Thursday, September 9, 2010

...After a While and a Thousand Miles, it All Becomes the Same*

One of the real pleasures of reading crime fiction is getting caught up in a story and trying to figure out how it will end. Crime fiction fans love the genre in part because of the twists and turns of a good plot, and the element of surprise that keeps them turning pages. It’s hard to enjoy a novel if you know the way the plot’s going to pan out before you get beyond the second or third chapter. And yet, If you look closely at crime fiction, you see a lot of plot scenarios repeating themselves. That makes some sense, since crime fiction writers read each other’s work (trust me on that one). Besides, there are only a limited number of really believable reasons that people kill each other. So authors have a limited set of choices for motive. What really makes the difference for the crime fiction fan isn’t whether a premise is similar to another novel. It’s the unique touches that the author adds to a story.

For instance, in three novels that occur to me (thanks to Maxine at
Petrona for this reminder), the story real action begins when an unidentified dead body is found on a beach. In Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, Harriet Vane discovers the body of a dead man on the beach while she’s on a hiking holiday near the town of Wolvercombe. After she gives the alarm, we find out, bit by bit, who the dead man is; he’s Russian-born Paul Alexis, a professional dancer at a local hotel. As the story continues, we find out more about Alexis, and in the end, Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey find out who killed him and why. In Minette Walters’ The Breaker, brothers Paul and Daniel Spender are exploring on the beach near Chapman’s pool in Devon when they come upon the unidentified body of a woman. After PC Nick Ingram is alerted, the police begin the process of finding out who the woman was. It turns out that she’s Kate Sumner, who disappeared from her home in Lymington, Hampshire. A great deal of patient police work, and some solid deduction, leads the investigators to the truth about Kate Sumner’s murder. The investigation in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s’s My Soul to Take also begins with an unidentified body on the beach. In this case, Bergur Ketilsson is taking a walk one evening when he comes upon a woman’s dead body. It’s not long before she’s identified as Birna Haldorsdóttir, a young architect staying at a nearby luxury spa. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is also staying at the spa at the request of its owner Jónas Júlíusson, and when Júlíusson’s accused of the murder, Thóra agrees to defend him and investigates the crime.

All three of these novels center on a body, unidentified at first, that’s found on a beach. Gradually, we find out who the dead person is, and the character of the victim is slowly revealed as the novel goes on. And yet, despite the similarities, the three novels are not identical. They take place in different locations, and the three victims all have different personalities. The motive for each murder is different, too, and of course, the murderer turns out to be a different kind of person in each case. It’s these nuances that make these stories different from one another, even though they have some surface-level similarities.

There are also similarities between Jeffery Deaver’s The Sleeping Doll and Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. In both of those novels, the sleuth has to work with one serial killer in order to catch another. In The Sleeping Doll, we meet Katrhyn Dance, a top interrogator for the California Bureau of Investigations. Her specialty is kinesics – body language. She’s sent to interview Daniel Pell, a convicted prisoner who’s the leader of a Manson-like cult. He’s in prison for the brutal murders of almost all of the members of the Croyton family eight years earlier. Only the youngest Croyton, Theresa, escaped because she was in bed that night, hidden among her toys. Now, a new death has been uncovered, and the police think that Pell’s “family” may be involved. So Dance goes into the prison where Pell is being held to interview home. In a similar way, FBI trainee Clarice Starling interviews Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist who’s also an inmate in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The FBI wants Lecter to help in tracking down a serial killer they’ve nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.” The killer is a former patient of Lecter’s, so starling is sent to find out as much as she can about him. Lecter agrees to help, on condition that for every piece of information he provides, Starling has to reveal a personal secret.

Both of these novels have a theme of law enforcement officials working with dangerous – even insane – criminals in order to catch a serial killer. Both are suspenseful novels, and both involve the sleuth being in real danger. Yet they are different enough that one could hardly call them identical. The killings are committed for different reasons and the criminals who are interviewed are also quite different. The sleuths, too, although both are women, are also different. They have different personalities, strengths and weaknesses. Those differences distinguish the two books from each other.

