It’s All So Unexpected That I Just Don’t Understand*

Violating ExpectationsIf you’ve read enough crime fiction, you start to build up a set of expectations for crime novels. For example, imagine that a character’s walking down a very dark, abandoned street late at night. You expect that something bad’s going to happen. There are other overall expectations that we have of crime stories, too, and research suggests that we bring those assumptions with us when we read.

But at times, those expectations prove to be wrong. Authors sometimes play with readers’ expectations in order to build suspense and set readers up to be surprised. There are cases, too, where the author doesn’t do this sort of thing deliberately. Rather, the story simply goes in a direction that the reader hadn’t anticipated. Sometimes that works well, and sometimes it doesn’t. For the author, there’s a delicate balance between playing with readers’ assumptions and not ‘playing fair.’ There’s a delicate balance between taking a story in an interesting direction, and going off on an improbable tangent.

Agatha Christie, for instance, played with readers’ expectations in several of her stories. In Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is en route to London on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. M. Bouc, a director of the company that owns the train, is also aboard, and asks Poirot to investigate. The idea is for Poirot to find out who the killer is before the train crosses the next frontier, so that the killer can be handed over to the police. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same coach, so Poirot concentrates his attention on them. And here we have what seems a rather traditional sort of Golden Age setup: a murder, a limited cast of suspects, some clues, and a snowstorm to isolate them. But as anyone who’s read this novel can tell you, the solution isn’t ‘typical’ at all. In that way, Christie manipulated readers’ expectations.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice also plays with readers’ expectations. In that novel, LAPD detective Harry Bosch happens to be listening to his police scanner when he hears of a suicide in a seedy motel in his jurisdiction. Surprised that he wasn’t officially notified, since he’s ‘on call,’ Bosch goes to the scene. There, he finds that a fellow officer, Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, has died, apparently a successful suicide attempt. A few details strike Bosch as inconsistent with suicide, so he starts to ask questions. But the ‘higher ups’ don’t want him to make much of this case. The official story is that Moore had gone dirty and committed suicide as a result, and that’s what Bosch’s bosses want on the report. Bosch being Bosch, though, he isn’t satisfied with ‘rubber stamping,’ and investigates Moore’s death. There’s a very key violation of reader expectations in this novel. At the same time, though, it’s not random, and it’s not unexpected if one really thinks about it.

In Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, Boston PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro take on the heartbreaking case of a missing four-year-old girl, Amanda McCready. The police have been out in force looking for the child, and of course there’s been a major public appeal for any information. So at first, Kenzie and Gennaro aren’t really sure what they can do that hasn’t already been done. But Amanda’s Uncle Lionel and Aunt Beatrice insist, and the PIs are reluctantly persuaded to look into the matter. Without spoiling the story, I can say that it goes against reader expectations in some important ways. At the same time, it does so in a way that (at least to me) is credible. Lehane’s choices about the storyline also raise some important and powerful ethical questions.

Sometimes, characters can turn out to be quite different to what readers expect, and that can impact readers’ assumptions about the story. For instance, in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker and his journalist wife Sarah move their family from the city to a beautiful suburban housing development called Valley Forest Estates. Walker believes that the family will be safer there, and he’s hoping that the lower cost of living will mean he can devote full time to his writing. Trouble begins soon after the Walkers move in. First, the family notices several problems with the house they’ve bought. Then, when Walker goes to the main sales office to complain, he witnesses an argument between one of Valley Forest’s executives, and local eco-activist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body by a local creek. Bit by bit, the naturally cautious Walker gets drawn into more danger than he could have imagined. There are a few characters in this novel who turn out not to be at all what they seem. We have certain expectations of those characters, possibly from reading a lot of other crime fiction, but those assumptions turn out to be wrong. That fact adds to the interest in the story.

