Sunday, November 21, 2010

Unforgettable, That's What You Are*

One of the things that can make a crime fiction novel especially impressive are unforgettable scenes in the story. Sometimes it’s a piece of dialogue that we remember long after the book is finished. Sometimes it’s a dénouement that we cannot forget. Or it may be a particularly outstanding line of description, or an important revelation. Whatever it is, a memorable moment can push a book from good to great. Those moments are the ones we reflect on and come back to, repeat to ourselves and share with others. For each of us, those moments may be different, but for all of us they’re there.

Memorable Lines

Some of those unforgettable moments are simply beautifully-written or especially powerful lines, whether of dialogue or description. For instance, one of the most famous lines in crime fiction (and arguably one of the most powerful) is the first line of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone:

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”

The novel then goes on to tell the story of housekeeper Eunice Parchman and her relationship with her wealthy, educated employers. We learn about a terrible secret that she tries to keep, and what leads her to murder four members of her employer’s family. That first, line, though, tells the whole story, really. It is truly memorable.

Sometimes, a line is unforgettable because it paints a very clear picture and reveals a lot about a character in the process. For instance, here’s the last line of Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice, in which his sleuth, Harry Bosch, solves the mystery of the death of Calexico “Cal” Moore, a fellow cop. Once the case is finished, Bosch attends Moore’s funeral:

“Then he lit a cigarette and watched as the sleek black machine carried her out through the gate and left him alone with the dead.”

This line tells us much about Bosch and gives a sense of the tone of the book, too.

Memorable Dénouements

Some of those unforgettable moments are dénouements. They may be especially powerful because they’re so unexpected. Or they may be powerful because they’re especially clever. Whatever the reason, some of the greatest moments in crime fiction come at the end of the story.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot has retired to the village of King’s Abbott (or so the thinks). His peace and quiet are soon interrupted when young and beautiful Flora Ackroyd begs him to investigate the stabbing death of her uncle, wealthy retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the case. He finds out that almost all of the members of Ackroyd’s household had reasons to want him dead. The dénouement of this story, one of the most famous in crime fiction, is so memorable because it’s so unexpected. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Christie was heavily criticized for “not playing fair” with readers. Since then, though, it’s been recognized as an outstanding moment.

So is the dénouement of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel, Poirot solves the murder of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett. Ratchett’s on a three-day journey across Europe on the world-famous Orient Express when he’s stabbed to death. Poirot is on the same train, and is asked to investigate. He agrees and begins to examine the evidence. The solution to this case is innovative, unusual and remains one of the truly memorable dénouements in crime fiction.

Memorable Dialogue

Sometimes, a crime fiction novel’s most memorable moments involve conversation. Conversations can be used to build tension, reveal clues and set scenes, so it’s not surprising that they can also be unforgettable. Here, for instance, is a bit of dialogue between Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, who share a long train ride in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. The two have struck up a conversation and ended up telling each other their troubles. Bruno has taken the conversation into uncomfortable territory and offered to help Haines plan the murder of his estranged wife. Haines wants no part of it:

“Guy stood up. ‘I want to take a walk.’

Bruno slapped his palms together. ‘Hey! Cheeses, what an idea! We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on the train, see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis! Catch?’”

In this snippet, we get a sense of Bruno’s psychological instability and of Haines’ growing concern about him. We also get a sense of what’s to come. Sure enough, Bruno kills Haines’ wife and then demands that Haines fulfill his part of the bargain – a bargain Haines didn’t make. Now, Haines feels compelled to kill Bruno’s father. The tension continues as Haines gets more are more drawn into two murders.

In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, FBI trainee Clarice Starling is sent on assignment to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. She’s been asked to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who is a brilliant psychiatrist. He’s also a very dangerous resident of the hospital. Starling’s commission is to get Lecter’s insights on a serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” by the investigators working on the case. This killer was once a patient of Lecter’s, and Starling’s asked to get his help on the case. The two of them engage in some extremely tense, powerful conversation as they discuss the case, and Lecter ends up agreeing to help – provided that for every piece of information he offers, Starling reveal a personal secret. Here’s just a tiny bit of one of their unforgettable exchanges:

“‘…or maybe you’re afraid of yourself.’

‘You’re tough, aren’t you, Officer Starling?’

‘Reasonably so, yes.’

‘And you’d hate to think you were common. Wouldn’t that sting? My!’…

Now, please excuse me. Goodbye, Officer Starling.’

‘And the study?’ [referring to a questionnaire Starling has asked Lecter to complete]

‘A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone. Go back to school, Little Starling.’”

Memorable Scenes

Sometimes, a truly memorable moment isn’t a piece of dialogue, but a scene – a mental picture that the author helps to create. These moments, too, can make a crime fiction novel unforgettable. For instance, in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team investigate the rape and murder of American tourist Roseanna McGraw. The investigation takes months of hard work and a great deal of time commitment on everyone’s part. But finally, the murder is solved and the criminal caught. Here’s the last scene of the novel:

Here comes Martin Beck and it's snowing on his hat. He walks with a song; he walks with a sway! Hello, friends and Hello friends and brothers; it squeaks underfoot. It is a winter night. Hello to you all; just give a call and we'll go home to southern Stockholm! By subway. To my part of town.
He was on the way home."