We also see really interesting similarities among Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer, James Yaffe’s Mom Doth Murder Sleep and Carolyn Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man. In all three novels, a murder is committed onstage, in full view of the audience. In Enter a Murderer, Arthur Surbonadier is shot onstage during a scene with bitter rival Felix Gardener during the Unicorn’s staging of The Rat and the Beaver. Just before the show, he’d had an argument with Gardener, who’d been given a “plum” role that Suborndier coveted for himself. Sir Roderick Alleyn, who’s attending the play, investigates the murder when it turns out that a prop gun Gardener had been using was loaded with real ammunition. In Mom Doth Murder Sleep, former Hollywood actor/director Martin Osborn is stabbed to death on stage during the local amateur theater group’s production of Macbeth. Sally Michaels, who’s playing Lady Macbeth, is charged with the murder. Roger Meyer, who’s a member of the cast also, works with the Mesa Grande Public Defender’s Office and he and his boss, ex-New York police officer Dave, and Dave’s mom, uncover the truth about the murder. In Death of a Hollow Man, Inspector Tom Barnaby is on hand for the Causton Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of Amadeus. During the production, Esslyn Carmichael, who’s playing Salieri, is onstage for his climactic suicide scene when the prop knife he’s supposed to be using turns out to be all too real.

In all three of these novels, the murder of an unlikeable member of a theatre troupe is murdered onstage, during a performance. In all three cases, too, the murder is accomplished when a real weapon is substituted for a prop. It turns out, too, that the sleuth is present at all three performances. However, there are some real differences, too. In each case, the murder is committed for a different motive. The sleuth also uses different strategies and evidence to solve the case, too. The novels also differ in place. Two take place in England (one in the town of Causton, and one in London) and one takes place in a small U.S. town. The cultures are different and so are the suspects. These differences make each of these novels distinct

A skilled author can even use similar kinds of plots in more than one of his or her own books, and still give readers an excellent experience. For instance, there are several similarities between Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death). In both novels, a person is murdered who seems to have no complicated love life, no enemies and no fortune to leave. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, it’s a charwoman in the small village of Broadhinny whom everyone thinks was killed by her unpleasant lodger. In Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), the victim is Celia Austin, a resident in a hostel for students. Both women live in small communities, and find out more than is good for them about one of the members of the community. In both cases, that knowledge signed the women’s death warrants, as the saying goes. Hercule Poirot is called in and, with the help of the police, uncovers secrets that nearly everyone is keeping. In uncovering those secrets, Poirot also finds out whose secret was worth killing to keep.

Despite these similarities, though, the two novels are distinct. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, the setting is rural, whereas in Hickory Dickory Dock, it’s a London setting. The characters are quite different, too, and the secrets that everyone has been keeping are also different. The victims are different, too; Mrs. McGinty is a little shrewder than Celia Austin, and more inclined to snoop. Each novel is unique and gives the reader a different sort of experience.

That seems to be the key to a distinctive crime fiction novel, even if it does have a lot of similarities to other crime fiction. If the characters are interesting and distinctive, and the story has some interesting aspect that sets it apart, then it matters less if it also has things in common with another novel. But what’s your view? Do you notice when a crime fiction novel has similarities to others you’ve read? Does it bother you?

: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's The Entertainer.


  1. I find a common reoccurring theme is the Strangers on a Train scenario and even I have a similar theme in one of my books (not Sholes Key if you're worried I'd spoiled it for you). I guess it's how you make it play out.

    I have two more beach deaths to add to your list:

    1) Careless in Red by Elizabeth George
    2) Evil under the sun by AC

    Great post.


  2. Clarissa - Thank you :-). You know, you do have a point about the Strangers On a Train scenario. That scenario pops up in a few novels, doesn't it? It provides such a great alibi... And no, I wouldn't think you'd spoil The Sholes Key. I'd like to read the book you do mean, though. You write very well.

    And thanks for those additions to the "beach death scenario" list. You are right that bodies are certainly found beaches there. In Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders, too.

  3. When there is a variation on a theme, in some ways there are more opportunities for surprise - because there are are more expectations to play with.

    Artists of every kind have always used old models and tropes as a launching point for new work.

  4. Another beach death:

    The Body on the Beach by Simon Brett.

    It almost makes me too scared to go to a beach these days!

    It doesn't bother me that there are similarities in crime fiction, just so long as the characters are convincing and the overall experience is different. After all, that's what Shakespeare did.

  5. Rayna - Thank you :-)! You are always far too kind.

    Daring Novelist - You are absolutely right. It certainly does give the author more opportunities to try new things and give the reader an innovative twist on a theme if one uses, as you say, an old model or trope. It's the way the author varies the theme that makes the difference.

    Margaret - Oh, yes, Simon Brett :-) - thank you. The Body on the Beach is a solid example of a beach death.

    You're right, too. Shakespeare did, indeed, use others' themes, and his work certainly does have similarities to other work. But he created something unique because of his characters and the ways he added his own touches to the plots. Well-said!

  6. Another great post to get our minds probing in a different direction. There are many similarities but as long as the characters react differently it keeps the book interesting for me.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Mason - Thank you :-). I agree with you, too; when the characters are interesting, react in their own unique ways, and there's something to keep the book "fresh," plot and other similarities are less important.