Did 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.