Thursday, February 18, 2010

"Sucked In..."

In real life, and in crime fiction, there are many killers who deliberately take life – by choice. They plan their murders and they commit them by choice. There are plenty of other crimes, too, that are committed by choice. There are some interesting cases, though, where people are (or at least, feel) “sucked into” being involved in crime. That is, they’re either pressured or trapped into a crime, or they’re caught by circumstances. I’m not talking here of innocent characters who are framed by a real killer. I’m talking instead about characters who commit crimes (or are involved in them) because they’ve been trapped into it. Those cases can be fascinating; it’s interesting to see how characters deal with being caught in that way. On the other hand, those stories can stretch the limits of credibility, so those sorts of plots can fall flat if there isn’t a logical reason for which someone would be pressured or trapped into being involved in a crime.

One example of being trapped in this way comes from Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death. In that novel, wealthy, tyrannical Mrs. Boynton takes her family on a trip through the Middle East. A mental sadist, Mrs. Boynton has terrorized her family for years. During their tour, they take a few days to visit Petra. On the same excursion are several other tourists: a world-famous psychologist, Dr. Theodore Gerard; a brand-new doctor, Sarah King; an American friend of the Boynton family, Jefferson Cope; MP Lady Westholme; and Lady Westholme’s traveling companion, Miss Pierce. On the second day of their visit, Mrs. Boynton dies suddenly of what turns out to be digitalis poisoning. Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate and he finds out that it was Mrs. Boynton’s mental sadism that led directly to her murder. In the end, the killer was more or less trapped (at least in the killer’s view) into committing the crime.

In Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), there’s another case of being trapped into involvement in a crime. Wealthy Gordon Cloade had always promised the members of his family that they would be well provided for at his death. When he suddenly and unexpectedly marries, everyone is shocked. Matters get even more complicated when Gordon dies as the result of a wartime bomb blast. His bride, Rosaleen, and her brother, David Hunter, move into Cload’s home at Furrowbank, in the village of Warmsley Vale. Conflicts soon arise, since the other members of the family had always been given to understand that they need not worry about money. Then, to make matters even more complicated, a stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden checks into a local inn, and hints that he may be Rosaleen’s long-lost husband. He tries to blackmail both sides in this conflict and one night, he’s killed. As Hercule Poirot looks into the case he finds that one person’s involvement in the case was not by choice. That person was more or less bullied into getting involved.

In Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder, we also see an example of being involved in a crime against one’s will. Howard Van Horn, an old college friend of Queen’s, has been having a series of terrifying blackouts, during which he believes he’s committed some terrible crimes. One day, he wakes up after a blackout covered in blood, and begs Queen’s help in finding out what’s been going on. Queen agrees to do what he can. His search for answers takes him to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where Van Horn’s wealthy father, Diedrich Van Horn, lives with his much-younger wife, Sally. While Queen and Van Horn are visiting, Howard has more blackouts and during one of them, Sally is murdered. Queen doesn’t believe that Howard’s guilty, and looks into the murder. What he finds out is that Howard’s been trapped into involvement with more than one crime.

There’s also an interesting case of being trapped into involvement with crime in Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill. That’s the story of William Decker, a former con man and gangster who’s decided to “go straight.” One night, Decker brings his toddler son into a bar where Mike Hammer happens to be having a drink. In tears, he leaves his son in the bar and goes outside, where he’s quickly gunned down. Hammer takes in the boy and resolves to find out who killed William Decker and why. As it turns out, Decker was a safecracker who’d gotten mixed up with a gang of local mobsters. At first, it appears that he’s been shot because he bungled a job he’d agreed to do for them. As Hammer digs deeper, though, he finds that there was more to Decker’s murder than that, and that Decker was, in a very real way, trapped into his involvement in crime.

