Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How Long to the Point of No Return*

Every day, we’re faced with decisions, both large and small. For all of those decisions, there’s a point beyond which we can’t “take back” what we decide. For low-risk choices, we don’t usually think about that “point of no return,” because the consequences aren’t serious. For instance, choosing one brand of household cleaner over another doesn’t usually have serious consequences; we may dislike the brand and tell ourselves to choose another brand next time, but usually, the consequences are no more serious than that. For more important decisions with potentially more serious consequences, we do think about that “point of no return.” In fact, it’s often that realization that there’s no turning back that gives us pause. That “point of no return” can be anxiety-producing and in its way, suspenseful. So it’s no wonder that crime fiction stories make use of this kind of plot point.

Sometimes, a major character who’s reached a point where there is no turning back makes a decision that sets in motion all of the other major events in a story – the events that lead to the crime. For instance, in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, a dangerous drugs ring wants to use a highly respectable advertising agency, Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., to set up meetings with local drug dealers. One of Pym’s employees makes the decision to work with the drugs gang and help set up the meetings. At first, it’s because the employee is desperate for money. But once the decision is made, there’s no turning back from it. That decision leads directly to the murder of Victor Dean, a copywriter who finds out about the drugs ring’s connection with the publicity firm. The firm’s management calls Lord Peter Wimsey in to investigate, in order to avoid a scandal, and Lord Peter goes undercover as Dean’s replacement copywriter. In the end, Wimsey finds out who was responsible for Dean’s murder – and shows himself as a talented copywriter and a skilled cricketer, too.

There are several “points of no return” in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of wealthy and beautiful Linnet Ridgeway Doyle while she’s on a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. The first major point of no turning back is when Linnet meets her husband, Simon Doyle. When the two meet, Simon is the fiancé of Linnet’s best friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort, and when Linnet realizes that she’s attracted to him, she makes the fateful decision to pursue the relationship. That decision helps to set in motion many of the other events in the story. Jacqueline de Bellefort herself reaches a point of no turning back when she decides to follow the Doyles on their honeymoon trip. In fact, Poirot even advises her not to take the cruise, and to put the past behind her. She doesn’t listen, and so, is on board when Linnet is shot. In fact, she’s the first suspect, until it’s clear that she couldn’t have committed the crime. Jacqueline de Bellefort’s decision to pursue her plan also plays a major part in the later events in the novel.

Many of Christie’s other novels also make use of the “no turning back” plot point; I’ll just mention one more. In And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), ten people arrange for a stay on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. Each has responded to a different kind of invitation, and each one hesitates a bit about accepting that invitation. In the end, each guest makes the decision to go to the island. When they arrive, all of the guests discover that they’ve been lured there under false pretenses. On the first night, one of the guests is poisoned, and it becomes clear that there’s a murderer on the island. As other guests begin to die, the survivors discover that there’s no turning back from their decision to go to the island, and there’s no escape from it.

C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye has a compelling point where there is no turning back. Jack and Melissa McGuane are the happy adoptive parents of baby Angelina. All’s well until one day, their world is shattered when they find out that Angelina’s biological father, Garrett Moreland, never signed away his parental rights and is now pressing his claim to the child. The McGuanes are given twenty-one days to release the child to her biological father’s custody. Many people advise them to comply, as hard as it is. Some argue that the McGaunes can adopt another child; others make the point that Moreland’s father is a powerful judge who can make life very difficult for the McGaunes if they contest the decision against them. There is also the not-trivial point that Moreland has the law on his side. The McGuanes are now faced with the decision of whether to fight the court order. They make the choice to do whatever it takes to keep Angelina, and that decision leads to most of the major events in the story as we learn how far someone might go to keep a child.

There’s also an interesting “point of no return” in Robin Cook’s Seizure. In that novel, U.S. Senator Ashley Butler actively opposes gene-therapy research. In fact, he’s sponsoring a bill that would outlaw surgical procedures that involve those techniques. Then, he’s diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He’s well aware that if news of his disease gets out, his successful career as a powerful senator is over. So is any chance he has of becoming the next U.S. president. So he offers a deal to Dr. Daniel Lowell, whose brand-new company specializes in exactly the kind of research that Butler has tried to outlaw. Butler agrees to drop his opposition to gene-therapy procedures if Lowell agrees to perform the surgery on Butler. We could argue that, for both men, there are two crucial decision points in the story. One is when they agree to the details of the surgical procedure. For Butler, this starts the very delicate process of withdrawing the bill he’d sponsored without calling attention to that withdrawal, or losing the support of voters who’d wanted the bill to be passed. For Lowell and his assistant, Stephanie D’Agostino, it means the long and difficult process of preparing for the surgery. That preparation leads them to the Wingate Clinic, a medical facility located in the Bahamas, and run by unscrupulous administrators who are interested only in profit. The other decision point, and the real point where there is no turning back, is when Lowell and D’Agostino actually perform the surgery. This surgery, which is risky and has not been approved by any government agency, ends up having tragic consequences for both Butler and Lowell. While this novel is arguably not Cook’s best work, it does show what it’s like for people who have reached the “point of no return.”

