A familiar pitfall of genre fiction is the temptation of formula. Science fiction, romantic fiction, ghost stories, horror fiction, romantic fiction, all have their formulaic aspects. And so too does crime fiction. Now, there are some excellent stories that stick very closely to a formula, but it is always refreshing to read a story that defies one's expectations.
I was reminded of this when watching The Suspect the other night. There are several films sharing this title -the one I'm talking about dates from last year,and was written and directed by Stuart Connelly. The starting point is a bank robbery, but this is a story very different from Salamander, which I discussed over the week-end, and which also opens with a raid on a bank. Here, the robbery is followed by a quick arrest. Two cops behave unpleasantly towards the suspect, who is black,and for a while the story follows drab and conventional lines. But then the tables are turned.
There are a number of plot twists in The Suspect which I don't want to spoil. Overall, I felt it was an interesting film, with a number of thought-provoking ideas, although some of them didn't seem to me to be handled very smoothly. As a result, the film as a whole felt a bit disjointed, though the final scenes were pretty good. But what I liked about the screenplay was that it was quite ambitious, eschewing formula in favour of an unorthodox plot and some worthwhile observations about how easy it is to stereotype other people..
Because there are a number of well-established formulae for mystery stories, writers can have a good deal of fun subverting reader expectations. Sometimes, the result verges on parody or pastiche - the recent series of Sherlock is an example, taking a classic character and doing something fresh with it. The Evadne Mount books of Gilbert Adair show another way of subverting the genre - something the author does most brilliantly in And Then There Was No One. That book was a sort of homage to Christie, and of course she was particularly daring in the way she defied expectations. Think of whodunit in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, for instance. Not to mention Murder is Easy, Curtain, and... well, there are plenty of others.
Anthony Berkeley was another Golden Age writer who loved to defy expectations. Even when his experiments were not a complete success, they were invariably interesting. In the modern age, there are plenty of novelists who are very good at changing a story's direction when the reader least expects it - the very talented Andrew Taylor is an example, His Roth Trilogy is quite superb in this respect.
To write a novel that defies reader expectations isn't straightforward, and it's probably not a method to recommend to the inexperienced author. Done well, though, it can provide enormous pleasure for both reader and writer. Anyway, here's a question for you, faithful readers of this blog - what is your favourite example of a crime story that defies expectations?