Monday 10 February 2014

The Craft of Writing: Defying Expectations

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?


Anonymous said...

Martin - You make a well-taken point that using readers' expectations can be very effective for adding in interesting plot twists. And you've mentioned my favourite example of that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Just a brilliant whodunit in my opinion.

Janet O'Kane said...

I know I've banged on about it a lot, but one of the great things about my favourite book of last year, 'Alex' by Pierre Lemaitre, was it turned all the reader's expectations upside down. A girl is kidnapped early in the story and I expected the rest of it to be about the police struggling to find her. In fact, that isn't at all what happens, although I don't want to spoil things for anyone who hasn't read it by saying anything more.
I haven't seen The Suspect, Martin, but Salamander has made a promising start.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Margot. Yes, it's one of the all time classics, is it not?

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Janet, I'm planning to write about Alex soon, and you are spot on. It's a very good example. I liked it a lot - but wasn't sure about the very graphic description, towards the end of the book, of what happened to Alex.

J F Norris said...

How coincidental that you mention Berkeley's experiments with the genre! His most daring example I think remains The Wychford Poisoning Case, an aggravating read for me with all the silliness of the spanking scenes and a confounding ending that sort of pissed me off. Trust Berkeley to irritate the reader in way or another!

I mentioned him in passing in my recent Victor Whitechurch review. I think Whitechurch did similar things with the detective novel but sometimes -- as in Robbery at Rudwick House -- not very successfully.

Martin Edwards said...

John, thanks for mentioning your Whitechurch review, which is really interesting. Turning to Berkeley, I'd also say that The Poisoned Chocolates Case, Panic Party, and to a lesser extent Murder in the Basement are notable experiments. I think he could be even more irksome in real life than in his stories, but he was certainly a remarkable guy and remarkable writer.

Sappho Charney said...

And that's the exact appeal of Gone Girl, currently so popular now here in the States. As readers, we never tire of the unreliable narrator!