Thursday, July 15, 2010

Shattered Illusions...

We often form very strong impressions of people, things or places, right from the beginning. It makes sense, too, that we do form those impressions. We use a thousand little details of appearance, behavior and more to decide what we think of a person, a place, or something else. The problem is that sometimes, those impressions are wrong. When that happens, what we believe ends up being an illusion. Sometimes, having an illusion shattered can actually turn out to be a pleasant surprise. For instance, someone we thought was rude may turn out to be simply shy, and we’ve made a friend. Other times, though, it can be devastating to have one’s illusions shattered. That’s especially true if our illusions about someone we trust are shattered. The consequences can be traumatic and, at least in crime fiction, can end up in murder. Even when shattered illusions don’t result in a murder, they can still have profound effects on a person. Coping with shattered illusions is often a part of real life, and it can add an interesting – even gripping – layer to a crime fiction story.

There’s an interesting example of what happens when illusions are shattered in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Crooked Man. Colonel James Barclay, commander of the Royal Munsters, has been killed by a blow to the head, and his wife Nancy, left unconscious. They’ve been found behind the locked door of the morning-room of their home, with no sign of the key. Holmes is called in to see what he can make of the clues, of which there aren’t many. One is that on the evening of the murder, Nancy Barclay had been on her way out with a neighbor when she encountered a man who recognized her. The neighbor remembers that the man seemed to be crippled, and that Nancy seems to have known him. Another clue is that after Nancy Barclay returned home, she had a furious argument with her husband, after which the servants heard screaming and a crash. When they finally managed to get into the room, they found Barclay’s body. Before that evening, the Barclays had always seemed to be a loving couple, so it’s hard to imagine why they’d have quarreled so furiously. As Holmes pieces together those clues and some others he finds, he’s able to figure out what really caused James Barclay’s death and the argument right before it, and where the strange man fits in. In this case, shattered illusions are arguably behind Barclay’s death and many of the events leading up to it.

Agatha Christie explores this theme in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). John Christow is a successful Harley Street specialist. He and his wife, Gerda, are invited for a week-end at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Also staying at the house are several Angkatell relations. On Sunday afternoon, Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a cottage nearby, is invited to lunch with the Angkatell house party. He no sooner arrives when he comes upon what looks like an artificial tableau: John Christow is lying dead by the swimming pool. At first, Poirot thinks it’s a scene that’s been staged for him. All too soon, though, he realizes that the scene is real, and that Christow has been shot. Inspector Grange is called in to investigate and, since Poirot was on the scene, he enlists Poirot’s help in finding the killer. As it turns out, the murder scene was, you might say, an illusion of a sort, and once Poirot realizes exactly what the illusion was, he’s able to find the killer. Shattered illusions also prove to be, more than anything else, the reason for the murder.

In Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale’s wife, Caroline, was arrested, tried and convicted of the crime, and died a year later in prison. Now, their daughter, Carla Lemarchant, wants Poirot to clear her mother’s name. She’s convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants the matter cleared up before she herself marries. Poirot agrees and begins to examine the events that led up to the murder. To do that, he interviews the five people who were “on the scene” at the time of the murder. He also asks each to write out an account of what happened. As he compares the various accounts of the tragedy, and listens to what he’s told, Poirot is able to figure out who really killed Amyas Crale, and why. In this case, too, the murderer had illusions about Amyas Crale, and when they were shattered, the murderer struck.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma. Precious Ramotswe has made the decision to open her own detective agency. Her father, Obed Ramotswe, has recently died, and she uses the money from the sale of some of his cattle to open the business. One of the reasons Mma. Ramotswe opens the business is that she needs to start her life over. She fell in love with a jazz musician, Note Mokoti, and had the illusion that he truly loved her, too, and wanted to have a life with her. Tragically, Mma. Ramotswe found out that Note Mokoti was an abusive alcoholic who never really loved her, and who’s been unfaithful more than once. When her illusions are shattered, Mma. Ramotswe knows that she can’t wallow in self-pity, so she decides to open a detective agency. Mma. Ramotswe’s way of coping with her lost illusions is to start over.

