If you watch horror films, you know that certain things are signals as to what’s probably going to happen. That’s why people yell ‘Don’t go down there!’ when a character heads down to the basement alone. You just know something awful is probably coming up. It’s the same thing with crime fiction. There are certain things that crime fiction fans have learned are bad signs. Of course, crime writers know this, too, and sometimes have a lot of fun with misdirection because of it…
If it seems too good to be true…
This signal takes a variety of forms. Here’s just one example. In Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary, we are introduced to Glenn Hadlock. Recently released from prison, he’s looking for a new job and a new start. He applies for an opening he thinks will be right for him: escort/bodyguard for Eileen Scofield. Her very wealthy husband Victor is disabled and cannot leave his room. But, as he tells Hadlock, he doesn’t want to limit his wife to the same restricted life he must lead. He offers Hadlock the job (which comes with good pay and a furnished apartment), with one condition: Hadlock must maintain a completely professional relationship with Eileen. Hadlock agrees and the agreement is made. At first, all goes well. But he learns that this job is not what it seems to be. Some things really are too good to be true…
The Perfect Small Town…
I’m sure you’ve read those novels where characters move to what seems to be an idyllic suburb or small town. As soon as they do, you can guess that something is going on there, and at least some people are not what they seem to be. Take Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, for instance. In that novel, science fiction writer Zack Walker is worried about his family’s safety in the city where they live. So, he convinces his wife Sarah to move to the new suburb of Valley Forest Estates. There, they can have more space, more safety, and some amenities that they don’t have where they are. They move in, and although their children complain about things, life seems to be good. But soon, Walker notices that there are some things wrong with their ‘perfect’ house. He goes to the development’s sales office to request repairs, which is why he’s present to witness an argument between one of the development’s executives, and a local eco-activist named Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker finds Spender’s body near a local creek. He’s soon embroiled in a dangerous situation, and finds out that there’s no such thing as a perfect little place to live.
Of Curiosity and Cats…
If you read crime fiction, then you know that it can be very dangerous to know too much. That’s especially true if you – ahem – happen to mention to someone that you know that person’s secret, and would like a ‘consideration’ in return for your silence. More than one of Agatha Christie’s fictional victims, for instance, meet a dire fate for knowing more than is safe. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, as an example, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny. He’s been asked to investigate the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her unpleasant lodger, James Bentley. Poirot gets to know the people in the village, and finds out that Mrs. McGinty had a habit of finding things out about people. In one case, what she found out was too dangerous for her to know.
The Company You Keep…
Have you ever read a crime novel and thought something like this: ‘Do not get involved with this group. It will not end well. How stupid can you be?’ There are several stories where the wrong company gets a person in deep trouble – or worse. Just ask Martin Grey, whom we meet in Dwayne Alexander Smith’s Forty Acres. As the novel begins, Grey has just won a major civil rights lawsuit against Autostone Industries. His opponent was Damon Darrell, a top litigator and somewhat of a star in the legal field. After the trial is over, Darrell surprises Grey by visiting his office to congratulate him and to invite him and his wife Anna to dinner. The Greys accept, and plans are made. At the dinner, Darrell introduces the Greys to several of his friends, all powerful and successful men and their wives. The dinner turns out to be an opportunity for the group to ‘vet’ Grey for membership in what seems to be a private club. Grey is accepted and at first, it seems like a real opportunity for him. But then, he’s invited for a getaway whitewater rafting trip. Anna doesn’t want him to go, as he’s not the ‘outdoorsy’ type, and she’s concerned for his safety. But he goes anyway, and any crime fiction fan will know that this trip will not be fun…
On the surface, you’d think that people would love to get together with family, especially at holiday time. But any crime fiction fan knows that family get-togethers can be very dangerous. That’s especially true if it’s a dysfunctional family. That’s a sure sign that someone’s going to get killed, and it’s often the most unpleasant member of the family. Case in point: Robert Hannaford, whom we meet in Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring. Hannaford invites former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian to dinner with his family on Christmas Eve. In fact, he is willing to donate US$100,000 to Demarkian’s church if he agrees to come. Demarkian doesn’t know what his host wants with him, but the church can use the money, so he agrees. By the time he gets to the family home, though, it’s too late: Hannaford’s been murdered. And as Demarkian soon finds out, there’s no lack of suspects. Hannaford had made it clear that he disliked all of his seven children, and the feeling is most definitely mutual. If Demarkian were a fan of crime fiction, he’d probably have guessed that a family reunion dinner wouldn’t go well…
And there you have it. A few signals to tell the reader that something very bad is about to happen. Got any you’d like to add?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Only the Good Die Young.
10 thoughts on “Send Up a Signal*”
While single women should be able to go to meetings without fear I twitch, sometimes even cringe, at female sleuths heading off to meetings without backup. Meeting villains on your own is never a good idea. Ava Lee, while very intelligent, puts herself in needless danger in consecutive books, The Scottish Banker of Surabaya and The Two Sisters of Borneo; I long for the book when the bright female sleuth recognizes the risk and skillfully avoids danger.
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You really have a well-taken point, Bill. There’s a difference between rightfully going off to a meeting, and being rash. And Ava Lee is a good example of that. I’ve read it in other books, too, where a single woman sets herself up for real danger by taking that sort of risk. It’s a tricky balance for an author to achieve, but it can really take away from a book if a female character doesn’t pay attention to the risks she may be taking.
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Terrific examples, Margot. And this conversation is fascinating. No reader likes a stupid protagonist, but I wonder if Bill would have the same reaction under the same circumstance with a male protagonist. Which brings up more questions. Do we need to be extra careful with our female characters? What if the female character is an expert marksman, for example, would that make a difference or is she hindered by gender alone? Even I eye-roll at hand-to-hand combat between a large, muscular man and a petite badass female.
You bring up a really interesting point, Sue. Are our expectations different for male vs female protagonists? And does that change if one or the other has a special skill (like marksmanship)? In other words, how do you portray a female protagonist in an empowered way, yet still be authentic as to the dangers she may face? It’s a delicate balance, and it takes some real thought to strike that balance.
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Exactly. Well said, Margot. It’s definitely something to consider.
It is, indeed!
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This is my favourite scenario: woman X has a very distinctive hat, or shawl, or coat. Other women admire it, either openly or secretly. One of the other women is eventually found dead, while wearing the item. But was Woman X the intended victim – someone just hit out at the coat/hat/shawl? But then perhaps there’s a double bluff, and the intended person was killed? Whichever way – my advice is, never borrow a distinctive piece of clothing!
That’s excellent advice, Moira! I can think of a few stories where this sort of thing happens (I don’t want to give spoilers, but I’ll bet you know the Agatha Christie one I have in mind), and it never bodes well for the woman who borrows (or ‘borrows’) that one-of-a-kind coat/hat/shawl/etc.. Much safer, isn’t it, to admire said clothing from afar.
Struggling for examples Margot I’m afraid. Off to look the Colby one up though!
Oh, I think you’d like that one, Col. There are some interesting characters in it.