Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Long Arm of Coincidence

It’s very interesting how often coincidence plays a role in our lives. We think of a certain person and, by coincidence, hear news of that person the next day. We find ourselves in the market for a computer, only to find out that someone we know is selling one. I’m sure that we can all think of many coincidences that have happened in our own lives. So it’s natural that coincidence plays a role in crime fiction, too; after all, as I frequently “say,” well-written crime fiction is a reflection of real life. Coincidence is risky as a plot strategy, because it’s easy to cross that line between believable and implausible. When it’s done well, though, coincidence can add to a plot and, incidentally, give the writer a way to put the pieces of a story together.

Sometimes, a story is rooted in coincidence. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy has been shopping in London and is returning by train to her own village. Another train happens to be passing in the other direction, and Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to look out of her window into the windows of the other train. At that very moment, she sees a woman being strangled. At first, she almost doesn’t believe her own eyes, but she is convinced that what she has seen is a murder. As soon as she can, she takes her story to the police, who don’t believe her. After all, no-one has reported a murder on a train, and there’s no body. The police think it’s likely that Mrs. McGillicuddy was imagining things or had nodded off and was dreaming. Frustrated at that condescending attitude, Mrs. McGillicuddy tells her story to her friend, Miss Marple, who takes her more seriously.

There’s also an important coincidence behind Christie’s The Murder on the Links, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Paul Renauld, a wealthy Canadian who’s moved with his wife to the French village of Merlinville. As it turns out, Renauld and his wife have, by pure coincidence, chosen to live in the very village where someone from Paul Renauld’s past also lives. That coincidence sets in motion a chain reaction of events that leads to Renauld being stabbed to death late one night. The novel also features another important coincidence for Poirot’s friend, Captain Hastings. As the novel opens, Hastings is on a train returning to England from France. By coincidence, there’s another traveler in the same coach who will end up playing a very important role in the novel and in Hastings’ life.

Coincidence is the key behind Tony Hillerman’s Dance Hall of the Dead, too. Ernesto Cata, a teenage member of the Zuñi Nation, and his friend, Navajo George Bowlegs, disappear after an important Zuñi ceremony. When Cata turns up dead, everyone, including the police, thinks that Bowlegs is responsible, since he has disappeared. Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police is called in to find Bowlegs. That turns out to be more complicated than Leaphorn thinks it will when Bowlegs is later also found dead. Leaphorn investigates the deaths and finds out that both murders resulted from a tragic coincidence which led the boys to stumble on a secret that the murderer wanted to hide at any cost.

The “long arm of coincidence” sometimes leads to the sleuth being on the scene, so to speak, when a murder’s committed. That’s what happens in several Agatha Christie novels; I’ll just mention a few of them. In both Death in the Air (AKA Death in the Clouds) and Murder on the Orient Express (AKA Murder on the Calais Coach), Hercule Poirot happens to be traveling at the same time as the murder victim, and is present when the body’s discovered and the suspects established. In the former case, he investigates the death of Madame Giselle, a French moneylender. In the latter, he investigates the murder of Samuel Ratchett, an American businessman. In Evil Under the Sun, Poirot happens to be taking a holiday at the same hotel off the Devon coast where the murder of Arlena Stuart Marshall takes place. In Death on the Nile, Poirot’s taking the same cruise up the Nile that Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is taking for her honeymoon when she’s shot. In all of these cases, Poirot gets involved in the case as much because of his presence as for any other reason.

That kind of coincidence also happens in Laurien Berenson’s Chow Down, the 13th of her Melanie Travis novels. In this novel, Travis’ champion Standard Poodle has been selected as one of five finalists to represent Chow Down dog food. She’s not sure how her dog’s name was entered into the contest, and at first doesn’t want to participate. She’s finally persuaded to go ahead with it by her son, Davey (who, it turns out, actually entered the dog in the contest). Travis soon meets the other finalists, and realizes that some of them would be willing to do anything to make sure their dogs win the contest. When one of the finalists takes a fatal fall down some stairs, the death is called an accident, but Travis, who misses seeing the murder by only a few seconds, believes otherwise and begins to investigate.

Coincidence also brings Ellery Queen into several investigations. For example, he’s on the scene in The Last Woman in His Life. In that novel, Queen accepts an invitation to take a holiday at the guest house of very wealthy John Levering Benedict III. Staying in Benedict’s house are his three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. Because Queen’s staying in Benedict’s guest house, he’s on hand one night when Benedict is murdered by a blow from a heavy statuette. In fact, the last thing Benedict manages to do before he dies is to call over to the guest house and tell Queen that he’s been murdered.

