factor into the reader’s understanding of the mainstream plot before the novel ends, the past-history events are a distraction. For one thing, they stop the present-day story and introduce new characters. For another thing, they drag on for multiple pages when all the reader wants to do is get back to the primary story. In each case, the novelist would better serve his/her story by cutting the number of words in each of these ancient history chapters.

It’s interesting, as it was in Neville’s and Brown’s novels to see the influence of the past, but it becomes a tedious distraction when past events occupy a large portion of the novel. Even if we learn, let’s say, that our protagonist name Dan actually was that French soldier in a past life, it doesn’t justify (in my view) spending ten pages in Algeria while the primary plot sits in limbo.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Special Investigative Reporter,” recently released by Thomas-Jacob Publishing.