Sometimes, the story itself takes a new and unexpected direction. This can be quite tricky, since readers may think they’re ‘signing up’ for one kind of story, only to get a story that proves to be something else. At times that can work very well, as the new direction in the story draws the reader in. It’s less successful at other times. One such story is arguably Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. As that novel begins, Smilla Japsersen attends the funeral of ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, who lived in the same Copenhagen apartment building. Isaiah fell off the roof of the building in what police say was a tragic accident. But when Jaspersen sees the marks in the snow on the roof, she notices signs that suggest that Isaiah’s death was not an accident at all. So she begins to ask questions. At this point, the novel has many of the hallmarks of a whodunit as Jaspersen tries to find out who would want to kill a young boy. But as she learns more, the novel arguably takes on the qualities of a science thriller. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers, but if you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean.

The question of whether and how much to manipulate reader expectations isn’t an easy one. But when it’s done well, it can make for a compelling story. It’s a risk, though, since if it doesn’t work well, it can also make readers very cranky. What are your thoughts? Are there certain expectations that you don’t want violated? How do you react when your assumptions about a story are turned upside down?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Church’s One Day.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dennis Lehane, Linwood Barclay, Michael Connelly, Peter Høeg

36 responses to “It’s All So Unexpected That I Just Don’t Understand*

  1. One of the best examples, I think, of using readers’ expectations as a way to surprise them is in one of my favorite John Dickson Carr novels, The Nine Wrong Answers. Carr teases the reader and misdirects attention by use of nine footnotes, spread throughout the book, which warn the reader that a particular assumption he/she may be making is wrong. For example, the first such footnote (editing here so as not to give away what is being discussed) reads:

    “The astute reader will already have wondered whether the preceding scene was….[edited to avoid spoiler]…This idea is totally wrong. Discard answer number one.”

    Naturally, being Carr, his footnotes themselves are a terrific source of misdirection while poking gentle fun at the readers who are Carr’s opponents in this “grandest game,” as he often referred to the mystery novel. And – because it isn’t a spoiler – the ninth and final footnote deals with the reader’s accusation that he/she has been “swindled” through the story or the footnotes…nope!

    • What a terrific, and classic, example of what I had in mind with this post, Les. Thank you. And what’s particularly effective about this is that Carr does, in fact, ‘play fair.’ There isn’t anything there that ‘swindles’ the reader, as you say.

  2. I enjoy being surprised so long as it’s done well and isn’t too off the wall. For example, I don’t want to be reading a crime novel and suddenly discover that it’s actually a vampire novel. Having said that, though, I was much taken with Stefan Spjut’s ‘Shapeshifters’ which turned out to be about trolls! I also enjoyed Gillian White’s ‘Copycat’ where – a bit like ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ – it feels as if the structure is reasonably normal right up to the end. Two women – we know one murders the other but we don’t know which is the killer and which the victim. Can’t say what was so original about it as it would be a major spoiler, but for me it worked brilliantly, though as many people hated it as loved it, I think.

    • I wonder how often that happens, FictionFan, where reader reaction isn’t at all universally positive when an author has includes something completely unexpected. I’ve actually heard the talk on both sides about Copycat (haven’t decided yet whether it goes on my TBR), and I find it intriguing. You do make a well-taken point that people who are looking for a crime novel may not want to suddenly find they’re reading about vampires (I know I don’t). But sometimes authors do manage to take books in interesting new directions. It takes finesse, that’s for sure.

  3. I adore running into the ‘unexpected’ twists in a story. Too often I can figure out the plot and the guilty party long before the unveiling. Surprise me and I will adore you forever!!

    • You’re by no means alone, Renee. Savvy readers of crime fiction often find that it’s far easier than they’d like to work everything out. It’s a lot more engaging and challenging when they find they’ve been misdirected – so long as it’s all fair.

  4. This is a great subject, and thanks for addressing it so well. It’s a very good example of the ‘game-playing’ aspect of the crime novel, an aspect I find very attractive. I also think your reference to the Hoeg book is very apposite. I recognise its considerable merits as a novel, but all the same, this was one occasion when I felt rather let down. Another example, much earlier and very different, is T H White’s Darkness at Pemberley

    • Thanks, Martin, both for your kind words and your excellent example of Darkness at Pemberley. There is a real appeal, I think, to the ‘game playing’ aspect of crime fiction, for both readers and writers (at least this one). It’s a part of the relationship that develops between them, I really think. And that’s why readers can feel so let down, even cheated, when the author either doesn’t ‘play fair,’ or changes the course of a novel so much that it’s not the same sort of novel at all. Like all good relationships, the one between reader and writer is built on trust. Certain aspects of ‘the game’ add to the power of a story without risking that trust. Others do risk it.