Caroline Graham uses coincidence to draw Inspector Tom Barnaby into a case in Death of a Hollow Man. Barnaby is persuaded by his wife, Joyce, to attend a performance of Amadeus by the local Causton Amateur Dramatic Society. During one fateful scene in the play, leading man Esslyn Carmichael is murdered in full view of the audience. Since the victim and the other members of the cast are all locals, and since Barnaby is actually present when the murder is committed, he and Sergeant Troy are in an excellent position to investigate the case. What they find is that nearly everyone in the troupe (including its manager) had good reason to want Carmichael dead. Uncovering the troupe’s secrets becomes an important part of unraveling the mystery.

Sometimes (and this is, admittedly more tricky, since it can flirt with the limits of credibility), the sleuth or a witness sees or hears an important clue by coincidence. That’s what happens in several of Agatha Christie’s novels, including Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger. To look into the case, Poirot stays in a ramshackle and sloppily-run Guest House in the village of Broadhinney. His hostess, who’s pleasant, friendly and well-meaning, is also extremely untidy. One day, she’s looking for something in a drawer and pulls everything out of it. Poirot, who can’t stand a mess, quickly puts everything back neatly. He then goes out. When he returns, by coincidence, his hostess is looking for something else and once again pulls everything out of the drawer. Again, Poirot puts everything back; this time, he finds a vital clue that he wouldn’t have found but for coincidence.

In Charlotte MacLeod’s The Withdrawing Room, the second of her Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn series, coincidence actually plays a few roles. In that novel, Kelling has had to open her brownstone to boarders in order to make ends meet. One of the boarders is the obnoxious Augustus Quiffen. One day, he has a fatal fall under a subway, and although it’s shocking, no-one at the boarding house really misses him. By coincidence, an eyewitness, Mary Smith, actually sees someone push Quiffen, so although she doesn’t get a good look at the killer, she’s quite sure Quiffen’s death was deliberate. The next day, she visits Sarah Kelling’s boarding house to report what she’s seen. Kelling and one of her boarders, the very talented Max Bittersohn, begin to ask questions and investigate the case. Later in the novel, Mary Smith is able to identify the killer because of an important clue about the killer that she noticed. In this case, coincidence causes Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn to realize that Quiffen’s death was a murder, and later, it helps to catch the killer.

In my own Publish or Perish, my sleuth, former-police detective-turned-professor Joel Williams gets curious about the sudden death of graduate student Nick Merrill. He starts asking questions and unofficially helps the police solve Merrill’s murder. At one point in the novel, Williams and his wife are out to dinner at the same restaurant where one of the suspects is also dining. After the meal, Williams helps the suspect with a dead car battery and in so doing, finds an important clue to the murder.

Coincidence is a reality in our lives, so it makes sense that it’s also integrated into crime fiction. But it is risky; it’s very, very easy for coincidence to descend into contrivance. Do you agree? Do you enjoy those coincidences that come up in mysteries, or do you think that takes away from a book’s credibility?


  1. I have a very informal rule: at most, one medium coincidence per book. After that, my hooey alarm goes off. This goes for both reading a book, and writing a book.

    Although there are plenty of coincidences in real life, in fiction they are less believable. At least to me.

  2. It is a fine line. I can remember being disgruntled with all the coincidences in Kate Atkinson's WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS. I liked the characters in that book but I found the number of coincidences too high for credibility which did detract from my enjoyment of the book.

  3. Alan - I like your rule, actually. It speaks to the real danger of making everything in a novel just too "neat." It really is less believable when there are several coincidences in a novel than it is when they happen in real life. The name, "hooey alarm" is very descriptive, too - can I cite you? ; )

    Bernadette - You're absolutely right. There really is a delicate balance between coincidences which really could happen and too many for credibility. I've experienced the same feeling of disgruntlement when I've read books where there are just too many coincidences. Some of Robin Cook's books are like that, in my opinion. Folks, Bernadette's excellent review of When Will There Be Good News is here.

  4. Conicidence is fine but I don't like it when it is used toward the end of the book. It often feels like the plot has cheated you. I like Alan's rule with his one medium coincidence per book. THat sounds about right.
    Thanks for sharing this excellent post.

  5. One medium coincidence per book for me, too, thankyou :). And as cassandrajade said, not too late in the story.

  6. Cassandra - You make a well-taken point; when a coincidence solves everything late in the story, it certainly can feel as though the author hasn't been fair. It works much more naturally, anyway, if there's a coincidence that occurs in the course of the story, rather than towards the end of it.

    Christine - It certainly does work best if coincidences are useed like spices - just a dash, not too much. : )

  7. I like Alan's rule; one medium-sized coincidence per book. I'm not sure I've got any coincidences in my WIP; I'll have to think about it. Life is funny and odd things happen, but in a book coincidences often appear contrived.

    Another wonderful thoughtful post, Margot! How do you do it?


