So Much We Take For Granted*

I’ll bet you’ve had this experience. You walk into a room, flick the light switch, and… nothing happens. Or you click to get online, only to get the message that there is no Internet connection. It’s a bit of a jolt when that sort of thing happens. Part of the reason is, of course, that you’re annoyed when the electricity, or the hot water, or the Internet, or…. isn’t available. But another part of it is that we take a lot of those things for granted. When something we take for granted suddenly isn’t there, this can be quite a jolt.

That jolt’s irritating at best in real life. But it can add interesting tension and even suspense to a crime novel. And the way in which characters cope with those jolts can add character depth.

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Death, we are introduced to a group of young people who live in a hostel for students. Everyone begins to get unsettled when a strange series of petty thefts begin to occur. As one example, one of the residents, Sally Finch, is planning to go out to a party. Her outfit includes a new pair of evening shoes. But, when she gets ready for the party, she finds that one of the shoes is missing. There’s quite a search, but it’s not found. Sally took for granted that the shoes were both in her closet, but she was wrong. There are other jolts like that as well which add to the atmosphere and tension in the story. The manager, Mrs. Hubbard, tells her sister, Felicity Lemon, what’s happened. Miss Lemon tells her employer, Hercule Poirot, who agrees to look into the matter. When one of the other residents, Celia Austin, confesses to some of the pilfering, everyone thinks the matter is settled. Then, Celia is murdered two nights later, and it’s clear that something much more is going on.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is attending a community barbecue, at which the main speaker is to be Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. He’s an up-and-coming politician, and his speech is an important one. During his remarks, he suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Boychuk was a friend of Kilbourn’s, so she grieves his loss. In part to cope with that, she decides to write a biography of his life. And that’s how she begins to find out the truth about his death. In the meantime, something mysterious is happening. Kilbourn begins to show signs of illness. She’s losing weight rapidly, and there are other symptoms, too. As her health, which she’s always taken for granted, starts to fail, Kilbourn gets more and more anxious. And that sub-plot adds a layer of suspense to the story.

Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight tell the story of the Sutherland family. Andy Sutherland, his wife, Jenny, and their two children are caught in the global upheaval that results when the world’s supply of oil is deliberately cut off. Now, millions of things that people have taken for granted are no longer available. Of course, that includes most forms of transportation. As it happens, the members of the family are in four different places when the oil supply is stopped, so a major part of the plot in Last Light is their attempts to reunite, and to find ways to make do without the oil they’ve always taken for granted. Afterlight takes up the story ten years after the events of Last Light. At this point, Jenny Sutherland is the leader of a small group of people who’ve made a home on an abandoned North Sea oil rig. One of the main plot threads here is the story of what happens when the group hears that another group, housed in London’s Millennium Dome, may have access to oil. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at how frantically people try to get back what they’ve taken for granted (ever kept flicking a light switch, even after you know the power’s off?).

In both A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife and Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise, there’s an important plot point of long-time couples ending their common-law marriages. In both cases, the couples never legally married, and that adds a real complication. Both couples lived together for many for many years, and that led to certain assumptions. When the relationships end, this puts the women (Jodi Brett in The Silent Wife and Lindy Markov in Breach of Promise) in jeopardy. For instance, they’ve taken their homes for granted for years, until the day that they are served with formal notices of eviction. And, since the US states they live in don’t have protection for common-law spouses, neither woman has much legal recourse. It all adds a great deal of tension to both novels, and it’s interesting to see how these characters react to suddenly not having the home they’ve taken for granted.

And then there’s Zoran Drvenkar’s You. In one plot thread of this novel, a 1995 snowstorm blocks the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. Suddenly, people who’d taken for granted a clear road and just over 35 minutes of driving time find everything changed. Many cars are stranded on the road, and even emergency vehicles can’t get through. People have to do what they can to stay warm and safe, and even finding food won’t be easy. A man named the Traveler takes advantage of this situation, and works his way among the stranded cars, killing twenty-six people. He then makes his getaway without being caught. His story later merges with other important plot points, and we learn more about him, and what he does after these murders.

It’s always a jolt when something you’ve taken for granted simply isn’t there. And it takes adjustment – sometimes a lot of adjustment. That tension can add much to a crime story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dave Matthews’ One Sweet World.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Alex Scarrow, Gail Bowen, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Zoran Drvenkar

16 responses to “So Much We Take For Granted*

  1. I must admit I get quite murderous when my internet connection goes down! We’re so reliant now on all kinds of technology – it can make it more difficult to have an “old-fashioned” kind of investigation of a murder, but I suppose it also gives a lot of scope for authors to play with the idea of what if. You quite often read about phones inconveniently running out of power to prevent that emergency call and so on…

    • I know what you mean about the Internet connection, FictionFan. I must be studiously avoided when that happens, lest I really hurt someone. And it’s interesting how that reliance on technology has changed the way people write crime fiction, and what readers expect from it. As you say, the ‘low battery’ plot point can work if it’s done well. So can the ‘in a remote place without Internet service.’ But I think, with today’s technology, that it has to be done carefully. Of course, ‘what ifs’ do happen, and that is a good way to drop a character in the soup if you’re a writer.

  2. Col

    Looking forward to both the Harrison book and the Drvenkar – someday!

  3. Very interesting post, Margot. We do take a lot of things for granted and then when they aren’t there it can lead to all sorts of problems.

  4. Patti Abbott

    Lately storms have caused a lot of loss of electricity around here, making people quite frantic. This country really needs to address the vulnerability of its infrastructure to both man- made and nature- made trouble.

    • That’s a very well-taken point, Patti. When we don’t have access to electricity, roads that are maintained, and so on, it does make us vulnerable. Updating the infrastructure, and keeping it safe, is critical.

  5. In several books someone finds out they were wrong about something they have taken for granted, and the shock of finding out the truth tips them over into committing a murder. One non-spoiler example (because it is so blatant) is in a Dorothy L Sayers book where a young woman who has been looking after her great aunt suddenly finds out that she might not automatically inherit on her death, as both of them had assumed….

    • Ah, yes, that is a good example, Moira. Thanks. You’re right that when characters have the proverbial rug pulled out from under them, that shock can lead to all sorts of things – including murder. Hmm….Now, you’re making me thing of novels where that shock happens. Now, to find a way to blog about it without spoilers…

  6. If done well, as you say, Margot, this plot trick can add tension and another dimension, but when it feels contrived as so often happens in modern thrillers, it’s really annoying. I’ve thrown any number of books across the room when an author has used this slight of hand for effect just once too often.

    But the ‘Jolt’ as you call it is an excellent tool for character development, rather than a plot device. Use it wisely!

    • You put that quite well, Alex: use this wisely. Like any tool or device, it’s only as good as the person who wields/uses it. Certainly it can feel contrived if it’s in the story for convenience (e.g. ‘OK, how can I put my main character in danger? I know! The power goes out!’). Like anything else, it works only if it truly serves the story.

  7. All of these sound interesting, Margot. I have read Deadly Appearances but not the others. It is interesting how the dependence on computers, the internet, and connectivity affect work nowadays. Lose power and people can’t work in most cases.

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