Am I Too Late?*

sleuths-and-late-appearancesAn interesting post from Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about timing. In her post (which you should read) about Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, Tracy points out that James Bond doesn’t make an appearance in that novel until later in the plot. And that’s not the only story in which we see that.

When the sleuth doesn’t come into the story until later, the author has to build interest and suspense in other ways. It might be through following other characters; or, the author may choose to focus on the buildup to the murder or other crime. There are other approaches, too. Whichever choice the author makes, the key to having the sleuth come into the story later is ensuring that there’s some way to engage the reader.

For example, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone begins with the removal of a valuable diamond called the Moonstone from a palace in India. The thief, Colonel John Herncastle, later bequeaths the stone to his niece, Rachel Verinder, as a gift for her eighteenth birthday. However, it’s not the generous bequest it may seem to be. The story is that the stone curses anyone who takes it from its rightful place, and misfortune soon befalls the Verinder family. First, the stone is stolen from Rachel on the night she receives it. Then, second housemaid Rosanna Spearman, who has her own troubled history, disappears and is later found to have committed suicide. Sergeant Cuff investigates the robbery, and, after a two-year search, traces the stone. He doesn’t make an appearance, though, until later in the novel. Before we meet Cuff, we learn the story of the stone, of the Herncastle and Verinder families and staffs, and of the curse.

In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, Inspector Cockrill investigates the death of postman Joseph Higgins. It seems that Higgins was taken to Heron Park Hospital, where he was operated on for a broken femur. But he died on the table in what everyone thinks is a tragic accident. In fact, Cockrill himself thinks so at first. But one night at a party, Sister Marion Bates, who is a nurse at the hospital, has too much to drink, and says that she knows Higgins was murdered, and how it was done. She herself is then killed. And Higgins’ widow had already insisted he was murdered. So Cockrill starts to ask questions and investigate more thoroughly. This story doesn’t begin with the death or with Cockrill. It starts as Higgins is making his rounds, delivering letters to the people who are later mixed up in this murder case. Slowly, we learn who they are, what brought them to Heron Park, and a bit about their histories. Cockrill doesn’t come into the story until a bit later. Instead, Brand builds engagement by introducing the other characters and showing how they all know Higgins, and what their relationships are to one another.

Agatha Christie’s The Hollow begins as a group of people plan for a weekend at The Hollow, which is the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Slowly, we get to know a little about Sir Henry and Lady Lucy. We also meet the rest of the house party. The guests are to be well-known sculptor Henrietta Savernake, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda, and another relative, Midge Hardcastle. Also invited are relatives Edward Angkatell and David Angkatell. Christie gives background detail on all of these characters and their network of relationships (and those turn out to be very important in the story). Everyone arrives, and the weekend begins. Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a nearby cottage, is invited for lunch on the Sunday, so he doesn’t make an appearance until farther along in the story. When he does, though, he finds that Christow has been shot, and his killer is holding the weapon. At first, he thinks it’s a macabre tableau arranged for his ‘amusement.’ But it turns out to be quite real. The case seems very straightforward, and that’s how Inspector Grange looks at it. But Poirot isn’t sure. As he investigates, he finds that the case is quite different to what it seems at first glance.

And then there’s Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride). That novel begins as we meet Gunder Jormann, who’s lived a very quiet life in the Norwegian village of Elvestad. He’s no longer young, but he’s in reasonable physical shape and he’s a steady worker. In other words, he’s a solid prospect for marriage, and that’s what he wants to do. He becomes fascinated with the idea of choosing a bride from India, and makes his plans to travel to Mumbai. All of this shocks his sister, Marie, who finds many reasons he shouldn’t go ahead with his plan. But Gundar heads to Mumbai, anyway. Soon after his arrival, he meets Poona Bai and is soon smitten. It’s not long before he proposes marriage, and she accepts. She has to take care of the details of ending her time in India, and get the necessary papers to go to Norway. So Gundar returns to Elvestad with the agreement that Poona will join him as soon as possible. On the day of her return, though, Gundar isn’t able to meet her at the airport. Marie has been in a tragic accident, and he can’t leave her. So he delegates a friend to meet Poona. But that friend and Poona miss each other. The next morning, Poona’s body is found in a field not far from Gundar’s home. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer, and his assistant Jacob Skarre, investigate Poona’s death. But they don’t make an appearance until later in the novel. Instead, the novel’s focus at the beginning is Gundar, his trip to Mumbai, his meeting with Poona, and his relationship with Marie and with the other people of Elvestad. Fossum also gives background information on those other residents.

It can be tricky to have the sleuth make an appearance later in a crime novel, but it can be successful. Which examples of this have stayed with you?

Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration! Folks, treat yourself and visit Tracy’s excellent blog. There you’ll find all sorts of fine reviews


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tavares’ Too Late.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Ian Fleming, Karin Fossum, Wilkie Collins

23 responses to “Am I Too Late?*

  1. Terrific post! I love The Moonstone and taught it in several lit classes. Collins actually wasn’t trying to write a detective story. This novel, and most of his others, were written as sensation fiction, serialized and then published as a triple decker. (The more words, the better! LOL). And Cuff fails at first, then gets it right in the end.

    Sgt. Cuff was based on Scotland Yard detective Whicher, who famously investigated the Constance Kent case (many elements in The Moonstone were based on that case, most notably the nightgown). Many scholars believe The Moonstone marked the beginning of the modern detective novel.

    • Thanks for those insights, Kathy. It’s funny, isn’t it, how so many people call The Moonstone a detective novel, even though that wasn’t at all what Collins intended. It just goes to show that sometimes, books take on a life of their own. Thanks, too, for mentioning the Kent case – really, really interesting! It’s a great reminder that a lot of novels have been based on real events, for a long time.

  2. One of my favorite mysteries, Fear and Miss Betony, by Dorothy Bowers, would fit the definition here, I think, Margot. Bowers’s series detectives, Chief Inspector Dan Pardoe and Detective-Sergeant Tommy Salt, don’t appear until about three-quarters of the way through the book. Most of the detective work is done by Miss Emma Betony, an elderly ex-teacher, who answers an appeal for help from a former student and finds herself in the midst of a series of troubling events leading up to murder and putting her own life in grave danger – and who manages to fight through her fear, solve the case, and get the truth out to Pardoe and Salt in time for them to take action.

    • That’s a great example, Les, for which thanks. And it’s interesting how Miss Betony works with the detectives. I think that’s a fascinating topic on its own actually: how amateurs (whether protagonist or not) work with police or PIs. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  3. My example is another Agatha Christie – The Moving Finger, where Miss Marple only appears very late on and has a small role. It can work really well when skilfully done, and allows the author to create new lead characters rather than depending on the same one or two detectives all the time. As usual, something Christie was excellent at…

    • Agreed, FictionFan. She really did have that skill, didn’t she? And I like Jerry and Joanna Burton very much. You’re right, too, that Miss Marple doesn’t figure strongly in that novel, nor does she appear until later. That works well in this case, because it lets us get to know the Burtons and the other residents of Lymstock. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  4. tracybham

    I am glad you were inspired to write this post, Margot, because I do like that structure in a book and am glad to hear of more examples. Green for Danger is a perfect example, where we learn so much about the group of people before the “action” begins. And Fiction Fan’s example is another favorite. I will be trying the other examples you came up with.

    • I appreciate the inspiration, Tracy. And I agree that Green For Danger has that sort of structure, where we get to know the people quite well before the murder occurs. To me, that adds to that particular story.

  5. A good theme and examples, Margot. I have been putting off reading Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone” partly because I’m looking for a nice old edition of the book. I don’t read the Classics in ebook format. Tracy writes a terrific blog. I admire her discipline in reading and reviewing books, and some fine titles too.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Prashant, about Tracy’s blog – it’s terrific! And I can see why you’d like to read the Wilkie Collins book ina nicely bound older edition. There’s just something about those old classics, isn’t there?

  6. Col

    Green for Danger is somewhere in the pile!

  7. Fascinating topic, Margot. Pulling the reader in further before the sleuth shows up makes for fun reading. Great examples here and more books to read.

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    • Thank you, Mason. And I agree that this sort of story structure can be fun, and it really can let the reader have some background information on the characters.

  8. It definitely makes a huge impact on the story, told that way. And it means that readers will identify with more than one POV character instead of merely the sleuth. Which can be tricky!

  9. It’s certainly not a popular choice, but I can see how it could work. Personally, I’ve never a crime novel where this happened. I suppose it’s one of those things: learn the rules of storytelling, then break them at your peril. I’m intrigued now. Hmmm…

  10. Keishon

    Took note of your examples, Margot. This type of plot device is very tricky. Nesbo did that as well and it worked because of the strength of his characters and suspense. Like you stated. Not a fan of it but if it works, I won’t complain.

    • I think you put your finger on the most important thing, Keishon: the characters. If the characters are well-developed, so that one wants to read about them, then this sort of plot structure can work. And thanks for mentioning Nesbø, who does it very well.

  11. I’m never happy if the author misleads me about who the sleuth is in a mystery. I especially dislike thinking a character is important then see him murdered near the beginning of the novel.

  12. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…10/11/16 – Where Genres Collide

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