Friday, June 4, 2010

Sweeping Away the Side Issues...

Most of us have done things we’d rather not have found out. For most people, they’re relatively minor things like driving faster than the speed limit. Or they’re embarrassing things, such as being guilty of playing (or falling for) a practical joke. Whatever those little secrets are, we try to keep them to ourselves. This can create a problem for police or other detectives when they’re trying to solve a murder, though. They have to sort through what people tell them (and don’t tell them) and decide which issues are related to the murder they’re investigating, and which are side issues. That’s not always easy to do, because people can be just as evasive when they’re hiding a minor peccadillo as they might if they’re hiding a murder. So in real life, and in crime fiction, a good part of the work of a criminal investigation is separating the side issues from the main issue – the murder or murders being investigated. In fact, it can take a lot of effort to convince a witness to tell the truth about whatever s/he’s hiding, so as to get that side issue out of the way, so to speak. In well-written crime fiction, those side issues can serve as very effective “red herrings,” so long as they don’t distract too much from the main plot.

Agatha Christie used side issues quite skillfully in several of her novels. I’ll just mention a few of them. In Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, asks him to help her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, find out the truth behind some mysterious goings-on at the hostel she manages. Poirot agrees, and visits the hostel, where he learns that some odd things have been disappearing. When he tells the residents of the hostel that the police should be called in, one of the residents, Celia Austin, confesses that she’s been taking things. It’s soon discovered that she did so to attract the attention of another resident, Colin McNabb, with whom she’s infatuated. At first, it seems that the matter is closed. But then, two days later, Celia Austin is found dead, apparently having committed suicide. It’s not long before it’s proven that Celia was murdered, and now Poirot and the police realize that the situation at the hostel is much more serious than anyone thought. As the police interview all of the residents, they and Poirot find that almost all of them are being evasive. In most cases, it’s because of minor issues. For instance, one resident is hiding certain political connections; another is hiding a family history of mental illness. Yet another is hiding a tendency to snoop around. It’s not until all of those issues are swept aside that Poirot is able to get to the truth about Celia Austin’s death.

In The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), Miss Marple has a similar task of separating side issues from the real case at hand. Famous actress Marina Gregg has decided to buy Gossington Hall, in St. Mary Mead. In order establish good relations with the local residents, she and her husband decide to host an open-house party and invite the locals. One resident, Heather Badcock, is particularly excited about the event, because Marina Gregg is her idol. So Heather eagerly attends the party. She gets to meet her idol and, what’s more exciting for Heather, Marina even hands her fan a cocktail. All seems well until Heather sickens and then dies from what turns out to be poison. At first, everyone thinks that Marina Gregg was the intended victim. After all, she’s the famous one, and has certainly engendered her share of bad feelings. In fact her rival, Lola Brewster, was at the party and could have committed the crime. What’s more, the drink that killed Heather Badcock was Marina’s. But then, Miss Marple and her friend, Dolly Bantry, start sweeping away those side issues and they find that, in reality, Heather was the intended victim all along. Once Miss Marple gets to the heart of the matter, she’s able to figure out who wanted to kill Heather and why.

There are plenty of side issues and evasiveness in Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby series, too. For instance, in A Ghost in the Machine, Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate the death of financial consultant Dennis Brinkley. Brinkley is the executor for the will of wealthy Carrie Lawson, who left most of her fortune, and her home, to her nephew, Mallory Lawson, and his family. The only proviso is that they must live in her home, and employ her former companion, Benny Frayle. One day, Frayle goes to visit Brinkley, who’s also a friend of hers, only to find him dead. She immediately gives the alarm, but the police think Brinkley’s death is an accident. In fact, it’s not until later that Barnaby and Troy begin to investigate the death as a murder. When they do, they have to sweep away several side issues. Brinkley was a financial advisor, so, for instance, one character is guilty of breaking into Brinkley’s files and manipulating money. Another character is evasive because of strong feelings for Brinkley. There are other side issues, too, that cause characters to lie and be evasive. In the end, Barnaby and Troy are able to get past those side issues and find out the real reason for Brinkley’s murder.

Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder also includes some interesting side issues that have to be swept away. John Gwathney, well-known historian and author, is shot in his home in the Irish village of Ballynagh. Immediately, his housekeeper, Megan O’Faolain, is immediately accused of the crime. She is motivated, too. First, she stands to inherit a fortune from her former employer. Also, it’s been rumored that Megan, who was widely known to be having an affair with Gwathney, has been involved with Liam Caffey, a local potter. Megan’s friend, interpreter Torrey Tunet, is sure that her friend is innocent, and sets out to prove it. To do that, though, she’s got to get to the bottom of a lot of evasiveness. For instance, one character lies to cover up the fact of having taken one of Gwathney’s manuscripts. Another character lies to cover up domestic abuse. There are other evasions, too. Finally, Tunet is able to find out which character is lying to cover up the murder.

