Thursday, September 2, 2010

Isn't it Ironic?

It’s odd how the ironies of life can add all sorts of twists and turns to our experience. We pay extra for an expensive pair of shoes because we think they’ll last longer, only to have those shoes fall apart long before the cheap pair of shoes we also have. Or someone who’s always made fun of those who play the lottery gets talked into buying a ticket and ends up winning. Irony also adds lots of interest, and sometimes suspense, to crime fiction. For example, I’ll bet you can think of novels you’ve read where a police officer, judge or other law enforcement official turns out to be the killer. I’m not going to mention any of those novels here, because I don’t want to give any spoilers. But you know what I mean. And those are by no means the only good examples of how irony can make crime fiction all the more interesting.

Agatha Christie makes use of irony more than once in her novels. For instance, in The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot receives a letter from Paul Renault, a Candian émigré to France. In response to the letter, Poirot and Hastings travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer but by the time they get there, Renauld has been murdered. Poirot works with the Commissary, M. Lucien Bex, and the Juge d’Instruction, M. Hautet, to find out who killed Renauld and why. As they look into Renauld’s life, they find out that he’s got several secrets in his past. Renauld had settled in Merlinville in part because he suspected that no-one there would know about his past. In a real twist of irony, it turns out that he chose the one place where someone lives who does know him and does know something from his past. As it turns out, you could say that the very measures Renauld took to protect himself end up causing his death.

In The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we meet John Christow, a successful Harley Street doctor who is full of life and energy. He’s hardly perfect; he’s self-absorbed, hasn’t been faithful to his wife Gerda and enjoys being “in control.” Still, he’s a brilliant doctor and generally very well-liked, mostly because of his zest for living. He and Gerda are invited to spend the week-end at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Also staying with the Angkatells are several of their relations. The Angkatells have invited Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a nearby cottage as a week-end getaway, for lunch on the Sunday. When Poirot arrives, he comes upon a scene that he thinks has been set for his dubious benefit: John Christow is lying dead by the pool. Within seconds, Poirot becomes aware that this scene is all too real and that Christow is very definitely dead. Inspector Grange and his police officers begin the investigation and it‘s not long before Poirot gets involved, too. There are actually a few ironic twists in this novel. For example, on the night before his murder, Christow has an encounter with an old love, Veronica Cray, whom he’s never forgotten. After he meets her again, Christow realizes that he no longer has feelings for her, and the next morning, tells her so. He’s just returned from Veronica’s with a completely new outlook on life when he’s murdered. It’s also ironic that it’s Christow, who loves life so much, who’s shot, instead of the more insubstantial Angkatells. In fact, there’s a conversation about this between Christow’s mistress Henrietta Savernake and Edward Angkatell, her second cousin. Henrietta says,

“I can’t help resenting that John who was so alive is dead.”

“And that I who am half dead am alive…”

“I don’t mean that, Edward.”

“I think you did, Henrietta…I think, perhaps, you are right.”

We also see irony in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. In that novel, the very staid and highly respectful advertising agency Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. is faced with a serious problem. One of their employees, copywriter Victor Dean, has fallen to his death down the company’s spiral staircase. At first, it seems to be a tragic accident – until a half-finished letter he left behind is found. The letter suggests that a Pym’s employee was involved in illegal activities. It’s quite ironic that such a respectable and established firm – and one so concerned about scandal – should be the site of a murder, but that’s exactly what the top managers of the company think has happened. So they hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover to find out what happened. In the guise of a new copywriter, Wimsey begins to work at the agency (and in fact, creates a very successful ad campaign). As he works there, he slowly finds out what happened to Dean. In the end, he discovers that agency advertisements were being used to arrange meetings between local drug dealers and a drugs ring. The closer Wimsey gets to the truth, the more in danger he is and this, too, is ironic when you consider the company’s emphasis on its image and its respectability.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we also see real irony. When wealthy Carey Lawson dies, she leaves most of her fortune to her nephew Mallory Lawson, provided he and his family move into her home in the village of Forbes Abbott and employ her companion Benny Frayle. The Lawsons agree and are soon established in their new home. In one bit of irony, the Lawsons believe that their newfound fortune will solve several of their problems. However, that very money ends up causing them even more trouble when their daughter Polly decides that she wants her share of the fortune and takes a rash gamble to get it. Then Dennis Brinkley, the Mallory’s financial consultant, is killed and his body found under one of the mediaeval torture machines he collected. At first, it’s thought that his death is a tragic accident. Benny Frayle, though, is convinced that it was murder. So she tries to get the police to investigate. When the first, cursory investigation doesn’t turn up any evidence of foul play, Benny’s claims are discounted. Eventually, though, Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy look into the case again and they find that Benny was right; Dennis Brinkley was murdered. Then there’s another murder. In the end (and in another twist of irony), the killings have the opposite effect that the murderer intended. The murders were committed for financial reasons, but as it turns out, they were not only un-necessary, but now have prevented the killer from accessing any money at all. As Barnaby says to the killer,

“So how does it feel….to have killed two people for nothing?”

