The Time to Hesitate is Through*

Quick thinkingA recent post from crime writer Sue Coletta got me thinking about how protagonists get out of difficult and sometimes dangerous situations. On the one hand, unless you’re reading the kind of novel where you’ve cheerfully suspended your disbelief, you don’t want the characters to be superheroes. A believable protagonist could therefore potentially be in a life-threatening situation. On the other hand, Sue makes the point (and she’s right!) that there are ways to create a credible ‘in the nick of time’ way to get out of danger.

It requires some quick thinking and resourcefulness to get out of such situations. But in a way, that makes such escapes, if you want to call it that, all the more believable. And that kind of quick thinking can add some interesting ‘spark’ and suspense to a novel.

In Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, for instance, Charles Moray returns to England after an absence only to find that his house has been taken over by a criminal gang. What’s worse, he has good reason to believe that his former fiancée Margaret Langton may be in with this group. Moray tells his friend Archie Millar about what he’s discovered, and Millar suggests a visit to private investigator Maude Silver. Miss Silver isn’t exactly what Moray would have imagined, but she listens to his story and begins her investigation. And in the end, with her help, Moray learns who the members of the gang really are, and what their target is. It’s not spoiling the story to say that at one point, Moray and his former love end up trapped in a basement by the leader of the gang. Neither one of them is a superhero, but Margaret hits on a way to get help. She manages to scribble a few words on a piece of paper and sticks it where it just might be seen. She doesn’t use brawn or weapons, and that makes the scene more believable.

In Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to Anne Bedingfield. When her father dies, she’s left with very little money and no real ties to London. She has no real desire to settle down, so on impulse, she lets her curiosity get the better of her when she witnesses a fatal accident. She retrieves a note left from the accident scene and deduces that it refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. She can’t resist booking a ticket, and ends up caught in a web of jewel theft, intrigue and murder. At one point, she’s been taken prisoner and locked in an attic. She uses her wits and a piece of glass left on the dusty floor to get free and manages to escape. There are other places in the novel, too, in which she uses her ingenuity (no spoilers). The story itself may not be an ‘everyday life’ kind of crime story, but Christie didn’t give Anne superhuman powers, and she’s more believable because of that.

Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn sees crime writer Martin Canning getting ready to pick up tickets to an afternoon comedy radio performance one day. As he’s waiting, he’s one of several witnesses to a car accident in which a blue Honda hits a silver Peugeot driven by Paul Bradley. Both men get out of their cars and begin to argue. The conflict escalates until the Honda driver wields a baseball bat and attacks Bradley. Canning is by no means a ‘tough guy.’ In fact, he’s never done a really courageous thing in his life. But in this instance, he thinks quickly (almost instinctively) and throws his computer bag at the Honda driver. It’s quick thinking, but it’s believable, and the act saves Bradley’s life. Feeling duty-bound, Canning sees that Bradley is taken to the nearest hospital; he then stays with the man to see he’s cared for properly. Canning’s sense of responsibility gets him in more trouble than he could have imagined.

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher isn’t a superhero, but she’s very quick-witted, and it often gets her out of trouble. For instance, when we first meet her in Cocaine Blues,   she has returned ‘on assignment’ from London to her home in Melbourne. Some London friends are concerned about their daughter, whom they fear may be in danger from her husband. Phryne looks into the matter with the help of some friends she makes along the way, and discovers a deadly web of drugs trade, murder and more. At one point, she and her friend Bert Johnson have ‘staked out’ a pharmacy that could hold a key to the mystery. That’s when a group of thugs makes an appearance. Phryne and Bert follow them to see if they might lead the two to some answers. When they’re spotted, they have to think quickly, because neither is armed or strong enough to hold off a gang of thugs. So they pretend to be lovers taking advantage of a dark alley until the thugs move on.

We also see that kind of quick thinking in Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Genealogist Jefferson Tayte has come to Cornwall from Boston ‘on commission.’ Walter Sloane has hired Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift to her, and the trail leads to the Cornish coast. But there the history of the family seems to stop cold, as the saying goes. So Tayte starts asking questions. That’s how he meets Amy Fallon, whose husband Gabriel died two years earlier in a sea accident. In one plot thread of this story, Amy discovers a very old writing box that may hold the key to the mystery Tayte’s investigating. There are some ruthless people, though, who don’t want the truth discovered; and at one point, they abduct Amy. Her fisherman friend Tom Laity sees what happens, and follows the launch where Amy’s being held. He’s spotted and attacked, but recovers. When he does, he thinks quickly and leaves a ‘water trail’ of fishing line that Tayte is later able to follow. That allows both to be rescued.

Getting out of danger doesn’t always require brawn. In fact, sometimes, it’s more credible if the protagonist doesn’t grab a weapon or smash out of a prison. It does require quick thinking and cleverness, and sometimes, that’s more than enough to keep the reader’s interest.

