Impossible Things Are Happening Every Day*

Many crime fiction fans (I’m one of them) like to keep their disbelief close to hand when they’re reading. Characters, events, and so on need to be believable, or readers can be pulled out of the story. Sometimes, though, a book can be really enjoyable even if it has elements that challenge disbelief. It’s not easy to pull this sort of novel off, since it takes a writing style that invites the reader to go along for the ride. But when it is done well, the result can be a fun novel.

For instance, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone begins as Colonel John Herncastle steals a diamond from a Hindu temple while he is serving in India. It is said that the diamond will curse anyone who steals it. Herncastle leaves the jewel to his niece, Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. On the night of that birthday, the diamond is stolen. Sergeant Cuff investigates the theft, and, over the next two years, tracks the diamond. A cursed stolen diamond isn’t the most believable of plot points. There are other elements, too, to the story that require more disbelief than some readers prefer. That said, though, the characters’ stories are more realistic, and Sergeant Cuff finds out the truth about the diamond in ways that don’t require too much suspension of disbelief. This story isn’t a lighthearted ‘adventure’ story, but it does make effective use of the stolen-jewel plot point.

Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary introduces Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who are then a young couple just starting out in life. They’re very much in need of money, so they decide to form a company called Young Adventurers, Ltd., with this advertisement: Young Adventurers Limited – willing to do anything, go anywhere – no unreasonable offer refused. Before they know it, the Beresfords are involved in a high-stakes case involving secret stolen papers, international intrigue, and espionage. The novel has its share of moments where it’s best to suspend disbelief, but the Beresfords have a lot of appeal, and many Christie fans prefer them to Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. Christie wrote other books, too, in which stolen jewels, espionage, and other less probable plot elements play a role (I see you, fans of The Man in the Brown Suit and Cat Among the Pigeons).

Under his own name, Donald Westlake wrote a series of books featuring professional thief John Dortmunder. In the first of this series, The Hot Rock, Dortmunder has just been released from prison with the (sort of) plan to ‘go straight.’ Soon enough, though, a former colleague draws him into a plan to steal the Balabomo Emerald, a very valuable stone that’s currently on display at the PanAfrican art and Culture Exhibit at New York’s Coliseum. There’s been a dispute between two African countries about the ownership of the stone, so it’s being heavily guarded.  Dortmunder and his team make a careful plan for the heist, and at first, it looks as though all will go well. But anyone who’s read any novel in this series will know that things seldom go as Dortmunder has planned. This series has its share of improbable situations and unlikely heist targets. But Westlake tells the stories with wit, and fans know to expect the unexpected.

Fans of Fred Vargas’ work will know that several of her stories invite suspension of disbelief. In Seeking Whom He May Devour, for instance, a series of sheep killings is believed to be the work of a werewolf. Things get even more tense when a local woman is killed in the same way. In The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Adamsberg is persuaded to travel to Normandy to investigate when a young woman sees visions of ghost riders with four other men. When one of the men goes missing, Adamsberg looks into the myth of the ghost riders as well as the town’s history. In this novel, the young woman’s family members each have an unusual characteristic or quirk, and that adds to the strangeness of the story. Readers familiar with this series know that the detectives themselves – Adamsberg’s team – have their own idiosyncrasies that sometimes require some suspension of disbelief. But to many people, that’s part of the stories’ appeal; they include those elements that stretch disbelief but are effective.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned series like Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books. To me (feel free to disagree if you do), those series fall more into the category of speculative fiction. And suspension of disbelief is woven into a lot of speculative fiction. It’s a little trickier, though, to integrate it into other crime fiction. Many crime fiction fans want their stories to be believable, so it takes extra effort and skill to draw readers into a story that asks them to set aside their disbelief.

How do you feel about this? Are there series you’ve read that include some improbable things (but you liked/loved them anyway)? If you’re a writer, how do you handle the improbable?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Impossible/It’s Possible.

 

 


14 thoughts on “Impossible Things Are Happening Every Day*

  1. I really like the Vargas novels, because they tend to be very atmospheric and steeped in local traditions and oral histories. Not so keen on the Rivers of London – I liked the initial premise but then it all got a bit too convoluted. Closer to the Vargas school of thought, I quite enjoyed Dolores Redondo’s Baztan trilogy, which also has some strange happenings and coincidences.

