If you’ve read enough crime fiction, you start to build up a set of expectations for crime novels. For example, imagine that a character’s walking down a very dark, abandoned street late at night. You expect that something bad’s going to happen. There are other overall expectations that we have of crime stories, too, and research suggests that we bring those assumptions with us when we read.
But at times, those expectations prove to be wrong. Authors sometimes play with readers’ expectations in order to build suspense and set readers up to be surprised. There are cases, too, where the author doesn’t do this sort of thing deliberately. Rather, the story simply goes in a direction that the reader hadn’t anticipated. Sometimes that works well, and sometimes it doesn’t. For the author, there’s a delicate balance between playing with readers’ assumptions and not ‘playing fair.’ There’s a delicate balance between taking a story in an interesting direction, and going off on an improbable tangent.
Agatha Christie, for instance, played with readers’ expectations in several of her stories. In Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is en route to London on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. M. Bouc, a director of the company that owns the train, is also aboard, and asks Poirot to investigate. The idea is for Poirot to find out who the killer is before the train crosses the next frontier, so that the killer can be handed over to the police. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same coach, so Poirot concentrates his attention on them. And here we have what seems a rather traditional sort of Golden Age setup: a murder, a limited cast of suspects, some clues, and a snowstorm to isolate them. But as anyone who’s read this novel can tell you, the solution isn’t ‘typical’ at all. In that way, Christie manipulated readers’ expectations.
Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice also plays with readers’ expectations. In that novel, LAPD detective Harry Bosch happens to be listening to his police scanner when he hears of a suicide in a seedy motel in his jurisdiction. Surprised that he wasn’t officially notified, since he’s ‘on call,’ Bosch goes to the scene. There, he finds that a fellow officer, Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, has died, apparently a successful suicide attempt. A few details strike Bosch as inconsistent with suicide, so he starts to ask questions. But the ‘higher ups’ don’t want him to make much of this case. The official story is that Moore had gone dirty and committed suicide as a result, and that’s what Bosch’s bosses want on the report. Bosch being Bosch, though, he isn’t satisfied with ‘rubber stamping,’ and investigates Moore’s death. There’s a very key violation of reader expectations in this novel. At the same time, though, it’s not random, and it’s not unexpected if one really thinks about it.
In Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, Boston PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro take on the heartbreaking case of a missing four-year-old girl, Amanda McCready. The police have been out in force looking for the child, and of course there’s been a major public appeal for any information. So at first, Kenzie and Gennaro aren’t really sure what they can do that hasn’t already been done. But Amanda’s Uncle Lionel and Aunt Beatrice insist, and the PIs are reluctantly persuaded to look into the matter. Without spoiling the story, I can say that it goes against reader expectations in some important ways. At the same time, it does so in a way that (at least to me) is credible. Lehane’s choices about the storyline also raise some important and powerful ethical questions.
Sometimes, characters can turn out to be quite different to what readers expect, and that can impact readers’ assumptions about the story. For instance, in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker and his journalist wife Sarah move their family from the city to a beautiful suburban housing development called Valley Forest Estates. Walker believes that the family will be safer there, and he’s hoping that the lower cost of living will mean he can devote full time to his writing. Trouble begins soon after the Walkers move in. First, the family notices several problems with the house they’ve bought. Then, when Walker goes to the main sales office to complain, he witnesses an argument between one of Valley Forest’s executives, and local eco-activist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body by a local creek. Bit by bit, the naturally cautious Walker gets drawn into more danger than he could have imagined. There are a few characters in this novel who turn out not to be at all what they seem. We have certain expectations of those characters, possibly from reading a lot of other crime fiction, but those assumptions turn out to be wrong. That fact adds to the interest in the story.
Sometimes, the story itself takes a new and unexpected direction. This can be quite tricky, since readers may think they’re ‘signing up’ for one kind of story, only to get a story that proves to be something else. At times that can work very well, as the new direction in the story draws the reader in. It’s less successful at other times. One such story is arguably Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. As that novel begins, Smilla Japsersen attends the funeral of ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, who lived in the same Copenhagen apartment building. Isaiah fell off the roof of the building in what police say was a tragic accident. But when Jaspersen sees the marks in the snow on the roof, she notices signs that suggest that Isaiah’s death was not an accident at all. So she begins to ask questions. At this point, the novel has many of the hallmarks of a whodunit as Jaspersen tries to find out who would want to kill a young boy. But as she learns more, the novel arguably takes on the qualities of a science thriller. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers, but if you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean.
The question of whether and how much to manipulate reader expectations isn’t an easy one. But when it’s done well, it can make for a compelling story. It’s a risk, though, since if it doesn’t work well, it can also make readers very cranky. What are your thoughts? Are there certain expectations that you don’t want violated? How do you react when your assumptions about a story are turned upside down?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Church’s One Day.