Call Me Unpredictable*

UnpredictableIn Agatha Christie’s short story Triangle at Rhodes, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at a luxury hotel on the Island of Rhodes. One day he has a conversation with a fellow guest, Pamela Lyall.

‘‘Oh, M. Poirot, I don’t think anything’s so interesting – so incalculable – as a human being!’
‘Incalculable? That, no.’
‘Oh, but they are! Just as you think you’ve got them beautifully taped – they do something completely unexpected.’
Hercule Poirot shook his head.
‘No, no, that is not true. It is most rare that anyone does an action that is not dans san caractère.’’ 

That, to Poirot, is an important reason to understand the psychology of the people with whom he’s involved when he works a case.

But it does present a challenge for crime writers. Most readers want believable characters who behave in credible ways. Stories don’t ‘feel’ real otherwise. On the other hand, readers also want some surprises. And authors know that when characters behave in unexpected ways, this can get the reader wondering why, and wanting to know more. The key seems to be in making sure that those unexpected things happen for a reason, and are not inconsistent with what that character might conceivably do.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder is an example of how this can happen. Howard Van Horn has been having blackouts for some time now, and that’s worrisome in itself. But when he wakes up with blood on himself after one of them, he becomes frightened. It’s not in his nature to be violent. His guess is that he must have done something horrible. So he contacts Queen, who is an old friend from college, and asks him for help. Queen agrees and together, the two begin to search for the truth. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, whether his father Dieter lives with his second wife Sally. During their visit, Sally is murdered, and Howard becomes the prime suspect. Queen has known his friend for a long time, although they hadn’t seen each other much just lately. It doesn’t seem ‘in character’ for him to do some terrible such as commit murder. So Queen looks for another explanation.

In Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, former police officer Douglas Brodie has recently returned from service in World War II. He’s living in London, trying to get his life in order, when he gets a call from an old friend Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan, asking for his help. Donovan’s been arrested for the kidnap and murder of a young boy Rory Hutchinson, and there is evidence against him. In fact, that evidence is compelling enough that Brodie isn’t entirely convinced that Donovan is innocent. And yet, Donovan just doesn’t seem to be the kind of person who would abduct and kill a boy – not like that. It just doesn’t seem to be in character for him. Still, he too served in World War II, and was badly wounded. And he’s picked up the heroin habit. So who knows what could have happened? Brodie agrees to at least ask a few questions, though, and travels to Glasgow to see what he can do. He ends up getting drawn into a very ugly and complicated case of murder. And it’s interesting how the question is raised of whether someone like Shug Donovan would do the kinds of things that have been alleged.

There’s a fascinating question of acting unexpectedly and out of character in Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case. Caspar Leinen is just starting on his law career, and is serving his turn on legal aid standby duty when he gets a call from the local examining magistrate about a new client. Italian immigrant Fabrizio Collini has lived quietly for years in Böblingen, Germany. One day, he unexpectedly travels to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, where he goes to one of the suites and shoots Jean-Baptiste Meyer. He’s promptly taken into custody and arrested. It will be Leinen’s duty to defend Collini, and it won’t be easy. For one thing, Collini doesn’t even want a lawyer. He says that he is responsible and won’t defend himself. For another, he gives no motive. And such a thing seems completely out of character and shocking for him. He’s never been in trouble with the law, isn’t known for violence, and wasn’t known as one of Meyer’s associates. So why do something so completely unexpected? As Leinen starts to do the work of preparing for the trial, he finds out more and more about Collini by starting at the beginning. As it turns out, the whole case has to do with World War II and the Nazi occupation of Italy. And as we find out, the murder is not nearly as unexpected as it seems on the surface.

Successful TV presenter Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford has to cope with her mother’s completely unexpected decisions in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. Sanford and her recently-widowed mother Iris have been planning to open an antiques business together. That all changes one day when Iris telephones her daughter to say that she’s changed her mind and taken a home many miles away in Devon. Completely stunned by this, Sanford immediately heads for Devon to find out for herself what’s going on. When she gets there, she discovers that her mother has taken the old carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall and is redoing it. She’s injured her hand in a car accident though, and can’t do much at the moment. So Sanford decides to stay with her mother until the hand is healed, at least. During her visit, some strange things happen at the Hall. First, a valuable antique snuff box is stolen. Then, the young woman who’s been serving as nanny goes missing. Then, the housekeeper, Vera Pugsley, is found dead. Before long, Sanford is much more drawn into the doings at Honeychurch Hall than she had imagined, and so is her mother. And we learn that Iris Sanford has her own reasons for behaving in such an unexpected and out-of-character (or was it?) way.