In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we meet Christopher Boone, a fifteen-year-old autistic boy. Christopher is extremely gifted mathematically and in science, and is very observant, although his autism limits him in many ways. One night, he comes upon a neighbor’s dog and sees that it’s been killed. Even after his father tells him not to get involved, Christopher decides that he’ll be like Sherlock Holmes – a detective – and solve the mystery of the dog’s death. He looks for clues, finds out information and is able to solve the case, even though he doesn’t catch subtleties of language and has difficulty reading people’s emotions. In the course of unraveling the mystery, Christopher also uncovers a hidden truth about his own life – one that shatters a very important illusion he had.

In P.D. Martin's Body Count, FBI profiler Sophie Anderson is on the trail of a killer who's abducted and murdered a young girl. Sophie has psychic visions that enable to her to "see into" the mind of the killer, and see what the killer sees, so she's very useful as a profiler. At first, she's reluctant to admit these flashes of psychic insight, but then, another murder occurs, and now, Sophie uses her dreams to track down the murderer. When she does, some illusions she's had about the person who turns out to be the killer are shattered.

In Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the ten-year-old murder of landscaper Warren Howe. At first, the obvious suspect in Howe’s murder was his wife, Tina. She had motive, too, as Howe was an unfaithful and abusive husband. However, Tina had an alibi for the murder, and the police weren’t able to pursue a conviction. Ten years after the murder anonymous notes start surfacing that suggest that Tina Howe really was guilty of her husband’s murder. So Scarlett and her team re-open the case. At the same time, Oxford historian Daniel Kind is trying to solve the mystery of the strange shape of the garden at the nearby cottage he’s taken. He soon finds out that Howe was employed by the landscaping company that created the garden, and becomes involved that way in the mystery of Howe’s death. With Kind’s help, Scarlett and her team find out that some people in the town have been keeping dark secrets that have created, as you might say, illusions. When those illusions are shattered by the truth, the result is tragedy for more than one character.

There are of course, many other novels where shattered illusions lead to sadness, devastation – and worse. I’ve only mentioned a few here. Which ones have you enjoyed?


  1. Shattered illusions work great in a plot. There are so many ways they can go. When a character's illusions are shattered will they do the right thing or will it cause them to break and go bad? Makes for wonderful reading. And again I can't think of any book titles. LOL

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - You're right. Shattered illusions can make for real suspense because, as you say, a character can become stronger and rebuild, or a character can break down and then anything can happen. That's part of the suspense that can make a book memorable.

  3. First of all, I want to say, I love your blog feature on the side bar. I have found many great blogs.

    Also great post. The author has such power over a reader. We can control what the reader often feels throughout the novel. It's best when we create an innocent illusion of a bad person and then when the motives behind the murders become clear, the illusions are stripped away.


  4. Clarissa - Thank you : ). I always love to "share the wealth" when it comes to my favorite blogs : ).

    And thanks for the kind words about the post, too. You're right; authors really do have an incredible amount of power over a reader, and if authors do their jobs well, the reader really can be under illusions for as long as the author wants. I'm thinking of Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd...

  5. You have reminded me how important it is to create excitement by giving the reader different impressions of characters. I rushed off to write a note to myself in the middle of my cozy mystery :D
    I also remember an important lesson my mother has taught me: if a person seems haughty, it is often because she is shy. Another aspect to remember when creating fictive characters.

  6. Dorte - I am so excited to read your story! I'm sure that it will be fantastic : ). And your mother was right; haughty, aloof people often are that way because they're shy or insecure. I need to think about that, too as I work on my own WIP.

  7. The novel I've just finished, Afterlight by Alex Scarrow, is about dealing with shattered illusions, as the characters have to deal with the fact that there is nobody out there running a society or country and hence, nobody to look after them. It is quite sad. Perhaps not your average crime plot, but the book raises many interesting questions about what we'd miss and what we perhaps don't appreciate because of familiarity.

  8. Maxine - Thanks for mentioning Afterlight. I confess I haven't read that one, but its depiction of a society with no real infrastructure, as you might say, is a really clear example of shattered illusions. Folks, I strongly encourage you to read Maxine's wonderful review of Afterlight.