With a Little Bit of Luck*

If you’ve ever had a very lucky thing happen to you, then you know that sometimes, luck really does happen. And lots of people believe in luck, too. They carry ‘lucky’ charms, wear ‘lucky’ clothes, and so on. And there are many people who are just waiting for that one lucky break that will make all the difference to them.

In reality, of course, luck doesn’t really work that way. Sometimes, lucky things happen; sometimes they don’t. And it can be extremely frustrating – and limiting – for people who are just waiting for their break. The way people feel about luck can add to a story. It can provide interesting layers to a character, and it can increase the tension in a plot. We can see how this works, just from a quick look at crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, we are introduced to Lady Cecily Horbury. She’s a former chorus girl who’s married Lord Stephen Horbury, and now lives a life of luxury. The problem is, though, that she is fond of gambling – very fond of it – and has run up a great deal of debt. It doesn’t help matters that she is also a cocaine user. She’s convinced that all she needs is one lucky break, perhaps a huge win at the tables, to set things right. Still, her husband has made it clear that he will no longer be responsible for her debts, so she is desperate for money. She borrowed from a French moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle; and, at first, that worked out well. But everything went wrong when she couldn’t pay what she owed. Madame Giselle’s form of ‘collateral’ is to collect compromising information on each of her clients, and reveal it only if the client doesn’t pay. And she’s got evidence that Cecily Horbury has been unfaithful – evidence that she’s planning to send to Lord Horbury. One day, Madame Giselle happens to be on a flight from Paris to London. At the end of the flight, she suddenly dies of what looks like a heart attack, but turns out to be poison. Since she is on the same flight, Lady Horbury becomes a suspect, and a ‘person of interest’ to Chief Inspector Japp and Hercule Poirot.

Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage is, in part, the story of Vincent Naylor. He’s recently been released from prison, but he’s been in and out of trouble with the law for some time. Now, he’s determined that he’s not going to take a big risk any more unless the payoff is worth it. But he and his girlfriend, Michelle Flood, want to get out and start over. And for that, all Naylor needs is a bit of luck – a payoff that will set them up. So, he, his brother Noel, and a few friends, plan an armed robbery. Their target will be Protectica, a security company that transfers cash among banks. The robbery goes off as planned, but then, things start going very, very wrong, and the whole thing ends in real tragedy.

There’s a different sort of luck needed in Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb lives with his mother, his brother, and his grandmother in a small Exmoor town. But it’s not a happy family. The family hasn’t really been whole since Steven’s Uncle Billy Peters went missing nineteen years earlier. He was never found, and the family is suffering. Steven wants to help his family heal, so he decides to at least try to find Uncle Billy’s body. All he needs, he thinks, is a shovel and some luck. But, of course, it’s a large area, and he finds nothing. Then, he gets another idea. The man long suspected of killing Uncle Billy is Arnold Avery, who’s in prison on other child murder charges. Steven decides to try to get Avery to tell him where Uncle Billy’s body is. So, he writes to Avery. Avery responds. Thus starts an increasingly dangerous game of cat and mouse between the two.

In Patricia Melo’s The Body Snatcher, we are introduced to the unnamed narrator, who is a former telephone salesman. He’s recently moved from São Paulo to the town of Corumbá, not far from the Bolivian border, where he’s settled down. What he and his girlfriend, Sulamita, would really like is a chance to move away, get their own land, and start their lives together. But neither has the money to do that. All that’s needed is some luck, but neither has had much of that. Then, one day, the narrator happens to witness a small plane crash. He rushes to the site, and discovers that the pilot has been killed. But, he’s left behind a backpack and a watch. The narrator takes those things, and returns home, where he discovers to his shock that the backpack contains cocaine. He decides to sell the cocaine – just this once – to get the money he and Sulamita will need to start over. And that’s where the trouble starts. Before long, everything spirals very badly out of control.

That’s also what happens to Gary Braswell in Blair Denholm’s Sold. He’s a car salesman who lives and works on the Gold Coast. He’s gotten himself into some debt to a dangerous (and illegal) bookmaker, and now needs money desperately. All he needs is some luck – some big sales – and he’ll be all right. It seems that al will be well when a Russian land developer arranges for some expensive cars for himself, his wife, and his daughters. And, in fact, Braswell gets the money he needs to pay off his debt. But then, things start to go very, very wrong. He gets drawn into an illegal drug deal, a money laundering scheme, and more. And now, he will need an awful lot more than luck if he’s going to survive and get out of the mess he’s in.

Sometimes, all you need is a little luck. And there are plenty of people, both real and fiction, who are just waiting for that lucky break. But, as crime fiction shows, it doesn’t always work out that way…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner.

12 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, Blair Denholm, Gene Kerrigan, Patricia Melo

12 responses to “With a Little Bit of Luck*

  1. It’s funny to think how much ‘luck’ or, the lack there of, characters suffer from in mysteries and crime fiction or, in fact, any fiction come to think of it. It’s fun when done right, or can be downright boring when it isn’t.

    • You’re quite right, Alex. Luck, or the lack of it, does play a role in lots of stories, and that makes sense, since it also happens in real life. But it’s got to be handled effectively if it’s to work in a story.

  2. A.M. Pietroschek

    My connection throttle impairs my options, but the concept MAY be found in:

    David McCumber’s ‘Playing Off the Rail: A Pool Hustler’s Journey ‘ ? It is older, from when the American Dream was still known…

  3. Col

    I loved The Rage and Sold Margot. Apparently Denholm is working on a sequel, maybe Gary will have better luck next time around!

  4. Luck can be a two-way street. Great post, Margot. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Couldn’t agree more, Margot. Luck does play an important role in fiction and especially crime fiction. Writers can’t be practical or pragmatic all the time when it comes to solving a case; they also have to give their PIs and detectives more than a bit of luck to crack open a case and ensure justice for the victims.

    • I think so, too, Prashant. It is important, as you say, for writers to keep a story realistic, and that means solutions to cases don’t come magically. But at the same time, luck has a role to play, too, and I think that’s worth exploring.

  6. J.P. Choquette

    Another great post, Margot. Sometimes I struggle with books where the sleuth is just a little too lucky. I’ve been known to shake a book, yelling things like, “that would NEVER happen in real life!”, it’s true. 🙂 But yes, I do see your point.

    • Thanks for the kind words, J.P. I agree completely that luck can be overused and misused as a story element. That can take away from the credibility of a story. As you say, using luck as a story element has got to be done carefully.

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