Monday, 21 January 2019

Coincidences and contrivances

Coincidences happen all the time. When I was on my walk, I finished a day at a small, remote beach in the northwest of Scotland. Sam parked the motorhome on a firm area, and a while later another motorhome parked nearby. It turned out to contain an ex-colleague of mine, who had no idea I was doing the walk. It was a coincidence.

Whilst coincidences happen, they can make for poor plots. I've recently finished reading Lee Child's first 'Jack Reacher' book, 'Killing Floor'. It will never be called classic literature (although much that is called 'classic literature' is unreadable tosh), but it was a riveting read.

However there was one major thing that niggled at me through the book: coincidences.

(Please note the following contains spoilers. If you have not read the book and think you are likely to, then consider not reading the rest of this post.)

The plot of 'Killing Floor' involves Jack Reacher, once a major in the US Military Police Corp. He left the armed forces six months before the book began, and in the meantime has led an itinerant lifestyle around the US, never staying long in one place, and never leaving roots.

The book starts as Reacher is having breakfast in the little town of Marburg, Georgia. Marburg is a town that has been bypassed by the interstate and is, for the purposes of the book, many miles from anywhere. Some policemen enter the diner, and Reacher is arrested for the murder of an unidentified man the previous night.

He is arrested for what, at first, appears a minor coincidence: Reacher walked past where the man's body was found, and therefore was in roughly the right place to at least be a suspect - although it turns out he could prove he was elsewhere at the time the man was murdered. This is, in my view, an acceptable coincidence; indeed, it is of a type frequently seen in stories to move the plot forwards.

The main plot and subplots continue until, halfway through the book, it is discovered that the unidentified body is that of Joe Reacher, Jack Reacher's elder brother. Joe Reacher was a senior agent in the US Treasury, and had arranged a meeting with someone at the exact spot that his brother would pass a few hours later.

The only link the two men have with the town of Marburg is an old song they both knew, and it is on the basis of this song that Jack Reacher made a carefree decision to get off a Greyhound bus outside the remote town. Neither man had been there before, and they had barely ever mentioned it. Yet they both happened for different reasons to be not just in the town on the same night, but in the same remote spot.

I found this coincidence to be really jarring, and spent the rest of the book awaiting it to be concluded. It made me assume that Jack Reacher was really being an unreliable narrator, and that it was not a coincidence: perhaps his brother had wanted him along for some extra muscle, but Jack Reacher had been delayed. But that did not happen, and it remained a massive coincidence. In fact, it was a rather poor contrivance.

What do I mean? Look at the following list of 'coincidences':
  • A man visits a remote town that he has no history with: nothing coincidental - in fact, it happens all the time.
  • A man being in a remote town without knowing his brother had recently visited: slightly coincidental.
  • A man being in a remote town at the same time as his brother, both going independently and for different reasons, without knowledge the other was going to be there: very coincidental.
  • A man  in a remote town at the same time as his brother, both going independently and without knowledge the other was going to be there, and the brother getting murdered that very night: extremely coincidental.
  • A man unknowingly walking past his brother's body, in a remote town neither had had any connection with, both having arrived that day, without either knowing the other was going to be there? Immensely coincidental.
  • An ex-military policeman with murderous skills unknowingly walking past his brother's body, in a remote town neither had had any connection with, both having arrived that day, without either knowing the other was going to be there? Fantastical.
I found the coincidence so jarring that I simply could not suspend my disbelief. it would be like me bumping into my ex-colleague on that remote Scottish beach on the same day we share the lottery jackpot with identical numbers we chose for different and independent reasons. It just won't happen, and it's a silly hook to hang a plot off.

There is a less serious coincidence later on in the book: Reacher places his trust in Finlay, the town's chief detective, who had only been in the post for six months. Finlay in turn places his trust in an FBI friend from Atlanta, Picard. It turns out that Picard is actually one of the book's chief antagonists, who is intimately involved in the core conspiracy. What are the odds of the one man Finlay trusts being one of the bad guys, despite being from well out of town?

It would have been easy to slightly alter the plot to 'solve' the central coincidence, without altering the general flow. It is a sign of a poorly-designed plot, even if the story itself is told well. A plot should not rely on major coincidences, either in set-up or to get things moving.

There were several other plot problems in the book, and characters acting in slightly (in my view) unrealistic manners. However these were mostly superficial, and none were as glaring as the plot's central coincidence.

I don't want to be too harsh on 'Killing Floor', which was an enjoyable book. It gripped me, and I finished it in three days - which is not a sign of a bad book, especially in this genre. It is easy to see how it won several awards after its first publication.

However this central plot coincidence slightly spoilt it for me.

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