Friday, December 10, 2010

If the Illusion is Real, Let Them Give You a Ride*

For many crime fiction novels, the whole point is to keep the reader guessing until the real killer is revealed. Of course, savvy crime fiction fans can sometimes cut through the “red herrings” and so on to find out the killer, but it’s often a game of matching wits between the reader and the author. And that makes sense, actually. In real life, criminals don’t usually want to get caught, so they do what they can to avoid it. One of the strategies that criminals (and authors ;-) ) use is to create a diversion. After all, if the police are busy, say, investigating a break-in on one side of town, maybe there’ll be less attention paid to a murder on the other. Diversions have to be creative and well-planned, of course. Otherwise in real-life, they’ll be too quickly seen for what they are and connected with the real crime. In crime fiction, they can be too contrived. But when they’re done well, diversions can be a very effect strategy.

There’s a very clever diversion in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League (although I admit; it probably wouldn’t be successful today). In that story, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from pawnbroker Mr. Jabez Wilson, who has a strange story to tell. He answered a job advertisement for a mysterious group called the Red Headed League seeking men with red hair for a well-paying job. Despite quite a lot of competition, Wilson was hired immediately, and found out that the job was simply copying an encyclopedia. The only stipulation was that he had to stay in the room where his writing materials were during the entire time of each duty shift. Wilson agreed to that requirement and all went well. Then one day, Wilson arrived at his new workplace only to find that the place was locked and the Red Headed League disbanded. Holmes deduces that the job is simply a diversion created to get Wilson out of his pawn shop for a certain period of time each day. This allows free reign to a gang of bank robbers who want to use the pawn shop as a base to tunnel under a nearby bank to break in. Once Holmes figures out the story behind the job, he’s able to stop the bank robbers before they succeed.

There are plenty of diversions in Agatha Christie’s novels, too. For instance, in The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic warning of a crime to take place in the town of Andover. At first, the warning is put down to the work of a crank, but then, the body of shopkeeper Alice Ascher is found. Her husband Franz is the most likely suspect, but the warning letter was clearly not his work, so he’s cleared. Then, Poirot receives another warning note, this time announcing a murder in Bexhill. Sure enough, the body of Elizabeth “Betty” Barnard is found there. Now, it looks as though a serial killer is at work, especially when yet another death occurs, and then another. Poirot and Hastings work with Scotland Yard and the local police to try to find the murderer, a process that takes months. Part of the reason the solution takes a long time is that the murderer has used a very clever diversion to keep the police busy.

There’s also an interesting diversion in Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). Poirot’s dentist, Henry Morley, is shot one day in his surgery, shortly after Poirot himself was there for a regular cleaning. Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp asks for Poirot’s help on the case, since he was there. There seems no motive, really, for Morley’s death, as he had no fortune and no apparent enemies. Soon, though, it’s discovered that one of his patients was well-known banker Alistair Blunt, a man who’s made more than one powerful political enemy. Now, it seems that Morley’s murder might have been what you’d call a public murder – a murder committed not for a personal reason, but to some political end. In the end, though, this proves to be a very clever diversion from the real killer.

In Tony Hillerman’s Sacred Clowns, Sergeant Jim Chee, his girlfriend Janet Pete and his Hopi friend “Cowboy” Dashee are attending a Tano ritual in which there are several groups of dancers. There’s a very large crowd attending the event, and everyone’s attention, including that of the police officers on duty, is focused on the dancing. Besides watching the spectacle, Chee is also “on assignment;” he’s been asked to find Delmar Kanitewa, a half-Navajo teen who disappeared from his school not long before the festival. With all of the diversion, no-one notices when Francis Sayesva is bludgeoned to death. His body is found after the ritual is over, and it seems that the murderer got clean away. As it turns out, Sayesva is Delmar Kanitewa’s uncle, and Chee comes to believe that the boy’s disappearance is related to Sayesva’s death and to the death of a teacher at Kanitewa’s school. As he looks more deeply in the case, Che discovers that these deaths are, indeed, connected. They’ve all got to do with power, “dirty politics” and fake antiquities.

And then there’s Liza Marklund’s The Bomber. In that novel, Christina Furhage is head of the committee responsible for bringing the upcoming Olympic Games to Stockholm. As the novel begins, she goes into Victoria Stadium, where several events will be held. While she’s there, a bomb goes off, killing her and Stefan Bjurling, a builder who’s working in the stadium. Because of the Olympics and the bomb itself, the police believe that they’re on the trail of a terrorist bomber. So they explore all sorts of leads to local and international terrorist groups, all in vain. Investigative journalist Annika Bengtzon is sent to the scene of the bombing to do a story on the event. As she begins to do background research on the victims, she discovers that the murders might not have been the work of a terrorist group. The bombing has been set up as a diversion from the real killer, who has very personal reasons for wanting the two victims dead.

In Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, the killer takes advantage of a diversion, although the killer’s not responsible for it. In that novel, dissident poet Alexander Todorov is murdered in what looks like a mugging gone terribly wrong. Todorov had made himself unpopular with a clique of wealthy Russian businessmen who are only too glad to have him out of the way. So Inspector Rebus and his team start to investigate this death as a politically-motivated murder. Then, Rebus finds out that one of the members of this clique has had business dealings with local gangster Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty. To add to that, Todorov had been working with recording expert Charles Riordan. When Riordan is killed and his studio destroyed by fire, it looks very much as though Rebus and the team are looking at a politics-and-power kind of killing. The killer takes advantage of the diversion created by Riordan’s murder and the fire, and remains “hidden” until Rebus finds an important set of clues that lead him in the right direction.

Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors has another example of a murderer who takes advantage of a diversion. Australian Federal Police officer Bradman “Brad” Chen has been on leave from the police force. He’s persuaded to come back on duty when former politician Alec Dennet is murdered while he’s at a writer’s retreat, working on his memoirs. Also murdered is Lorraine Starck, his editor. Dennet’s memoirs are likely to embarrass highly-placed former government officials, and they refer to several international incidents. So more than one group is interested in getting those memoirs before they’re published, and it’s very likely that one of those groups is responsible for the murders. In fact, at two different points in the story, Chen is attacked by international gang members. The truth is, though, that the real murderer “hides behind” the diversion created by the two gangs. It’s not until Chen gets clues from the right source that he understands who really killed Dennet and Starck and why.

If it can be arranged, a diversionary tactic can be extremely useful in keeping a murderer safe from arrest, and the police busy elsewhere. But diversions aren’t always easy to create, and in crime fiction, they can come off as contrived if they’re not done well. What’s your view? Which novels have you enjoyed that use this strategy? If you’re a writer, do you use diversions?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Cars' Let the Good Times Roll.


  1. This is very important but I don't always do a good job making sure my red herrings and distractions are enough to keep the reader from guessing. I have to work on this. Great reminder.


  2. Clarissa - Oh, I have the same challenge when I write. Diversions are a useful tool to keep the reader from catching on too quickly. How to integrate them effectively without either giving the whole show away, or being too contrived, or too mysterious, takes work, doesn't it?

  3. I do enjoy reading books where there's a diversion. The Bomber is a great example. All along you think the killer(s) are doing this for one reason only to find out it was something completely different. It keeps you guessing.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - That's just it; a diversion keeps the reader guessing and gives the author a chance to vary things and add some interesting twists. That's one thing I liked about The Bomber, too.

  5. Arghhhh. I'm working so hard on Audiobook Jukebox that I've gotten behind in my blog reading. I just realized I was your featured book blog! Wow. I'm so honored. Thank you so much.

  6. Beth - Oh, my pleasure! You have such a rich, enjoyable blog that it was more than time for me to feature it. And I know exactly what you mean about getting behind in blog reading. I'm embarrassed to admit how many blogs I don't read in nearly as much depth as I should...

  7. Plot is difficult for me. Just keeping the one in my head seems all I can manage without a second feint.

  8. Patti - I know exactly what you mean! The main plot is the most important one, and if that gets muddled, the whole book fails. A strong plot comes first, and that in itself's a challenge to write. Diversions can be very effective strategies, but they do take extra effort I think.

  9. The Bomber sounds like a fantastic book.

    A recent book I read that had a red herring was The Paris Enigma. There appeared to be all kinds of public reasons, and connections between the murders, but it was all for a very personal reason. The book was hugely disappointing, and the plot device could have been used so much better.

  10. Rayna - Oh, thank you for mentioning The Paris Enigma. That novel does, indeed, have diversions that "hide" the real motive for the murder. I'm sorry to hear that you found the novel disappointing; that's always so annoying when a book one's hoping to enjoy turns out not to live up to expectations.

    I do think you'd like The Bomber. I recommend Marklund's Annika Bengtzon series.

  11. I like the plot idea for The Bomber. Must add it to my TBR list.

  12. Maybe if I re-read The Paris Enigma, I will find it better, but I had great expectations, which were not met. Always a pity when that happens.