You Suspiciously Incorporate Some Far-Fetched Fiction*

An interesting and witty post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about some of the plot devices authors use to drive their plots forward. There are, of course, all sorts of different kinds of plot devices, some of them more credible than others. And that was Moira’s focus – far-fetched, even ludicrous, plot devices. You’ll want to be sure to read her excellent post on the topic.

I’m sure you’ve encountered your share of ludicrous plot devices; there are plenty of them in crime fiction. The funny thing is, a novel can have one of those devices in it, and still be enjoyable. But that doesn’t mean we can’t see just how improbable something really is. Of course, everyone’s definition of ‘too far-fetched’ is a little different. And I think people might be forgiving of these things in the work of a beloved author. But here are a few examples I’ve found from books I’ve read,

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, off the Devon coast. While he’s there, another guest, famous actress Arlena Marshall, is murdered. Her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, is the most natural suspect, and he has motive. But his alibi holds up, so Poirot has to look elsewhere for the murderer. One angle in the case is that the police have discovered that there’s a drugs ring operating in the area. If the victim chanced upon a transaction, that might be enough to seal her fate. I don’t want to take away from the experience for those who might not have read the book, but the way the ring is set up doesn’t strike me as really credible. Not, of course, that I have experience working with drugs rings, I hasten to add…

Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask is the first of her novels to feature Miss Maude Silver. In the novel, Charles Moray returns to England after a four-year absence. He is shocked to learn that a criminal gang, led by a man named Grey Mask, has taken over the Moray family home. Moray learns that this gang is planning to target an heiress to get her money. Worse, it seems that Moray’s former fiancée, Margaret Langton, might be mixed up with the gang. A friend recommends that he visit Miss Silver and ask for her help, and that’s what Moray does. In another plot thread, we are introduced to Margot Standing, whose very wealthy father was lost at sea, and who stands to inherit a large fortune. But she may not be eligible to inherit. If that’s the case, her cousin Egbert will inherit. The papers proving her father’s wishes have disappeared, so there’s no way to establish which of the two is the real heir. When Egbert proposes that he and Margot marry, she refuses him and leaves her home. This puts her in real danger, as it turns out that she is the heiress Grey Mask and his gang have targeted. There are a few plot devices here that may seem very far-fetched to some readers. First, there’s the fact that this gang has taken over the Moray family home. There’s also the issue of the missing papers. Why would papers that important not be kept somewhere very safe? There some other plot points, too, that may not seem credible. But the story is an adventure story with some fast pacing, narrow escapes, and so on. Perhaps those more far-fetched plot devices work better in that sort of story.

In John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Mystery, Julius Tregarthan is shot in his home, Greylings. Dr. Pendrill is called to the scene, and quickly establishes that the man is dead. When the police arrive, in the form of Inspector Bigswell, the death is treated as a murder, and Bigswell begins to investigate. Pendrill and his old friend, Reverend Dodd, do their own amateur sleuthing. It turns out that three bullets were fired through the open window of Tregarthan’s study. Two of the bullets went wide; the third found its mark. That plot point – the bullets’ trajectories and how that was possible – is one of the points in the novel that may be far-fetched for some readers. Once the reason for that firing pattern is discovered, it becomes an important clue to the killer, but for some, it pushes the limits of plausibility. Still, it’s an interesting mystery, and Pendrill and Dodd are sympathetic characters. So, by the way, is Bigswell, who is hardly the hapless, bumbling fool we sometimes see in Golden Age mysteries.

Of course, not all far-fetched plot devices are Golden Age products. For example, in Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast, a boy named Laurent Lepage goes missing from the village of Three Pines. He has a habit of telling strange tall tales – things no-one could possibly believe. So no-one pays much attention to his stories until he disappears and is later found dead. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who now lives in Three Pines with his wife, Reine Marie, works to find out what happened to the boy. One of the story’s plot devices is the discovery of a massive old gun in the woods near the village. And this is one of the points in the novel that seems very far-fetched. Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan brought that point home very effectively in his excellent review of the novel, and I think he’s right. It’s unlikely that the villagers wouldn’t know about something like a massive gun in a nearby wood.