In a slightly more humorous way, unemployed architect Stephen Booker gets economically trapped into getting involved in a bank robbery in Robert Pollock’s Loophoole, or How to Rob a Bank. Booker’s just lost his job and is frantic for money. One day, he meets professional safecracker Mike Daniels. When Daniels finds out what Booker’s profession is, he decides that Booker would be useful in a major bank robbery that Daniels and three of his cronies are planning. Booker is financially desperate, so he agrees to help, and the five plotters begin to plan the heist of the City Savings Deposit Bank. Everything is carefully planned, but on the day of the crime, things don’t work out as planned. In the end, Booker’s involvement in the crime shows that even the “straightest arrows” might get trapped into a crime.

There’s a very powerful example of getting trapped into crime in C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Jack McGuane and his wife, Melissa, are the proud adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. One day, their worlds are shattered when they find out from the adoption agency that arranged Angelina’s adoption that the biological father wants Angelina back. He never signed away his parental rights, so he’s legally entitled to pursue the case, but neither Jack nor Melissa can see why he’d want to do that. The father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, has never expressed interest in Angelina, even before she was adopted. So Jack and Melissa decide to fight the case. They find out soon enough that Garrett Moreland has “ammunition” of his own, as his father is a well-connected judge, and he has some friends from a local gang who are only too happy to get involved.The McGuanes have been given twenty-one days before they have to hand Angelina over, and Jack resolves to find out what’s behind Garrett Moreland’s determination to get Angelina back. His search for the truth leads him to confront the question: “How far would you go to prevent your child being taken away?” In the end, McGuane does things he never would have imagined just a few short weeks earlier.

There’s a similar story in Michael Gilbert’s short story, The Amateur. That’s the story of the kidnapping of David Collett, the son of a wealthy shipping magnate. Chief Inspector Hazlerigg is put on the case, and carefully makes plans to catch the kidnapper and save the boy. Collett, though, is desperate to save his son, so he does his own sleuthing. He finds out where the kidnappers are hiding, and that David is still alive. So, against Hazlerigg’s advice, he insists on being a part of the capture. Hazlerigg reluctantly gives in. In the end, Collett gets more involved in crime than he ever would have thought possible, driven by his desire to save his son.

When they’re well-done, crime novels can make us believe that someone would be trapped, tricked or forced by circumstances to get involved in crime – even to commit murder. But if the plot doesn’t make sense, those stories can fall flat. What’s your view? Do you enjoy books with the motif of being trapped into crime? Or do you think those plots are too implausible?

On Another Note...

Tomorrow (Saturday, 20 February), I'll be once again in two places at the same time. I'll be here and I'll also be guest-blogging at Mason Canyon's terrific blog, Thoughts in Progress. I'll be talking about different subgenres of crime fiction..... and offering a giveaway of a signed copy of my new book, B-Very Flat. Do please stop over!

Have no fear, though, even if you don't get a chance to stop over tomorrow; I'll be offering a giveaway competition very soon right here, so stay tuned.


  1. Ooo. Excellent. Opportunities to win the book.

    Thanks for the detailed reviews of these books. I think it is very intriguing when a character is inadvertently involved in a crime. I wrote down some of these titles.

  2. Mary - Thank you : ). I agree that it's very intriguing when a character - especially one who ordinarily wouldn't have considering anything criminal - gets involved in a crime. It raises lots of questions about just what the line is between what we would and wouldn't do.

  3. This actually happened to a person I know. She spent time in jail for it. Very sad in real life but a good topic for mystery writing.

  4. Tara - How very sad that your friend went to jail because of being "sucked into" a crime situation. You're right that it's intriguing for a mystery novel, but yes, it must be devastating in real life.

  5. If the plot is done right, a character being tricked or sucked in to do a crime can be very good, nerve racking even. It makes one stop and think what would they do in that same spot.

    Looking forward to you guest blogging Saturday.

  6. Mason - Thanks : ) I'm looking forward to it, too. You're right, also, that when a character gets tricked or sucked into cimes, that can make the reader stop and think, "Could this happen to me?" "What would I do?" That can be very, very suspenseful.

  7. I really enjoy this type of story, especially if it is done well. We see the characters slowly descending into the abyss, usually against their better judgment, but...something compels them. Excellent!

  8. Alan - You really put that very well! I agree, too, that when it's done well, the characters get more and more tangled up in the crime until they can no longer pull themselves out. That, in itself, can add a lot of suspense to a story.

