Saturday, November 13, 2010

I Know It's Hard to Believe*

One of the elements that attracts readers to crime fiction is the suspense and tension in a crime fiction novel. There are lots of ways, too, to build that tension and keep the suspense going. One of those is the shocking occurrence or discovery. I’m not talking here about the original murder or crime that’s being investigated; most readers expect that. Rather, I’m talking about the unexpected shock. Of course, the shocking event is like anything else in crime fiction: it’s got to be handled carefully. Too many shocks and the novel loses its ability to tell a story. Too few and the novel can become dull. It’s also important to keep in mind that different sub-genres of crime fiction have different “best” numbers of shocking events. Thrillers and psychological novels are different from say, cosies or slow-building atmospheric novels. That said though, most well-written crime fiction makes use of the shock as a device to keep the reader turning pages.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, wealthy and beautiful heiress Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is on a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, so he gets involved in the investigation when Linnet is shot on the second night of the cruise. The prime suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon has just married Linnet. Jacqueline is soon cleared, though, as she was not alone at the time of the murder, and couldn’t have slipped out to commit it. So Poirot and Colonel Race, who’s also on this cruise, have to look elsewhere for the killer. At one point in the novel, another character has figured out who the killer must be, and goes straight to Poirot to tell him so. Then a shot rings out… In the end, Poirot puts the pieces of this puzzle together and is able to find out who the murderer is.

There are also plenty of shocks in Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which Poirot investigates the stabbing death of wealthy retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. The prime suspect in this murder is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton. Paton was in dire need of money, and had quarreled with Ackroyd about finances. What’s worse, Paton’s shoe prints are found near the murder scene, and Paton himself has disappeared. Paton’s not the only suspect, though; all of the members of Ackroyd’s household were desperate for money. So when Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd asks Poirot to clear Paton’s name, he agrees. He finds that each of the suspects is hiding something and as he investigates the case, he discovers what each secret is. Each of those revelations comes as a shock. Perhaps the greatest shock (apart from the very famous dénouement) is the story of what’s happened to Ralph Paton. Poirot reveals this in a very dramatic scene when he’s outlining the case to all of the suspects. In this novel, the revealing of secrets turns out to have real shock value.

In Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called in when the body of Felix McClure, former Oxford don, is discovered in his apartment. The two sleuths begin to look into McClure’s life and find that more than one person might have wanted McClure dead. The most likely suspect is McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks. McClure had found out that Brooks was involved in illegal drugs dealing on campus, and was going to reveal what he knew. As if that weren’t enough, Brooks seems to have disappeared. One shock in this novel occurs when Brooks turns up dead. Now, Morse and Lewis have to start all over to look for suspects. Another shock comes as we learn about the relationships among some of the other characters in the story. In the end, it’s those relationships that prove to have the most to do with both McClure’s and Brooks’ deaths.

Martin Edwards makes use of several well-timed shocking events in his Lake District series. For instance, in The Cipher Garden, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the ten-year-old murder of landscaper Warren Howe. At the time of the murder, Howe’s wife Tina was suspected, but she had an alibi, so the police couldn’t pursue the case. Now, anonymous notes suggest that Tina really was guilty, so Scarlett and her team re-open the case. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett uncovers several dark secrets that people in the town have been keeping, and in the end, she and Kind get to the truth about Warren Howe’s death. At one point in the novel, Howe’s daughter Kirsty makes a very traumatic discovery. That discovery, and her reaction to it, are truly shocking moments in this novel.

Sometimes, the shock comes when something happens to the sleuth or someone in the sleuth’s family, or someone the sleuth knows. For instance, in Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, DI Alan Banks and his family have recently moved from London to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale, where they think the pace of life will be slower and more conducive to family life. They’re proved wrong when a voyeur begins to victimize several of the women in the town. Banks and his team are told to work quickly to find out who the voyeur is before the peeping escalates. To help in this case, psychologist Dr. Jenny Fuller joins the team to give insight into the kind of person who’s probably responsible. Then, there’s a series of break-ins. To make matters worse, Alice Matlock, an elderly resident of the town, is murdered. Now Banks and his team have three lines of investigation they need to pursue. In one shocking incident in the story, Banks’ own wife Sandra comes face-to-face with the voyeur. In another shock, Jenny Fuller has a traumatic encounter of her own. These events keep the story moving and add suspense.

In Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage, Inspector Reg Wexford has his hands full when a group of protesters comes to Kingsmarkham. They’re upset about a plan to run a roadway through nearby Framhurst Great Wood. Wexford’s sympathetic to the protesters, since he’s not any happier about the destruction in the forest than they are. He’s concerned, though, because any time there’s a protest, there’s the risk of things getting out of hand. In one of the novel’s shocking moments, the protesters take a group of hostages, including Wexford’s own wife Dora. That shock pushes Wexford and his team into frantic action to try to rescue the hostages.

And then there’s Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast, in which police detective Harry Hole works with his partner Ellen Gjeltsen to trace the illegal shipment of what seems to be a new kind of gun. At the same time, Hole’s looking into the activities of a neo-Nazi group. He and Gjelten make connections between the arms smuggling and the neo-Nazi group, but then, their work is interrupted by a terrible shock. That shock catches the reader unaware, and adds a lot of power to this novel.

