Just Shifting Gears*

One of the most important skills we can develop is being able to adapt when things change, even when they change quickly. In court cases, for instance, attorneys have to rework their strategies based on new evidence, witness testimony, and more. During investigations, police have to consider new strategies as they find new evidence, learn more about the victim, and so on. It’s not surprising, then, that crime-fictional characters often find themselves having to adapt quickly when things change.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, American businessman Samuel Ratchett boards the famous Orient Express for a three-day trip across Europe. On the second night of the journey, he’s stabbed. M. Bouc, who is a director with the Compagnie Interationale des Wagon-Lits, is aboard the train, and very much wants this murder solved without bringing the police into it, or getting a lot of bad publicity. So, he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s also on the trip, to investigate, and Poirot agrees. The only possible suspects are the other people who were in the same coach, so Poirot and Bouc interview them and start to get a picture of what happened. As the case continues, Poirot discovers what the original murder plan was. As it turns out the killer had to change that plan in more than one way and adapt when circumstances made that necessary.

Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground sees her main character, Tom Ripley, involved in an art forgery ‘enterprise’ with a few people he knows. They’ve convinced a London gallery to handle the work of Philip Derwatt, a relatively unknown painter who died a few years earlier. One of Ripley’s business partners forges new ‘Derwatts;’ another does publicity for the work, and another writes up articles on it. Everything’s going well, and the business is making money. Then, plans have to change. An American art enthusiast, Thomas Murchison, visits London. He’s thoroughly knowledgeable about Derwatt’s work, and has noticed some subtle differences between the original Derwatts he knows, and the forgeries. The group decides that the best way to handle the matter is for Ripley to go to London, disguise himself as Derwatt, and reassure Murchison that the work is genuine. That plan backfires, too, when Murchison announces his intention to go to the authorities with what he suspects. So, Ripley adapts. He takes the guise of a fellow Derwatt fan, and invites Murchison to his home to see his collection. But that’s not what he has in mind for Murchison’s visit…

Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder is a not-very-reformed thief whom we first meet in The Hot Rock. He’s just been released from Sing Sing prison when he’s approached by an old friend who wants to recruit him for a new heist being planned. The prize is the Balabomo Emerald, which is currently on display at New York’s Coliseum. It’s well-guarded, so the job won’t be easy. But the team has been promised thirty thousand dollars each if they can steal it for their buyer. It’s an awful lot of money, so the team gets started on their plan. It’s a solid plan, and the group has accounted for different possibilities. But you can’t plan for everything, and several times, Dortmunder and his team have to make quick changes to their original plan.

Michael Robotham’s The Suspect introduces his protagonist Joe O’Loughlin. He’s a clinical psychologist who gets involved in a murder investigation when he and his family witness a woman’s body being pulled from London’s Grand Union Canal. It turns out that the dead woman is a former client of O’Loughlin’s named Catherine McBride. Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz wants any information O’Loughlin can give, so they have a few conversations. Soon, Ruiz begins to suspect that O’Loughlin may know more about the murder than he’s saying. As time goes by, more and more circumstantial evidence points towards O’Louglin. If he’s to clear his name, he’ll have to find out who is framing him and why. In a sense, the novel becomes a cat-and-mouse battle of wits between O’Loughlin and the real killer. More than once he makes plans to clear his name, but has to change them quickly when something else happens to put him back in Ruiz’ suspicions.

And then there’s Tess Makovesky’s Gravy Train. Sandra works at a pub where she overhears details about a betting scam. She tells her husband Mike about it, and they end up winning eighty thousand pounds. They make plans for getting the money, and even start talking about what they’ll do with it. What they don’t know is that a mugger named Lenny has seen them at the betting shop, and knows that they’ve got a lot of money. Lenny’s made his own plans to get the cash, but he hasn’t counted on a few other people who want it, too. As each of these people plot to get their hands on a fortune, they have to constantly change and adapt as the money changes hands and as other people make their own plans.

Being able to shift and adapt when it’s needed is an important skill. Even people who are thorough planners can sometimes be quite surprised when things crop up. I think we’ve all had to find ourselves adapting this year, and it’s good to know that we can…

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Johnny Hammond’s Shifting Gears.

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

6 thoughts on “Just Shifting Gears*

    1. You have a well-taken point, Neeru. This particular plot point happens a lot ion heist stories. When it’s done well, it can really keep the tension and suspense strong.

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  1. There’s a quite obscure crime story I like, The Ingenious Mr Stone, by Robert Player, which makes everyone change gears several times. It is an intricate plot, relying on multiple points of view and some unreliable narrators, and some very nice switches…

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