Saturday, September 25, 2010

What Did You Expect?

Most of us rely quite a lot on our assumptions and expectations. We almost have to, if you think about it. We’re bombarded with so many stimuli that if we had to stop and think about each one, we might be frozen into immobility. So we need our expectations. And very often they’re helpful. For example, if you see a sky like the one in the ‘photo, you can make assumptions about the time of day and the weather. That helps you decide what to wear and orients you as to time. Without those assumptions, you’d be reduced to guesswork. It can be very comfortable and safe, too, to have assumptions, since they make our worlds more secure; that’s one reason we depend on them. Our assumptions are important, but they can also make us vulnerable. If we never question our assumptions, we may trust too easily. And when our assumptions are violated, we’re disoriented. We may even feel betrayed or worse. Even when an assumption isn’t fundamental, violating it can still cause confusion and anxiety. Perhaps that’s one reason that so much crime fiction involves violating expectations and assumptions; that rude shock adds interest, tension and suspense to a story.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Mrs. Boynton, a wealthy American widow who’s tyrannized the members of her family all of their lives. She is a malicious mental sadist who assumes that everyone in the family will be completely under her control. Her expectation leaves her vulnerable, though, as we find out when the family takes a trip through the Middle East. Because Mrs. Boynton expects to dominate everyone, she isn’t aware of how much danger she is in. Then, one afternoon during an excursion to the ancient city of Petra, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies. At first, her death appears to be caused by heart failure. But Colonel Carbury, who’s in charge of the investigation, isn’t sure. So he asks Poirot to help with the case. Poirot finds that the danger to Mrs. Boynton came from a source she would never have expected.

There’s another case of assumptions making one vulnerable in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. When the body of thirty-one-year-old Kate Sumner is found on a beach near Chapman’s Pool, DC Nick Ingram works with the Devon and Hampshire constabularies to find out how and why she was killed. As the investigators slowly learn about Kate’s life, they find that she had a very dangerous assumption that she was in control of all of her relationships. In fact, Kate’s relationships and the way she dealt with them are a key factor in this story. That expectation that she would be “in charge” made her vulnerable to a killer who was much more dangerous than it appeared on the surface.

One of the reasons that well-written financial, medical and legal thrillers can be so engaging is that they examine what happens when we can’t trust those people that many of us have been brought up to assume we can trust. When we put our health in the hands of a doctor, or our legal matters in the hands of an attorney, or our financial matters in the hands of a consultant, we hope – even expect – not to be exploited. We almost have to assume that the doctor will help heal us, the attorney will represent our interests and the financial advisor will not steal our money. There are far too many of these kinds of novels for me to list them all. A quick review of books by the likes of Michael Palmer, Philip Margolin or Emma Lathen is enough to remind you of the sense of betrayal that happens when people find they cannot trust those whom they’ve expected to be trustworthy. That shock and sense of dissonance often adds a great deal to the tension in this kind of thriller.

Of course, it’s not just victims whose expectations and assumptions can be violated. That happens to sleuths, too, and it’s one reason for which wise sleuths don’t have too many assumptions about who committed a crime. Sleuths who have too many preconceived notions and expectations are likely to miss important clues that don’t fit their assumptions.

For instance, in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is on trial for the poisoning murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Almost everyone believes that Harriet is guilty, because the only thing that Boyes consumed on the night of his death that no-one else had was a cup of coffee that Harriet gave him. So it is assumed that Boyes could not have been poisoned in any other way. Lord Peter Wimsey, who attends the trial, becomes smitten with Harriet and determines to clear her name. He and several of his friends work together to find out what really happened when Boyes died. What they find is that the assumption that Boyes could only have been poisoned by the coffee almost cost Harriet Vane her life. In the end, Wimsey is able to show that that assumption was wrong.

In Michael Connelly’s The Concrete Blonde, Harry Bosch is the subject of a civil trial for the shooting of Norman Church. Bosch believed that Church was a serial killer known as “The Dollmaker.” Church’s family brings a wrongful death suit against Bosch, claiming that Church was not the murderer. Bosch, though, is convinced that he was right. Then, another killing occurs that bears all of the hallmarks of “The Dollmaker.” Since Church is dead, he can’t have committed this most recent killing, so Bosch has to re-think his assumptions. He has to do the same thing in Echo Park, when a convicted serial killer named Raynard Waits offers to trade information about earlier killings in exchange for avoiding the death penalty in two new murders. One of those older cases is a case Bosch worked on - the murder of Marie Gesto, who walked out of a Hollywood supermarket one day and never made it home. Bosch couldn’t make an arrest in the Gesto case because he missed an important piece of evidence. He had different assumptions and expectations about that case that led him to another suspect, but he never had the hard evidence he needed to make an arrest. When Bosch finds out about Waits, he has to completely change his view of the Gesto case.