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    1. If I’m being honest, Marina Sofia, I prefer the Vargas novels to the Aaronovich, too. I’m not sure if it’s the characters, the plot, or something else, but I just feel more drawn in to the Vargas stories. And, yes, lots of atmosphere in them. I keep hearing that the Baztan trilogy is quite good, so thanks for the reminder. I haven’t (yet) tried it, but I’ve heard I really ought to.

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  2. I always enjoy a bit of unbelievability! In fact I think I go looking for it. LOL! Seeking Whom He May Devour is definitely one of my favourite Adamsberg novels.

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    1. Seeking Whom He May Devour is a fine novel, isn’t it, Cath? Vargas has such a good way of weaving in superstition, plot, and some unusual characters, and it all feels cohesive, if that makes sense. Unbelievability can work well, I think, if it’s done carefully, and if it adds to the story. It can be fun, too!

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  3. I often find it hard to suspend my disbelief, Margot, but I have no difficulty with reading the Vargas books! I agree about the Rivers of London series too – they are definitely speculative fiction, so believing the impossible is essential to enjoying them, I think. I found the plot in Sharon Bolton’s The Pact was difficult to accept. But, I just couldn’t stop reading it and did manage to suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy it.

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    1. It’s funny, isn’t it, Margaret, how we are willing to suspend disbelief with certain books and series, but not with others. I know that’s how it is with me. Vargas’ series is one of those that, I think, just invites the reader to go along for the ride. And sometimes, as with the Rivers of London series, suspending disbelief is crucial if the reader is to enjoy the story. Thanks for mentioning the Bolton, too; she’s quite good at drawing the reader in, so I’m not surprised you couldn’t stop reading it!

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    1. I agree completely, KBR, about major plotholes. For me, the plot of a story has to hang together and make some sense. Other than that, it can be a lot of fun to go along for the ride the author offers, can’t it? And, yes, some of the GA authors created some great invitations to let go of disbelief!

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  4. I don’t like to have to suspend my disbelief too much, though if a book is entertaining enough in other ways I’m usually willing to go along. I notice that I seem more willing to put up with unlikely things in vintage crime than modern – somehow modern crime seems to rely more on forensics, physical evidence and police work, and that makes it seem as if the story should be rooted in plausibility. Vintage crime is more often about motive, or alibi, and with an amateur ‘tec, and that gives the author more opportunity to make me flex my credulity muscles. For example, I enjoyed John Dickson Carr’s Bencolin books with all their atmosphere of decadent horror, but simply can’t imagine accepting similar plotlines in a modern setting.

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    1. You make a really interesting point, FictionFan, about vintage vs modern crime novels! With today’s forensic and other technology (to say nothing of modern communication, etc..), I think readers do expect more believability in plots and so on. Readers also expect characters to act in plausible ways (i.e. not have sudden ‘brainwaves’ that tell the sleuth whodunit). But in GA and other vintage crime, there’s less emphasis on that. It’s a bit like writing academic papers, actually. In the days before modern computers, degree candidates were forgiven certain errors, because asking for edits made for wholesale re-typing (with a typewriter). Not, of course, errors of fact, but other sorts of errors. Today, degree committees expect everything to be spotless, and part of it is that modern computing technology makes it possible to edit very quickly and efficiently. And thanks for reminding me of the Bencolin books. I think you’re right that they wouldn’t work in a modern context, but they certainly do if you put them in the context of their times.

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      1. That’s interesting! Certainly when I did some professional academic studying in the computer age I found it very different to my under-graduate days, with a lot more emphasis on the visuals and layout. I’m so old we still didn’t even type term essays in my undergrad days – we hand-wrote them! Which for those of us with illegible handwriting was a real chore… 😉

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      2. Haha! You should see my handwriting, FictionFan! I am thankful (and so should you be!) that people don’t generally see what my scrawl looks like. You’d never be able to read it. You make an interesting point, too, about today’s focus on the visual and layout. Perhaps that matters more because people have the ability to make things aesthetically pleasing in that way, whereas that wasn’t the case during the handwriting/typewriting years?

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  5. I think all fiction however realistic you have to park your disbelief at the door and go where the author takes you. That said certain wholly implausible plot shifts or character behaviour or incidents of convenience can bump me out of a book. Must try Vargas and I must get to more Westlake books.

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    1. You make a good point, Col. Fiction is fiction, and that means that readers sometimes need to let go of their disbelief. But too much implausibility, and the reader is pulled out of the book. Perhaps it’s a matter of what is implausible, and how much disbelief has to be set aside? As for Vargas, I like her work very much. Some of it does take some stretching of disbelief, and it’s unusual, but good. And I ought to get back to Westlake, myself!

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