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.