You Dropped a Bomb on Me*

You know the sort of moment. You’re reading a novel, perhaps even drawn into it, when all of a sudden, the author, or a character, drops a proverbial bombshell. It’s usually (but certainly not always) a piece of information. And although such bombshells don’t always result in major plot twists, they certainly add to the suspense of a story.

Bombshells are, perhaps, easier to do in film than in books. Filmmakers can use tools such as facial expressions, atmospheric lighting and music, and so on, to add to the suspense of a bombshell. But even then, they’re a bit tricky. Too much of a bombshell, and you stretch credibility and risk melodrama. Not enough, and you could lose the reader’s interest. But when they’re done carefully, a bombshell can add to a story.

Sometimes, in crime fiction, the bombshell is the identity of the murderer. Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is like that. When retired business magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night in his study, the most likely suspect seems to be his stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. For one thing, Paton had motive. For another, he went missing on the night of the murder, and hasn’t been seen since. So, the police assume he’s on the run from them. Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, doesn’t think he’s guilty, though, and asks Hercule Poirot to clear his name. Poirot agrees, and looks into the matter. Fans of this story know that the dénouement contains a major bombshell having to do with the killer’s identity, and that bombshell brought Christie a lot of criticism at the time. It certainly changes the way one sees the book.

In one plot thread of Len Deighton’s Berlin Game, MI6 has discovered that there’s a KGB agent in a very high position at the agency’s London Central offices. Whoever the mole is, that person has access to highly classified information, to say nothing of private information about MI6 members. So, finding out that person’s identity is an urgent matter. Bernie Sansom is a middle-aged former field agent, who now has a desk job at the London Central offices, so he’s in a good position to try to catch the mole. This leads to an important bombshell piece of information that has a profound impact on the agency, on Sansom, and on the other two books in this trilogy.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we are introduced to Eva Wirenström-Berg, her husband, Henrik, and their six-year-old son, Axel. Eva has what she thinks is the perfect ‘white picket fence’ life – the one she’s always dreamed of having. Then a bombshell drops. She discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Devastated by the news, Eva is determined to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she makes her own plans, and things soon begin to spin tragically out of control. In this case, the bombshell isn’t a murderer’s or other criminal’s identity. But it has a powerful impact on what happens in the novel.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has certainly had his ups and downs when it comes to romance. But, in The Black Echo, he meets FBI agent Eleanor Wish; and, over the course of time, they fall in love. In fact, it’s not spoiling the series to say that they marry at the end of Trunk Music. The magic doesn’t last, though, for several reasons. So, by the time of Angels Flight, the two split up. But there’s more to come. In Lost Light, Bosch has officially retired from the police force. But he’s still haunted by the four-year-old murder of production assistant Angella Benton, who was murdered in the vestibule of her apartment building. So, he starts to ask questions unofficially. The case turns out to have an FBI connection, which leads Bosch to his ex-wife. And that’s when he learns that he has a daughter, Maddie, whom he’s never met. It’s a real shock to Bosch, and certainly changes the course of the novels that follow Lost Light.

Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 is the story of the coming of age of twelve-year-old Daniel Hayden. As the title suggests, the real action in the story takes place a few years after World War II, in Bentrock, the county seat of Mercer County, Montana. David lives a more or less settled life with his parents, Gail and Wayne (Mercer County’s sheriff). Everything changes when the family’s housekeeper, Marie Little Soldier, falls ill with pneumonia. To everyone’s shock, she refuses to let Wayne’s brother, Frank, treat her. Frank Hayden is a well-known and well-respected doctor, and no-one really understands why she wouldn’t want his help. Then, she drops a bombshell. It seems that Frank has been raping some of his patients who come from the Fort Warren (Sioux) Indian Reservation. Nobody’s come forward before this because the Hayden name is too powerful. But Marie swears that it’s all true, and admits that she’s been one of the doctor’s victims, herself. This bombshell is devastating to the Hayden family, and has a tragic outcome.

Those explosive pieces of information have to be handled carefully, as all explosives do. They have to fall out naturally from the plot, and they’re often more powerful if they’re not presented in an overly dramatic way. That said, though, they can add a great deal to a story, and show some different sides of characters, too. Which fictional bombshell revelations have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Gap Band.