Carole Sutton’s The Ferryman also shows what happens when sleuths rely too much on assumptions and expectations. In that novel, Steve Pengelly moves to the Isle of Guernsey, where he hopes to start a new life. With help from a new acquaintance, Angela Dupont, he buys a beautiful thirty-food sailboat and is soon established in his new place. He begins an affair with Angela, but that affair ends with a violent quarrel when Steve finds out that Angela has been using him until she can find a wealthier, better-situated “catch.” Shortly after their breakup, Angela mysteriously disappears. DI Alec Grmstone bases his investigation on the expectation that people are usually murdered by someone they know, even love. So he focuses on Steve, and the evidence he collects looks suspicious. For instance, there were traces of blood found on Steve’s beloved boat. On the weight of his assumptions, Grimstone prosecutes the case and Steve Pengelly is tried, convicted and jailed. Two years later, he’s still in jail when the body of Angela Dupont washes up at Cornwall’s Fal Estuary. Everyone’s assumptions are turned upside down when it turns out that she has only been dead for a short time. She was killed while Pengelly was in prison, so he could not be guilty. Now, Grimstone has to start all over again on the case.

Of course, sleuths can also use assumptions to their benefit. For example, Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax doesn’t seem to be the type of person you’d fear as an international spy. And in several novels, she uses that to her advantage. She appears to be a nice, non-threatening elderly lady. And yet, she’s quite quick-witted and well able to use the assumptions people make about her and the expectations they have for her against them. The same is true of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. People assume that because she’s elderly and a woman, that she’s not to be taken seriously. And Miss Marple cultivates that “soft” non-threatening exterior when it suits her. But criminals make those assumptions to their detriment…

Assumptions and expectations can add some predictability and order to our worlds. But they can also blind us, so that we can be dismayed or worse it they are violated. What do you think? Which novels have you enjoyed where assumptions prove to be someone’s undoing?


  1. Another good round of recommendations about which there can be no negative assumptions.

  2. John - Thank you :-). I hope they live up to your expectations...

  3. I love the way you can use the "particular" to prove the "general" Margot. You can distill an essence that makes us think. Too many metaphors??

  4. Kerrie - Oh, that's so kind of you - thank you :-). I think it's my research background. And no, not too many metaphors. Now please excuse me while I *blush*...

  5. Assumptions can lead the sleuth astray sometimes and then sometimes lead them to the real killers. THE POSTCARD KILLERS by James Patterson and Liza Marklund is like that. Det. Jacob Kanon believes a couple are the killers but after their arrest, evidence says they can't be. While others are rethinking their assumptions, the detective and Journalist Dessie Larsson continue thinking the couple are the killers. When they discovered who the real killers were, I wasn't surprised but when they found out how they were able to kill - it was a new twist I hadn't thought of.

    Another thought provoking post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - That's an interesting point! Sometimes, assumptions can be trusted. That's the reason that good sleuths pay attention to them, even if they are open to other ideas. I haven't read The Postcard Killers, although I like Liza Marklund very much as an author. So thanks for bringing in that example :-).

  7. I pulled up your post and started to read and bam! the power goes out. Well, it's finally back... About once a week my power goes out, it's so frustrating.

    Anyway, I loved the assumptions post. Almost every book I've read had assumptions. I'm reading a Val McDermid book and the detectives are all assuming one thing, the parents of the dead girl are assuming another and it's closing off the case because they refuse to think outside the box.

    Great post.


  8. Clarissa - Thank you :-). I am sorry, too, to hear about the power outage. That is so annoying, isn't it?? I hate when that happens!!

    I think you pointed out, too, the biggest consequences of having too many assumptions. It causes sleuths and those who are close to the victim to think too narrowly. That means they don't conceive of other possibilities. Well-taken points!!

  9. After having corrected 25 essays, I don´t remember any crime fiction examples, but I enjoyed the handful of essays written by students who could see through what the characters SAID in our Doris Lessing story. I think it is very entertaining when characters cheat us by assuring us that they are ever so happy or love a person very much only to show later that they didn´t mean it at all.

  10. You knowledge of themes and sources is awesome. How do you do it?

  11. Dorte - Oh, I know exactly what you mean about essays! I did 28 of them myself this week-end. I agree, too, that it's interesting, intriguing and (I like your choice of word) amusing when characters say something, and it's easy to assume they are being sincere..and they they do something that shows one's assumptions were quite wrong.

    Patti - You really are too kind :-). That's awfully, awfully nice of you...

  12. Fantastic theme, Margot. Assumptions play such an important part in everything, don't they? After a hectic weekend, I am not sure I can think of any examples, but there are some more at the tip of my mind.

  13. Rayna - Thank you:-). I know what you mean about thinking of something when you're tired after a long weekend. But we do really depend on our assumptions. Sometimes that's a good thing, and sometimes not. I think it can be both uncomfortable and necessary to question what we assume.

  14. It was interesting to see how assumptions led Lord Peter Wimsey astray in The Nine Tailors.

    Pride and Prejudice, is an example of a non-mystery where assumptions play a crucial role. Elizabeth's assumptions about Darcy and his assumptions about her drive the whole story.

  15. Bibliophile - Oh yes, of course. The Nine Tailors is a great example of how the sleuth can get pulled in the wrong direction because of a set of expectations.

    And I'm glad you brought up Pride and Prejudice, too. As you say, Elizabeth's expectations and beliefs about Darcy form the core of the conflict in that novel.