  9. Accidentally getting involved is interesting, I think, and can be realistically done. Lots of "wrong place, wrong time" scenarios happen in real life, too.

    Looking forward to seeing you on Mason's blog!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  10. Elizabeth - Thanks - I'm looking forward to it, too : ). You're right, too, that "wrong place/wrong time" scenarios really do happen in life, and when they're done well in crime fiction, they can really add to the interest and suspense in the story.

  11. For one moment there I saw the picture at the top of this post and thought you'd be writing about a particularly gruesome use of the vacuum cleaner in Jo Nesbo's The Redeemer. So glad you didn't!

    I think that Linwood Barclay writes well about being "sucked into" crime - and also Harlan Coben. These novels often start out by being small domestic issues that spiral out of control....

    A total non-sequitur, but I noticed in your post the name of a character David Hunter in an Agatha Christie novel. This is also the name of the protagonist in Simon Beckett's novels. I wonder how hard or easy it would be to write a post about characters by different authors who share a name ;-)

  12. One of the most interesting things about this type of plot is the character who feels they don't have a choice; circumstances have forced them to take this sort of action. If written well, the reader can sympathize with the character, but if poorly written the reader might just get frustrated. Nine times out of ten, this plot depends on the victim being a rather unsavory human being - which can be fun. Then again, it's easy for the plot to slip into melodrama and the characters to become cardboard cut-outs rather than real people with all their inherent complexities.

    Personally, I've never had much sympathy for a 'poor me' character. However, a character feeling trapped by circumstances and deciding murder is the only logical solution...that can be fascinating.

  13. Maxine - LOL! No worries - no gore today : ). Every once in a while some authors (Nesbo and Rankin come to my mind first) do write about some rather gruesome murders, but I admit, I don't like to dwell on them in this delicate, ladylike blog *smothers a snicker*.

    I like the way you describe what happens in some of these plots - things that spiral out of control. In those novels there's a sense of, "I didn't ever think it would go this far!" You're actually putting me in mind of Agatha Christie's Hickory Dickory Dock(AKA Hickory Dickory Death. That's where Poirot investigates the death of one of the residents of a hostel for students. One of the other residents actually helps to turn in the killer, so to speak, because the informant had never intended someone to die, but was too inextricably meshed into the plot to do anything. Another case of being in, "over one's head."

    Thanks, also, for your idea about names! You're absolutely right about David Hunter (I'm enjoying Beckett's Whispers of the Dead, by the way). I'll bet there are many cases of names being used in more than one series. Fodder for another post, methinks... : )

    Elspeth - I'm with you; if a plot is going to feature an "I couldn't help it!" character, there really needs to be a compelling reason why the character acts as s/he does. That's what I like about Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Maybe it's because I'm an adoptive parent, but I can completely understand why the protagonist acts as he does. If the plot isn't well-written, though, then yes, characters can become cutouts (I like that description!). In my opinion, it's all about creating a scenario that people can believe would trap someone into crime. Not an easy thing to do...

  14. I think it is part of the art of writing crime and thrillers: it is up to us to make the readers swallow the premises of the plot. I must admit I did not quite succeed today; I posted a flash fiction story on my Danish writers´ blog, and most of the members were impressed, but one craftsman did not buy the plot at all.

    I will watch out for opportunities to win your book.

  15. Dorte - You are so right! As writers, we do need to make our plots plausible and our characters authentic. It is part of what we do as writers to get readers to believe that what we write could really happen. That's the way to keep readers turning pages.

    I'm very impressed with the flash fiction you write. To me, that's a really effective way to practice writing and get better at it. I admit that I don't do flash fiction myself, chiefly because of time. I respect people like you who, do, though : ).

    ...and thanks for your interest in B-Very Flat : ). That means a lot to me.

  16. Very interesting, as always. And you've made me want to read Ten Days' Wonder asap...

  17. Martin - Thank you : ). is one of the more fascinating pychological studies I've read. I admit that the plot itself gets thin here and there, but the characters are compelling and so are their relationships. And the psychological manipulation? Engrossing....