Today is Writing Wednesday here at Mutterings, and the day’s topic is the role of coincidence in crime fiction.
Some of you will guess by this that I’ve been reading Kate Atkinson. Her latest Jackson Brodie story, Started Early, Took the Dog, is the fourth in what is dutifully described as a series, following the exploits of private investigator Jackson Brodie. Part of the problem is that Atkinson is by training and inclination a more literary novelist, for whom rules are made to be broken. If she made heavier use of the dark shades of irony in her writing, her work might be termed crime metafiction, but the honest urge of the storyteller shines through in the Brodie stories and gives lie to that particular game.
I find it fascinating that, no matter the skill of the writer—and Atkinson is skilled indeed—literary types who turn to crime find the going heavy. Michael Chabon’s brilliant Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a good example of a superb writer, in top form, whose focus simply isn’t on the conventions of the detective story. I wouldn’t call it slumming, although both books occasionally have the whiff of Anthony Bourdain tucking into the offerings of a layby cafe (pronounced caff) on the A40: with enthusiasm, and just a touch of uneasiness.
Crime fiction permits coincidence at the beginning of the story, but becomes increasingly wary of it as the pages mount, until, as Ronald Knox put it in his Sixth Commandment:
No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
The goal of crime fiction is plausibility. Anything that tugs the reader out of the dream, causing him to think, “You know, I’m not sure that would really happen,” is a dangerous distraction. In metafiction, on the other hand, it is the very heart of the game.
A recent San Francisco Chronicle review of Atkinson’s book addresses the question:
Sometimes the coincidences stack so high that it grows tiring to stand on tiptoe to peer over them. Still, Atkinson has employed this narrative strategy in the previous Brodie novels, from “Case Histories” on, so there’s really no point in complaining. As one character observes to Brodie, “Nice coincidence, although I always say that a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.”
A lesser-known contemporary of Knox, SS Van Dine, pointed out: “The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event.” And sports have rules the teams agree to play by. This doesn’t mean that a family out for a picnic can’t invent a set of rules for their own pleasure; it does mean that if a son of that family then tries to apply their idiosyncratic play-rules to the NFL or Major League fields, he would be in trouble.
When it comes to coincidence, the son of man is lord of the Sabbath: If the writer is a master, absolutely sure of what he or she is doing, then the rules are made to be bent. If not, or if the writer’s a mortal like the rest of us, it’s best to be conservative.