Till You Turn it All Upside Down*

If you read enough crime fiction, you start to develop expectations about crime stories. That’s natural enough, as we all have assumptions and expectations that help us make sense of the world. For instance, unless you know your car’s not working, you expect that, when you start the car, the engine will engage, and the motor will run. When you open a book, you expect that the first page of the story will be the first page you encounter. That’s part of how we humans sort out all of the stimuli we experience.

Crime writers know this, too. And sometimes, crime writers use those expectations to misdirect the reader. It’s not easy to pull that sort of misdirection off and still, ‘play fair.’ But it can be done, and when it is, it can be very effective.

For example, one expectation most readers have is that the sleuth is not also the killer. Sometimes the protagonist is, but most readers assume that the sleuth won’t turn out to be the murderer. Agatha Christie was well aware of that expectation and turned it on its head. I won’t mention title or sleuth, for fear of spoilers. But she did violate that expectation. And she’s not the only one (no more names – no spoilers).

Crime fiction readers also often make assumptions about the identity of a victim. When the police are called to a murder scene, they (and readers) believe that the dead person is, well, actually dead. But that isn’t always the case. For instance, in Vera Caspary’s Laura, New York police detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson is called to the scene when the body of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt is discovered in her apartment. She was killed with a shotgun blast which has obliterated her face, so there’s no question that this was a murder. With that information, McPherson starts to investigate. It’s not spoiling the story to say that McPherson is shocked when Laura returns to the apartment one day while he’s there. It turns out that the dead woman wasn’t Laura at all, but a woman named Diane Redfern, whom Laura knew, and to whom she’d given permission to use the apartment. Laura’s arrival turns the whole investigation on its head and changes the course of the story.

Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone is the story of what happens when four-year-old Amanda McCready goes missing. She disappears from her Dorchester, Massachusetts, home one night, and the police and public soon start a massive search. Dozens of police officers from more than one department do the ‘legwork’ of trying to trace the child. Many volunteers join in the search, too. Still, there are no traces of the child – not even a body. The child’s aunt and uncle, Lionel and Beatrice McCready, hire PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro to find her. At first, Kenzie and Gennaro aren’t sure what they can do that the police can’t, but the McCreadys insist, so the two PIs get started. Reader expectations about what they will eventually find are turned upside down when the truth about Amanda’s disappearance is revealed. And that violation of expectations adds several layers to the story.

William Deverell’s Trial of Passion introduces his protagonist, Vancouver attorney Arthur Beauchamp. As the story begins, he’s just retired and decided to start life again in the peace and quiet of Garibaldi Island. He’s no sooner settled into his new home when his former colleagues press him back into service. It seems that Professor Jonathan O’Donnell, acting dean of the School of Law at the University of British Columbia, has been arrested and charged with rape. His accuser is a law student, Kimberly Martin. O’Donnell isn’t happy with his current representation and wants Beauchamp to take his case. At first, Beauchamp is reluctant to get involved. But, he’s finally persuaded, and he and his team start looking into what happened. Both parties agree about some of the facts. On the night in question, the Law Students’ Association (Martin is a member) held a dance, to which several members of the faculty (including O’Donnell) were invited. Then, a group of people went on to another party, and then to O’Donnell’s home. A great deal of alcohol was consumed, and not just by O’Donnell and Martin. Beyond that, the two parties disagree. Martin claims O’Donnell raped her; O’Donnell eventually admits that he and Martin had sex, but that it was completely consensual. As the story goes on, we learn more about each of the parties, and we see how their lawyers manage the case. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the final bit of the story turns a reader expectation upside-down.

And then there’s Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. As the story begins, Darren Keefe is bound up and locked in the boot/trunk of a car. He’s not sure where he’s going, but he knows that the people who have him are planning to kill him. He sees this as inevitable, so we know right away that something terrible has happened. Keefe then begins to tell his story, beginning with scenes from his childhood backyard near Melbourne, where he and his older brother Wally are playing cricket. As the novel goes on, we see what happens as the brothers grow into adults. Both are natural cricketers. Wally has discipline, focus, and determination along with his talent, and those serve him as he rises to the top of Australian cricket. Darren has unusual talent for the game, but he is less disciplined and more impulsive. He is, to put it mildly, uninhibited. But he can be superb – once-in-a-generation superb. As the Keefe brothers get older, they experience the dark side of cricket – and there is a very dark side to it. And their different personalities have a real impact on what happens to them when they do. Here is what the late Bernadette, who blogged at Reactions to Reading and Fair Dinkum Crime (and who is very sorely missed) said about the ending:

‘The resolution to the story was the second surprise. In the way that being struck from behind with a brick might be.’

