Saturday, April 2, 2011

You Know it Shouldn't Surprise You at All*

Have you ever had someone take you completely by surprise? Once we get to know someone, we generally have an idea of how that person might react in a given situation or what that person might think about something. But every once in a while, we can be surprised. When that happens, it’s a good reminder not to assume too many things about people. In crime fiction, those surprises can add interesting twists to a plot, and they can add interesting layers to a character. Of course, like anything else in crime fiction, it’s a tricky balance. A character who behaves too much “out of character” can be less believable, and pull the reader out of the story. Still, it’s interesting to see what happens when a character takes someone by surprise.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), we meet the Cloade family. Wealthy Gordon Cloade has always seen to the financial needs of his younger siblings and their families, and everyone has come to depend on him. He’s a conservative, confirmed-bachelor family leader. So when Cloade suddenly marries Rosaleen Underhay, a much-younger widow, everyone in the family is taken by surprise. Shortly after the marriage, Gordon Cloade is tragically killed in a wartime bomb attack. Further shocks are in store for the Cloade family when they discover that Cloade didn’t make a new will after his marriage. This means that Rosaleen Cloade is now set to inherit her dead husband’s fortune. If she does, this means that Cloade’s brothers Jeremy and Lionel, his sister Adela, and his nephew Rowley can no longer count on the money they have come to take for granted. Then, a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden visits Warmsley Vale, where the Cloades live. He hints that Rosaleen Cloade’s first husband may not have died, but may in fact still be alive. If that’s true, then she can’t inherit, as she would have been already married when she and Cloade married. Shortly after his arrival, Arden is killed. Two different members of the Cloade family seek out Hercule Poirot and ask him to investigate whether or not Rosaleen Cloade was married, and who killed Enoch Arden. As the Cloades try to adjust to the possibility of life without financial expectations, a few members of the family behave in surprising ways (no spoilers ;-) ).

In Christie’s The Hollow, Poirot is spending the week-end at a getaway cottage he’s taken near the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. On the Sunday, he’s invited for lunch with the Angkatells and arrives just in time to see that one of their house party, Dr. John Christow, has been shot. At first, it seems quite clear who the killer is, since that’s the person who’s holding the gun. Soon enough, though, Poirot and Inspector Grange find that it’s not as simple as that, and they work to get to the bottom of the mystery. In one of the interesting sub-plots in this novel, we follow the story of Edward Angkatell, a cousin of Lady Lucy’s who’s staying at the house for the week-end. Edward hasn’t noticed it, but another guest, Midge Hardcastle, is in love with him and has been for some time. He’s always thought of her as “Little Midge,” since he’s known her since childhood. One day, though, she takes him by surprise when he visits her workplace and really begins to see her as the adult she’s become. That shock wakes Edward up, so to speak.

The wealthy and "well-born" Berowne family is taken completely by surprise by their ward/housekeeper Evelyn Matlock in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. In that novel, Commander Adam Dalgliesh has been asked to head a new squad specially formed to handle cases that are likely to get a lot of media attention. When Crown Minister Paul Berowne is found brutally killed in a local church, it’s quickly decided that his death will make international headlines, and the new squad is called into action. The team begins with Berowne’s past. It turns out that out of a sense of responsibility for sending her father to prison, Paul Berowne took Evelyn Matlock into his home, where she has since served as nurse to his mother, Lady Ursula, as well as general cook and housekeeper. As Dalgliesh and the team investigate Berowne’s family, friends and associates, they get closer and closer to the truth, and before long, Dalgliesh realises that Evelyn Matlock knows more than she has said so far. The family assumes that out of gratitude for giving her a home, she will fall in with the family’s decisions about some family secrets. They’re in for a big surprise when she turns on them all and tells Dalgliesh what she knows. That information is an essential part of the mystery of Paul Berowne’s death.

In Elizabeth George’s Deception On His Mind, Sergeant Barbara Havers has a few personal reasons for wanting to get involved in the investigation of the murder of Haytham Querashi, a recently-arrived Pakistani immigrant to Balford-le-Nez, on the Essex coast. One of those reasons is that DCI Emily Barlow will be in charge of the investigation. Havers considers Barlow a mentor and wants desperately to work a case with her. She gets her opportunity and is soon involved in what looks at first like a “hate crime.” That theory makes sense, as there is a serious conflict between the English-speaking community and the immigrant community in Balford-le-Nez. It turns out that the crime is both simpler and more complicated than a “hate crime.” In the course of the investigation, Havers spends quite a bit of time with her “idol,” and gets to know her better. At a critical point, though, Barlow does something that takes her protégée completely by surprise. That event drastically alters Havers’ view of Barlow.

