14 January 2014

What are the Odds?

by Terence Faherty

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
Lois) remarked that she was hoping to visit someone while she was in town, the pharmacist who had given her a part-time job when she was an undergraduate.  Later, the woman on Jan's right (I'll call her Mary) said that her son, a Purdue student, was attending the game and would stop by at halftime to be introduced.  Sure enough, at halftime Mary's son showed up.  He mentioned in passing that he had scored a great seat for the game, right next to an interesting old guy who had run a pharmacy in West Lafayette years before.  Right.   He was none other than Lois's old employer.  In a stadium that holds well over 60,000 souls, Mary's son just happened to be seated next to him.



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
first American ship to engage the enemy in World War II.  Under the command of Lieutenant Commander William Outerbridge, the Ward attacked and sank a Japanese submarine attempting to enter Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, shortly before the Japanese carrier planes arrived.  Destroyers are named after naval heroes.  So who was the original Ward?  He was James Warren Ward, the first naval officer killed in the Civil War.  That's right.  The first ship to engage the enemy in one long, bloody war was named after the first naval officer to die in another long, bloody war.  Not coincidental enough?  How's this? After serving under different commanders in different Pacific actions, the Ward met her fate off the Philippines when she was struck by a Japanese kamikaze.  That occurred on December 7, 1944, three years to the day after the Ward fired the starting gun for the whole Pacific campaign.  But wait, as the hucksters say
The last fight of the Ward
on television, there's more.  The kamikaze started uncontrollable fires on the ship, and the crew abandoned her.  Another destroyer, the U.S.S. O'Brien was called up to finish off the wreck.  The O'Brien was named for Jeremiah O'Brien, an American commander at the Battle of Machias, the first naval action of the American Revolution.  So the first ship to fire on the enemy in World War II, which was named for the first officer to die in the Civil War, was sunk by a ship named for the man who won the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War.  Holy synchronicity, Batman!  (The fact that I just paraphrased Burt Ward in a paragraph about the U.S.S. Ward is purely coincidental.)  Can I top that?  As a matter of fact, I can.  On December 7, 1944, the O'Brien was commanded by William Outerbridge, the same man who had commanded the Ward at Pearl Harbor three years earlier.  What are the odds?


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.  

4 comments:

Robert Lopresti said...

I thought from your opening you wre going a whole other direction. As one comedian -Fallon?- said last week, "to put it in perspective, blocking a major bridge is what Bane did in the latest Batman movie.".

Coincidence?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I love and indeed collect stories like the one about your wife's football game. I call them "small world stories," and the more tortuous and filled with irrelevant but fascinating detail, the better.

Fran Rizer said...

More examples of writing "greats" breaking some of the hard and fast rules of writing. I love it!

Leigh Lundin said...

I think the trick is avoiding deus ex machina. Coincidentally, I liked the article.