But Who Would Believe It?*

Weird EventsDid you ever have one of those ‘you couldn’t make this up’ experiences? They do happen, which is why there’s arguably something to the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. Let me give you a real example. I promise, this happened to me. The other afternoon, I was walking my dogs in one of the grassy areas we haunt. I looked up and across a nearby parking area and saw someone standing by a car (back to me) dressed in nothing but what nature provided. Now, there are places (such as certain beaches and so on) and some cultures where that’s not so unusual. But in the culture where I live, it’s odd indeed. You couldn’t make it up. And in this case, I didn’t.

The whole thing got me thinking about how those sorts of unusual events and things are woven into crime fiction. Yes, I was thinking about crime fiction at a time like that. I am beyond redemption. Here’s the challenge that the crime fiction author faces. On the one hand, those weird things do happen. They really do. On the other, stretching the limits of credibility too far in a novel is enough to pull a reader firmly out of the story. Even in ‘screwball’ novels, most readers don’t want to suspend all of their disbelief. So weaving in those weird incidents takes thought and care. But when it’s done well, those strange things can keep readers’ interest and add to a story.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissioner Peterson has one of those odd experiences. He breaks up a scuffle between some thugs and the man they’re harassing, and everyone involved runs off. Not so unusual. The would-be victim has dropped in his haste a hat and a goose. Again, not so strange. But when Peterson’s wife starts to prepare the goose for cooking, she finds a large jewel in its craw. That is, of course, one of those odd things that just simply doesn’t happen – but it does. Peterson brings the case to Sherlock Holmes, who works with Dr. Watson to trace the jewel back to its origin. When it’s all outlined, it’s not as unbelievable as it seems, but my guess is that Mrs. Peterson would likely have told that story to people for a very long time.

In Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, we learn about the first case investigated by London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). In 1940, a pavement chestnut vendor leaves his stall to obey the call of nature. When he comes back, he finds that there is a pair of feet among his chestnuts. That’s definitely not the sort of thing that happens every day, and the vendor is of course shaken up by it. Arthur Bryant and John May of the PCU take the case, and find out that the person originally connected to those feet was a dancer preparing for an upcoming Palace Theatre production of Orpheus. It turns out that her murder, and other murders that occur, are linked to each other and to a modern-day explosion that occurs at the PCU offices. In this instance, there is an explanation for those feet turning up in the vendor’s cart. But it’s definitely one of those stories that would be hard to believe if you didn’t know it was true.

Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom introduces readers to Toronto PI Sasha Jackson. In this novel, she’s relatively new to the business, so she can’t really be choosy about her clients. That’s why she accepts the case of Christine Arvisais. As Arvisais tells the story, she was engaged to marry Gordon Hanes, but Hanes broke it off. Then, just a few months later, on the date they were going to wed, Hanes was shot. The police weren’t able to find the killer, but a lot of people think that Arvisais is responsible. She wants Jackson to find out who the real murderer is, so that her name will be cleared. Jackson investigates and finds that Arvisais is by no means the only one with a motive for murder. And as she gets closer to the truth about Hanes’ death, she also finds herself in some danger. At one point, she’s even shot at. That’s not so odd in a crime novel. What’s a lot more unusual is that she is saved by the underwire in her bra. It’s not such an improbable thing that readers wouldn’t stay in the story, but it’s certainly a very odd thing to happen.

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that those novels often include unusual things that would be very hard to believe if the characters didn’t actually experience them. For example, in The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Adamsberg gets a visit from Valentine Vendermot, who’s come from Ordebec to see him about her daughter Lina. Her story is intriguing enough that Adamsberg travels to Ordebec to investigate more deeply. Among the many odd events and people in this novel is Mme. Vendermot’s son Hippolyte ‘Hippo.’ He’s a bit eccentric to begin with, and what makes him even more unusual is that he talks backwards when it suits him. Not something you’d be inclined to believe – until it happened.

There are also plenty of crime stories that make use of strange sorts of coincidences that you wouldn’t be likely to believe – except that they do happen. If you’ve ever experienced a crazy coincidence, you know what I mean. Of course, it’s important to handle those things very, very carefully in writing; readers are easily put off by contrived coincidences. Still, those things do take place, both in real life and in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Captain Arthur Hastings pays a visit to his friend John Cavendish, who lives near the village of Styles St. Mary. Not so odd, really. But what is unusual is that on his way out of the local post office one day, Hastings bumps into an old friend he hasn’t seen in years – Hercule Poirot. Neither man knew the other was in the area, so it’s a happy surprise for both. They’re both there for believable reasons, too. Poirot is living with a group of Belgians who were displaced by World War I. Hastings is visiting a friend. And yet it seems on the surface of it very odd. And it turns out to be very fortunate when Hastings’ hostess Emily Inglethorp is murdered.