In that sense, M.C. Beaton’s Love, Lies and Liquor is quite similar. In that novel, Agatha Raisin’s former husband, James Lacey, convinces Agatha to join him for a getaway weekend at Snoth-on-Sea, a resort town James had enjoyed as a child. Times have changed, though, and Snoth turns out to be a terrible disappointment. In fact, Agatha is on the point of leaving when murder keeps her there. One night, Agatha has an argument with Geraldine Jankers, another guest at the hotel where Agatha and James are staying. Later that night, Geraldine Jankers is strangled with Agatha’s scarf, so naturally, Agatha falls under suspicion. At first, she gets involved in the case to clear her name. Later, when it’s proven that she couldn’t have committed the murder, Agatha stays involved in the case to find out who committed the murder; she is curious. As she and the team from her detective agency try to get to the bottom of Geraldine Jankers’ death, they find that nearly everyone they talk to is being evasive about something. One character is evasive because of domestic abuse. Another is evasive because of involvement with organized crime. Still another is hiding theft. It’s not until the team gets to the bottom of those side issues that we learn who really killed Geraldine Jankers and why.

That’s also true in Philip R. Craig’s A Vineyard Killing. That’s the story of the attempted murder of Paul Fox, part-owner of Saberfox, a real-estate development company on Martha’s Vineyard. When someone comes very close to killing Fox, J.W. Jackson, Craig’s sleuth, gets curious about the case – especially since he was present at the time of the shooting, and he has a motive to shoot Fox. Saberfox has been using all sorts of methods, both legal and otherwise, to get local residents to sell their land cheaply. Many of the residents, including Jackson, are upset with the company. In fact Dodie Donawa, another resident, is accused of the shooting, although she’s later cleared. Then, another company employee, Albert Kirkland, is stabbed to death. Now it looks as though Saberfox’s employees are being targeted. In order to find out the real story behind that murder, and the attack on Paul Fox, Jackson has to get past a number of side issues. For instance, one character is evasive because of a traumatic past incident. Another is evasive to protect one of the suspects. In the end, Jackson gets to the truth about the events in Martha’s Vineyard, but not before he sweeps away several side issues.

Side issues and evasiveness add to well-written crime fiction because they’re realistic. People really do tend to dissemble when they want to hide embarrassing or shameful truths. On the other hand, when the author takes too much time with those side issues and doesn’t focus enough on the plot, the story can seem fractured. What’s your view? Do you like those side issues? Or do you think they detract from the plot?


  1. Interesting post. You're right, if the author takes too much time with the side issues it can take away from the plot. But, if done correctly it can add to the story. I think it's a thin line the author has to follow to make it realistic. The author can't add too much or too little or it won't work.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - Well-put. There is a fine line between devoting too much or too little time to the side issues. Having some side issues seems important, because it's only natural for people to be evasive about embarrassing or not-exactly-legal things they've done. It makes sense that the police would have to get through those issues. Too many, though, and it does get to be distracting.

  3. I think if the side issues are more interesting than the plot, you have a problem. I think writers need to remember just what the sides are... It's hard though, sometimes writers can know the plot so well that the side issues come to be more interesting and writers start devoting more and more time to discussing it.

    Great post again. CD

  4. Clarissa - Thanks for the kind words : ). You have a very good point, too. It's hard not to explore side issues sometimes, because they can be interesting. For instance, if a character is being evasive because s/he has a shady past, well, that can be fascinating. On the other hand, it's just as important for the author to remember that the real point of a novel is the main plot. Anything that distracts the reader from that plot or takes away from it can make the book less.

  5. I love those books e.g. The Redbreast Jo Nesbo] where what seems just a side issue, or even an aside, is really a clue to the whole story.
    I am put off by an author giving a lot of information about their pet subject that slows down the action, unless of course their pet is one of my pets. ;o)

  6. Norman - Oh, I know what you mean, and I agree - books where those side issues only seem trivial can be wonderful. And The Redbreast is, of course, a great example of what you mean. That's why side issues can be so key to a good story. Unless the author goes on for too long about those issues. Or, as you say, strays off into another area for entirely too much of the novel. That's why I like a balance of side issues and main plot.

  7. Some authors are clever with side issues, "seeding" a few in (say) the first book in a series so they can be returned to in future. I also like it when an author writes a book about some characters who then appear as side issues in other books (eg Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly).
    I agree with others here that side issues are fun, as long as they don't distract too much from the focus. It is also, as Norman says, great when the side issue isn't really one, and becomes central to the plot. Nesbo is very good at this.

  8. Maxine - Sorry it's taken me 'till today to respond to this. I should scroll back more often *blush of embarrassment!* You really put your finger on how series can benefit from side issues. I really do like the way Connelly does that. I, too, like the way he "side characters" in as more major characers (and vice versa). I think Alexander McCall Smith does that fairly well in his Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. And yes, Jo Nesbø is terrific at making the reader think a side issue is a side issue - when it isn't... Of course, he's terrific at a lot of things when it comes to writing crime fiction. Snowman, anyone??? ; )