Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I Don't Think That's Such a Good Idea...

Crime fiction authors use all sorts of strategies for building suspense and sometimes, for giving readers hints about who the victim in the story will be. One of those strategies is to actually warn the victim that his or her attitude, behavior, etc. could be dangerous. Those warnings are realistic when you think about it; most of us would warn a friend or relative who was heading for serious trouble. They’re also effective ways to introduce supporting characters and develop them. Warnings like that also get the reader involved. Readers want to warn the victim, too, that there’s trouble ahead.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels use the “warning” strategy. For example, in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), we meet Emily Arundell, a wealthy spinster with financially desperate relations. Over Easter Bank holiday, her nephew and nieces visit, and Miss Arundell knows very well that the reason for their visit is that they want to ingratiate themselves with her. She, however, is not willing to part with her money, saying that her relations will have the money when she dies. Her nephew, Charles Arundell, actually warns Miss Arundell that she’s going the right way about it to get killed, but she brushes off the warning. Then, Miss Arundell has a nearly-fatal fall down a flight of stairs, and begins to suspect that the fall was not accidental. She writes a letter to Hercule Poirot, asking him to investigate the matter, but she isn’t specific as to whom she suspects. Unfortunately, Poirot doesn’t receive the letter until two months later. By the time he and Hastings arrive at Miss Arundell’s home in Market Basing, it’s too late; Miss Arundell has died. Poirot also finds out that Miss Arundell has changed her will, leaving all of her considerable fortune to her companion, Wilhelmina “Minnie” Lawson. Against this, too, she was warned; her lawyer suggested it wasn’t a good idea to leave her money away from her family. Miss Arundell didn’t listen to that warning, either, and you could argue that it’s in part her refusal to heed those warnings that leads to her death.

In Christie’s The ABC Murders, Poirot and Hastings work with the police and Scotland Yard to solve a baffling set of murders that seem to be the work of a serial killer. The only connection among the murders is that a cryptic warning letter is sent to Poirot before each murder, telling him the date of the killing. Also, an ABC railway guide is found near each body. Despite the warnings (and, oddly enough, because of one of them), Poirot isn’t able to prevent the crimes. As he and Hastings get to know the murder victims’ families and friends, he learns more about each victim. One thing he learns about Betty Barnard, the second victim, is that she’d been warned about her behavior. Betty was a flirt, although not promiscuous, and was susceptible to compliments, flattery, and being taken out dancing and to movies – even by men she knew were married. Her sister, Megan, warned Betty that her behavior was going to get her into trouble, especially with her fiancĂ©, Donald Fraser. Betty didn’t listen, though, claiming that she wasn’t married yet, she wasn’t doing any harm, and she wanted to have her fun while she could. In the end, Betty’s unwillingness to pay attention to her sister leads to her death.

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are invited to spend a week-end at the home of wealthy playboy John Levering Benedict III. They accept and all’s well until Benedict tells them that he’s invited his attorney, his attorney’s secretary and his three ex-wives to the house for the week-end. Neither Queen can imagine why Benedict would create such a volatile atmosphere, but Benedict claims that everything’s arranged. Once again, Queen remonstrates with Benedict (although admittedly, not with any real force), but Benedict isn’t really concerned. Then one night, Queen, who’s staying in Benedict’s guesthouse, gets a frantic call from his host. Benedict tells Queen that he’s been murdered. Queen rushes over to the main house, but by the time he gets there, it’s too late. Benedict has been killed by a blow to the head with a heavy statuette. The only clues left at the scene are a green wig, a glittering evening gown and a pair of gloves. Each item belongs to a different ex-wife of Benedict’s. Now, Queen and his father have to sort through the clues and everyone’s story to find out who killed his host.

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. All’s well until Garrett Moreland, Angelina’s biological father, decides to assert his parental rights.The court has agreed to support Moreland, and the McGuanes are given twenty-one days to give Angelina up. The McGuanes are shocked, and Jack wants to challenge the court’s ruling. He’s warned by several people, including the couple’s adoption lawyer, that Garrett Moreland’s father, Judge Moreland is a powerful adversary. McGuane’s even told that “there are other babies,” and that he’s better off not going up against the Morelands. Both Melissa and Jack are unwilling to give up, though, and they resolve to do whatever it takes to keep Angelina. Even Jack, though, doesn’t know how far he’ll have to go to keep her.