But those strange things happen. Don’t believe me? Here’s another true story. Mr. COAMN and I were on our honeymoon in the Bahamas, far away from home. One day, we happened to wander into a liquor shop. We were browsing there when we heard a very familiar voice. A good friend of ours from university was in the same store with his new bride, whom we also knew. You couldn’t make that up. And I didn’t. Have you had one of those ‘you couldn’t make it up’ moments? Does it pull you out of the story when they occur in novels?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from ZZ Top’s Made Into a Movie.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Fowler, Fred Vargas, Jill Edmondson

32 responses to “But Who Would Believe It?*

  1. My dad was a boxer when he was young, moderately famous locally in boxing circles. Some twenty-five years after he stopped boxing, I, being about twenty at the time, was in a taxi and the taxi driver asked me “Are you Bob *****’s daughter?” I said yes and asked how he knew, and he said he used to watch my dad box and thought he had spotted a resemblance! I’m still not sure how flattering that was, but it was definitely a you-couldn’t-make-it-up moment…

    • FictionFan – That’s a great story! I had no idea your father was a boxer. I have to ask – did you ever see him box? And how interesting that that taxi driver was a fan, and you happened to be in his cab. Nope – you couldn’t make it up.

      • Yes, he was pretty good in his day – won lots of titles but stayed an amateur – professional boxing was still a bit looked down on in his time in this part of the world. Unfortunately no, I never saw him – he was quite late marrying so was already in his forties when I was born. But I was brought up on boxing, and know a surprising amount about it! Muhammad Ali was my first sporting hero. I spent a good deal of my formative years polishing Dad’s trophies and medals…which I still have.

        • I’m glad you still have those trophies, FcitionFan. I’m sure they mean a lot to you. And I can see why Muhammad Ali would have been a sporting hero for you. In the ring, at his very best, a lot of people say no-one could touch him. He certainly changed boxing forever.

  2. Great post, Margot, and it’s true that encountering people in an unexpected context is often startling, and a good catalyst for plot twists in a crime novel. One of Christie’s cleverest ‘unlucky encounters’ is, I think, the one that triggers the murder in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, a story with a basis in a real life tragedy.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Martin. And thanks for that classic Christie example. It really is a well-done encounter both for the purposes of the plot and as an instance of ‘you couldn’t make this up.’ Knowing that that story is based on a real-life tragedy adds I think to its potency.

  3. Margot: My grandfather left the Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle, early in the 1900’s to come to North America. After a short time in South Dakota he came to Saskatchewan where he homesteaded. After getting settled in he walked over to meet his nearest neighbour half a mile away. I do not know who was more surprised when Martin Hanberg opened the door. They had gone to school together in Norway! They had not been in contact since they had been at school and no idea each was even going to homestead in Canada.

    • Oh, Bill, what a story!! That those two men would have found themselves living half a mile apart like that is absolutely amazing. I’m sure it must have been great for them to find each other again. I’ll bet they had lots of stories to swap. You absolutely couldn’t make that up!

  4. The Secret Adversary is one of Agatha Christie’s early books, and I don’t think she would’ve tried this later, but Tuppence, giving a false name, thinks of one she overheard in the street that day: Jane Finn. But this means something to the people she is with, and so the plot is kick-started. It is ridiculous! I’m sure AC could’ve easily thought of something better – but then she probably didn’t think the book would still be being read more than 90 years later…

    • Moira – I’m glad mentioned that story. It really is an example of that kind of odd event that you wouldn’t believe could really happen. And of course that particular one is ridiculous; I wonder what Christie would have come up with a bit later in her career. But somehow it worked, and as you say, people are reading that one even today.

  5. As I read this I immediately recalled a story that happened to a friend’s (author/psychologist) patient. “Mary” and her son sped down the highway, late to get the son back to college. When out of nowhere something shatters their windshield. After checking on her son Mary gets out of the car to see what it was. A human head, still strapped inside a helmet, wobbled in front of her bumper. She soon learned a man on a motorcycle was hit by a Mack truck at the exact moment Mary passed under the overpass. Mary and her son are still in therapy. Although sad, terrifying, and tragic that someone lost their life– what a shame to waste such a good ‘you could not make it up’ moment on a non-crime writer!

    • Oh, Sue, what a story!! I can’t imagine what that must have been like for ‘Mary’ and for her son. I can understand why they are still coping with it all; think I’d have nightmares for years about that! But as you say, it’s one of those ‘you could not make it up’ sort of moment that could certainly work in a crime novel.

  6. One of my favourite quotes, and I’ve no idea where it’s from, is – fiction has to make sense, life doesn’t 😀

    • That’s a great quote, D.S. And it’s really true. Nowhere is it written that life has to make any sense at all. But yet, people expect that stories will make sense..

