It’s Only Surreal*

SurrealMost crime fiction fans want their stories to ‘feel’ real – as though the characters in them might exist, and the events happen. It takes a deft hand to introduce elements of the surreal – or at least dreamlike unreality – into a crime novel and make it work.

And yet, there are ways in which it can be done. For example, I’ll bet you’ve read crime novels where a character is drugged (either for medical reasons or for another reason) and that drug affects her or his perceptions. There are other ways, too, in which an author can introduce that sort of unreality. And it certainly can add some interest to a story when it’s done well.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, patriarch Richard Abernethie dies suddenly, and his family members gather for his funeral. When the family members get together to hear the will, Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that her brother was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up; she herself urges the rest to pay no attention to her. But privately, everyone does start to wonder. And when Cora herself is murdered the next day, everyone becomes certain she was right. The family solicitor, Mr. Entwhistle, visits Hercule Poirot, and asks him to look into the matter. Poirot agrees, and begins to investigate. Slowly, little pieces of the puzzle start to fall together, and one night, Poirot has a very strange dream about it. The dream itself is quite surreal, as many dreams are. But it gives him the answer to the puzzle. I see you, fans of Murder in Mesopotamia.

Fred Vargas’ novels featuring Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg often have elements of surrealism in them. For example, The Chalk Circle Man begins with a very odd phenomenon: someone’s been drawing circles made of blue chalk on the pavement in different parts of Paris. Various weird objects are found in them, and there seems no explanation at all. And then comes the day when one of those ‘objects’ is a body…  In The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Adamsberg is persuaded to travel from Paris to the small town of Ordebec at the request of Valentine Vendermot. Her daughter Lina has had a vision in which she’s seen the legendary Ghost Riders. As the story goes, they appear in the company of those who are going to die a violent death. And Lina has seen them in the company of locals she knows. She’s very disturbed by the vision, and that’s why her mother wants Adamsberg’s help. He goes to Ordebec to look into the story of the Ghost Riders, only to get caught up an odd murder investigation when one of the people Lina saw is killed. And then there’s the matter of Snowball the office cat, who is, of all things, an expert tracker… Fans of this series will tell you that all kinds of surreal things happen in it.

In Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer, we are introduced to newly-fledged lawyer Catherine Monsigny. She gets her chance for a real push to her career when Myriam Villetreix asks specifically for her. Villetreix has been arrested and charged in the murder of her wealthy husband, Gaston, and wants Monsigny (whom she met when she first came from Ghana to France) to defend her. A win in this case will open many proverbial doors, so Monsigny gets right to work to do the best job she possibly can. As it turns out, the town where the murder took place is not far from where a tragedy occurred in Monsigny’s own life. When she was a very small child, her mother was murdered, with Monsigny as the only witness. She remembers very little from that day, and what there is, is hazy at best. But as she spends time in that place, some of the pieces begin to fit together. And as the story goes on, she begins to have dreamlike, disjointed memories of the day of the murder. They are surreal, but gradually, they give her information about what really happened to her mother.

Fans of Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series will know that he has more than one encounter with the Old Cheyenne. Some people call them ghosts; some call them visions. Still others simply think that they’re a case of Longmire’s mind ‘playing tricks,’ as the saying goes. Whatever they are, they seem to be there when Longmire especially needs their help. For instance, in The Cold Dish, they appear as Longmire is caught on a mountain in a life-threatening snowstorm. They don’t magically transport him to safety, but their presence keeps him going. Longmire is a pragmatic person, and not given to believing in ghosts. But he has come to accept the Old Cheyenne, however surreal they may seem.

In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest and her team investigate when Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins is murdered in Green Swamp Well. At first, the death is put down to the tragic consequences of a drunken quarrel. But Tempest begins to have her doubts. So she looks into the case more thoroughly. The closer she gets to the truth, the more risk there is for her, as some very dangerous people are threatened by what she discovers. It turns out that Doc’s death had nothing to do with a drunken quarrel. At one point, Tempest has what can only be described as a surreal encounter with Andulka Jangala, about whom many stories have been told, some stranger than others. Even Tempest admits that some of the stories must be myths, rather than truth.

‘…but what the hell: our mob have lost so many myths along the way, I couldn’t see any harm in inventing a few new ones.’

He is (or was) a real person, but he’s disappeared. Tempest isn’t even sure he’s still alive, but one of her friends, Meg Branbles, says that he is. And then Tempest finds out for herself.

And then there’s Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. That novel begins in 1984, when Kate Meaney is ten years old. She dreams of being a detective, and has even launched her own agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends a lot of time at the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, looking for suspicious activity. One day, she disappears during a trip to sit entrance exams at the exclusive Redsppon School. A thorough search is undertaken, but no sign of her is found – not even a body. Twenty years later, a mall security guard named Kurt notices that the security cameras have recorded something very strange: the dreamlike image of a young girl who looks a lot like Kate did. He tries to find the child, but can’t locate her. Still, the image keeps showing up on his camera. One night, he meets Lisa Palmer, assistant manager at the mall’s music store. She remembers Kate; and, when Kurt tells her what he’s seen, the two begin an awkward sort of friendship. Each in a different way, the two go back to the past, and we learn what really happened to Kate.