38 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Karin Alvtegen, Larry Watson, Len Deighton, Michael Connelly

38 responses to “You Dropped a Bomb on Me*

  1. Great topic, Margot! The bombshell that springs to mind occurs midway through Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. I have read so much crime fiction that I am not often taken by surprise, but this time I absolutely did not see it coming and sat there with my mouth open. At the same time she had prepared it so well, that it made complete sense.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Christine. And thanks, too, for the excellent example of exactly what I had in mind. It takes a deft hand to create such a surprise, but still have it make perfect sense, and I’m glad Waters achieved that (*now noting title and adding to ‘radar’ list*).

  2. I do love a good bombshell, Margot! When Christie fooled me – and she very often did – I loved it! I dropped my book at the end of Murder on the Orient express because I didn’t think mysteries were allowed to end like that! Same thing happened with Ellery Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery, which played with the reader’s head over and over and OVER again! Another book that shocked the heck out of me was Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A simple exchange of dialogue near the end flips everything around! When an author can do that to you, she or he is very special indeed!

    • I agree with you, Brad. And I’m so glad you mentioned the Jackson, as there really is quite a bombshell revelation at the end of that one, isn’t there? It’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post. And yes, both Christie and the ‘Queen team’ did that very effectively as well. And you’re right about that ending to Murder on the Orient Express

  3. I do love a mystery novel that drops a bombshell, something totally unexpected. I can’t remember any specific examples right now though.

  4. Ah, I’ve just finished Christie’s And Then There Were None which has a couple of huge bombshell moments (and several minor ones). The first is when the record plays after dinner on the first evening accusing all the guests of having got away with various crimes, and the second is towards the end when the finding of a dead body makes the last two suddenly realise that one of them must be the guilty party. She really is the mistress of crime writing… 😀

    • Yes, indeed, she is, FictionFan! 🙂 – I really like those bombshell moments, too. And there’s a really effective (I think) depiction of everyone’s reaction to those moments, too. So we see them from different points of view. I think that adds some substance, if I can put it that way. Really creepy moments, too…

  5. Margot, three mysteries with bombshells stay with me (and are the basis for my recommendations to friends that they read the books).

    John Dickson Carr’s The Nine Wrong Answers very carefully builds suspense and seems to be a good but standard-variety thriller – until a revelation near the end blows up the reader’s perceptions and twists the story around in a completely unexpected way.

    Something similar happens in Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger, in which, as we move through what appears to be the climax of the story, her detective, Inspector Cockrill, discovers that he has gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick, so to speak.

    And the final confrontation scene in Elizabeth Daly’s The Book of the Dead seems to be proceeding quite well (as such confrontations go)…until her detective, Henry Gamadge, mentions a name…and you realize that you’ve been deeply and irrevocably wrong in your assumptions.

    In each case, I felt the rug had been pulled out from under me – and, alas, it was done so fairly. I think mysteries with that kind of bombshell are my favorites. If you haven’t read any of the above, I can’t recommend them highly enough.

    • Thank you, Les, for those recommendations. You’re right that those bombshells can add a great deal to a well-written novel. And you’ve offered excellent examples. The thing I like, too, about your examples, is that those authors ‘play fair’ with the reader. Yes, there’s a bombshell. But when you think back, it fits in.

  6. kathy d.

    I like bombshells and twists, but they have to make logical sense. A writer can’t just say at the end, “this was all a dream,” or “the unknown suspect suddenly appeared from Nepal,” or “an earthquake happened at the right time.”
    I learned from the Great Detective Holmes that even though he often came up with a culprit at the end of a story, he traced back the evidence and an alert reader could find the clues.
    Even true with Nero Wolfe who sees clues everywhere, and a reader can follow his logic.
    But when a twist comes up out of nowhere and is not logical, that is annoying. This happened with “The Woman in Cabin 10.” It’s been on the NY Times best-seller list for months and people talk about it on blogs.
    But, when I read it and came to the end, there were a few gigantic twists. They made no sense to me. I thought back over the whole story and could not see how the ending revelations could have been possible. If anyone can explain it to me, fine. Otherwise, it’s just a story with a bombshell at the end dropped out of the stratosphere with no rhyme or reason.
    Mr. Holmes and Mr. Wolfe taught me well about the need for evidence and rational investigations, clues, and science. And I stubbornly stick to those rules of crime fiction.
    Dramatic endings are fun and may sell books, but, I, for one, am strongly for facts and evidence in the books I read.

    • I know what you mean, Kathy. Bombshells are most effective if they fall out naturally from the plot, and are logical. If they’re not realistic, that takes away from the story. And you’re right that both Conan Doyle and Stout were able to create interesting bombshells without pushing too much credibility. They are logical, as you say.