There’s also irony in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in the 1970’s. Dr. Siri is the chief medical examiner for Laos at a time of Communist rule, military authority and disregard for traditional culture and beliefs. In fact, Dr. Siri is in his role as medical examiner because he’s been “volunteered” for the position by the government. Despite his initial reluctance, Dr. Siri takes up his duties with the help of his morgue assistant Geung and his nurse Dtui. One interesting irony in this series is that the very spirituality and traditional culture that the current leaders reject is often very helpful in solving the cases Dr. Siri encounters. In fact, Dr. Siri shares his body with Yeh Ming, a thousand-year-old shaman. He gets insights through his dreams and sometimes communes with those who have died. Another irony in this series is that quite often, Dr. Siri gets a great deal of guidance and assistance from Geung, who is mentally challenged and believed to be of very little use. Still, Geung has an eye and memory for detail, and is often of great help to his boss.

There are lots of other examples of irony in crime fiction – more than space allows me to mention. Which ironies in crime fiction have you enjoyed?

On Another Note…

Excitement’s brewing again here at Confessions of Mystery Novelist… Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has put together a fantastic Agatha Christie blog tour to commemorate what would be Christie’s 120th birthday on 15 September. During each day of the month, Agatha Christie’s work, influence, and writing will be the topic of that day’s tour stop. Do please visit the blog tour center to check on each day’s featured blog, and do please visit those blogs.

I’m particularly honoured that the blog tour stops at
Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… on 8 September. Please check back then for my take on some of the themes Christie addressed in her work.

On a Second Note…

My deep thanks and appreciation to Rayna at
Coffee Rings Everywhere for awarding Confessions of a Mystery Novelist this blog commenter award. Quite an honour, and I appreciate it. Folks, please visit Rayna’s excellent blog. She writes eloquent and thoughtful posts and stories and takes brilliant photographs and is kind enough to share both with us. There are no strings attached to this award, so what I have decided is this. I learn every day from alll of you who are kind enough to leave me comments. You all deserve the award, so feel free to take it home to your own blogs. Tell ‘em Margot gave it to you.


  1. Ah, more mysteries for my list. I have not read anything by Colin Cotterill -- his series protagonist sounds very interesting. And thanks for the heads-up about the Agatha Christie blog tour. I'll definitely check in on that.


  2. Patricia,
    I think you'll really enjoy the blog tour, especially if you enjoy Agatha Christie's work. There's such a nice variety of blog topics and perspectives that I'm sure you'll find something of interest.
    And I do hope you'll get the chance to read some Cotterill. His Dr. Siri really is a great protagonist, the stories are interesting and there's a keen wit that runs throughout the stories.

  3. Norman - Thank you : ). I was hoping people would get the joke....

  4. Wanna know something funny? I haven't really got a handle on what ironic means. I don't think I could give an example. However, I love the AC books you suggested.
    Now I have the Alanis Morissete song running through my head.
    Cool AC tribute going on, I'm here everyday for your blogs but I will go check out the others.
    Congrats on the award.

  5. Clarissa _ "Ironic" is one of thoss slippery words that it's sometimes hard to define. And I thought of that Alanis Morisette song when I was writing this : ).

    I think you'll like the blog tour a lot; there are some terrific blogs participating. And thannks for the kind words - I was very happy to get the award.

  6. Loved the irony of the photograph!!!

    The Hollow is such a perfect example of what you are trying to convey. For some reason, it reminded me of Moving Finger - the lawyer seems such a staid personality, but it turns out he planned an elaborate murder so he could live with the governess he fell in love with.

    And I will be sure to check out the AC blogfest- if the other hosts are even a fraction as good as you are, it would be a fantastic ride.

  7. Rayna - You are always so kind! : ). Thank you. And yes, The Moving Finger is also a very good example of the sort of irony I had in mind. People who are supposed to serve others, like doctors, lawyers and so on, are ironically, those who kill. Interesting point....

    And I do think you'll like the blog tour; lots of terrific blogs are participating.

  8. Caroline Graham effectively uses irony in several of her excellent novels.
    Congratulations on the award.

  9. John - I agree; Graham is a fine writer and she does use irony very effectively. And thanks for the kind words :).

  10. Congratulations on your award!

    I loved Murder must Advertise, and *I* think it is so ironic that Peter Wimsey´s campaign aimed at teaching women to smoke as much as men. What a scoundrel!

    One of the crimes in my current manuscript is also quite ironic - if only the murderer had known ...

  11. Dorte - Thank you : ). And you are absolutely right, especially given what we know about smoking and health, that it's quite ironic that Wimsey the perfect gentleman aims his campaign at women like that. Well, I suppose we have to consider the times. Still...

    And I am very much eager to read your book. I'm sure it will be fantastic.