Plan B*

planbIn To a Mouse, Robert Burns makes the point that

‘…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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donald Westlake, Elizabeth Daly, Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Kerry Greenwood

21 responses to “Plan B*

  1. Happy Burns’ Night, Margot, and thank you (I think) for mentioning so many new to me authors and books.

  2. Pingback: Plan B* | picardykatt's Blog

  3. Happy Burns Night, Margot! Of course, he was a noted crime fiction writer in his own right…

    “His knife see rustic Labour dight,
    An cut you up wi ready slight,
    Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
    Like onie ditch;
    And then, O what a glorious sight,
    Warm-reekin, rich!”

    Poor Haggis! I don’t think they’ve caught the villain yet… 😉

    • 😆 No, I don’t think they have, Fiction Fan! Thanks for sharing that. I do like that reminder of Burns’ crime-fictionally-oriented mind… And Happy Burns Night to you, too!

  4. What a brilliant way to open this post and as always full of intriguing sounding books to illustrate the point – thank you Margot.

  5. An interesting point, Margot. I remember listening to a book where it seemed one disaster lead to another and at first it made me think that was just too much. But after I gave it a little time and really thought about it, I realized the author was right as just one of these problems could lead to the next and his characters had to learn to cope with each to survive.

    • Thanks, Mason. And it is interesting, isn’t it, how each choice we make leads to the next, and so on. So it seems that it’s one disaster after enough, but really, they’re all related.

  6. Margot, I have not read Robert Burns’ poetry in more than two decades though I have started re-reading classical poetry. I also have a couple of Donald Westlake at least one of which I intent to read soon.

    • I’m glad to hear you’ve started re-reading some classic poetry, Prashant. I think those older poems have a lot to offer us today. And Burns’ poetry is excellent, in my opinion. As to Westlake’s work, I think he blends wit and a good story in very well with his Dortmunder series. If you read some of those novels, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

  7. Oh I hope you had a happy Burns night! I did – with a wee dram of the best. I also spent some time reading about Rabbie’s life – whoa! He was quite the Lothario and he often had life slam him one – two sets of twins before he was allowed to marry one of his loves! Yes, if life went according to Doyle then novels and life would be boring. Thanks for another great topic!

    • Thanks, Jan – glad you enjoyed the post – and Burns Night. And yes, Burns did have quite the life, didn’t he? Certainly there was never a dull moment… As you say, though, a lot of the interest in fiction (and in life) come from those things that life sends along, whether we think we want them or not.

  8. I should read Unexpected Night again. It has been a long time and I have forgotten everything about it. And I will definitely be reading Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues this year. Those are some great examples, Margot.

    • Thanks, Tracy. And I do recommend Greenwood if you haven’t read her work before. I really do like Phryne Fisher as a character, and the books have a solid sense of the era.

  9. And sometimes, Plan C! Great examples there, Margot. Thanks.

  10. I know your blog isn’t ‘political’, Margot, but reading between the lines, the topic of best laid plans going awry seems very timely…

  11. Thus was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell is one of my favourite mysteries of all time, and also a favourite book in which the plans go badly wrong, in a brautifully worked out and elaborate story.

    • Yes, indeed, Moira, and thanks for the reminder. Such a carefully planned thing, and it does go deliciously wrong. Folks, do try Caudwell’s work if you haven’t.

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