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.

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  1. Chris on April 20, 2011 at 6:41 am

    I think it was the use of the most bizarre imagination-stretching and coincidences that initially made me go ‘woahh’ when I first read a Kate Atkinson book. Then I came to One Good Turn and realised that this was exactly what made these books so appealing to me – they DO break with convention. I went back and re-read Human Croquet (an early pre-crime title)and appreciated it so much more, the second time round. It challenged my traditional thought proecss, but I didn’t realise it had done so until I had finished reading, and that, for me, is a good story.

    I have to confess to an added reason for liking the Jackson Brodies (the settings of the 2nd and 3rd titles) but I now read them without thinking, ”Great, a new crime novel”, but, ”Great, a new Kate Atkinson novel”.

    Interesting to note – but they are not filed under Crime Fiction in any bookstore that I’ve visited…!


  2. annie on April 20, 2011 at 7:44 am

    Oh Ms. King, thank you! For being so kind & pleasant! When I try to explain why literary authors can’t write crime novels I end up sounding disparaging. I hope that I can plagiarise some of the above when talking to my literary friends. They sometimes say “you will love this” as if I would like any novel with a murder in it.
    I blame my grandparents. I learned to read so young that I cannot remember, and in our family, if you could read it, it wasn’t “unsuitable” (although they did worry about Dickens) so I read all their crime stories from Wilkie Collins & Edgar Allen Poe up to the Golden Age.
    All human life is in detective novels, the genre explores the human condition without the whiny navel-gazing of a great deal of literary novels.
    And so that US readers can experience the great British caff, here’s a link to my favourite Lazy Trout (bacon & black pudding sandwiches a speciality)

  3. annie on April 20, 2011 at 7:45 am
  4. Lenore on April 20, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    And here’s a coincidence. Last night, just a few hours before reading this, I was listening to Jill Paton Walsh’s “The Attenbury Emeralds,” in which Harriet Vane muses to Lord Peter and to Bunter that, in detective fiction, one may not have coincidences, even though they occur all the time in real life.

  5. Aaron Lazar on April 21, 2011 at 9:24 am

    Hi, Laurie! Thanks for a wonderful article today. I hadn’t yet heard of these writers and will be sure to check them out. It is so odd, however, how nearly every day in the news we hear about coincidences that would NEVER seem possible in a book. For example, a body was discovered last week in our neck of the woods in an area nobody usually hikes or visits. If the hikers hadn’t stumbled across the remains of the poor boy, his parents might have worried and wondered for decades. So sad, yet their relief came of a true coincidence.

  6. The Bold Flying Officer on April 23, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    I believe it was Ian Fleming writing in an early Bond novel – you remember, the source of the movie titles and the early plots – who penned the words “once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times – it’s enemy action”. I doubt it was original and it may be a common maxim in America, but it rings true. Think on’t.

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