  5. I do love mysteries that depart from the expected, Margot. Thanks for these examples. From what I have read, most of Margaret Millar’s novels are like this. I have only read two of them (recently) but they both were outside of my usual experience with mystery novels. In Ask for Me Tomorrow, a lawyer is asked to look into the whereabouts of a woman’s ex-husband. Throughout the book, there are several twists and turns of plot.

    • And that’s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind with this post, Tracy, so thanks. Some authors (and I think Millar was one) are very skilled at leading the reader down the proverbial garden path and then violating those assumptions. And when it’s done well, that can add lots of suspense and interest to the story.

    • Thanks for this, Tracy, a reminder to look up Millar’s novels.

  6. We don’t mind being surprised but will not stand for having our intelligence insulted. Hey, crime fiction ain’t supposed to be fantasy fiction. Keep it real!

  7. It takes a skilled writer to broach such a topic without giving away spoilers – bravo Margot! I’m with Renée: I love to be surprised. I guess I’m not the only crime writer prone to solving mysteries as I read them, and I love being wrong-footed, in books and in film. Most recently, it was the 1952 film noir The Narrow Margin that delivered on satisfying narrative surprises.

    • Thank you, Angela. I’m with you; I enjoy solving mysteries, too, as I read, and I give credit to authors who can mislead me and still ‘play fair.’ Among many other things, it’s a very helpful mental exercise; and as a writer, I like learning from the ways other writers do it. Thanks for mentioning The Narrow Margin, too. I’ve heard it’s a good view; sounds as though I ought to see it.

  8. Margot: Most legal mysteries have either a heroic prosecutor convicting an evil criminal or a committed defence counsel rescuing an innocent accused. Scott Turow does not make it easy for a reader especially on whether the accused is guilty or not guilty in Presumed Innocent. His latest, Identical, confounds all expectations of accused and guilt.

    • You’re quite right about Turow, Bill. His legal mysteries are not at all the sort of mystery you describe, where either a guilty party is prosecuted, or an innocent one defended. I think that’s part of what makes some of his work so very compelling.

  9. Col

    I can’t think of any examples when I feel I’ve been cheated as opposed to outsmarted as a reader, but I’m sure it has happened.

    • There’s a fine line, Col, between cheated and outsmarted, I sometimes think. I’m glad the authors you’ve read have more or less stuck to the right side of it.

  10. Great topic, Margot. Two novels which have given me this kind of jolt are Margaret Millar’s Beast in View and William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel – which reads like one kind of novel and turns into something very very different – won’t say more. He certainly pulls it off. The plotting is brilliant.I don’t think Hoeg did pull it off.

    • Thank you, Christine. And you’re quite right about Beast in View (must re-read that!). I admit I’ve not read the Hjortsberg, but I will say it’s not easy to pull that sort of switch off. I’m not sure Høeg pulled it off, either, ‘though like Martin (See above), I do think he writes very well, and the original premise is a good one. That aside, though, I think that when an author does pull it off, it can add some real interest and give the reader the kind of jolt you mention.

  11. Margot, I don’t like too many twists and turns and I certainly don’t like a jack-in-the-box moment, especially when the story is moving along smoothly. I also hate it when authors suddenly bump off a character that I have grown to like in the narrative. Likewise for movies. I didn’t like it when the makers of “Patch Adams” bump off his fellow medical student and girlfriend towards the end of the film. Patch had just found his own happiness when it is snatched away from him, and he’s back to making his patients happy. Too moralistic for my tastes.