The mental picture of a lighthearted Martin Beck walking home through a snowfall is especially strong.

So is the mental image we get of psychiatrist Joe O’Loughlin trying to prevent Christine Wheeler from committing suicide in Michael Robotham’s Shatter. O’Loughlin’s called to the Clifton Suspension Bridge when Wheeler is spotted on it, preparing to jump off. He tries unsuccessfully to talk her out of what she’s about to do and that tense scene is very powerful:

“She doesn’t fight gravity. Arms and legs do not flail or clutch at the air. She’s gone. Silently, dropping from view.

Everything seems to stop, as if the world has missed a heartbeat or been trapped in between the pulsations. Then everything begins moving again. Paramedics and police officers are dashing past me. People are screaming and crying. I turn away and walk back toward the barricades, wondering if this isn’t part of a dream.”

Powerful scenes like that can stay with the reader for a long time, even if the reader forgets some of the rest of the story. What I’ve shared with you, though, is only a tiny selection of the many truly unforgettable moments from a few crime fiction novels. Which are your favourites? Which scenes do you still remember, even if you haven’t read the book in a long time?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nat “King” Cole’s Unforgettable.


  1. Another brilliant post. I haven't read Shatter, but I lived near Clifton Suspension Bridge for a few years. I would walk to it every Sunday morning and sit reading my newspaper looking out at the bridge.

    You picked some wonderful moments in crime fiction writing. But as you say there are so many. My memory is not as good as yours but I loved the brilliant twist in Christie's Death on the Nile, and Kvant and Kristiansson trampling on the crime scene in The Laughing Policeman, the beginning of The Fire Engine that Disappeared and The Terrorists all by Sjowall and Wahloo. The denouement in Jo Nesbo's The Devil's Star, and the dialogue in Daniel Woodrel's Tomato Red and so many others........

  2. On of the most memorable scenes for me came from Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie. When Caroline Crale is about to die and she writes the letter to her sister. I don't know why that stuck with me but I felt the sadness but the self-sacrifice she felt in that moment.

    Also, the moment in one of Val McDermid's books when the case is about to be solved but at the very end, one of the detectives goes off on his own and ends up getting killed. (I won't give too much details so that I don't ruin it for anyone) but those scenes really stuck with me.

    Great post.


  3. Norman - You're very kind :-). I always like it when people I know are familiar with places in novels and can help me relate to a story in a more personal way; thanks for your comments about Clifton Suspension Bridge. Shatter is not for the squeamish, but it is a gripping story and very well-written, I think. Of course, I'm biased because I like Robotham, but I recommend it.

    I have to agree with you, too, that the twist in Death on the Nile is truly inspired, and yes, I wanted to scream at Kvant and Kristiannsson for that crime scene blunder. I confess I haven't read The Fire Engine that Disappeared, but I must. As you mention, there are so many good moments that it's hard to pick just a few. I admit I had quite a time with it when I was writing this post. Thanks for suggesting so many good 'uns that I didn't include.

    Clarissa - Thanks :-). I agree with you about that letter from Caroline Crale to her sister in Five Little Pigs. It is a most moving letter and when her sister allows Poirot to read it, that's quite a moment.

    And McDermid is quite good at creating those memorable scenes, isn't she? Some of them really do stick with the reader....

  4. I find the better lines do not use swearing, except for, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."

    I'm still working on some one-liners for my next two books. I'll run them up a flag pole and see if anyone salutes. Hopefully something will stick.

  5. Stephen - You're right. The very best lines don't need profanity to be powerful. I'll be looking forward to those one-lines; I'm sure they'll be great.

  6. The scene I think of first is the murder that takes place on the Orient Express. When Poirot unravels the story, it's easy to visualize the violence, even though it seems impossible the group could have agreed on the plan and then carried it out.

  7. Patricia - That really is a very effective scene, isn't it, when Poirot reveals what really happened to Samuel Ratchett. It's a solution that's hard to believe at first, but when I first read that novel, I could feel the pieces of the puzzle falling into place as I read that section...

  8. One of my favourite exchanges is also from Silence of the Lambs and it's something I've tried to remember as I build my characters: "What does he [Buffalo Bill] do? "He kills women." No! That is incidental..."He covets."

  9. Elspeth - Oh, that is a wonderful line!! Thanks very much for sharing it :-). It expresses so much so very well, doesn't it? I need to keep that in mind as I write, too.

  10. The last line of Black Ice has refused to leave me, and I am so glad you mentioned it (and gladder you introduced me to the series).

    I loved how Thirteen to Dinner ended - that letter she sends Poirot says so much about her, doesn't it?

    Thank you for another great post

  11. Rayna - Thank you :-) And I'm so glad you are enjoying the Harry Bosch series! Michael Connelly is such a talented writer, and Harry Bosch is a great character.

    And yes, that last line from Thirteen to Dinner is so memorable. Well, the whole letter that ends that novel is unforgettable, but the last line of the letter especially so...