  7. Kay

    Margot, I love the way you take a topic and then give us multiple examples of the premise. Such fun! I don’t have a story other than the fact that we have seen friends in places like Disneyworld, neither of us knowing that the other would be there. However, I know that when I am watching a TV show, especially one like Law & Order SVU or something like that, I often think that the more outlandish storylines are likely based on some true incident. Sometimes it seems like the oddest things are true. Like the very sad ‘head’ story the person related above. I could see that in a crime show.

    • Thanks, Kay, for the kind words. And I know exactly what you mean about some of those strange, tragic events that you see on some TV shows. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them, anyway, are taken from real life. It may seem improbable, but those things really do happen. And so does running into friends in places like Disneyworld.

  8. My mother’s first name was very unusual and I had never met or heard of anyone else with that name – until I met my husband and discovered – after an initial period of confusion – that his mother was also called Avis. Some things are meant to be . . .

    • Christine – Oh, I couldn’t think of clearer Sign than that! Some things really are meant to be. And it’s definitely one of those things that you just couldn’t make up.

  9. On our last holiday we went to Antigua, many miles from the Channel Islands. We went on a boat tour and met a couple that come from Jersey too, strange but not unbelievably so but they’d got friendly with a couple that lived on the very road I grew up on in Gloucestershire – a coincidence too far for fiction?

  10. dkent

    A quote I’ve always remembered, if not the author, is “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction must make sense.”

    This happened to my former sister-in-law. She was at a Kinko’s making some quality copies of a picture of my dad in military uniform standing by his airplane “The Lois” during WW2. A man glances at the photo then blurts that he knows that plane and my dad. My dad had been a American liaison pilot who also flew for the British, mainly doing recon and hauling important passengers like generals, etc., to various military sites. He had flown this man around North Africa for a number of weeks.

    The man was British, my SIL was in North Carolina, and they happened to meet in Durham at Kinko’s. A small and weird world.

    • Oh, dkent, that’s a crazy story! What a small world it really is, isn’t it!? And you’re right that that’s part of what makes it so, well, odd. I like that quote, too. Thanks for sharing it and your story.

  11. Col

    Years ago after a fire, my parent’s car was settled up as an insurance write-off, we were living in England by this time. The following year on holiday in Ireland we were taking a trip out to see my dad’s aunt in the back of beyond – rural Kildare and our old car came bowling past us heading in the opposite direction! We were all totally amazed.

  12. Oh, my seeing that man standing back to you would have got me running the other direction. Instead, you turned it into a post…Very clever. 🙂

    • Thank you, Carol 🙂 – Trust me, it was a very awkward moment! Fortunately I don’t really think he was keenly aware that I was around. And I left just as soon as I could. As I say, you couldn’t make it up…

  13. Sometimes I complain about coincidences in mysteries, but maybe those coincidences are not as unlikely as we think.

    I did have a similar occurrence as Fiction Fan mentioned. When I was around 10 years old, coming home from school on a bus (a commercial bus, not a school bus) another passenger (older woman who I had never seen before) asked me if I was Billy Kay’s daughter. Not so unusual because the bus was in the same neighborhood he grew up in, but I was embarrassed that I … a girl … looked so much like my father that a stranger would recognize the resemblance.

    • Tracy – That’s the thing I think. We don’t want too many coincidences in novels, because they don’t feel, credible. Yet the fact is, they do happen. They really do.
      Your bus experience shows, I think, that there really aren’t that many degrees of separation among us, and I’d say that’s probably especially true in smaller areas.

  14. Kathy D.

    Coincidences do happen, but they’re not a good plot device in crime fiction. Nor in a murder investigation in real life.
    Living in a big city as I do, lots of strange things happen. Sometimes “truth is stranger than fiction,” and this is often true with the news. People disappear. Bodies appear in strange conditions in weird places.
    People dress in costumes. Halloween is incredible around here,
    the creativity magnificent.

    • Oh, Kathy, I’d bet Hallowe’en is absolutely not to be missed where you live. And I can understand what you mean about not having too many coincidences in crime fiction. It can all too easily seem contrived, even though odd things really do happen.

  15. Yes, strange coincidences happen in real life and they can set off interesting experiences, but I think you have to be careful how you use the flow of events in a mystery novel.
    Life can be coincidental but a story needs to be plausible, especially when it involves a mystery.
    I was disappointed by some of the elements that crept into the story in Looking Good Dead by Peter James, and found myself wondering why he included such implausible elements, as they were not needed in the story line. Yes, they allowed him to illustrate the resourcefulness of one of the characters but they blew the credibility of story for me.

    • Peter – You’ve outlined a really fascinating difference between real life and the fiction we read. As you say, strange things and weird coincidences happen in real life. We’ve just about all had that happen. We accept that such things happen for precisely that reason: we’ve seen it ourselves. And yet (and I think you’re right about this) we don’t want that sort of strange event or odd coincidence happening very often in the fiction we read. It seems too contrived and can pull the reader right out of the story. You could say we hold our fiction to a higher standard than we do real life when it comes to plausibility.

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