Sunday, August 29, 2010

Turning the Tables...

If you think about it, most crime fiction novels involve conflicts between adversaries. Of course, the most important conflict in most crime fiction is between the criminal(s) and the sleuths(s), although there are other conflicts, too. One of the things that keeps readers interested in those conflicts is the abrupt twists and turns of events that give either the sleuth or the villain the upper hand. “Turning the tables” is a really effective way that authors use to move the plot along and to keep the reader interested. Readers get a sense of catharsis when the sleuth “turns the tables” on the criminal. They get involved in a story, and caught up in the suspense, when the villain seems to get the upper hand. We see that in real life, too, of course, when reasonably well-matched opponents go up against each other; that’s what makes sporting contests engaging, for example.

One of the most famous cases of “turning the tables” happens between Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. In The Adventure of the Final Problem, Holmes is on the point of sending Moriarty and most of his criminal gang to prison. Morarity finds out and pursues Holmes. In fact, Holmes and Watson are forced to leave the country and flee to Continental Europe, where Holmes and Moriarty have a showdown at Germany’s Riechanbach Falls. In The Adventure of the Empty House, though, Holmes sneaks back into England, where he’s pursued by members of Morarity’s gang. His life remains in danger until he “turns the tables” neatly on his adversaries. He creates a waxwork bust of himself, places it in his parlor and adjusts the lighting, so that it looks as though he’s at home. When his enemy, Colonel Moran, prepares to attack, Holmes and Watson surprise Moran and are able to capture him.

n Agatha Christie’s The Big Four, Hercule Poirot is up against a group of four international criminals who’ve joined forces. These criminals are responsible for several murders and kidnappings; everyone who finds out about the group’s existence is a threat to them, and the group has no qualms about killing in order to further their aims. They’re so ruthless, skilled and dangerous that at one point, both Poirot and Hastings are “on the run,” and Hastings is actually kidnapped. Hastings, though, is able to warn Poirot about the danger, and with that warning, Poirot “turns the tables” on the group in a dramatic way. He fakes his own death and manages to save Hastings and put an end to the gang.

Miss Marple helps a friend “turn the tables” on a killer in Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA Mrs. McGillicuddy’s Dead). In that novel, Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy is traveling from Scotland to St. Mary Mead to visit Miss Marple. Along the way, Mrs. McGillicuddy sees a train passing in the other direction. She glances through the window of the other train and sees a woman being strangled. She doesn’t get a good look at the killer, though. When she arrives at her destination, Mrs. McGillicuddy tries to alert the police to the murder, but no-one believes her. There was no dead body found on the train, and no-one has reported anyone missing. Infuriated at not being believed, Mrs. McGillicuddy tells Miss Marple what she’s seen. Miss Marple believes her friend, and with some help from professional housekeeper Lucy Eylesbarrow, she’s able to find out who the woman was, what happened to her body and later, who killed her. The killer’s had the upper hand for quite a lot of this novel, until Miss Marple “turns the tables” and tricks the killer into giving too much away.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is investigating the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi from the school she attended. Chee thinks her disappearance is related to the murder of Albert Gorman, a Las Angeles Navajo who’s come to the Reservation. Chee traces both Sosi and the killer to Los Angeles, and he’s very concerned that the killer might be after the young girl. At one point, Chee’s trapped by the killer, and only barely escapes. In the process of that escape, he’s wounded and Sosi, whom he’s finally found, disappears. But Chee is able to “turn the tables” on his enemy later, when he tracks the killer down in a climactic scene that takes place during a Navajo ceremonial event. In both of those scenes, Margaret Billy Sosi plays an important role, and Hillerman uses the device of “turning the tables” very effectively to keep the interest.

So does James Lee Burke in A Morning For Flamingos. In that novel, police officer Dave Robicheaux has returned to the New Iberia police force after recovering from an injury. He and his partner Lester Benoit are assigned to transport Tee Beu Latiolais and Jimmie Lee Boggs to the Angola state penitentiary. Both prisoners have been convicted of murder, and they’re being sent to Angola to await the death penalty. During the trip to Angola, Boggs manages to escape and he murders Benoit, leaving Robicheaux for dead. Robicheaux survives and after a leave of absence, recovers from his wounds. He’s given the opportunity to go after Boggs when he’s asked to go undercover in a “sting” operation targeting Tony Cardo, a New Orlenas crime boss and drug dealer. When Robicheaux hears that Boggs is mixed up with Cardo, he can’t resist the chance to go after his enemy, even though he’s reluctant to get mixed up in the “sting.” In a powerful scene, Robicheaux encounters Boggs later in the novel, and this time, the “tables are turned.” Burke keeps the reader engaged by putting Robicheaux in exactly the position Boggs was in early in the novel, and letting the reader find out what Robicheaux does in that position.

