Friday, February 12, 2010

The Best-Laid Schemes...

Sometimes, no matter how carefully we plan, things go wrong. We get caught in traffic jams, we miss flights, things break, and storms hit. When the unexpected happens, most of the time, we re-adjust our plans if we can and then move on. That’s easy enough if the plan was to go out to dinner or attend a meeting. It’s not so easy to make those adjustments if the plan was to commit murder or to catch a killer. In crime fiction, just as in real life, the best-laid schemes do “gang aft agley,” as the poet put it, and the results of those unexpected snags can really affect the outcome of the story.

Sometimes, unexpected snags are actually what sets of the events that cause a murder in the first place. For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Paul Renauld, a Canadian √©migr√© to France, plans to settle with his wife in the village of Merlinville. Soon after he arrives, though, his plans hit a serious snag: he meets someone from his rather mysterious past. By sheer chance, that person is living in Merlinville, and now, the Renaulds have to change their plans. That change in plans is what eventually leads to Renauld’s murder. Hercule Poirot is on the scene very soon after, because before his death, Renauld had written to him, pleading for his help. In the end, Poirot has to find out the Renaulds’ plans before he can find out what the snag was that brought them to naught.

Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase also centers on a murder that’s caused by an unexpected snag. Harriet Vane is on a hiking holiday when she finds the body of Paul Alexis, a professional dance partner who works at the local hotel. At first, the police think it’s suicide. There are no prints near the body, and no evidence that anyone else was there. Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey soon learn, that there was much more behind Alexis’ death..As it turns out, Paul Alexis has unexpectedly ruined someone’s plan, and that person is responsible for killing Alexis.

The Nine Tailors is another Sayers novel in which an unexpected “hitch in plans” leads to a death. Lord Peter Wimsey is stranded in the village of Fenchurch St. Paul on New Year’s Eve because his car is being repaired. As a favor, he agrees to substitute for Will Thorday, one of the regular bell-ringers in town, because Thorday’s had an attack of influenza. The next morning, Lady Thorpe, the wife of Sir Henry Thorpe, the local squire, suddenly dies, and Lord Peter hears the Thorpe family history, including a mysterious theft of jewels. A few months later, Sir Henry himself dies. When the family grave is opened, another corpse is found. Wimsey investigates the case, and finds out that the dead man is connected to the robbery. He also finds out that the man died due to a “hitch” in someone’s plans.

There are other novels, too, in which a “hitch” in plans sets in motion the events that cause a murder. Unexpected snags can also cause problems for murderers once they’ve committed their crime. Sometimes, that snag is weather. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of an American businessman as he’s on his way across Central Europe on the world-famous Orient Express. On the night of the murder, there’s a serious snowstorm that forces the train to stop. The murderer hasn’t expected the weather to interrupt some carefully-made plans, and that’s the first thing that goes wrong with this plan. Eventually, the storm is one of the things that allows Poirot to focus his investigation in the right place.

The weather also gets in the way of a killer’s plans in Emma Lathen’s Going for the Gold. That novel takes place at the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York. French ski-jumper Yves Bisson is shot by a sniper as he’s making a jump. At first, everyone thinks he’s been shot by a terrorist, but it’s soon clear that he was killed because of his involvement with a counterfeit traveler’s checks ring. John Putnam Thatcher, vice-president of the Sloan Guaranty Bank, tries to trace the counterfeit ring to its source. That proves much easier than the killer hoped it would when a sudden snowstorm engulfs Lake Placid, trapping all of the athletes and spectators in Olympic Village. The killer had hoped that the false traveler’s checks would soon be spread throughout the world, but the snowstorm draws a circle around Olympic Village, and it helps Thatcher catch the criminal.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole, or How to Rob a Bank also includes some interesting mishaps and snags as four thieves and an unemployed (and desperate) architect scheme to rob the City Savings Deposit Bank. They finally organize the robbery and put their plans into motion. At the last moment, though, an underground drain floods, putting a tragic snag into their plans.