In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone takes just about everyone in his life by surprise. He has autism and, although he’s high-functioning, a great many assumptions are made about him. One of them is that he’s not really aware of what’s going on around him. One day, Christopher finds the body of a neighbour’s dog, and when he’s mistakenly accused of having killed the dog, he decides to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes and find out who’s really responsible. Much to everyone’s surprise, he slowly begins to put the pieces of the story together. More to the point of this post, he learns some important things about himself and his own family. There’s more than one scene in which some of the other characters are clearly taken aback by Christopher’s quest and by the fact that he finds out as much as he does.

Teresa Solana’s Shortcut to Paradise features Barcelona brothers Eduard and Josep “Borja” Martínez. They get involved in a case of murder when Borja attends a glittering awards dinner at which famous Catalán novelist Martina Dolç is to be given the Golden Apple Fiction Prize, a prestigious literary award. When she is brutally murdered shortly after the awards dinner, Borja makes up a story that the Martínez brothers have been asked to investigate and before they know it they’ve been hired to find out who the murderer is. The most likely suspect is Amadeu Cabestany, the runner-up for the award. The police promptly arrest Cabestany and the evidence seems to point to him, but his literary agent Clàudia Agulló is convinced that Cabestany is innocent. So she employs Eduard and Borja to catch the real killer. They begin to look into the victim’s life to find out who would have wanted to murder her. One of the people they meet is Dolç’s assistant Maite Bastida, who has inherited one of Dolç’s luxurious homes and the royalties from half of her books. She seems like a capable, super-efficient secretary, and certainly doesn’t call much attention to herself. But Maite takes the Martínez brothers by surprise when she acts not like a secretary but like the “lady of the house.” Then she tells them that in fact, she’s actually Dolç’s niece. Once they’ve absorbed that information, she gives them some very valuable information about Dolç’s background. In the end, and despite not being officially connected with the investigation, the Martínez brothers find out who killed Martina Dolç and why.

Sometimes, characters even surprise the authors who create them. That’s happened to me in my current work in progress. One of my characters was supposed to have a “walk-on” role, but it’s turned out a bit differently. He’s decided to play a more important role than I assumed he would. That’ll teach me to assume ;-).

What about you? Which characters have taken you by surprise? If you’re a writer, has any of your characters surprised you?

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


  1. You've got so many examples here. They're all great. The one that comes to mind first is Darcy. We really do think he's awful, until he takes us by surprise and tells his story. I think maybe all good literature requires some surprise moment like that.

  2. Anne - Why, thank you :-). And you're quite right about Mr. Darcy as a great example of characters who surprise us. At first, we can't imagine what his appeal could possibly be. But then, as we find out about him, yes, he does take us by surprise. You have a well-taken point, too, that perhaps good literature needs those characters who catch us by surprise. It keeps the interest level up and engages the reader.

  3. Another terrific post! I loved Curious Incident of... The surprises in that book were ongoing. I thought it was so well written - a great book! :)

  4. Jemi - Thank you :-) - that's awfully kind of you! I agree; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has some interesting surprises in it. And I found the point of view fascinating. It is truly a unique point of view, and that contributes to the book, I think.

  5. Another interesting post. Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night was a fascinating book. My daughter gave it to me to read. It certainly held some surprises.

  6. My characters always surprise me. They seldom allow me to manipulate them in the way I expect.

  7. Glynis - Thank you :-). You know, I agree with you; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is one of the truly unique books I've read. You're quite right that it holds quite a lot of surprises.

    Patti - Ah, your characters must be related to mine ;-). I actually like it when characters have that much personality. It makes them seem more real.

  8. Another delightful post. Characters who surprise you make a fun read. I enjoy books where the author surprises and you say, 'didn't see that coming' but when you go back and re-read, you see hints that you might have overlooked.

    Thoughts in Progress

  9. Mason - Why, thank you :-). And I like books that are like that, too. It leads to the question of whether people really can be unpredictable, or whether you can get a sense of what they'll do if you pay attention to those little hints. Interesting question!!