One of the more comical cases of “turning the tables” is in Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip. That’s the story of marine scientist Chaz Perrone and his wife, Joey. Perrone discovers a way to alter water samples so that it seems as though there are no chemicals or other toxins in them. This discovery turns out to be quite lucrative for Chaz, because it allows his “business partner,” agribusiness tycoon Red Hammernut, to continue to dump toxic chemicals into the Florida Everglades. When Joey Perrone finds out what her husband’s been doing, he decides she’s too dangerous. So Chaz arranges a boat trip for the two of them and tells Joey he’s booked an anniversary cruise. While the two of them are out on the boat, Chaz throws his wife overboard. His plans are ruined, though, because Joey is a champion swimmer and doesn’t drown. She’s rescued by Mick Stranahan, a former investigator for Florida’s Attorney General’s office, and decides to “turn the tables” on her husband. Joey and Mick concoct a plan of revenge designed to drive him mad and make him believe that someone saw him throwing his wife overboard. Chaz’ fear makes him more and more unstable, and that puts him in danger not only from the forces of law, but also from Hammernut, who’s not about to let Chaz Perrone get in the way of his profits.

In a less climactic, but equally funny case of “turning the tables,” Andrea Camilleri’s sleuth, Salvo Montalbano, “turns the table” on one of his adversaries, his colleague Mimì Augello, in The Snack Thief. When a Tunisian sailor is killed while he’s aboard an Italian fishing boat, this creates a high-profile opportunity to catch the killer and get some “glory.” Augello can’t resist the chance to curry favor so he takes the case. Montalbano is infuriated, but neatly “turns the tables” on Augello when he convinces his superiors that the fishing boat case would be better investigated by another police department. Now, Augello’s off the high-profile case, and Montalbano is able to gain favor by solving his own case, a man who’s been stabbed in an elevator. In the end, Montalbano finds that the murders are related, and gets quite a lot of pleasure out keeping Augello from getting much credit for solving them.

The “turning the tables” device can keep a reader’s interest, whether it’s the sleuth or the villain who’s got the upper hand. When the sleuth “turns the tables,” there’s a sense that the “bad guy got his.” When the villain’s in control, this can add a solid layer of tension. Which novels have you enjoyed that use this device?


  1. I don't have a book in mind that fits this post, but you've definitely peaked my interest in SKINNY DIP. When the victim can turn the tables on the person who attempts to kill them, now that makes for suspenseful reading. Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - Thanks : ). And I highly recommend Skinny Dip. It's hysterically funny, and the plot is interesting. It's one of those comic/caper crime novels that really serves as a tonic when you need a good story with some high-quality humour.

  3. I like your Sherlock Holmes example. That's the one I would have come up with but I think the turning the tables bit is one of the reasons I love serial killer books so much. It's pitting the sleuth against a mastermind.


  4. You mention all three examples I would have thought of- another fantastic post, Margot.

  5. Great point! Turning the tables is very effective:)

  6. Clarissa - The Sherlock Holmes/Moriarty conflict is so interesting, isn't it? When the sleuth and criminal are evenly matched, this can add quite a lot of interest to a story.

    Rayna - Why, thank you - you are very kind : ).

    Alexandra - You're absolutely right; when it's done well,"turning the tables" can be a very successful strategy.

  7. Laurie R. King uses the technique effectively in The God of the Hive (the conclusion to her The Language of Bees).
    The odds seem so against Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes and for much of the book it appears Mycroft is dead. Yet they manage to turn the tables with the help of an eccentric ally. In the hands of a lesser writer it might have seemed contrived. But King pulls it off.

  8. John - Thanks for this great example. I have to admit, I'm a bit of a purist, so I do prefer the Conan Doyle Holmes stories. But you're right about King's talent; she is a very fine writer.

  9. These two posts are excellent, Margot. As always, you've mentioned a few mysteries I haven't read, which adds to my very long TBR list. :)

  10. "Turning the tables" is one of my favorite techniques to read, watch or write. You could say it's what "drama" is all about. It's best when you know who the adversary is, though, so you can appreciate the conflict better and anticipate more.

  11. It's all about who's pulling the strings, isn't it? It's thrilling when it's the villain, but it's always a relief when the sleuth is able to wrest away control. However, sometimes there's more than one puppet in play...

  12. Patricia - Why, thank you : ). I hope you'll enjoy the books. I actually thought of adding The Prairie Grass Murders to my post, but I didn't want to give too much away... ; ).

    Daring Novelist - You are so right! "Turning Tables" really is drama, isn't it? You've got a point, too, that it's more dramatic and more interesting when you know who the opponents are. It does whet the reader's appetite, so to speak.

    Elspeth - Ah, yes! There's always the not-so-obvious puppets and puppet-masters, no? That's part of the pleasure, I think, of a well-written mystery - figuring out who's pulling the strings of whom. And in a good story, it's not always that obvious.