  8. Elspeth - Thanks for the kind words : )! That means a lot to me. Life really is odd, so coincidences do happen. Some people even think that there's no such thing as random-ness, and that nothing is really coincidental; those strange things happen that often that people have studied them. Still, in crime fiction, the key is that characters act in believable ways, and that the events are also believable. The whole thing about coincidence that draws people's attention to it is that coincidence is not usual. So it's best used in small, believable doses.

  9. I'm able to suspend my disbelief twice at the most...then I usually will look for something else to read. :) You're right...too much, and the reader feels like they're being manipulated.

    But I do like *some* coincidences. Because life's like that!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  10. I agree, you can have too many coincidences in a novel. Sometimes, one can be led to believe that a coincidence has occurred, but the clever author is pulling the wool over your eyes and you find out near the end that it was not a coincidence after all!

    Coincidences can be overdone, I agree. I loved Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, but the number of times Mikael and Lisbeth spot each other accidentally in Stockholm in The Girl Who Played With Fire struck me as too many coincidences. I live in a much smaller town than Stockholm and know a lot of people in it, but I have rarely bumped into anyone by coincidence more than once, and usually no times.

  11. I like Alan's rule too. Ruth Rendell is an example of a writer who uses coincidence a great deal - but because she is a genius, she gets away with it more easily than most of us!

  12. Your readers seem to agree with your hero, Hercule Poirot. In "Hercule Poirot´s Christmas" he says, I can accept one coincidence. :D

  13. I must say with regard to Rendell that criticizing her books for excess of coincidence would rather miss the point -- they are in many cases avowedly studies in coincidence. And she has a very sound basis for making them so. Coincidence in her books does not consist in contrived solutions to cases and such. Rather, she sets out how chance works among people to bring them together in configurations that lead to unexpected and unwanted consequences. There is nothing contrived in their meetings, and if those meetings lead to tragedy, criminal activity, folies a deus or trois...there is nothing contrived in that either. The case has been made -- by me, for one, in a lot of lectures -- that historians have generally overlooked the role contingency has played in the historical past, on scales both large and small. That is for another place, but if you can find a copy, Sir George Clarks's The Campden Wonder sets forth a true tale of the 17th century that would have many a reviewer crying foul if it were presented as fiction.

  14. Maxine - You're absolutely right. Sometimes, writers gull the reader into thinking that something's a coincidence when all along, it's quite well-planned. I was thinking, as I read your comment, about Dorte's excellent review of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas, in which there are a few important coincidences that...well....aren't coincidences. It's funny, too, that you would mention living in small town, yet still not seeing people very often. It's rare that I see people living in my own neighborhood more than once in a while, and almost never, for instance, in the same restaurant, despite the fact that we live so close. Believing it would happen in a book can stretch credibility just a little too far...

    Martin - I agree 100% about Ruth Rendell. There are plenty of coincidences in her writing, but she's talented enough that it doesn't take away from the suspense and credibility of her stories. They're based on coincidence, and she uses that device skillfully and planfully. I must learn that lesson....

    Dorte - You're right! He *does* say that! I'd forgotten that line, and I'm so glad you brought it up. He's got a good point, too. One coincidence is quite believable. More than that......well, Alan's got a good point.

    Philip - ....and that's exactly what makes Rendell's use of coincidence so appropriate. She uses that strategy purposefully. I'm really glad you brought that point up. I'm glad, too, that you bring a historical point of view to this discussion. You are absolutely right that coincidence has played a vital role in many historical events, and overlooking it doesn't allow a full understanding of history. Interesting how our view of coincidence has changed through the years.

  15. Elizabeth - Sorry - I missed your comment at first : (. You're right; coincidence is an important part of life. Because of that, it makes sense that it's a part of a good mystery. It's such a delicate balance to acknowledge that, while at the same time, not stretch the limits of credibility too far.

  16. I enjoyed reading Philip´s comment on Rendell´s excellent use of coincidence. I do agree that coincidence is an important part of real life (we all know how we can read a new word in the newspaper and hear a colleague use the same word the following day, for example), and Rendell is an expert at using these credible coincidences. There is this story (Philip will remember the title, perhaps also you, Margot) where a woman kills a whole family - because she is illiterate! Horrible and tragic, but also so believable.

  17. Dorte - You're right - coincidence does play a very important role in our lives. So it makes sense that it can work in crime fiction, too, and Rendell does indeed use it quite well. Are you thinking of Rendell's A Judgement in Stone? If that's the novel you mean, it is a really tragic story and as you say, believable.

  18. Yes, that is the one! Eunice Parchman who kills a whole family. I read more crime stories every year than I can ever remember, but that one made an enormous impression on me.

  19. I'm not surprised, Dorte - a very moving and strong book. I recommend it, folks.