Thanks, Sue, for the inspiration. If you’re interested in crime writing and how it’s done, you want Sue’s blog on your blog roll. It’s a rich resource with a lot of very useful insights and information.

ps. People can think quickly in real life too. Don’t believe me? Check out this real-life story of one woman’s brilliant, quick-thinking way to get free from an awful situation. My hat is off to her.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ Light My Fire.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Kate Atkinson, Kerry Greenwood, Steve Robinson, Sue Coletta

26 responses to “The Time to Hesitate is Through*

  1. Some good examples of quick thinking here especially your true story!! I prefer brains over brawn in my fiction (as well as real life) just smashing your opponent over the head etc isn’t anywhere near as interesting.

  2. I am flattered, Margot! Thank you so much! It’s a series I feel strongly about — women being able to defend themselves — and I’m so glad others are enjoying it too.

  3. I cannot remember which series/protagonist it was, but I remember a situation where she (I think a P.I.) was hiding in a big duct in the ceiling when a killer was roaming through the rooms below. Not sure why that particular hiding place stuck with me because I sure never would have been able to pull myself up there. 😀

    • Oh, I don’t think I could either, Pat. It sounds like a very clever way to elude a killer, though! If you do happen to think of series or author or protagonist, let me know. 🙂

  4. Interesting! I’ve just been rereading ‘They Came to Baghdad’ and the way Victoria Jones gets out of scrapes is ridiculous. But there’s something about Christie that allows you to suspend disbelief. But in modern crime fic, we definitely need to be able to believe what we’re reading.

    • Couldn’t agree with you more about Victoria, Sarah. And yet, as you say, Christie makes it very inviting to suspend disbelief. I’ve noticed that in several of her stories actually. About modern crime fiction, I think we really do have higher expectations that characters will act in credible ways. That’s actually a really interesting topic; I’ll have to reflect on that a bit; thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  5. That sounds quite the Wentworth plot – I’ve been reading a few of hers, I will have to add this one to the list. Not in the crime fiction world, but when I think of people being quick-witted and getting out of trouble my heroes are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – right up to the last few moments of that lovely film.

    • Oh, I loved that film, Moira! So well done on so many levels! And yes, they certainly did find ‘nick of time’ ways to get out of danger. You’re right too about Grey Mask. It’s the first Miss Silver novel, and she doesn’t feature in it as much as she does in later novels. Still, I think you’ll find it interesting as a look at how the series began, if nothing else.

  6. Kathy D.

    This is an interesting idea for a post, a topic certainly many women think about in real life.
    I saw a woman on TV who’d worked for the Secret Service at the White House. She gave a demonstration of ways to unloose someone from an overly long hug on an official, even by a shorter person — i.e., bending back a shoulder, then a hand, then a finger while they were in the hug.
    In fiction, Phryne Fisher certainly gets into a lot of scrapes. A recent TV episode showed her faking death after a killer had emptied gunshot into several people in a room. She always makes it out alive, sometimes on her own intelligence, sometimes because the police show up in the nick of time.
    Now, V.I. Warshawski, my favorite detective, gets into danger constantly. Sometimes she gets out of it through her own physical skills and intelligence; sometimes she is found semi-conscious by a bystander. I’m always nervous when reading these scenes although I know she’ll be OK.
    And Happy Mother’s Day, Margo! I trust your family showed appropriate appreciation on this day.

    • Thanks very much for the good wishes, Kathy. And I’m glad you mentioned V.I. Warshawski. She certainly does find ways to get out of danger, doesn’t she? That’s something I like about Phryne Fisher, too. That television show you watched must have been interesting. There are ways that even a small person can use to stay safe, and it’s good to know they’re being taught and demonstrated.

  7. Col

    Another interesting post, Margot. None of your examples are familiar to me I’m afraid….probably going to stay that way too! 🙂 (time….)

  8. Always something good to think about…getting out of a dangerous situation without relying on brawn (a good thing, since I’m not brawny!) Tricky for writers, too, especially those of us with senior sleuths. Nice to keep it realistic.

    • I think so too, Elizabeth. It’s especially a challenge with a senior sleuth, but I think you’ve found realistic and creative ways to do it. And in doing so, I think you make your characters all the more appealing because it’s realistic.

  9. It’s good when a character can get out of danger without turning into a superhero – much more believeable. In so many books, especially thrillers, the transformation of the ‘ordinary guy’ into a cross between Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk stretches credulity past breaking point. I still read them though… 😉

    • Sometimes they are irresistible, FictionFan, aren’t they? And you’re right; it is a lot more credible when the protagonist doesn’t suddenly (or ever) take on super powers. It’s often easier to be drawn into the story that way.

  10. Ah, the ‘one bound and he was free’ syndrome. 😉 Lovely to see a mention for Man in the Brown Suit – one of my own favourite Christie novels but not very well known.

    • Yeah, that syndrome, Tess 😉 – I think you’re right, too, that The Man in the Brown Suit isn’t as well-known as some of Christie’s other work. Nice to give those novels a nod every once in a while, I think.

  11. I do get irritated when a protagonist continually gets in deep water and has to be rescued or get out of it. But these examples all sound like good examples where the situation makes sense.

    • Oh, you’re right, Tracy. I get tired of the protagonist always having to be rescued too. It gets tiresome. Once in a while, though, it can be effective to have the protagonist do some quick thinking and get out of a situation..

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