In The Dark Knight Rises, the third film in the latest Batman cycle, Commissioner Gordon, played by Gary Ohlman, tells a young policeman played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "You're a detective now, son. You're not allowed to believe in coincidence."
The same admonition might be made to every writer who undertakes a mystery story or book. In fact, I've heard it paraphrased on Boucheron panels (the highest possible authority) and read it in how-to books. Eliminate coincidence.
The goal is understandable. It's unsatisfying for the reader to plow through a mystery novel in the wake of the fearless detective only to have that detective solve the mystery because he happens to see a billboard that makes him think of something or bumps into a character who holds the vital clue. A related and equally irritating device was a favorite of B-movie writers in old Hollywood and still pops up in the B movies direct descendant, television. When all seems foggiest, the hero's sidekick will make an extraneous remark that gives the hero a much needed kick in the old mental pants. You know this has happened when the hero says, "Say that again!" The sidekick will then repeat the wrong part of what he or she just said to further prolong the "suspense."
But while the goal of eliminating coincidence is understandable, overemphasizing that goal weakens the mystery's chances of being mistaken for serious literature. Coincidences occur in real life, so eliminating them makes a mystery story less like real life and more like a puzzle.
I collect real-life coincidences, which I find fascinating. One of my favorites was passed on to me a few years ago by my wife, Jan. She was attending a football game at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, with old friends from her sorority pledge class none of whom had seen the others in twenty years. During the first half, the woman on Jan's left (I'll call her
|Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium|
History is, of course, full of coincidences. Just last week, I ran into a beauty. Or rather, a whole string of beauties. The U.S.S. Ward, a destroyer, is generally credited with being the
|The U.S.S. Ward|
|The last fight of the Ward|
Let's get back to mystery writing. If coincidences are a part of life and eliminating them slavishly makes a book less real to life but using them to resolve a mystery plot is unsatisfying, what's the answer? It is to use coincidence, if you've a mind to, at the beginning of the story, as the thing that sets the plot in motion. It could be a chance remark that answers a long-unanswered question and so leads to murder. Agatha Christie used that one. It could be a scrap of old, foreign newspaper that happens to contain a story of vital interest to the person who happens to find it. Dorothy Sayers used that one. It could be the accidental coming together of old friends or enemies or comrades in arms in an unlikely place. Los Angeles, say. Raymond Chandler used that one. All three of those writers had long and happy careers. Not coincidentally.