Surprise me (please)

In reading crime novels, I frequently find that I guess what’s going to happen with characters long before it does. For instance, I’m currently enjoying one of the excellent Hap & Leonard novels by Joe R. Lansdale.

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Honky Tonk Samurai has a plot involving a missing girl, who may have been working for a high-class prostitution operation, which makes most of its money from blackmailing clients. Her granny hires Hap & Leonard to track her down, and asking around they pay a shady character $1,000 for information. This career criminal tells them of a dreaded assassin who works for the extortionists, called the Canceler who garottes his victims with a wire, before slicing off their testicles to keep as souvenirs. The snitch says he needs the pay off to flee town. When I read that, I thought “He’ll stick around, be killed and end up in the trunk of his car—without his balls.” Sure enough, 20 chapters later, that’s exactly what happened.

I wasn’t that disappointed, for I’m familiar with plotting my own crime stories, and I must have read a couple of thousand crime novels in the last 50 years. I even had a glimmer of satisfaction at having guessed what would happen—something that fans of any genre enjoy—it pays to state the expected sometimes.

What’s more rewarding, is when a complete surprise happens…a believable one, I mean, not something so wildly improbable that the reader gets annoyed. As thriller writer John Buchan advised:

“A good story should have incidents, which defy the probabilities and march just inside the borders of the possible.”

I’ve been trying to think of novels I’ve read in the last couple of years, where something totally unexpected happened. Dennis Lehane’s Since We Fell starts with a surprise, as the protagonist is killed by his wife:

On a Tuesday in May, in her thirty-fifth year, Rachel shot her husband dead. He stumbled backward with an odd look of confirmation on his face, as if some part of him had always known she’d do it.’

The plot is convoluted, a tangle of conspiracies, which throws out a few shocks, although the opening with the apparent murder of the husband is explained away with one of the most far-fetched tricks I’ve come across in fiction.

I should say, that Dennis Lehane fabricated one of the best twists in modern psychological suspense writing, with the ending of Shutter Island, revealing that the protagonist is really a mentally unbalanced murderer who’s fantasised the story.

In 2018, I read Adam Hamdy’s thriller Pendulum which uses the writing technique of having most chapters end with the hero being thrown into jeopardy. It was skilfully done, but preposterous at times, as he’s involved in so many violent fights that he makes James Bond look like a wimp. The author gleefully kills off some engaging characters, which wrong-footed me a bit.

When it comes to best-selling novels, praised for their edge-of-the-chair tension and unpredictable plots, I found that my jaw didn’t drop over Gone Girl, The Girl On The Train, Fight Club or Cara Hunter’s Close To Home.

Part of the problem for me was, that far from being books I couldn’t put down, I was so repelled by the unlikeable characters, that I didn’t much care what happened to any of them! As Mark Twain said:

The test of any good fiction is that you should care something for the characters; the good to succeed, the bad to fail. The trouble with most fiction is that you want them all to land in hell together, as quickly as possible.”

Maybe I’ve become unshockable from being a writer. I wrote about this drawback in an old post.

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Well, I’ll be damned, I’ve been surprised in a slightly spooky way, for I just finished reading Honky Tonk Samurai to find it has an ending identical to my recently completed novel The Dead Need Nobody—the hero gets stabbed in the last chapter and is at death’s door on the final page. I’m glad I finished my story before reading it, as it might have forced me into altering my work.

It all makes me wonder if the surprises I’ve put in my Cornish Detective novels will work on my readers. I try to throw in at least one you-didn’t-see-that-coming incident in each story. For example, in An Elegant Murder, my detective was working on his garden, thinking about investigations, when a mountain lion leapt over the fence and stalked towards him. There’d been rumours of exotic big cats on the loose, and various savaged livestock corpses were found, but suddenly he had dramatic proof of their existence. I took myself by surprise writing that confrontation, which I hadn’t planned, so maybe the spontaneity will catch the reader out.

What books surprised you?
Do you try to hoodwink your readers with twists and turns?
Are there any supposed surprises in great literature that you just couldn’t believe?

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