Sometimes, plans go awry by simple twists of fate. For example, in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School for Men, Mma. Grace Makutsi, Assistant Detective at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Assistant Manager of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, has begun to give typing classes to local men. One of them, Mr. Bernard Solelipeng, takes a personal interest in Mma Makutsi and the two begin dating. Things go well until one day, Mma. Precious Ramotswe, Mma. Makutsi’s boss, gets a visit from a new client. Mma. Solelipeng suspects that her husband has a girlfriend and wants Mma. Ramotswe to find out who the woman is. Rra. Solelipeng’s plans have unexpectedly hit a snag because of an odd coincidence.

The sleuth’s plans, too, can run into unexpected snags. That’s what happens in Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth. Queen and his new partner, Beau Rummell, have opened up a detective agency together. One of their first clients is Cadmus Cole, a very eccentric but wealthy man who’s spent most of the last twenty years at sea. Cole wants to decide which of his only two surviving relatives should inherit his vast fortune, but he has no idea where they live, so he hires Queen and Rummell to find them. One is Kerrie Shawn, a struggling actress who’s trying to succeed in Hollywood. The other is Margo Cole, who’s spent most of her life in France. Just as Queen is about to begin the investigation, he’s sidelined by a sudden attack of appendicitis, and isn’t able to do any work. Rummell takes Queen’s place and goes to Hollywood, where he tracks down Kerrie Shawn and convinces her to go to Cole’s New York estate. Meanwhile, once he is able, Queen finds Margo Cole and convinces her to come to New York as well. Just then, the detectives’ plans hit another snag – Cadmus Cole suddenly dies. Now, the two cousins vie for his fortune, until Margo Cole is shot, and Kerrie Shawn is accused of the crime. Rummell, who’s fallen in love with Kerrie, takes on the responsibility of clearing her name.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum frequently runs into problems and snags as she does her work. She’s a bounty hunter who works for her cousin’s bail bond company. She’s smart and resourceful, but not exactly neat and “slick” about doing her job, so mishaps are common as she looks for fugitives. For example, in Two For the Dough, Plum and her sometimes-lover, Officer Joe Morelli, are looking for one of Morelli’s stranger relatives, Kenny Mancuso, who’s skipped bail after being charged with shooting a gas-station attendant in the knee. It doesn’t help Mancuso’s case that he’s suddenly become mysteriously wealthy. Plum connects Mancuso to an arms smuggling operation, and eventually tracks him down. During part of the search for information about the arms smuggling, Plum and Morelli are staking out one of the partners’ homes. Plum’s climbing up to a second-story window when the fire escape she’s on breaks away from the building, sending Plum to the ground – directly into an unspeakable mess.

No matter how carefully the criminal or the sleuth plans, snags and unexpected problems can arise. The real key, of course, is how the characters cope. In some cases, they adjust. In others, they don’t. Either way, though, those unexpected snags can add interesting twists and layers of interest to a crime fiction plot. What do you think about those unexpected snags? Do you enjoy them or do you find them distracting?


  1. What's very exciting for me is when the snag was not planned but happened in the course of writing- just sort of shows it's ugly head...just like life.

  2. I like snags and especially when sorting out one snag leads the villain or villains into even more trouble.

  3. Elizabeth - Thank you : ). Snags certainly can lead to all kinds of interesting things, don't they?

    Journaling Woman - I know exactly what you mean. I find those snags interesting, too. That's happened to me a few times, and it's always an interesting challenge to deal with that kind of snag. That kind of snag keeps writing fresh, too.

    Norman - Oh, yes, there's nothing like one snag that leads to another...that leads to more trouble. Those kinds of snags happen to the killer in Agatha Christie's Mrs. McGinty's Dead, and they add quite a lot to the story, actually.

  4. Life doesn't go smoothly...and neither should crime or crime investigation!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. Elizabeth - Oh, you put that so well : ). Crisply and elegantly, and you're so right, too. Crime fiction that's at all realistic should include life's snags.

  6. The unexpected but credible snag is delicious!

  7. Dorte - I love that adjective! "Delicious" is exactly what describes well-written snags!!!

  8. what a great summary, Margot! Somehow your post reminded me of Far From The Madding Crowd, where poor Fanny gets the wrong church, although I realise that isn't crime fiction. Thanks for all these great examples.

  9. Maxine - I had to laugh when I read your comment! That church scene is a funny example of exactly what I mean! It doesn't matter that it isn't crime fiction.