But that’s the thing. We see these far-fetched, even ludicrous, plot devices in novels. We may give one- or two-star reviews to books that include them. We may laugh or complain about them. But when it comes to authors whose books we love, we also can forgive them. What about you? Which ludicrous plot devices have you seen in books? Have you forgiven them? Why?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration.

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? You mean there couldn’t be a half dinosaur/half human?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from They Might Be Giants’ An Insult to the Fact Checkers.


9 thoughts on “You Suspiciously Incorporate Some Far-Fetched Fiction*

  1. Oh, Margot, great subject, but where to start? Well, how about marrying for the second time without realising that it is actually your first spouse that you are marrying again?

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    1. That is an excellent example of exactly what I had in mind, Christine! And trust you to find a way to mention it without giving anything away. That’s absolutely brilliant!

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  2. Margot: Thanks for the kind mention. You have such a great memory to be able to recall posts of bloggers as well as all the books you have read. I thought Moira’s post was also clever. I wonder whether editors are oblivious are just do not want to argue with the author on some of these bizarre plot twists. Louise Penny could have made a minor adjustment to the hidden giant gun being forgotten over the decades rather than unknown. I see equal drama while being credible. Maybe I am just unreasonable in expecting rationality.

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    1. It’s always a pleasure to mention your blog and posts, Bill. And I agree that Moira’s post was clever and well-written. I don’t think you are being unreasonable to expect rational plot points. People want things to make sense; they want things to be plausible. There aren’t that many sorts of stories where plots don’t have to make sense. That’s a solid idea, too, about the gun being forgotten. It’s reasonable that that could have happened.

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  3. Ha, coincidence that you’ve included Grey Mask, since it’s one of the books on my People’s Choice post this week! It does sound rather as if it would push me over the credulity cliff! I think for me it depends how much the author expects me to believe in the book. If it’s a light entertainment, even mildly farcical, then I can cheerfully go along with unbelievable things. But stick it in a modern police procedural which is pretending to portray real life, and I’m likely to hurl the book at a wall. I often find locked room mysteries take me beyond my comfort zone and leave me wondering why anyone would go to such extraordinary lengths when they could just sneak up behind their victim one dark night with a knife or a bludgeon, or quietly do away with them with rat poison…

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    1. I saw Grey Mask on your list, FictionFan. I didn’t want to spoil your voting, but I honestly don’t know how you’ll feel about that one if it’s the winner. There are some aspects that are more or less believable – no problem. But others…. not so much. You make a really good point, too, about the sort of novel one’s reading. There are some sorts of books where ludicrous things can happen and it’s not a problem. But, yes, a straight-up police procedural or something like that demands (I think) a really credible plot. I really like my disbelief sitting right beside me when I read that sort of novel. That’s an interesting point about ‘locked room’ stories, too. My guess is, a real killer would have to have a very good reason to go to all that trouble. In fact, my husband fact-checker expert has said more than once that the easiest, simplest way to kill someone is often the way that seems best in a novel. I think he may have a point. Of course, there is the value of the intellectual puzzle (how could the murder have happened?)…

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  4. Not sure I can remember any really, but I know them when I see them. I also struggle with weak motivations for an action, which kind of drives a book in a certain direction. Might be the same point you are making above or a slight digression. Example A kidnaps B to force C to kill D. If C doesn’t kill D, A will kill B. Why doesn’t A just kill D? Simplistically put, and I get you might want to put some distance between yourself and the target, but you’ve just added witnesses and additional crimes to the mix. Never rings true for me.

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    1. I know what you mean, Col, and that doesn’t ring very true for me, either. I like people to have solid motivations for what they do, and when things get too complicated, as in your example, I lose interest. My disbelief starts rearing its head.

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