It’s All About the Same Thing Underneath the Disguise*

Same Underlying Plot, Different BookIn Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercue Poirot works with Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and detective story writer Ariadne Oliver to solve the stabbing death of the enigmatic Mr. Shaitana. There are only four suspects, and each one could have committed the crime. What’s more, each one has, or so Shaitana hinted, killed before. The sleuths look into the background of all of the suspects to see what kind of murders they committed, and whether those crimes bear the same hallmarks they see in the Shaitana case. When Mrs. Oliver says that she wouldn’t commit the same kind of murder twice, here’s the conversation that ensues:

‘‘Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?’ asked Battle.
‘The Lotus Murder,’ murmured Poirot. ‘The Clue of the Candle Wax.’
Mrs. Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation.
‘That’s clever of you – that’s really clever of you. Because of course those two are exactly the same plot, but nobody else has seen it.’’

And she’s not the only author to use plot points, or even entire plots, that have been used before.

The fact is, there aren’t that many plausible reasons to commit murder. So if you look beyond the outer trappings of setting and so on, you’ll see a lot of books that bear similarities to other books, even if you might not think so at first. Moira at Clothes in Books got me thinking about this, and I’m glad she did. It’s an interesting topic, so I am grateful for the inspiration.

Some books’ similarities are quite clear, because they have such a similar context. For example, Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer and Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man both feature on-stage murders during the performance of a play. And in both cases, the sleuth has to look among the people who had access to the stage props to find out who would have been able to commit the crime. There are some differences (e.g. in one, the death looks like a suicide, but in the other, it’s a more obvious murder). But the underlying nature of the plot is strikingly similar.

Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is the story of Gilbert Hand, who has recently moved to a very respectable London hotel. He’s settling into his room when he discovers that the ottoman he wants to use as a storage space has something hidden in it. Hand pulls out the silk-wrapped package and discovers a coil of long dark hair. He begins to wonder about the person who owned that hair, and it’s not long before he discovers that that person is Freddie Doyle. When Doyle tries to reclaim the hair, Hand refuses. Now he begins to be obsessed with Doyle, and that obsession leads to tragedy. It might not seem on the surface that this would bear a lot of resemblance to Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which features a Pasadena schoolteacher named Lora King, and her relationship with her new sister-in-law Alice. But underneath the very obvious differences, there are some real similarities. Like Gilbert Hand, Lora King makes some unsettling discoveries about a person (in this case, Alice). And, like Hand, King finds herself becoming obsessed. She is both repelled by and drawn to Alice in the same way that Hand finds himself both repelled by and drawn to Doyle. And in both these novels, disaster strikes. Of course there are important differences between the books. Those differences set them apart and make each a unique read, with different characters and so on. But the core of the plot in the two books is very similar.

That’s also true of James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos and Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. One takes place in modern-day Louisiana; the other takes place in 1950’s Los Angeles. One features a police detective, and the other an amateur/soon-to-be PI. And the books focus on different kinds of contexts, too (a New Orleans crime syndicate v a Black church and the people who volunteer there). Different kinds of people are murdered, too. But underneath those major differences, we see some very strong similarities. In both cases, the sleuths are pressured by government authorities to bring down someone regarded as a ‘bad guy.’ In both novels, the sleuths are reluctant to do so, but are persuaded. And both sleuths face a serious internal struggle when they find themselves sympathetic towards the person they’re supposed to be targeting. These aren’t by any means alike. Each author has a unique way of telling the story, of developing the characters, and of resolving the story’s conflicts. But the underlying cores are quite similar.

They are in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City and Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too. These stories are unlike each other in many ways. They take place in different settings, feature different kinds of murder victims and murderers, and ‘star’ very different kinds of sleuths. You might not think of them as having anything in common. And yet, they do. In each case, we have a sleuth who has to find out why someone who seems innocent enough on the surface would be targeted. We also have some very, very ugly past history that plays an important role. And the solution for each case has to do with the past coming back, if you will. Saying more would bring me closer than I like to spoiler territory. But if you’ve read both books, you’ll know what I mean.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives and William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department might not seem to be similar stories at all. And in a lot of ways, they are not. One features a PI; the other ‘starts’ a police detective. They take place in very different time periods (the former takes place is a modern-day story; the latter takes place in pre-World War II Moscow), and the murder victims are very different sorts of characters. But look closely and you’ll see these stories have more in common than you might think. Both involve penetrating a closed community; in one case it’s a compound owned by a fundamentalist sect, and in the other a group of scientists working on a top-secret project. And in each instance, the original murder – the reason the sleuths look into things – hides a much deeper, uglier truth.

