We Have Come to Relate Many Stories*

Separate Plot ThreadsIn many crime novels, the focus is on one main case. There may be sub-plots related to the case, but the novel really features one major investigation. But there is some crime fiction where several cases come under investigation. A few have completely separate plot lines.

It takes a deft hand to do that sort of novel well, as it can be difficult to follow separate plot lines through effectively. And it can be tricky for the reader to keep the plot lines straight. But when it’s done well, this approach can add some richness to a story. What’s more, if you think about modern police precincts, for instance, it’s realistic. The police don’t usually have just one case going, and most PIs don’t, either.

Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories often take this format. For instance, in The Chinese Maze Murders, Judge Dee has been newly appointed as District Magistrate for Lan-fang, on China’s northwestern border. He soon discovers that the area is more or less run by a local tyrant Chien Mow, who expects Dee to serve as his puppet. This Dee will not do, so the first order of business is finding a way to best Chien Mow. With that completed, Dee takes on three major cases. One concerns a former blacksmith named Fang, whose daughter White Orchid has gone missing. Another has to do with a cryptic message left to the widow of the late Governor Yoo. She was told that if she was ever in need, she should bring the scroll with the message to the magistrate, who would help her interpret it. In the third case, retired general Ding Hoo-gwo has been murdered. His son, Ding Yee, has accused Woo Fang, Commander of the Board of Military Affairs, of the crime. But Woo says he’s innocent. So Judge Dee investigates this ‘locked room’ mystery to see who is responsible.

Fans of ‘ensemble’ police series such as Ed McBain’s 87the Precinct novels, Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series, or Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that these often feature more than one case at a time. For instance, in Vargas’ The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Adamsberg travels to the small town of Ordebec to investigate a series of strange events and a disappearance. At the same time, his team back in Paris is investigating the murder of the wealthy and well-connected Antoine Clermont-Brasseur. He was burned, along with his car, and the official theory is that a local arsonist named Momo is responsible, but he claims that he’s innocent. And Adamsberg is inclined to believe him. So along with solving the mysterious occurrences in Ordebec, Adamsberg and his team also look into Clermont-Brasseur’s death.

Tarquin Hall’s Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri and his team frequently have more than one case going at the same time. Much of their day-to-day business involves ‘vetting’ potential spouses for families who want to be sure their son or daughter is marrying the right person. So, for example, in The Case of the Missing Servant, Puri takes on the case of an attorney, Ajay Kasliwal, who’s been accused of rape and murder. But at the same time, he’s looking into the background of Ramesh Goel for the family of Goel’s intended bride Vimi Singla. He’s also investigating Mahinder Gupta at the behest of Brigadier Kapoor, whose granddaughter Tisca is planning to marry Gupta. These cases aren’t closely related to each other; they’re separate plot threads. But Hall explores all three. Fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe series will know that those novels, too, follow several cases, rather than just one mystery at a time.

Sometimes, authors explore separate plot threads even when the story doesn’t include an ensemble police or PI team. For example, Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective has two distinct plot threads. Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill is an Edinburgh oceanographer and Ph.D. student whose specialty is tides and wave motion. He’s using his expertise to find out the truth about his grandfather Uilliem, who disappeared during a sea voyage years earlier. The trail leads to ilean Isagaich Mor, Great Fishing Island, where his grandparents met, and where they lived until Uilliem’s disappearance. At the same time, readers follow the story of Preeti and Basanti, members of India’s Bedia group. They’ve agreed to become part of the sex trade for a few years, so that their families can earn money. They’re sent to Scotland where they’re separated. After a time, Basanti escapes from the people who brought her to Scotland, and goes looking for her friend. That’s how she finds McGill, who has expertise she thinks can help her find out what happened to Preeti. While both of these plot lines involve McGill, they are separate stories, really.

So are the two stories in Donna Malane’s Surrender. Diane Rowe is a Wellington-based missing person’s expert whose sister Niki was murdered a year before the events in this novel. When Rowe learns that James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson has been murdered in the same way, she wants to find out more. Not long before Snow was murdered, he confessed to having murdered Niki, and having been paid for it. Rowe reasons that if she finds out who hired Snow, she’ll learn who killed her sister. So one plot line in this novel is her search for the truth about Niki’s death. The other concerns a missing person case for which she’s been hired. Some human remains have been found in the Rimutaka State Forest, and Inspector Frank McFay wants Rowe to find out whose they are. These cases don’t really intermix, beyond the fact that Rowe investigates both. But they are both followed to their conclusions.

And that’s the thing about crime novels where more than one major plot thread is explored. When it’s done effectively, both (or all) stories are followed, so that the reader has a sense of conclusion. It’s not always easy to manage, but it can work quite well.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steeleye Span’s A Calling-On Song.


Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Dell Shannon, Donna Malane, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Robert Van Gulik, Tarquin Hall

21 responses to “We Have Come to Relate Many Stories*

  1. I agree. Thomas Harris immediately springs to mind. He’s the master of the intertwining but separate major plot threads.

  2. I’m reading ‘Broken Promise’ by Linwood Barclay at the moment and there must be about six different plotlines going on in it! At first, I assumed they were all going to turn out to be connected but I’m now thinking they’re not. Must say, though I’m enjoying the writing, the characterisation and the main plot, I’m finding all the other stuff quite hard to keep on top of – I think I prefer just one or two main stories on the whole…

    • It can be a challenge to keep up with a lot of separate plot lines, FictionFan. Nice to know I’m not the only one who has a limit as far as that goes. 😉 – I’m glad you’re enjoying Broken Promise. I like Barclay’s work very much, so I expect to enjoy that one, too. He writes well, as you point out, and he creates interesting characters. I’ll be interested in your final verdict when you’ve finished it.

    • I love his books and enjoy all the plot lines going on at the same time. Gets the little grey cells hopping. He is a fab writer.

  3. I do like it when there are more cases on the go, partly because I suspect it reflects real life much better – but it does have to be done extremely well to stop it all being a muddle in my mind.

    • You put the dilemma/challenge very effectively, Cleo. On the one hand, having more than one case on at once is realistic – no doubt there. On the other hand, if the author does that without clarity, then it can be terribly confusing.

  4. Col

    I’ve read books where seemingly multiple plot strands have worked for me, though a lot of the time the author contrives to draw a connection so that they end up being linked. Sometimes I marvel at the way it’s woven together, other times I’m irritated. I think it’s not always the author’s fault, sometimes I want to be a lazy reader and enjoy a simpler narrative than having to work my brain to follow everything!

    • I give you honesty points, Col. I think you have a well-taken point, too, about the way multiple plot points may or may not be linked. Sometimes it is just contrivance, and I don’t care very much for that. If there is to be a connection, I’d rather it fall out naturally. If there’s not going to be one, I’d rather the author maintain different plot lines, so long as it’s done in the kind of logical way that lets me follow the story. That can be a tall order, I admit.

  5. Margot: They are adventure sagas but I loved the sweeping plot lines in the books of James Clavell. His Japanese adventure, Gai-Jin, is one of my favourite books. He worked so beautifully the story of the shipwrecked English sailor into the intrigues of the Japanese nobility.

    • Oh, James Clavell has,written some excellent adventure/historical novels, Bill. He certainly could weave several disparate plot lines into his stories, too. I’m glad you mentioned his work.

  6. There is a limit to this for me. There is usually one plot line that interests you most in a novel. You begin to skim the other ones or resent them. And if you are not a quick reader you begin to forget some of the details. Let’s face it, I like one plot line best. Old fashioned, I guess.

  7. In a literary novel, I find multiple plotlines fascinating. In a crime story – not so much. But that’s just a personal preference, and I still found your look at the genre fascinating.

    • Thanks, Moira. And it’s interesting that you see a difference between literary and crime fiction when it comes to multiple plot lines. I’ll have to mull over whether that’s true for me, too. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  8. Kathy D.

    I can deal with two plot lines, but I like it if they intersect.
    What I find a bit overdone is when there are many plot lines. Kishwar Desai’s book, “Origins of Love,” has about six plot lines. They kind of come together at the end, but I found some of the segments confusing, and, honestly, confusing. Two could have been omitted and the main points written in different ways, although they were the funniest. But her main points about surrogacy in India, where poor women lose their civil liberties, and brokers and facilities make a lot of money, and where there are hundreds of thousands of homeless children to adopt, are made.
    But the extra plot lines could have been omitted.

    • I know what you mean, Kathy. A lot of people prefer it when multiple plot lines are at least somehow connected. That may be especially true where the main plot is about an important issue.

  9. Margot, I’m not very comfortable with sub-plots or too many plot lines and characters. I like my crime fiction uncomplicated and with no frills. A murder has taken place and the police or private detective sets out to investigate it. Period,

    • You’re not alone, Prashant. Especially when it comes to crime fiction, a lot of people like it better when the focus is on the main plot. It’s all well and good to have some character depth and so on; but there are plenty of people who prefer their crime fiction not to have too many separate and disconnected plot lines.

  10. The Sea Detective is a good example of this type of book that I liked. I can see where that type of mystery can be irritating and often unnecessarily confusing, though. In that novel, I thought the emphasis on sex trade would bother me, but it wasn’t a problem.

    • I didn’t have a problem with that plot thread, either, Tracy. I really don’t think Douglas-Home overdid the descriptions, or was gratuitous. You’re right that some mysteries can be irritating if they have more than one quite distinct plot line, especially if neither line is handled well. But I think The Sea Detective showed that multiple plot lines can be accomplished successfully.

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