There’s also an awful shock in Elizabeth George’s With No One as Witness, in which Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Sergeant Barabara Havers investigate a series of deaths of young boys. The deaths hadn’t really been investigated thoroughly before, arguably because the victims weren’t white. But when a young white boy’s body is found, the department falls under pressure and scrutiny. It’s especially stressful because now, the department has to face accusations of not pursuing certain cases because of race. Lynley and Havers and their team are facing that challenge as well as the challenge of the investigation when a truly shocking event occurs. That event will have lasting effects on the team and is so shocking that lots of people protested it.

Shocks can move a story along, keep a reader turning pages and add to the suspense and interest in a story. They can also take away from the actual plot and character development if they’re not handled well. But what’s your view? Do you like your crime fiction with a lot of shocks? If you’re a writer, how do you handle including shocks?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Surprises.

19 comments:

  1. I enjoy reading a story that has a few shocks mingled here and there. If the story has a shock every few pages or even every chapter, it some how lessens the 'shock' factor. You begin to expect it and that takes the surprise out of the story. I find myself trying to figure out what and when the shock will come instead of studying the plot. Another great post.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  2. Great post and excellent examples, Margot.

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  3. Mason - Why, thank you :-). And you've got such a well-taken point. If there are too many shocks in a story, they do lose their value. Not to mention, as you say, they can distract from the story. So I think you're right; a few shocks can work well. Lots of them? Maybe less well...

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  4. José Ignacio - Thank you very much :-). I appreciate the kind words.

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  5. "Too many shocks and the novel loses its ability to tell a story." Some thriller writers should read your post before they write their next mystery, Margot :D

    Of course I like shocks in crime fiction, but not beyond credibility.

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  6. Dorte - LOL! I agree with you. It's not that I dislike thrillers, but yes, in too many of them, the author seems to have entered a "How many shocks can I include?" competition. To me, that just ruins the plot. I like your use of the word credibility, too. You're absolutely right that too many shocks is just not believable.

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  7. One time, a reviewer told me I had too many shocking moments and it was starting to be lost on her. So, I cut some out. Yes, you can have too much excitement. Even on the telly, you break fast moments with down time.
    CD

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  8. Clarissa - Well-put, Clarissa! The chocking moments are only really successful and effective if there are plenty of moments that, well, aren't shocking. That goes for television and movies, too, I think.

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  9. Fantastic examples, Margot.
    The trick, like in everything else, is in balance. You need a few shocks to to keep the reader on their guard, but too many and the plot ends up losing the reader.
    Another great post.

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  10. I do like a certain amount of unpredictability and twisty turny bits but do start grumbling when this goes over the top. I sometimes pity you poor authors who have to suffer us readers and our various demands for getting everything 'just right'. I do think the most successful shocks, such as the one in The Redbreast that you mention, are ones which suit the internal logic of the story and which the people in the story react to in a believable way.

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  11. Rayna - Thank you :-)! You put that quite well; it really all is about balance, isn't it? Not always easy to strike, but so important, I think.



    Bernadette - I think that's exactly it! If a shock makes sense given the internal logic of the story, and if it happens believably, then it can add to a story and make it unforgettable. On other hand, if there are too many shocks or (almost worse) if those shocks are just there gratuitously, then they are annoying and I can't blame readers for grumbling. That's why I think the best novels are those that focus on the plot and characters. If everything falls out naturally from plot and characters, then the whole novel is better quality, I think.

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  12. I like a good shocking twist or two, but I do agree that many writers seem to think they are obligatory, when they aren't. I have read too many books that are spoiled by overdoing the thriller climax, often when the book has been really good and well-paced up to that point. I've enjoyed both the C J Box novels I have read to date, for example, but in both cases I felt that the author added too many (violent) shocks at the end that were not necessary. I suppose publishers think that violence and shocks sell, but take Stieg Larsson's books - although there are shocks in them, they aren't overdone.

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  13. Maxine - I think there is the sense at times that shocks sell, so there have to be a great many of them. It's much the same in films, where there's a persistent belief that action scenes sell. As you say, though, too many shocks, or shocks that don't fall out naturally from the story, can ruin an otherwise terrific novel.

    You offer a terrific contrast, too, between C.J. Box and Stieg Larsson in terms of those authors' use of shocking events. A novel can be utterly unforgettable even if there aren't an undue number of shocks. It's the characters and the plot that drive a novel; if those are strong, there is no need for too many shocking events.

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  14. I like one or two shocking moments in a book before going back to business as usual. :)

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  15. Elizabeth - I like the way you put that :-). A few shocking moments can wake a story up, keep it going and engage the reader. I really like the way you handle those shocks in your writing, too. You have some terrific jolts that fit in so well with the story.

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  16. Is there anything better than a book that pulls this off? Dexter was good at it for sure. And I have never read a less than compelling book by Robinson. Simisola by Rendell was unbearably tense.

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  17. Patti - Oh, you've mentioned three masters of this trick! You are so right that a book where this device is used well is absolutely engrossing. It's the kind of book that leaves you with circles under your eyes the next day from too many "just one more page"s.

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  18. It's funny you should mention too many shocks can ruin a story. I am reading a book now - or rather I should say I stopped reading a book - that had too many shocks. And to top it off, some were handled badly. The first two that were not directly connected to the main plot worked okay. They gave more substance to the central character. But then the author kept throwing more sub-plot shocks at the poor woman.

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  19. Maryann - Thanks for that example. That's exactly the kind of thing I mean, too. When the shocks are really relevant to the story and not too many in number, that can work quite well. But as your own experience shows, too many shocks, especially if they are not related to the main plot, are off-putting. I think that's especially true if the shocks are gratuitous.

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