I couldn’t have said it better. Certainly, it turns readers’ expectations inside out.

The expectations we have as crime fiction readers help us a lot in making sense of a story and following it. They can also be useful tools for the author who wants to manipulate them. It’s got to be done carefully, but when it is, such a strategy can make a story memorable.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Devo’s Spin the Wheel.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dennis Lehane, Jock Serong, Vera Caspary, William Deverell

18 responses to “Till You Turn it All Upside Down*

  1. I’m going to keep this post around, Margot! There’s nothing I like more than to get that “hit by a brick” feeling at the end of a mystery! I remember leaping out of my seat with shock after reading Murder in the Orient Express and The Greek Coffin Mystery. It’s good to see some modern authors are keeping up the tradition! Thanks for the recommendations!

    • Ah, those two mysteries certainly turn things upside down, don’t they, Brad? I’m glad you mentioned them. And I’m glad, too, that there are plenty of contemporary mysteries that have the same impact. It takes talent to pull off that sort of misdirection, but when it’s done well, it is memorable. Thanks for the kind words!

  2. I (relunctantly) recently finished the last of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer mysteries, The Blue Hammer. (I had been saving it for some time, unwilling to accept there were no more Archer books awaiting me.) The author was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease at the time (undiagnosed), and I noted numerous “slips” in his usual crispness of writing and unerring plotlines. He did manage to keep things reasonably together. However, the unexpected “twist” at the story’s resolution equalled or bettered any of his earlier works, IMHO. He truly had me “turned upside down.” Great post, Margot! 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words, Michael 🙂 – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It’s a tribute to Macdonald’s skill and perseverance that he was able to create such an effective unexpected ending to The Blue Hammer, despite the challenges he face. Those twists can make a story unforgettable, can’t they? And the Lew Archer stories have some finely-crafted ones.

  3. Alex

    Oh, I love me a good plotter, that also knows how to create characters who bamboozle us right through to the end, and double whammy us with one or more unexpected great twists. There’s nothing better.

    Another fine post, Margot!

    • Thank you, Alex. And you’re right; an author who is skilled at plotting is a gem. And when the characters end up being other than who we think they are, that can make for a truly memorable story.

  4. That is quite some challenge you set yourself, Margot, talking about misdirection and the unexpected without spoilers.

  5. Margot: I greatly enjoyed Trial of Passion. The trial was such a vivid event. I wished I could speak as cleverly in court as Beauchamp and the prosecutor.

    In real life I use the word “assumption” rather than “expectation” for the dangers of thinking you know what happened. I say to myself and the young lawyers in my office I do not want to hear we got something wrong because we “assumed” we knew the answer from an outline of the facts. It is human nature to “assume” but a perilous action for all of us.

    • Yes, it is, Bill. And thank you for sharing what happens in your law office; it’s really interesting to see how assumptions can work for/against us in the legal world. And I wish I could speak as cleverly as Beauchamp does, too. Deverell writes his character and use of language very effectively, I think.

  6. Col

    Margot, I’m tempted to drop everything and get Serong’s book started – I probably won’t but sometime soon!

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  9. I recently read Trial of Passion based on yours and Bill’s recommendation – and the ending certainly was surprising.
    One trope that I notice (no spoilers) is the setup where someone comes to police or sleuth with a claim that they are under threat, someone is after them. Always suspect those people! They will often turn out to be perp rather than victim, and they have a clever plan…

    • That’s true, Moira. And I”m glad you had the chance to read Trial of Passion. If you decide to post a review of it, I’ll be really interested in what you thought of it. You’re right about that surprise ending…

  10. I’m late to the party again, Margot, but books like these are the ones I enjoy the most. Without spoiler details, I’d recommend – among others) – these “pull-the-rug-out-from-under-your-feet” books:

    “The Nine Wrong Answers,” John Dickson Carr;
    “The Plague Court Murders,” Carr writing as “Carter Dickson”;
    “Green for Danger,” by Christianna Brand;
    “The Book of the Dead,” by Elizabeth Daly.

    These books have all completely fooled me – legitimately so, I think – and they are among the twistiest I’ve ever enjoyed.

    • There’s no such thing as ‘late to the party’ here, Les. The party never stops. And thanks for adding in the novels you added. I’m especially thinking of the Brand, which completely pulled the rug out from under me, too. I appreciate your giving a classic/GA crime fiction perspective to this.

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