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.