When characters do something sudden and unexpected, it can to a story’s interest, and to the suspense. But if it’s going to work, it’s important that the motivation be credible. After all, it takes a lot for someone to behave out of character; some even argue that it’s impossible.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn’s Call Me Irresponsible.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gordon Ferris, Hannah Dennison

28 responses to “Call Me Unpredictable*

  1. In books with amateur detectives, it’s quite often that question of ‘character’ that gets the detective involved in the first place. I’ve just finished reading Shona MacLean’s ‘The Redemption of Alexander Seaton’ where he gets drawn into investigating a murder of which his friend is accused. Seaton doesn’t believe it was in his friend’s character to commit the crime, however much the evidence might point at him. Conversely, in Sebastian Fitzek’s ‘Amok’, Jan May acts completely out of character by taking a group of hostages in a radio station. He’s driven to it because his girlfriend has disappeared and he believes the authorities know what’s become of her but won’t say. So he takes the hostages to try to force their hand…

    • I agree with you about the ‘in/out of character’ element in amateur-sleuth novels, FictionFan. I think Maclean handles that well. I hope you enjoyed the novel, by the way; I thought it was quite a good read. If you do review it, I’ll be keen to know what you thought of it. I’ll admit I’ve not (yet) read Amok, but that whole plot point of taking hostages out of desperation is an interesting one. I think it does show how someone can be driven to do something unexpected.

  2. Col

    Its a tricky balance creating believability allied with some surprises to make a book interesting. I’ve read more than a fair few books where it hasn’t worked for me. I’m looking forward to the Ferris and von Schirach books at some point.

    • I’ve had that happen too, Col. I think you’d like Ferris’ Glasgow trilogy. It’s a very well-written series. And I hope you’ll enjoy the von Schirach if you get to it.

  3. Margot, of all the detective-mysteries I have read (and I haven’t read a lot), I think Agatha Christie has created the most unpredictable characters who do unexpected things. And yet, her characters are realistic and entirely believable.

    • I agree completely, Prashant. She did a wonderful job of creating characters who do unexpected things. And yet, when you know the truth, you see that those characters are entirely credible.

  4. This is so true! Figuring out the character motivations keep me turning pages (but there has to be a payoff at some point! Needs to be credible, as you say).

    • Exactly, Elizabeth! Readers may be drawn in by characters who act unexpectedly, but as you say, there has to be a payoff. There has to be a motivation for them to do so.

  5. I know exactly what you mean. Nothing irks me more than when a character’s only motivation is the author pulling the strings.

  6. As you say this is such a tricky device – too far off the wall and it ruins the credibility of the book. Some terrific examples as always – the Gordon Ferris is still languishing on my TBR…

    • Thanks, Cleo, for the kind words. And you’re right; it really is tricky for the writer. One wants a few surprises, but still, that credibility is important. I hope that when you get to the Ferris, you’ll enjoy it.

  7. Patti Abbott

    Thanks for the idea. I might just use unpedictability in a spot that needs some pumping up.

  8. Patti Abbott

    add an r where it needs it.

  9. I think you may be one day of wonder short of a full Queen Margot 🙂

  10. It’s all about the credibility isn’t it Margot?

  11. Mallock’s ‘Cemetary of Swallows’ is almost entirely based around a character’s very unusual behaviour: Manuel – a happily married man with a young baby – tries to assassinate a person he’s never met before on an island he’s never been to before, when all his relatives and friends back in France perceive him as a peace-loving, mild person. Worse still, he doesn’t even seem to have a plausible reason for his deed. Of course, it all does get resolved in the end, but it seems like an impossible set-up at the outset. I think all people can behave occasionally very ‘out of character’, perhaps because politeness and restraint is often merely a thin veneer over the abyss we have within us.

    • Well, you’re right enough about that, Marina Sofia. We may behave politely and so on, but who knows what people are really like inside? And that’s definitely part of why people can do things that seem so out of character. Cemetery of Swallows sounds like a really good example of how that happens.

  12. Ten Days Wonder by Queen sounds interesting, Margot. I will have to find a copy of that. I haven’t read one in recent years, although I have had good intentions.

    • Among other things, Ten Days Wonder is a really interesting look at psychology, Tracy. It’s fascinating to see what happens to Howard Van Horn’s thinking as the story goes on. I’ll be interested in your take on it if you read it.

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