Have you ever heard or told a story that starts like this: I was minding my own business when…? Strange things do happen sometimes, just when we’re going about our daily lives, so those stories aren’t as fantastic as they may seem. But can it work in crime fiction?
Most readers want their crime fiction to be believable. And the ‘I was minding my own business when…’ plot point can stretch creditability too far. There are stories, though, where it’s done in an interesting way.
For example, Agatha Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt is the story of Stafford Nye, a low-level British diplomat. He’s at the airport one day, when he’s approached by a young woman. She tells him that her life is in danger, and that she has to flee the country. Nye refuses at first. But she continues to beg for his help, and finally persuades him to lend her his passport and diplomatic credentials (I know – in today’s world, that would never get her on a plane). Before he knows it, Nye is drawn into a dangerous web of international intrigue and murder. Behind it all is a shadowy group bent on world domination. In this case, the story is the sort of thriller where the reader would need to put aside a lot of disbelief to begin with. So, the way in which Nye is involved in the plot isn’t out of place.
In One Good Turn, Kate Atkinson takes a very interesting approach to this way of drawing a character into a plot. One afternoon, crime writer Martin Canning is waiting at a radio station to pick up a ticket to a lunchtime radio comedy broadcast. His housemate, Richard Mott, is to be the featured comic, and he’s invited Canning to see the show. Canning’s minding his own business when he witnesses an incident of ‘road rage.’ Paul Bradley, who’s driving a silver Peugeot, brakes suddenly to avoid hitting a pedestrian. The driver behind Bradley, who’s in a blue Honda, hits Bradley’s car, and the two get into an argument. Then, the Honda driver brandishes a baseball bat and attacks Bradley. By instinct, Canning throws the computer case he’s been carrying at the Honda driver. That stops the fight, but it also draws Canning into a strange case of murders, fraud and theft.
Aaron Elkins’ Fellowship of Fear is the first of his novels to feature cultural anthropologist Gideon Oliver. In this story, Oliver has accepted an invitation to give a series of lectures at the United States Overseas College (USOC), which has branches in several European locations. It seems like the perfect opportunity for a change of scenery, and a way for Oliver to continue to cope with the loss of his beloved wife, Nora, who died two years earlier. Things don’t work out that way, though. First, Oliver is attacked in his hotel room by two men who apparently believe he has something of value that they want. He reports the incident to the police, but his troubles are just beginning. Tom Marks and Hilaire Delvaux, two leaders in the NATO Security Directorate (NSD)’s counterespionage bureau, approach Oliver. They claim that spies working for the USSR (the novel was published in 1982) are trying to steal something, although they don’t know what that something is. They want Oliver to inform them if anyone makes any unusual requests of him that might be seen as suspicious. Now Oliver is unwittingly drawn into a dangerous case of international espionage and murder.
In Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain?, we meet twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. He’s somewhat bored and restless, but not sure what he wants to do with his life. Then, ageing contract killer Simon Marechall approaches him with a proposition. Ferrand has a driving license, and Marechall needs a driver. He wants to make one last trip to the French coast to take care of some business. Ferrand agrees to the plan – after all, what else is there for him to do? But he doesn’t know what sort of business Marechall is in at first. And by the time he does find out, he’s already in very, very deep, as the saying goes.
And then there’s Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. That novel begins in 1974 at a monastery in the Swiss Alps. An unnamed art restorer is visiting the area, looking at some old frescoes in the chapel, with an eye towards restoring them. One day, an old man living in the elder care home attached to the monastery offers to tell the art restorer a story – a ‘good story.’ All he asks is that his tale be recorded on tape. This the art restorer agrees to do. He buys some blank tapes and the old man begins his tale That story concerns the Franco family, who emigrated from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. At first, all went well, as family patriarch Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco succeeded in the shoe business. Then one night, he got into a bar fight and ended up killing the other man. That man turned out to be Luigi Lupo, son of notorious gangster Tonio Lupo. When Lupo found out, he cursed the Franco family, promising that each of Franco’s three sons would die at the age of forty-two, the same age as Luigi was when he was killed. The old man then proceeds to tell his listener what happened to those three sons, and how that curse impacted them. As it turns out, Lupo had made plans to be sure his curse would be carried out. And we see the impact of it even decades later. And all because the old man approached the art restorer with an offer to tell a good story.
And that’s the thing about crime fiction. At least in that genre, even minding your own business can get you into trouble. Which examples have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Kaiser Chiefs.