I Can’t Mind My Own Business*

minding-own-businessHave 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.   


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Kate Atkinson, Pascal Garnier

24 responses to “I Can’t Mind My Own Business*

  1. One recent example which has stayed in my mind (perhaps because of all the travelling and flight delays I have experienced) was Sophie Hannah’s The Carrier. When the plane is delayed somewhere in Germany, the main protagonist Gaby Struthers is forced to share a room with a stranger (the hotel doesn’t quite have enough to cope with all the stranded passengers). However, when this stranger starts confessing to a crime, things get very interesting indeed… and even dangerous.

    • Oh, that’s a great example, Marina Sofia, so thank you. That’s one Hannah that I haven’t (yet) read, so I’m very glad you filled in that gap. And I know just exactly what you mean by a lot of flight delays and other annoyances of travel…

  2. One of my favorites along these lines has to be Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. The book opens with Nick Charles standing in a speakeasy (how does that date the book!) waiting for his wife to finish shopping when he’s approached by the daughter of a missing man – in fact, the titular “Thin Man.” Though Nick tries valiantly to stay out of the search for the missing man, nobody will believe that he’s not involved in some way…including murder. Great book (and, of course, classic movie, though the book is grimmer than the film).

    • Oh, I couldn’t agree more with your example, Les. In that case, the last thing Nick Charles wants to do is be drawn into Clyde Wynant’s disappearance. As you say, he gets involved anyway, and is a suspect. And I think Hammett did that part of the novel very well. The film is lighter than the book, but still terrific. Thanks for mentioning this one.

  3. Sometimes I get very annoyed by your posts as I know I must have loads of examples for this one but I simply can’t think of one – what I can say is that if carefully done I think the ‘I was just minding my own business’ line can be very credible as unless you are the perpetrator of a crime (whether the one being committed or of other crimes) or a crime fighter no-one goes out looking for a murder.

    • You put that very well, Cleo. People don’t go out looking for a murder, unless they are going to commit one, or are trying to solve one. So it does make sense that fictional characters might be unexpectedly drawn into a case. But, as you say, it’s got to be done carefully, so that it’s not contrived.

    • mudpuddle

      i’m like that also; i’ve read a lot of mysteries, but can’t recall them without a hint of some sort; i think i’ve done too many crossword puzzles; i know i’ve read quite a few Elkins, but Nora’s death is the first i’ve heard of it…

  4. I can’t recall a book that fits into this category but it does make for interesting reading. While it may be hard to pull off, it does make the story more realistic because sometimes we are just minding our own business when the strangest things happen. Great post, Margot.

    • Thanks, Mason. And you know, you’re absolutely right that the oddest things can happen when people are just living their own lives, and minding their own business. If it’s done carefully, it can work in a story, too.

  5. I don’t know why but Canning throwing his computer case at the Honda driver gave me the giggles. And you have me very interested in Three little Pigs. Interesting post, as usual, Margot.

    • Thank you, Neeru. And Canning throwing his computer case is a funny moment. Atkinson doesn’t play down the danger involved, but it is funny. It’s all the more so because Canning is not at all the assertive type. He’s the type who’s never done a confrontational thing in his life. And Three Little Pigs is interesting. Unusual, but very interesting.

  6. Col

    Brain freeze this morning, so no examples springing to mind. Thanks for the reminder on that particular Garnier!

  7. Great examples (and great stories!) listed here, as always. Thanks for the reminder to re-read Passenger to Frankfurt.

  8. Tim

    With so many sleuths and detectives involved in typical crime novels, the “minding my own business” trope must be excluded since the sleuths’ and detectives’ business is crime; I wonder if the narrator in _The Murder of Roger Ackroyd_ somehow (ironically) fits in with that trope (i.e., the narrator was simply minding his own business . . . hmmmm).

  9. kathy d

    Now this is exactly the central them in all of Linwood Barclay’s stand-alone mysteries. A regular guy gets pulled into murders, kidnappings, larceny, etc. That is what creates the appeal for them. They are fun, good books, the kind to take on a vacation or else take one’s home staycation. And they’re usually witty.

    • They really are, Kathy, aren’t they? And I’m very glad you mentioned Barclay’s work. It’s well-written and, as you say, involves some very good ‘regular guy’ characters. Folks, if you haven’t read anything by Linwood Barclay, I recommend his work.

  10. It seems like this is the scenario used in a lot of Eric Ambler’s books, where an innocent bystander gets caught up in something nefarious or dangerous. Although his protagonists do sometimes seem to be more than willing.

    • I’m glad you mentioned Ambler’s work, Tracy. I haven’t read him lately, and I really ought to spotlight one of his novels. And you’re right; he does the ‘innocent bystander’ plot point well.

  11. I don’t read much crime fiction, so I don’t have any examples. Miss Marple popped into my head when I read your introduction, and I was happy to see her on your list.

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