There are many more examples of crime novels that tell similar ‘core stories,’ even though they are quite different. And if you think about it, that’s logical, considering that there are only so many credible reasons for murder, and only so many believable kinds of plots. What’s your view on this? Have you ever had that sense of déjà vu as you see that two quite dissimilar novels actually have a lot in common?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. And speaking of inspiration, may I suggest your next blog stop by Clothes in Books. It’s a rich resources of fine book reviews and informative discussion of clothes, popular culture, and what it all tells us about ourselves. I learn every time I visit.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh’s Over and Over.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Charlotte Jay, James Lee Burke, Megan Abbott, Ngaio Marsh, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

12 responses to “It’s All About the Same Thing Underneath the Disguise*

  1. I cannot think of a one – of the top of my head – but I am sure there are many – take away the dressing and the motives for murder (in life and in fiction) are limited – there are bound to be similarities . Thanks Margot for another interesting discussion.

  2. Oh gosh, I think about this every time I write. And not just similarity in the basic set-up among books by different authors, but similarity within series, too. We have to do a lot of sleight of hand to make each story seem unique, even when the setting, characters, and motives may be the same.

    • That’s quite true, Elizabeth. It does take a lot to add something new – something a little different – to each story. And you’re right, authors have to look at their own books as well as others’ books. It’s not an easy thing to do, because there really aren’t that many basic underlying motives for murder. That’s why I think character development is important.

  3. Oh yes, I have. I realized early on that I don’t read mysteries because of intricate plots, however. I read them because I like the characters, or at the very least, I’m interested in the characters. When I wrote murder mystery entertainments with my two pals we often repeated certain plot points – we had to – 25 years of plots, sometimes as many as six or seven a year – but we didn’t repeat characters. Oh, that’s not true as there was at least one zany character – Ninette Beazley, Nose of the North (an investigative journalist) who appeared several times – but we didn’t copy her, we just brought her back. And yes, she was me.
    We also had the limitation on different sorts of murders. We couldn’t do anything that couldn’t be reasonably done in the hotel – and with lots of people roaming around it generally meant the second murder of the weekend was a poisoning. Within that form we could get creative though. It is hard to be innovative but we can learn from the masters like Christie, Sayers, and Marsh – it can be done!

    • Yes, it can, indeed, Jan! Thanks for sharing your experiences with adding new things and innovations to your mystery plots. As you say, there are only so many ways you can murder in an environment like a hotel. And if you’re going to keep a story credible, you can’t have too many ‘out of the blue’ implausible things happening. The trick is, as you say, to focus on different kinds of characters. Their depths, quirks and so on can be the stuff of a great novel. And when they’re interesting, and you care about what happens to them, you’re less likely to think, ‘Oh, wait! This death is a poison murder. I’ve seen that before!’

  4. Thanks for the shoutout Margot, and as ever I am proud to have inspired you. In a book of essays on Agatha Christie, there is a marvellous contribution from ‘Emma Lathen’ (or the 2 ladies who made up that team) which brilliantly explains the way the sainted Agatha uses the same strategies of deception in different books – for example, turning eternal triangles on their heads. A really good piece of analysis.
    AC is also very keen on those families with an elderly patriarch, or matriarch, holding the pursestrings and controlling everyone’s lives – Appointment with Death, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Crooked House. And that setup appears in other authors’ works too, eg Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca. You can see why it’s popular – so many opportunities for murder, and so many suspects.

    • Oh, absolutely, Moira. There is so much opportunity with a setup like that, isn’t there? And it’s been a common enough real-life situation. Thanks for mentioning the ‘Lathen duo’s’ essay. That’s one I must hunt down and read. You’re not the first one who’s told me about it, and I feel a bit ashamed I’ve not (yet) read it. They’re certainly right about the triangle! But then, there are a lot of possibilities with that, too. And one of Christie’s skills was that she could take those premises and make them a bit different each time. So that even though you do know she’s used it before, you don’t always know where it’ll lead.
      It’s my pleasure to plug your excellent blog, and thanks for the inspiration!

  5. Col

    A few great authors mentioned – some I’ve read and enjoyed, some I need to – William Ryan in particular!

  6. Very interesting, Margot. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but I am sure I have run into them from time to time.

    • Thank you, Tracy. I think one’s bound to find some similarity in plot, simply because there aren’t that many credible motives for murder. It’s all in the way the author goes about telling the story.

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