One reason that we get drawn into mystery and crime fiction novels is that we identify with the characters in the novel, and we can imagine what it might be like to be in a similar situation. We connect with the characters and their reactions to what happens. So in that sense, well-written crime fiction appeals to us because it’s realistic. That is, the characters think, act and speak in ways that we believe could happen. And yet, mystery and crime fiction readers also enjoy the genre because it allows them to escape the everyday. Well-written crime fiction can also allow the reader to experience things that really wouldn’t normally happen. So the question becomes: just how realistic does crime fiction have to be?
Agatha Christie’s novels very often focus on real-life situations and settings. In fact, one of the appeals of those novels is exactly that; we can identify with the characters, and we have a sense of familiarity with their daily routines and the kinds of situations they face. And yet, several of her novels aren’t centered on real-life situations – at least not situations most of us face. For example, Tommy and Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford, whom we first meet in The Secret Adversary, get involved in international intrigue when they’re overheard hatching a plan to earn a living as Young Adventurers, Ltd. When the man who overhears the conversation tries to hire Tuppence, she gives an assumed name. The name she chooses gets her swept up into a search for a mysterious woman, a missing secret treaty and a clash with a powerful enemy.
In Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt, we meet Stafford Nye, a low-level diplomat with a humdrum career. His life is turned upside-down when a mysterious woman approaches him in an airport, begging him to let her use his diplomatic credentials so she can escape the country. He reluctantly agrees, and that draws him into an international conspiracy for world domination, and a plot to manipulate the minds of young people in order to achieve that goal. In both of these novels, the plots involve things that wouldn’t really happen to most of us. And yet, we get pulled into the stories because many of the characters ring true. We can identify, for instance, with Stafford Nye’s befuddlement and reluctance when he first encounters some of the strange people he meets. We can imagine what it might be like to be swept up into events we couldn’t have dreamed of, too.
We can also identify with the characters in Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, which also isn’t, strictly speaking, realistic. In that novel, Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school, is thrown into turmoil when the newly-hired games mistress is shot one night in the brand-new Sports Pavilion. Then, another mistress is murdered, and a student disappears, and before long, it looks as though someone is targeting the school. Hercule Poirot gets involved in the case when one of Meadowbank’s students makes an important connection between the events at the school and a recent revolution in an exotic foreign country. The novel hinges, among other things, on espionage, missing jewels and kidnapping. Those are, of course, exotic to most of us, and in that sense, the novel isn’t realistic. However, we get caught up in the drama at the school. We care about the characters, and we sympathize with Headmistress Honoria Bulstrode’s determination to save her school and find out what’s behind the murders.
It’s not realistic to think that someone would be all-but-kidnapped, summoned to a secret island, and hired to investigate a series of threatening letters, but that’s exactly what happens in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead. Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are brought to Bendigo Island by its owner, powerful munitions tycoon “King” Bendigo. He’s been getting a series of threatening letters, and he wants the Queens to find out who’s been sending them. On the island with Bendigo are his wife, Karla, and his two brothers, Abel and Judah. The island itself is a secured fortress, and as the Queens begin to investigate, they experience all sorts of (for the time) futuristic technology. Then, one night, Bendigo is shot while he and Karla are locked in his private, hermetically-sealed office. When the Queens try to find out how Bendigo was shot, they find no gun and it soon becomes clear that Karla could not have fired a weapon. Nor is there any evidence that Bendigo himself fired the gun. So, adding to the fantasy-like setting, there’s an equally unlikely “locked-room” mystery. Queen finds that the events on the island are related to the Bendigo brothers’ growing-up years, so he travels to their hometown as he continues to look into the case. In the end, after a dramatic climax, Queen finds that all of the events are tied to a long-ago event during the Bendigos’ early years. What keeps the reader connected in this novel isn’t really an authentic setting or a “normal” shooting (if there is such a thing). Rather, it’s the intriguing inter-relationships among the Bendigo brothers and Karla, and the past-to-present connection. The intellectual puzzle the novel provides also keeps the reader involved.
Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series also has some elements of the unrealistic. Dr. Siri is Laos’ chief medical examiner. When the series begins, he is “volunteered” to take on the medical examiner’s role, even though, at seventy-two, he’s been looking forward to retirement. What’s not exactly everyday is that Dr. Siri shares his body with a thousand-year-old shaman named Yeh Ming, who gives his “host” important insights. He’s also able to communicate with those who’ve died. These supernatural elements certainly aren’t what most of us could identify with or experience. What keeps readers engaged in this series is Dr. Siri’s humanity. We can sympathize with his frustration at having to “make do” with the outdated and inadequate equipment he’s given. We can also identify with his aggravation when the “powers that be” seem to get in the way of his work. The other “regular” characters are equally “real,” and the stories are told with a certain humor. Cotterill’s depiction of Laos during the late 1970’s also rings true, which isn’t surprising given his experiences in Laos.
Science fiction mystery novels also integrate a great deal of the unrealistic. For example, in Isaac Asimov’s Elijah Bailey novels, Bailey isn’t your typical homicide detective. He’s agoraphobic, because on Bailey’s Earth, humans live in large underground caves made of steel. In the first Elijah Bailey novel, Caves of Steel, he’s asked to help solve the murder of a Spacer, or human who’s emigrated to another planet. He works with a robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, who later becomes a close friend. The Elijah Bailey novels include events and experiences that most of don’t have, such as space travel, sentient robots, and so on. And yet, those novels also keep readers engaged. In part that’s because readers of science fiction mysteries don’t mind suspending their disbelief. That’s part of the pleasure of science fiction. Also, there are many elements of Bailey’s life with which readers can identify. He’s a devoted family man and a loyal friend. As he begins to work with Olivaw, he has to face his own prejudices against robots, just as we all have to face our assumptions when we have to work with someone with a different background (e.g. Elizabeth George’s Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Barbara Havers face this issue, too). And, like any of us, Bailey feels pressure to get the job done. He’s a very believable character and that, too, draws readers in.
Crime fiction involving espionage very often has elements of unreality. In real life, of course, there are spies, counterspies, conspiracies and plots. Most of us, though, don’t get involved as secret agents. We don’t receive mysterious cryptic messages, send out coded information, or get ourselves involved in international plots. And yet, many crime fiction readers thoroughly enjoy spy series such as Dorothy Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax novels or John le Carré’s George Smiley novels. In part, it’s because the spy’s life seems exciting and certainly action-packed, and many readers enjoy that form of escape. But readers also connect with the very human characters. George Smiley, for instance, isn’t a superhero. He does have a remarkable memory, but he relies on his wits, too. He also depends for a lot of help on support staff, friends and acquaintances. He doesn’t solve his cases by himself. The same is true of Emily Pollifax. Readers can identify with her bewilderment when she gets involved with the CIA as a “rookie.” It’s also easy to identify with her genuine fear when she gets more than she bargained for. She’s a “real” character and behaves in “real” ways.
That’s arguably the key to crime fiction novels, even those with unrealistic aspects to them. If the plot makes sense and the characters behave in believable ways, we don’t mind elements that aren’t real. In fact, readers who like to escape when they read enjoy those elements of fantasy. What’s your view? What’s your tolerance for the unrealistic?