    • It is hard to take the death of a character one’s become attached to, isn’t it, Prashant? And I think there is a big difference between misdirecting the reader (as in a whodunit), and those shock moments that are only there for effect. Like you, I’m not much of a one for those…

  12. I like Col’s distinction between cheated and outsmarted – that’s exactly how I feel – delighted to be outsmarted, annoyed to be cheated. Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying is a great example of being outsmarted by the unexpected, I think…. And I actually liked what happened in Miss Smilla, bizarre though it was.

    • I like that distinction, too, Moira. And I’m with you about it: outsmarted is great; cheated is not. Thanks for mentioning A Kiss Before Dying, too. Levin did a great job with that one, I thought.

  13. Kathy D.

    I think it interesting that some readers brought up Smilla’s Sense of Snow. I liked the book until it made certain twists into sort of global issues near the end and was also let down by where the plot ended up.
    I do like twists and turns and surprise endings, as in Jo Nesbo’s Nemesis.
    But I like the clues put before me so that I can go along with the detective and try to figure out the culprit(s). The ending can be a twist, but it has to be plausible — no third cousin from Transylvania who just showed up to collect the inheritance, a character no one knew about until the last few pages. Or a missing person long thought dead who appears secretly and commits a murder and whom the reader doesn’t know about until the end.
    There are many books with surprise endings, even in Sherlock Holmes’ books or Nero Wolfe’s where the detective solves the crime at the end; Hercule Poirot does it, too.
    And while I like the Belgian detective’s “pulling a rabbit out of a hat” with secret, disguised relatives who claim inheritances, etc., somehoe he does it with panache and we don’t mind so much that the reader has been left out of the loop on some important information.
    A famous movie which scared the heck out of me years ago had a surprise ending: Diabolique. I would say the TV show American Crime had a surprise ending last season.

    • Diabolique! Yes! One of the scariest films ever made.

    • I think you make a really important distinction, Kathy, between stories that take a turn that doesn’t work, and stories that surprise one. As you say, the main point is that the story has to be plausible. So do the surprises. And it does help if it’s done with panache 🙂 – And thanks for mentioning Diabolique – a fantastic example of the surprise that works…

  14. Keishon

    Agree with you on Dennis Lehane’s book. It raised a lot of ethical questions. I love finding my expectations thwarted. It makes for an unpredictable and compelling read.

    • I think that’s one of the great things about Gone, Baby, Gone, Keishon – the questions it raises. And you’re right: when a story violates the reader’s expectations, and it’s done well, it can make the story all the more compelling. We question what we assumed, and that makes us even more curious.

  15. Terrific topic, and great examples. One of my least favorite of the unexpected tropes, happily one which any self-respecting crime writer wouldn’t dare use these days, is the then-I-woke-up-and-it-was-a-dream scenario. I don’t know if this was used so much in crime fiction in the Golden Age, but it was popular in movies of the Forties and Fifites, TV shows too I would guess.
    I like you Barclay example because it illustrates on of my favorites: the casting-against-type as to character. Examples might be a tidy, well-dressed, teetotaling private detective, a villain who has lots of good points, or a narrator sleuth who turns out to be the murderer, though, alas I can’t think of specific examples. One of my favorite Golden Age examples, of a different sort, is Dame Agatha’s Witness for the Prosecution.

    • Thank you, Bryan – on both counts. I must say, I’m not much for the ‘then I woke up’ trope, either. Almost never does it work, and it’s almost always forced. On the other hand, I agree with you about the ‘casting against type’ approach. That particular strategy works well in Bad Move, and that’s not the only case where I’ve seen it be quite effective.

      • I can only think of one time when the “then I woke up” trope worked, and that was in the horror film “Dead of Night,” a 1945 British classic and still a very frightening movie. Yes, it used that trope…but with quite a twist… Highly recommended.

  16. I love twists and turns in a novel, especially crime fiction. That, more than anything else, will keep me turning the pages. I always want to know what the author is going to spring on me next. 😀

    • I like the way you put that, Pat. And you’re right; when the author ‘plays fair’ and can still surprise the reader, that can make for an absorbing story. It’s the not knowing what’s going to happen next that can really draw the reader in.

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