Sometimes, that point can lead to decisions that have very unexpected consequences. That’s what happens in James W. Fuerst’s Huge, the story of twelve-year-old Eugene “Huge” Smalls. Huge Smalls is a bit of a social misfit. He’s exceptionally intelligent, but doesn’t fit in well with others, and he’s quite small for his age. As if that weren’t enough, he has a lot of anger issues and he’s gotten in trouble more than once because of them. He’s passionately interested in detection, and is a fan of Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle and other crime fiction authors. In fact, he decides to become a detective himself. His first client, his grandmother, hires him to find out who defaced the sign for the local retirement home where she lives, and Huge takes the case eagerly. Huge’s search for clues leads him to connect the vandalism of the sign to other strange happenings, such as money being stolen from retirement-home residents. Huge begins to believe that the case he’s investigating is connected to what he imagines is a drugs conspiracy that has trapped his older sister, Eunice “Neecey,” so he makes a plan to save her. Huge finds out that one of Neecey’s friends is having a party, and that Neecey and several of the boys Huge thinks are involved in the conspiracy will be there. Huge makes the decision to defy his mother, sneak out of the house and “crash” the party. Once he leaves the house that night, there is no turning back, and his decision leads to some very surprising events, including the solution of the mystery.

Many crime fiction novels focus on those “points of no return.” They can be very suspenseful, and they allow the reader to identify with the character who’s making the “no turning back” decision. I’ve only mentioned a few here; which are your favorites?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kansas' Point of Know Return.


  1. I don't have a favorite, but I do enjoy books with the "no turning back" plot. It draws the reader in and makes them consider what they would do in the same situation. These were all good examples. Interesting post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. I love this concept in books...the lack of an escape route from a personal decision gone wrong! In real life, this is the kind of worry that keeps me from making decisions. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. I recently read George Pelecanos' THE WAY HOME and that whole book seemed to be a series of points of no return - how people make those decisions (some taking a long time and others being split second) and how they deal with the consequences. It was one of the things that really held my attention and also got me pondering similar things in my own history.

  4. Mason - Thanks : ). You're right, too; plots with the theme of "no turning back" get the reader deeply involved, I think, and drawn in. I agree, too, that it helps the reader identify with the characters.

    Elizabeth - LOL! I sometimes do exactly the same thing. It's easy enough if the decision is a little one, but those larger decisions can be so scary for just that reason.

    Bernadette - Thanks for mentioning The Way Home. I confess I haven't read that one, but from your excellent review of it, it sounds like exactly the sort of thing I was getting at here. I've added that one to my TBR list, as it seems the sort of book that really makes one confront oneself. Sometimes that's good for a person : ).

  5. I love that moment in a book when the character or characters realize they're in a real pickle because of a decision they didn't think was momentous - but is. AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is one of my favourite Agatha Christies's.

    There are those decisions everyone knows are huge - should I get married? Am I buying this house? Is this person worthy of trust? But then, there's the biggest, most consequence-laden decision of all: What's for dinner?

  6. Elspeth - I love And Then There Were None, too, and it's said that it was actually Christie's favorite as well. It's interesting, too, isn't it, that sometimes, decisions that don't seem important at the time really do loom quite large in the end.

    And "What's for dinner?" is a very important decision and it can have very serious consequences if it's a murder mystery and someone falls over at the dinner table. ; )

  7. Margot's post made me think of my own WIP. I found myself asking "What decisions and by whom lead to most of the major events in the story?" Hm. Have to seriously reflect on this.

    Thanks for this, Margot!

  8. Christine - : ) It's funny you would mention that; I'm in the same process with my WIP. I'm asking myself how everything is falling out and what choices lead to it.

  9. I very much enjoyed some of the books you mention in this post. I liked Murder Must Advertise though unfortunately it is tainted with the antisemetism that was common at the time (in the UK). It is hard to put that aside, but the story is good I think.
    Many of the Scandinavian crime fiction authors are good on "points of no return". I think Karin Alvtegen and Johan Theorin are particularly good at this.

  10. Maxine - It's interesting that you would mention the antisemitism in Murder Must Advertise. Most Golden Age novels have some sort of -ism in them that by today's standards is hard to take. I have to admit that I do find those -isms difficult at times, but if the story is really well-done, it's worth setting those -isms aside if one can.

    I wish that I were as well-versed in Scandanavian crime fiction as you are; of the ones I have read, I do see your point, though. One of my goals for this year is to explore more Scandanavian crime fiction. In fact, I've got that Yrsa book - The Last Rituals on hold at our library on your recommendation.