Some crime novels don’t follow a strictly linear plot. Rather, the reader is given various pieces of a story and as the story goes on, sees how those pieces fit together. That sort of plot takes a deft hand, because it’s important that the story not seem chaotic. But when the plot makes sense overall, and when the reader is willing to ‘let go’ and let the pieces fall together, this kind of story can make an interesting alternative to the traditional, more linear plot.
Agatha Christie sometimes experimented with not-exactly-linear plots. For instance, Sad Cypress begins as Elinor Carlisle, on trial for murder, is asked to say whether she is guilty or not guilty of poisoning Mary Gerrard. Then, in flashback form, we learn a bit more about Elinor and about her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman. In bits and pieces, we learn about Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura too, and we see how her history relates to those of Elinor and Roddy. When Aunt Laura is taken ill, both young people go to visit her and readers follow along as they renew their acquaintance with Mary, who’s the lodgekeeper’s daughter at Aunt Laura’s home. Roddy finds himself infatuated with Mary and that’s used against Elinor when she is later arrested for poisoning Mary. Dr. Peter Lord, Aunt Laura’s doctor, wants Elinor’s name cleared, so he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. As Poiroit does, we very slowly see the bits and pieces of this story fall together. In the end, we learn how past relationships have led to both Aunt Laura’s death and Mary’s. The story isn’t really told chronologically, but it does make sense as the pieces are slowly fitted together.
That’s also true of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. The story’s focus is a car accident in which Paul Bradley, who’s driving a silver Peugeot, is hit from behind by the driver of a blue Honda. The two men get into a loud argument and the other driver soon wields a baseball bat with which he intends to kill Bradley. As one would expect, a crowd has gathered by now. One of the onlookers is mystery novelist Martin Canning, who’s never done a brave thing in his life. But almost by instinct he throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Watching all of this is former cop-turned-PI Jackson Brodie. With this background laid, Atkinson goes on to tell the story of how each character came to be at the scene of the accident, why the accident happened, and what happens to each person as a result. Atkinson doesn’t tell these stories in a linear way. Rather, each piece of the story is explored, and then we slowly see how all of the pieces fit together. And yet, the main plot – what led to the car crash and what resulted from it – isn’t ‘lost in the shuffle.’
Karin Fossum’s When The Devil Holds the Candle is the story of the disappearance of Andreas Winther. His mother Runi is concerned because he hasn’t been home for a few days, so she goes to the police. At first there’s not much cause for worry. There are many reasons why a young man might take off for a few days and not tell his mother. But when more time goes by, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre begin to look into the matter. One important source of information is his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. But Zipp claims that he doesn’t know where Andreas is. Sejer is fairly certain that Zipp knows more than he’s telling and Sejer’s right. As the story unfolds, we follow the events of the last day Zipp and Andreas spent together. We also follow the lives of some of the people with whom they interacted. There’s also the thread of the ongoing interaction between Zipp and Sejer as Sejer tries to find out what really happened. Fossum doesn’t tell this story in chronological order. Rather, each piece of the story slowly adds to the whole picture that we get of what happened to Andreas.
In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to Thea Farmer, who has left her job as a school principal and had a dream home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Then she suffers a financial setback and has to sell her perfect home. She moves instead to the house next door which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, a new couple Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy Thea’s dream house. Right from the start Thea doesn’t like them; in fact she refers to them as ‘the invaders.’ Bit by bit though she establishes a kind of rapport with Frank. And then when Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them, Thea forms a kind of bond with her too. It’s that bond that leads Thea to a fateful decision when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice may not be providing an appropriate home environment for Kim. This story isn’t really told in a linear way. We go back and forth and pick up bits and pieces as we learn Thea’s story. Slowly, we learn why she stopped teaching, why Kim moved in with her uncle, and what happens when Thea decides to take matters with her neighbours into her own hands. Duigan uses Thea’s responses to prompts from her writing coach to tell the story, so interspersed through the novel are also scenes from her writing class. It all comes together, but not in a linear way.
That’s also true of Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. The focal point of the novel is the murder of thirteen members of the Atwal family. They’ve all been poisoned and several of them stabbed as well. What’s more, a devastating fire, presumably set to cover up the murders, has destroyed much of the home. The main suspect is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal, but there are also signs that she could very well have been a victim too, but just happened to survive. The major problem is that Durga hasn’t said anything about the events of that night, and without her telling what she knows, the police can’t make any progress on the case. Social worker Simran Singh is asked to work with Durga in the hopes that she’ll be able to get the girl to discuss the murders. Bit by bit, Simran does find out what happened on the night of the murders. She also finds out some very disturbing things about the Atwal family and about the local community. The story isn’t told in chronological order, although we do follow the events logically. Rather, we learn bits and pieces as Simran does.
Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that those stories are also not always told in chronological, linear order. Rather, we meet characters and see some events from their perspectives. Then we follow along as the members of Adamsberg’s team get involved in cases. Bit by bit the pieces fall together and we learn how everything fits in. But the stories aren’t told in sequence.
It’s not easy to tell a coherent story that really falls together without using a fairly chronological approach. But when the author does it skillfully and without losing sight of the main plot, it can be a very interesting alternative to more typical storytelling approaches. What do you think? Do you like this approach to storytelling or do you prefer a more linear one? If you’re a writer, do you experiment with this kind of approach?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Denver’s Anthem-Revelation.