Alexander Seaton is warned about his possible fate in Shona Maclean’s A Game of Sorrows. Seaton is a university teacher in Aberdeen, and is hoping to make a permanent life there. One night, he’s visited by his Irish cousin, Sean Fitzgarrett. Fitzgarrett tells Seaton that he’s come on a mission to bring Seaton with him to Ireland to help lift a curse that a poet has placed on the family. At first, Seaton isn’t even willing to listen to his cousin, but Fitzgarrett then says that parts of the curse have already come true. Now, it sounds to Seaton as though someone is deliberately targeting his Irish relations, so he reluctantly agrees to go to Ireland. When Seaton and Fitzgarrett arrive in Ireland, Seaton’s cousin, Dierdre, tries to warn him not to get involved. She tells him that he’ll be killed, and that he should leave Ireland. But Seaton’s already promised to help. So he goes ahead with the plan to find the poet who cursed the family and prove that the curse can’t come true. Seaton soon finds out that he got more than he bargained for when he discovers the political, religious and family turmoil that have led to the curse and that soon lead to violent death.

Donna Leon’s Ispettore Vianello tries to warn his aunt, Zia Anita, of danger in A Question of Belief. In that novel, he and Commissario Guido Brunetti investigate a case of fraud that, for Vianello, begins with astrology. Vianello’s aunt has recently taken an inordinate interest in astrology. More disturbing, she’s recently taken thousands of euros out of the family business’ funds, and won’t explain what she’s doing with the money. Since the money she takes is her own money, there’s not much the family can do about it, but Vianello and his cousins have all tried to warn Zia Anita that she may be the victim of fraud. She refuses to listen and bristles at what she sees as threats to her independence. It’s not until the fraud is exposed that she’s able to see how she’s been cheated.

Warnings like these can add to a novel by pointing out who the victim is going to be, and by giving the reader other clues. They also help in character development. And they’re realistic. On the other hand, it can be unrealistic and even annoying if a character gets a warning and doesn’t heed it, even if that’s necessary to make the character a victim. So, like everything else, the “warning” strategy requires a solid balance. Do you enjoy novels with this strategy? Which ones have you liked?


  1. I think warnings unheeded work well in most genres, in horror we always see the next victim wander into a house with the lights out and instead of thinking, 'there's a mass murderer on the run, I'm outta here!' they make their way up the creaky stairs. All the while the audience is yelling, 'get out you moron!'.

    I do like the strategy, firstly it makes us think it couldn't happen to us because we're smarter, and also dumb choices make for fun characters.

  2. Charmaine - That's a well-taken point. The reader can get involved in a story where there's an unheeded warning if the characters are fun and interesting. It's always nice, too, to think that we wouldn't fall into the same trap : ).

    I had to laugh at your comment about horror movies. All too often, a character does something like answer a 'phone, go up those stairs, or investigate a basement, and everyone knows that disaster is imminent. Unheeded warnings are absolutely just as common in the horror genre as in crime fiction...

  3. One thing that irritates me is when everyone tells a person that they are being chased by a murderer and they continue on doing what they're doing and what!? they got killed. Or, they get saved in the most predictable manner.

    If a writer can make a warning, have the warning heeded and yet make it exciting... I love that.


  4. Clarisssa, - I agree; it is irritating when a character knows she or he is a murderer's target, and does nothing about it. Most people really aren't that stupid/naive/etc., so if a character is, that's off-putting. If the author can use the "warning" strategy and still make it engaging, yes, that is great.

  5. The 'warning' strategy can lead to interesting twists in the plot. I agree if the warning isn't heeded or at least considered by the character, then it's useless in the story. If the character gives reason for not listening to the warnings, then that's a bit different.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Oh, that's a nicely-taken point. Sometimes characters have good reasons (or reasons they think are good ones) not to heed a warning. That can certainly add to the plot, and makes the idea of not paying attention to a warning more believable.

  7. To heed a warning, the warnee has to trust the opinion of the warner. However, if the warnee is convinced that they're doing the right thing, said warning will be ignored because 'they know best'. No one is going to flirt eagerly with their own demise and most people would consider such a warning over dramatic. Do most people change their behaviour? No. I have no issue when these warnings get ignored. However when it's known there's a knife-wielding psychotic wandering the woods, it's probably best to listen. Choosing those woods for the setting of a romantic tryst is just dumb - and seriously, who would actually do that?

  8. Elspeth - I had to chuckle when I read your comment about having a romantic tryst in a woods where a psychotic killer is hiding. Characters who do that sort of thing can get annoying. I agree with you, though, that many people do ignore warnings, even if they're not stupid people. As you say, suppose the victim doesn't trust the person who's giving the warning? If someone I didn't trust at all warned me about something, I might be tempted to do just that thing. There's also the matter of people's sense of invulnerability. Most of us don't expect to be murdered, and it can seem melodramatic to be warned of one's fate. And, as you say, most of us don't easily change our behavior. It really is an interesting question whether people are going to heed a warning or not, isn't it?