A recent post from crime writer Sue Coletta got me thinking about how protagonists get out of difficult and sometimes dangerous situations. On the one hand, unless you’re reading the kind of novel where you’ve cheerfully suspended your disbelief, you don’t want the characters to be superheroes. A believable protagonist could therefore potentially be in a life-threatening situation. On the other hand, Sue makes the point (and she’s right!) that there are ways to create a credible ‘in the nick of time’ way to get out of danger.
It requires some quick thinking and resourcefulness to get out of such situations. But in a way, that makes such escapes, if you want to call it that, all the more believable. And that kind of quick thinking can add some interesting ‘spark’ and suspense to a novel.
In Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, for instance, Charles Moray returns to England after an absence only to find that his house has been taken over by a criminal gang. What’s worse, he has good reason to believe that his former fiancée Margaret Langton may be in with this group. Moray tells his friend Archie Millar about what he’s discovered, and Millar suggests a visit to private investigator Maude Silver. Miss Silver isn’t exactly what Moray would have imagined, but she listens to his story and begins her investigation. And in the end, with her help, Moray learns who the members of the gang really are, and what their target is. It’s not spoiling the story to say that at one point, Moray and his former love end up trapped in a basement by the leader of the gang. Neither one of them is a superhero, but Margaret hits on a way to get help. She manages to scribble a few words on a piece of paper and sticks it where it just might be seen. She doesn’t use brawn or weapons, and that makes the scene more believable.
In Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to Anne Bedingfield. When her father dies, she’s left with very little money and no real ties to London. She has no real desire to settle down, so on impulse, she lets her curiosity get the better of her when she witnesses a fatal accident. She retrieves a note left from the accident scene and deduces that it refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. She can’t resist booking a ticket, and ends up caught in a web of jewel theft, intrigue and murder. At one point, she’s been taken prisoner and locked in an attic. She uses her wits and a piece of glass left on the dusty floor to get free and manages to escape. There are other places in the novel, too, in which she uses her ingenuity (no spoilers). The story itself may not be an ‘everyday life’ kind of crime story, but Christie didn’t give Anne superhuman powers, and she’s more believable because of that.
Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn sees crime writer Martin Canning getting ready to pick up tickets to an afternoon comedy radio performance one day. As he’s waiting, he’s one of several witnesses to a car accident in which a blue Honda hits a silver Peugeot driven by Paul Bradley. Both men get out of their cars and begin to argue. The conflict escalates until the Honda driver wields a baseball bat and attacks Bradley. Canning is by no means a ‘tough guy.’ In fact, he’s never done a really courageous thing in his life. But in this instance, he thinks quickly (almost instinctively) and throws his computer bag at the Honda driver. It’s quick thinking, but it’s believable, and the act saves Bradley’s life. Feeling duty-bound, Canning sees that Bradley is taken to the nearest hospital; he then stays with the man to see he’s cared for properly. Canning’s sense of responsibility gets him in more trouble than he could have imagined.
Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher isn’t a superhero, but she’s very quick-witted, and it often gets her out of trouble. For instance, when we first meet her in Cocaine Blues, she has returned ‘on assignment’ from London to her home in Melbourne. Some London friends are concerned about their daughter, whom they fear may be in danger from her husband. Phryne looks into the matter with the help of some friends she makes along the way, and discovers a deadly web of drugs trade, murder and more. At one point, she and her friend Bert Johnson have ‘staked out’ a pharmacy that could hold a key to the mystery. That’s when a group of thugs makes an appearance. Phryne and Bert follow them to see if they might lead the two to some answers. When they’re spotted, they have to think quickly, because neither is armed or strong enough to hold off a gang of thugs. So they pretend to be lovers taking advantage of a dark alley until the thugs move on.
We also see that kind of quick thinking in Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Genealogist Jefferson Tayte has come to Cornwall from Boston ‘on commission.’ Walter Sloane has hired Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift to her, and the trail leads to the Cornish coast. But there the history of the family seems to stop cold, as the saying goes. So Tayte starts asking questions. That’s how he meets Amy Fallon, whose husband Gabriel died two years earlier in a sea accident. In one plot thread of this story, Amy discovers a very old writing box that may hold the key to the mystery Tayte’s investigating. There are some ruthless people, though, who don’t want the truth discovered; and at one point, they abduct Amy. Her fisherman friend Tom Laity sees what happens, and follows the launch where Amy’s being held. He’s spotted and attacked, but recovers. When he does, he thinks quickly and leaves a ‘water trail’ of fishing line that Tayte is later able to follow. That allows both to be rescued.
Getting out of danger doesn’t always require brawn. In fact, sometimes, it’s more credible if the protagonist doesn’t grab a weapon or smash out of a prison. It does require quick thinking and cleverness, and sometimes, that’s more than enough to keep the reader’s interest.
Thanks, Sue, for the inspiration. If you’re interested in crime writing and how it’s done, you want Sue’s blog on your blog roll. It’s a rich resource with a lot of very useful insights and information.
ps. People can think quickly in real life too. Don’t believe me? Check out this real-life story of one woman’s brilliant, quick-thinking way to get free from an awful situation. My hat is off to her.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ Light My Fire.