I’m sure you’ve had this happen to you. You make plans to do something or go somewhere, and then something happens that you couldn’t have anticipated. A sudden rainstorm soaks the plans you made for an outdoor lunch. Or, you wake up with a fever and upset stomach on the day you’d planned to leave home to take a trip. Those sorts of things happen to us all, and they act as reminders that we can never completely control things.
That’s just as true in crime fiction as it is in real life. And, when they’re done well (i.e. not contrived), those unexpected things can add a great deal to a story. Certainly, they can add suspense and plot layers.
Agatha Christie wove unexpected happenings into her stories and novels more than once. In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Hercule Poirot is en route from the Middle East back to London. He gets a berth on the famous Orient Express train, and prepares for the three-day trip across Europe. On the second night of the journey, wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed in his bunk. Poirot is asked to find out who the killer is, so that that person can be handed over to the police at the next border crossing. He agrees, and takes part in interviewing the suspects (all of whom are berthed in the same train car as the victim). In this case, a snowstorm that stopped the train disrupted the killer’s plans. And it’s interesting to see how other plans have had to be hastily put together. The fact of the snowstorm doesn’t immediately tell Poirot who the murderer is. But it’s the one thing the murderer couldn’t control.
Unexpected weather also plays a role in Robert Pollock’s Loophole. In that novel, professional thief Mike Daniels and his team have targeted London’s City Savings Deposit Bank for a heist. To do the job well, though, they’ll need the services of an architect. So, Daniels enlists out-of-work architect Stephen Booker to join the team. Booker is desperate for money, so he goes along with the plan, albeit reluctantly at first. Everything is carefully put together, and all starts well enough. The team members think that every detail is in order. But they haven’t counted on a sudden rainstorm that comes up during the heist. And that storm changes everything. Speaking of heist stories, fans of Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder novels know that Dortmunder and his team often run up against unexpected problems when they’re trying to pull off a job.
It’s not always storms that unexpectedly alter plans. For instance, much of the action in Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors takes place in the East Anglia village of Fenchurch St. Paul. One of the customs of the local church is a New Year’s Eve change-ringing, and one of the ringers is Will Thoday. As luck would have it, Thoday falls ill with influenza just before New Year’s Eve, so he can’t do his share of the ringing. As it so happens, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant, Mervyn Bunter, have had a car accident in the area. They are rescued by the local vicar, Theodore Venables, and invited to stay at the rectory until their car is fixed. When Wimsey discovers that Thoday is ill, he offers to take the man’s place at the change-ringing. Venables gratefully accepts the offer, and the change-ringing goes off as planned. Both of these incidents (Thoday’s illness and Wimsey’s car trouble) are things that that couldn’t have been controlled. And they play their role in what happens when, a few months later, an extra body is discovered in a gravesite intended for the local squire.
Michael Collins’ short story Who? features his PI sleuth Dan Fortune. One day, a seventeen-year-old boy named Boyd Conners collapses suddenly and dies of what seems to be a heart attack. Boyd was young, and in quite good health, with no congenital medical problems. So, his mother has begun to question the official theory. She visits Fortune, asking him to look into the matter, and Fortune agrees. He traces the boy’s last days and weeks, and finds out that there are a few people who might be considered enemies. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a really clear suspect. But then, Fortune makes a small discovery that changes the course of the investigation. It turns out that Boyd was what you might call an accidental victim. The murderer had planned to kill someone else, but due to something that person couldn’t control, and couldn’t have foreseen, Boyd died instead.
Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning begins with one of those unexpected happenings that alter the course of a story. Journalist Jack Parlabane has recently returned to Edinburgh from Los Angeles, and is settling in. He wakes up one morning to a great deal of commotion, and decides to see what’s going on. He leaves his flat, only to learn the hard way that he’s forgotten his key. The door locks automatically, so now, Parlabane can’t get back inside. He knows that the downstairs flat has a window that corresponds to one of his own. So, he decides to go through that flat, if he can, climb out that window, and up into his own place. When he enters that downstairs flat, Parlabane finds out the source of the commotion that woke him up: there’s a dead body there. DC Jenny Dalziel, who’s on the scene, catches Parlabane trying to sneak through the window, and draws the obvious conclusion. When Parlabane convinces her that he is innocent, they begin to co-operate, and in the end, they find out who the dead man was, who the killer is, and what the motive is. And it all happens because neither Parlabane nor the killer could have anticipated forgetting the key.
And then there’s Jane Woodham’s Twister. As the story begins, five days of rain have soaked the city of Dunedin. Then, an unexpected twister roars through. The police are already stretched thin, as the saying goes, because of a ‘flu epidemic that’s making the rounds of the city, and the weather is making a bad situation completely miserable. Then, the body of Tracey Wenlock, who went missing a few weeks ago, is discovered. Her body was in some underbrush, and it might never have been found – or not for a very long time. But the twister knocked down trees and spurred a general cleanup that the killer couldn’t have anticipated. DSS Leo Judd is assigned to find out what happened to Tracey. Ordinarily, the job would have been given to someone else, since Judd lost his own beloved daughter, Beth, nine years earlier, and is still coping with that. But there is no-one else, because of the ‘flu epidemic. Now, Judd has to put his own grief aside and try to find some closure for Tracey’s family.
There are many other examples of those unexpected things that change plans. The trick is to weave them into a plot as naturally and authentically as possible. Otherwise, they can seem too contrived. When they’re done well, though, they can add a layer of suspense, to say nothing of plot twists, to a story.
ps. The ‘photo is of the aftermath of an unexpected pinhole leak in our plumbing. That certainly changed my plans when it happened…
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Ruta Antana.