Those dreamlike, surreal moments aren’t the sorts of things you’d expect to happen in real life. But when they’re well-written, those moments can add an interesting flair to a crime novel.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Innocence Mission’s Surreal.



Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Craig Johnson, Fred Vargas, Sylvie Granotier

18 responses to “It’s Only Surreal*

  1. A.M. Pietroschek

    I agree with your final conclusion. Though the option of a dream giving the audience aka readers insight into the motives of a figure can work out. Though it seems such needs great skill, as the many bad examples spoil more, or result in a kind of pseudo-esoteric taint to the main theme and atmosphere.

    • That’s quite true, André. On the one hand, adding in those surreal elements can add to character development (and understanding). They can also add suspense. But if they’re not used carefully and thoughtfully, they can take the focus away from the crime story that’s at the heart of the novel.

  2. There’s a bit in Zoran Drvenkar’s ‘You’ which is pretty surreal. The book is written entirely in the second person rotating through about thirteen different viewpoints, and one of the viewpoints is not like anything I’ve come across before, not as second person anyway, pushing the reader right inside the character. Somehow he managed to get it past my finely callibrated incredulity meter… but I can’t say more for fear of spoilers. You’ll just have to read it… 😉

    • Ive been wanting to, anyway, FictionFan. It’s such an interesting idea, using second person that way. I’ve actually only ever come across it in one other book, Charles Stross’ Rule 34. And if Drvenkar could get something past your incredulity meter, then he must be quite good…

  3. Margot: I thought of another Australian author while reading your post. Arthur Upfield in his mysteries featuring Napoleon “Boney” Bonaparte often delves into the mysticism of aboriginal life. In The Bone is Pointed or The Will of the Tribe the power of the mind is an important part of the plots.

    • That’s quite true, Bill. And I’m glad that you mentioned Upfield’s work, as he was quite skilled at blending in those surreal moments with the actual mystery. Upfield evoked the setting brilliantly, too, in my opinion.

  4. I can think of several classic authors whose work occasionally veers into surreal territory, Margot. Consider Michael Innes, especially The Daffodil Affair, which revolves around a plot to sort of corner the market on psychic phenomena. Or Gladys Mitchell – LOTS of hers, come to think of it, including one where her detective, Mrs. Bradley, gets involved in witchcraft, present and past. And Dorothy Bowers’ Fear and Miss Bettony has a major plot point that focuses on a rather shady psychic named The Great Ambrosio. Lots to choose from!

    • There certainly are, Les, you’re quite right about that. And I’m especially glad you mentioned Gladys Mitchell’s work; she really was particularly skilled at weaving those surreal moments into her stories. I really appreciate your filling in those gaps.

  5. I think this is an element that needs to be used with care – crime readers don’t want any easy getout. I recently read Tana French’s Secret PLaces, and the teenage girls at the centre of the book have a kind of psychic connection which is never really explained – some readers found that annoying, but I liked that aspect of the book, I thought it was done well.

    • That’s the key, isn’t it, Moira? Being able to weave that sort of thing in deftly, without hiding behind it, so to speak, to explain an event or give a motive for a murder, etc.. It’s not easy to do that well, either. Thanks for that example.

  6. Kathy D.

    My favorite surrealist is Fred Vargas who uses medieval poems, myths, folklore and more as primary plot devices in her books. A reader often is transported into the world of the rural French and their stories going back centuries.
    However, Vargas always points to a materialist explanation of everything, the murderers, their motives, quirks, etc.
    But the ride we as readers experience is wonderful. And we learn a lot, too.

    • I think, Kathy, that you’ve highlighted one of the things that makes the surrealism work in Vargas’ novels. Odd things certainly happen, and there are plenty of old stories told, and so on. But you’re right; there’s always a real-world explanation for the murders that Adamsberg and his team investigate. As you say, though, the surrealism is quite a ride!

  7. SteveHL

    I don’t know if you’ve read any of John Franklin Bardin’s books, but I believe they would all fit into this category. And not a book but a movie – the Hitchcock / Dali dream sequence in Spellbound.

    Also, I’m pleased to see you including Catherine O’Flynn. I’ve read three of her books and I think she is an excellent writer.

    • Oh, I couldn’t agree with you more, SteveHL, about Spellbound. That dream sequence is fantastic, isn’t it? And I think it works very, very well. Of course, I’m a fan of both men’s work (even though normally, I’m not a serious surrealism fan). And yes, Catherine O’Flynn is extremely talented. I’ve enjoyed her work very much.

  8. I don’t recall the details in the novel, but the film version of Farewell, My Lovely (released in U.S. as Murder, My Sweet) had a scene of Marlowe in a drugged state being held captive. There were all sorts of cobwebs and other effects, perhaps rudimentary by today’s standards but still pretty darn effective.

  9. I don’t know if this is the type of thing you are talking about, but Dr. Siri Paiboun in Colin Cotterill’s series experiences contact with the supernatural. And I find that element easy to take in that series.

    • You know, Tracy, you’re right. Cotterill makes it work in the Siri Paiboun series. I think it’s because it’s not the main point of the mystery, if that makes sense.

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