  7. Keishon

    I remember a Fred Vargas book I read that made my jaw drop. It was in The Three Evangelists. The reveal of the villain was quite a surprise. I love surprises when I totally unexpected it rather than guessing it for myself. It’s been awhile since I read a book that surprised me like Vargas did. Well, Nesbo always surprise me but I seem to be the only one.

    • I’m glad you brought up Vargas, Keishon. She does do some interesting bombshells, doesn’t she? And it’s even more successful it the bombshell falls out from the plot.

  8. Col

    The reveal in William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel blew me away, having ignored some subtle hints before.

  9. Can I add another, Margot? The ending of Lawrence Block’s Out on the Cutting Edge was one that also rocked me back on my heels. It’s great when a writer manages to pull the wool over your eyes!

  10. Margot, I agree, bombshells are more effective in films than in books, because of the striking visual element. Though, I liked it when Perry Mason dropped frequent “bombshells” on DA Hamilton Burger. This element of (crime) fiction especially stands out in legal thrillers.

    • You know, Prashant, I hadn’t thought about Perry Mason when I was preparing this post, but you’re absolutely right. Courtroom dramas can be made all that much more suspenseful when there’s bombshell moment. It’s got to be done carefully, so that it’s credible. But when it is, a bombshell moment can be riveting.

  11. Although I have watched BOSCH on TV I have yet to read a Bosch novel. Need to do that. And, of course, MONTANA, 1948 is a top ten novel for me.

  12. I just watched an old film called The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone which was adapted from a play by Tennessee Williams. There’s a bombshell at the end…it’s what Mrs. Stone does that is so unexpected I’ll be thinking about it for days….or longer. Maybe not written in the mystery genre, but certainly a mysterious ending.

  13. Well, it is not an example from crime fiction, but I remember being dazzled and terrified when I understood what I will charitably call the “organ farming” in _Never Let Me Go_. It was an unforgettable realization.

  14. I just finished reading BLUE CITY by Ross Macdonald (an early, pre-Lew Archer novel). Too long to give the whole set-up, but our protagonist dropped a bomb in the reader’s lap when he said, “And I wondered why Joey Sault (a bad guy) was entering my stepmother’s house at 4 a.m.”

    Doesn’t sound like much here, but it was a really good one taken in context.
    —Michael

    • I can well imagine it was, Michael. It sounds like a very potent moment. And I appreciate the reminder to read moree of Macdonald’s work that doesn’t feature Archer. He wasn’t a proverbial one-trick pony.

  15. kathy d.

    Perry Mason’s bombshell denouements in the courtroom were great. Even better on TV. But they weren’t illogical. He spelled out his reasoning and it made sense.
    Same is true with Bosch. He may go out on a limb investigating what seems like an odd clue or piece of information, but the story unfolds to the reader in a logical sequence as Bosch learns information about the culprit(s).
    He doesn’t throw in a crazy ending making no sense. He has led the reader to the logical conclusion.

    • That’s quite true, Kathy. In both of these series, there’s a logical connection between the story and the bombshell. It doesn’t come from nowhere, and it makes sense. I’m glad you mentioned that.

  16. I’m enjoying collecting new recommendations and recognizing old favourites from you and your commenters! the one I would add is A Kiss Before Dying, which has a complete jaw-dropper in place, one that really took me by surprise. And although Green for Danger is my favourite Brand book, and one of my favourite crime books of all time – I still think the bombshell in her Tour de Force is even more startling…

    • I’ve been enjoying what everyone’s suggested, too, Moira. That includes your suggestions. Both are exactly the sort of book I was thinking of for this post, so thanks for adding so much to it.

  17. kathy d.

    I like Fred Vargas’ quirky plots and solutions. I think that with one exception there is a rationale behind the resolution and the culprits revealed. In her last book, “A Climate of Fear,” there are two simultaneous plot lines but they come together at the end when the killer is unmasked.
    There’s only one book where the resolution is a bit over the top. I enjoyed the book anyway which started out with 16 legs sticking out of a cemetery.
    Some people were upset that the book ventured into the paranormal but I think Vargas was toying with her readers. After all, she is a historian and archaeologist, so she is centered in science.

    • Vargas really does have some quirky plots, doesn’t she, Kathy? And yet, as you say, they have prosaic solutions to them. And she does bring the various plot lines together very nicely, I think.

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