Surprise Endings in Great Crime Novels
Why didn’t I think of these?
I doubt I’m the only writer who opens a new book with trepidation and winces as I see a plot that I wish I’d thought of! Just reading the blurb on the back of a novel can be enough to start me off. Those perfect plots can seem so simple, but if they were, why hadn’t anyone thought of them before? Here are just a few that I wished I’d thought of myself. They all have one thing in common: the hook is immediate.
1 And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
A group of people are invited to an uninhabited island. Each of them is killed. How could that happen?
I had a spate of reading Agatha Christie books when I was young. It was the time before young adult books existed, where readers would go from children’s literature to murder mysteries without a pause for breath. I remember reading And Then There Were None and being hooked by the profound sense of menace on every page. Everyone was a suspect, then one by one, everyone died. I read up to the point where the last person died and stopped in my tracks. What had happened? There was nobody left on the island: how could they all be murdered? And I distinctly remember gripping the book and realizing there were just a few pages left and the answer lay in there. My excitement was immense. (It’s just not the same when you see “5% remaining” on a digital copy!) And of course once I realized what had happened, I had to immediately re-read it to see how it was done. Even in those days, before I dreamed of writing a novel, I knew that was a perfect plot.
2 Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie
A man is murdered on the Orient Express – every single person on the train conspired to kill him.
This was another Agatha Christie novel that made me clap my hands to my face and think it couldn’t be bettered. Apologies for the spoiler alert, but to write a book about a murder in a confined space where every single person there—none of whom was believed to know each other—is involved in the killing was such a fantastic idea. And I was completely fooled, right until the end, though again, when I looked back, all the clues were there. You can never say you’re cheated with an Agatha Christie novel: she lays down all the red herrings and the clues. We’re so wrapped up in the story that we don’t realize we’re being manipulated and misdirected by the mistress of crime fiction.
3 Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
A second wife realizes the hold the dead first wife has on her husband and everyone around her.
Rebecca was the first novel I’d read about love, paranoia, and obsession; it’s the perfect study in jealousy, a masterpiece of gothic literature. I read it as an adolescent and completely understood it! Rebecca, both beautiful and malevolent, is such a strong character, present in almost every scene; she taps into a fear I hardly knew I had: a fear of the rival. How can a second wife compete with the memory of the first? Mrs Danvers’s seething, sinister glare alone makes sure she can’t. And then when we realize what was actually going on, we see everything Max has said or done through a new light. And can we believe any of it? A perfect plot will worry away at your mind long after you’ve read the novel; even now, decades after first reading it, I wonder about Rebecca: was she as Max depicted or was she as wild and wonderful as she appeared throughout?
4 Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith
Two strangers meet on a train and agree to trade murders.
This was my first introduction to the term folie à deux. It seems so straightforward: Guy wants to divorce his promiscuous wife, Miriam, and marry again, whereas Bruno wants his father dead. There’s no link between them; each would have an alibi for the other person’s murder. Of course, it can only go wrong.
I think anyone could have created a great novel from this premise, but Highsmith is the mistress of the banality of evil: she shows us ordinary people—people just like us—doing terrible things and in this novel, we realize we are closer to being evil ourselves than we ever thought possible.
5 The Collector – John Fowles
A perfectly ordinary man collects butterflies; when he wins some money, he realizes he can now collect women.
I read The Collector in my teens and it had a huge influence of my reading and writing. It’s the story of Frederick Clegg, who works as a clerk and collects butterflies in his spare time. He admires a young art student at a distance but doesn’t have the social skills to approach her. When a sudden prize win allows him to leave work, he decides to add her to his collection of beautiful things, believing that if he keeps her long enough, she’ll grow to love him. This was the first time I’d read a story about kidnap and the ordinariness of this character that made me realize that absolutely no one can be trusted, and that strangeness and danger can lie under the surface of the most inoffensive exterior.
6 The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
What really goes on in the houses you pass by on your train journey?
This was such a simple idea. Every day millions of us across the world commute to work by train and look at other people’s homes and daydream about the lives of their inhabitants. Combine this with an unreliable narrator who is usually drunk as she’s telling her story, and this becomes a fantastic plot.
7 The Widow – Fiona Barton
What’s really going through her mind when she stands by her husband as he’s accused of the most terrible crime?
When I first read The Widow, I remember stopping dead after the first few chapters and thinking, “Why has nobody written this story before?” We’re used to stories where horrific things happen and we’re used to watching the television news as a loyal wife stands by her man despite the awful accusations made against him. This is the first novel I’ve read where we learn the wife’s point of view, but her husband is dead, so just how reliable is her account?
8 We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver
From the moment Eva was pregnant with Kevin, she didn’t want him. As a teenager, he commits mass murder. Who’s really to blame?
On the surface, we seem to know everything that happens from the get-go with this novel. Written in epistolary form, it consists of a series of letters from Eva to her absent husband, Franklin, regarding their relationship and their married life together with their children, Kevin and Celia. I remember thinking, “Why is she writing to Franklin?” for a split second before being so caught up in the story that I couldn’t think about anything else. And then of course in a horrifying moment of clarity, I understood the reason for the letters.
9 My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Just as Philip falls in love with his cousin Ambrose’s widow, Rachel, and gives her all his worldly goods, he realizes she might have masterminded his cousin’s death.
Decades have passed since I first read My Cousin Rachel. Like Philip, I was intoxicated by Rachel, but I was scared of her, too. She seemed so powerful and Philip was such easy prey. Recently I listened to the audio version throughout a long car journey to Scotland. I don’t remember the places I passed by but I can still remember the sense of danger and subterfuge as Jonathan Pryce told us the story of Philip meeting his dead cousin’s wife and falling so completely in love with her that he gave her everything he owned. I remember Rachel, so beautiful in the shadows of her candlelit bedroom, and Philip, so young and inexperienced and vulnerable. Now I see Rachel differently; I can understand how she might be an innocent victim of obsessive men. And the softness I saw in Philip as he courted her—well, that didn’t last, is all I can say here. But each re-reading gives me so much more and I still don’t know whom I should believe.
10 My Sister’s Keeper by Jodie Picoult
Her daughter has leukemia. If she has another child who’s a genetic match, the umbilical cord could save her life. But then how far should she expect her younger child to go, to save her sister’s life?
What are the repercussions of having a new child to save the life of an existing child? It’s such a water-cooler plot, isn’t it? It’s something everyone will have an opinion on. When Kate’s parents discover she is suffering from leukemia, they are told they could have a savior sister, a daughter who could simply pass on cells from her umbilical cord to help save her sister’s life. What can possibly go wrong?