And No Doubt Everything Will Go As Planned*

Many crimes are opportunistic, and don’t involve a lot of advance planning. Other crimes, though, are very carefully planned. Those preparations are necessary to make sure that the crime can be pulled off successfully. And the planning can take a long time.

That sort of crime can be a little tricky to do well in a crime novel. Readers don’t want to get bogged down in the minutiae of planning. But when they’re woven effectively into the story, those details can be interesting, and can add to the suspense of a story.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, The Red-Headed League introduces a pawnbroker named Jabez Wilson. One day, he learns of a group called the Red Headed League, which is offering employment. The only pre-requisite is that the successful candidate must have red hair (which Wilson does). He decides that there’s no harm in applying, and that the extra income would come in handy. So, he applies for the position and is hired. His task is to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and at first, all goes well. Then, he reports for work one day, only to find that the office locked, and a sign indicates that the Red-Headed League has disbanded. He visits Sherlock Holmes to ask for the detective’s insight on the matter. Holmes agrees to investigate, and finds out that Wilson has been a pawn in a very carefully-orchestrated plan to rob a local bank.

A bank robbery is also at the core of Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank. Professional thief Mike Daniels and his team want to plan a heist. Their target is London’s City Savings Deposit Bank. But, of course, the bank is equipped with plenty of security features, and it won’t be easy to get in. What they need is an architect, and that’s where unemployed architect Stephen Booker comes in. He hasn’t worked in several months, and is desperate for money. So, although he’s reluctant to get involved in an illegal scheme, he eventually falls in with the thieves. Everything is meticulously planned, and quite a bit of time is spent making sure that everything is ready, down to the last detail. The day of the robbery arrives, and, at first, all goes well. But no-one planned on a sudden storm coming up and changing everything…

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ten people are invited for a stay on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts. Then, on the first night, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long afterwards, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Soon, the remaining people see that they have been lured to the island by someone who’s trying to kill them. Now, they’ll have to catch the killer – and stay alive. In the end, we learn who the killer is and what the motive is. And we learn the details of the meticulous planning that went into this scheme.

Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes is the story of a plan to rob an entire building full of apartments. John ‘Duke’ Anderson has recently been released from prison, and has been legitimately employed at a printer’s. But, when he visits a very posh East Side Manhattan apartment building, he starts thinking about all of the wealth in the building, and decides to put together a plan to rob it. Anderson knows he can’t do the job on his own, so he gets in touch with various contacts to get the supplies, help, and financing he’s going to need. And the book includes detailed information on what’s involved in this sort of heist. What Anderson and his confederates don’t know is that various law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have been monitoring several of the people involved. So, much of the group’s plan is recorded in some way or another. The question is: will the police put the pieces together and stop the thieves before they pull off the robbery?

There’s also a lot of meticulous planning in Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. A far-right French group, Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS), wants to plot to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle. But, of course, he is well-protected. What’s more, most of the members of OAS are known to the police. So, the group decides to hire an ‘outsider’ to do the job. For this, they choose an Englishman who’s known only as the Jackal. No-one knows what this person looks like, nor what his real name is. So, he’s a good choice, from OAS’ perspective. Detective Claude Lebel has the task of trying to find and stop the Jackal, if he can, before the killer gets to de Gaulle. A main focus of the book is the set of preparations the Jackal makes to carry out his mission, and the set of preparations that Lebel and his team make to try to prevent that.

And then there’s Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence. All three feature paid assassin Calum MacLean, a man who’s earned a good reputation in the underworld.  Part of the reason he’s good at what he does is that he plans carefully. He observes his targets, picks his times and places carefully, and knows what he’s getting into as best he can before he carries out a job. The books include the details about the preparations MacLean makes, and they add to the suspense of the stories.

Putting too much emphasis on the details can take away from the tension of a story. But careful planning is important to a successful plot. Of course, even careful planning doesn’t always present disasters – right, fans of Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Angry World.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donald Westlake, Frederick Forsyth, Malcom Mackay, Robert Pollock

18 responses to “And No Doubt Everything Will Go As Planned*

  1. I quite like the books where things are meticulously planned and then something unexpected happens and the protagonist has to improvise. Can’t think of one right now, but it will come to me…

  2. I do like cleverness in books and so those crimes that are carefully planned always appeal more than the more random acts but of course it tends to work better when the planning is revealed at the end like in And Then There Were None so that we can applaud it rather than be distracted with lots of details along the way.

    • That’s an interesting point, Cleo, and one I hadn’t thought of before. It’s not just a matter of whether there are meticulous plans (I think that shows cleverness, too!). It’s also a matter of when those plans are revealed, and how. When the author ‘lifts the curtain’ at the end, as Christie does in And Then There Were None, we can see how well it’s been done without being pulled out of the story.

  3. Margot, thank you – another brilliant write.

  4. Brilliant post.
    Learned a lot.

  5. you were ahead of me: i was thinking about Dortmunder and his friends: funny books…

  6. When something unexpected happens after a character has meticulously planned always leads to an intriguing story. Great post, Margot. Lots of interesting books.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mason. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I know what you mean, too, about those unexpected things that happen, even if you’ve planned as carefully as possible. That can really add to a story.

  7. Ooh, The Anderson Tapes sounds right up my alley. I love details like this. IMO, it can be very effective for building suspense. ‘Course, like anything else, it must be done well or it can fall flat.

    • No doubt about that, Sue! Careful planning and the details that go with it can add tension and suspense to a novel. But if they’re not done well, they do, indeed, fall flat. It’s important (to me, anyway) to keep one question in mind: does this serve the story?

  8. Col

    A lot of books mentioned that I’ve loved and am also planning to read. Pollock and Sanders have yet to be enjoyed, Mackay and Forsyth were pretty good. It must have been years since I read Jackal but you don’t forget a book that good.

    • No, you don’t, Col. I know exactly what you mean. I do think you’d like both Sanders and Pollock (the Pollock may be a bit harder to find). When/if you get to them, I hope you do.

  9. I like Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero – there’s a plan in operation there, but knowing that, I think most readers wouldn’t be expecting what is actually going on…

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