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.