‘…foresight may be vain.’
He then goes on with one of the most famous of his lines:
‘The best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men
Gang aft agley.’
It’s quite true, when you think about it. You leave for the airport, having packed carefully and allowed plenty of time, only to be caught in a traffic jam caused by an accident. Or, you plan a dinner (to which you’ve invited people), only to have to cope with a power outage just as people begin to arrive. I’m sure you can fill in your own examples.
It’s true that we can’t plan for every eventuality. So, it makes sense to also be flexible. The more quickly one can adapt, the better able one is to cope with things going agley. Just read crime fiction, and you’ll see this flexibility in action. Fictional criminals and fictional sleuths find that being able to think quickly and be flexible is very helpful.
In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, American business tycoon Samuel Ratchett is stabbed on the second night of a three-day trip on the famous Orient Express train. As Hercule Poirot learns (he’s on the same train, and is enlisted to investigate), this murder has been carefully planned, down to the small details. But those plans didn’t include a terrible snowstorm that stops the train and changes everything. Now, the original plan can’t work, so new plans have to be made. And it’s interesting to see how that happens. It doesn’t stop Poirot from finding out who’s responsible for the murder, but it shows quick thinking.
Elizabeth Daly introduces her sleuth, rare book expert Henry Gamadge, in Unexpected Night. Gamadge is staying at the Ocean House Resort at Ford’s Beach, Maine, to escape the summer heat of the city. During his visit, Gamage makes friends with the Barclay family, who are staying in a nearby cottage. Soon, the Barclays are joined by relatives Eleanor Cowden, her son and daughter, Amberly and Alma, and Amberly’s tutor, Hugh Sanderson. Amberly is set to inherit a large fortune if he reaches the age of twenty-one. But that doesn’t seem likely, as he has a very serious heart condition. Still, he insisted on coming along for this trip to Maine. The Cowdens arrive late on the last night before Amberly’s twenty-first birthday, and settle in. The next morning, though, he is found dead at the bottom of a nearby cliff. Since Gamadge already knows the Barclays, and has met the Cowdens, he gets involved with the investigation into this death. And it turns out that this fall was no accident. As we later learn, too, this is a case of someone having to think quickly when something happened to upset plans…
Having to be flexible and change plans is one of the hallmarks of Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder series. Dortmunder is a professional thief, who works with a group of his allies. He’s not stupid, and he plans quite well. In fact, his ability to scheme and plan has gotten him a good reputation. But he and his team run into more than their share of bad luck and unexpected events. What’s more, not all of the team members are quite as skilled as Dortmunder is. So, he frequently finds himself having to think quickly, re-do plans, and be flexible.
Sleuths have to be able to think quickly, too, and adapt when their plans go wrong. In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, for instance. Botswana PI Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, successful civil engineer Mr. Molefelo. A brush with death has convinced him that he needs to set some things in his life right. He wants Mma Ramotswe to track down his former landlady, so that he can make amends to her for taking a radio that belonged to the family. This many years later, it’s a little difficult to trace someone, but Mma Ramotswe agrees to see what she can do. She discovers that the landlady is the widow of a government employee, and so, is entitled to a pension. So, Mma Ramotswe travels to the office that administers those. Her plan is solid enough, but she hasn’t bargained for a ‘by the books,’ self-important clerk who won’t provide the address Mma Ramotswe needs. So, thinking quickly, she adapts and manages to talk her way into getting the information she needs.
In Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues, we are introduced to her sleuth, Phryne Fisher. In this novel, Phryne returns from London to Melbourne, where she’s been asked to check up on the daughter of some family friends, as they’re concerned for her welfare. In the process, Phryne discovers a deadly web of the drugs trade, murder, and gang activity. At one point, she and one of her friends, taxi driver Bert Johnson, are following a lead that takes them to a local drugstore. Just then, some thugs make an unexpected appearance, and Phryne and Bert have to make a quick getaway. A moment or two later, they’re in an alley, when they hear the thugs coming. Quick thinking and flexibility come naturally to Phryne, so she and Bert pretend to be lovers who are looking for a quiet spot, until the thugs pass by.
A lot of flexibility and quick thinking are needed in Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw. Special Police (SP) Officer Kaxuki Mekari of the Tokoy Metropolitan Police is assigned to take a team and travel to Fukuoka to bring a fugitive, Kunihide Kiyumaru, back to Tokyo. This isn’t going to be an ordinary trip, though. The prisoner is responsible for a horrible rape and murder, and the victim’s wealthy grandfather has offered a one-billion-yen reward to anyone who kills the man. Because of this, the arrest team has much more to contend with than just an unpleasant prisoner. And, as word of the bounty spreads, more and more people think of different ways to get close enough to Kiyumaru to try to kill him. As it turns out, several of Mekari’s plans go wrong, and he has to stay flexible.
No matter how well you plan, no matter what you may take into account, it’s not possible to plan for everything. So on this, what would have been Robert Burns’ 258th birthday, it’s a good time to remember that things often don’t work out perfectly, and it’s best to be flexible.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Huey Lewis song.