Arts& Books

Let’s do the twist: Stu­art Neville asks whether crime writ­ers have over-egged the big re­veal.

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Stu­art Neville will be in con­ver­sa­tion with John Banville at the Dead in Dún Laoghaire Crime Writ­ing Fes­ti­val at the Pav­il­ion The­atre on July 22nd. Here and Gone by Haylen Beck is pub­lished by Harvill Secker

If you’ve vis­ited the Ama­zon web­site to browse books over the past cou­ple of years, you will have no­ticed an odd phe­nom­e­non: the blurb-ti­tle. A re­cent ex­am­ple is Erin Kelly’s lat­est, listed on the in­ter­net be­he­moth as “He Said/She Said: the grip­ping Sun­day Times best­seller with a shock­ing twist”.

In the case of this ex­cel­lent novel, all these claims are true. It is in­deed grip­ping, it was a Sun­day Times best­seller, and it in fact has sev­eral shock­ing twists. But as one scrolls through Ama­zon’s pages, the sheer num­ber of books with such claims of shock­ing rev­e­la­tions em­bed­ded in their ti­tles be­comes tire­some. More trou­ble­some might be the ex­pec­ta­tion that such sales pitches build up. Can all these books de­liver on their prom­ises in the way Erin Kelly’s does?

For the pur­poses of this piece, we should per­haps try to de­fine what con­sti­tutes a Big Twist. Some might con­sider any shock­ing turn in a story to be a twist, but given re­cent trends in pop­u­lar fic­tion, most would un­der­stand that a twist – at least one that’s strong enough to be a book’s USP – to be some form of re­ver­sal, a shift in per­spec­tive that toys with the reader’s as­sump­tions up to that point. At its best, this kind of leap in the nar­ra­tive should force the reader to ques­tion ev­ery­thing that has oc­curred so far in the story.

The stand-out ex­am­ple of re­cent times is, of course, Gil­lian Flynn’s as­ton­ish­ingly suc­cess­ful Gone Girl. While it was pre­ceded by SJ Wat­son’s also-twisty Be­fore I Go to Sleep, Gone Girl is gen­er­ally re­garded as the book that birthed the cur­rent hot genre of do­mes­tic thrillers.

Through­out the early years of my ca­reer as a writer, every­one was spec­u­lat­ing on what would fol­low in the wake of then-dom­i­nant Scandi noir, spear­headed by Stieg Lars­son and Jo Nesbo. A few pun­dits rather op­ti­misti­cally pre­dicted that the bur­geon­ing wave of Ir­ish crime fic­tion would soon be the next big thing. An­noy­ingly for me, they were wrong. In­stead, a spe­cific breed of thriller emerged to de­vour ev­ery­thing in its path.

Some­times called do­mes­tic noir or – God help us – “grip lit”, this wave tends to fea­ture fe­male pro­tag­o­nists ex­pe­ri­enc­ing calami­tous events, of­ten in­volv­ing long-buried se­crets, masks slip­ping and com­fort­able lives be­ing turned up­side down.

More of­ten than not, these sto­ries hinge on a twist, some point that flips the nar­ra­tive, hope­fully wrong-foot­ing the reader. If you’ve read Gone Girl (and you al­most cer­tainly have), you will know what that mo­ment is. It’s both shock­ing and ef­fec­tive; it not only forces you to re­assess what you think you know about the char­ac­ters, but also sets up the rest of the story, guar­an­tee­ing that the pages will keep turn­ing to the end.

The Big Twist is not a new phe­nom­e­non, and nei­ther is it unique to the crime genre. Lit­er­ary gi­ant Ian McEwan’s Atone­ment turns on a rev­e­la­tion that is both sur­pris­ing and heart­break­ing. Sarah Waters’s Fin­ger- smith piv­ots on a mo­ment that shifts the story in an en­tirely dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. We can go back to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None for a clas­sic who­dunit twist, or jump into the sci- fi canon with Pierre Boulle’s book­end­ing of La Planète des Singes ( Planet of the Apes) by a pair of in­tel­li­gent chimps who refuse to be­lieve a tale of civ­i­lized hu­mans ex­plor­ing the stars.

Like­wise, cinemagoers are no strangers to the great re­veal. When Charles Fos­ter Kane’s dy­ing word, Rose­bud, is dis­cov­ered to be the name of his child­hood sled, it is a quiet and poignant mo­ment, show­ing that Kane has wasted his life in pur­suit of the child­hood that was stolen from him. At the other end of the scale, M Night Shya­malan’s The Sixth Sense is as ef­fec­tive a twist as has been seen in mod­ern cinema. It’s such a great mo­ment that it de­mands a sec­ond view­ing just to see those clues laid out.

Shya­malan’s oeu­vre also high­lights the pit­falls of a writer’s de­pen­dence on rev­e­la­tion, namely the weight of ex­pec­ta­tion and the law of di­min­ish­ing re­turns. Sev­eral films into the au­teur’s ca­reer, and the twist had be­come a mill­stone. Where The Sixth Sense’s fi­nal re­veal lands a dev­as­tat­ing punch, The Vil­lage’s clos­ing scenes are pre­dictable from the first, and ren­der the pre­vi­ous 100 min­utes en­tirely point­less.

Isn’t that also a risk for nov­el­ists who builds their rep­u­ta­tions on the Big Twist? The pres­sure must be enor­mous to keep com­ing up with sto­ries that hang on a rev­e­la­tion, to con­tin­u­ously wrong­foot the reader, while at the same time bat­tling the reader’s an­tic­i­pa­tion of that twist.

As a reader, I have more than once had my en­joy­ment of a novel eroded by seek­ing the twist that the book was sold on. Watch­ing out for clues to some hid­den se­cret in­stead of sim­ply en­joy­ing the char­ac­ters’ jour­neys is be­com­ing an in­creas­ing peril with con­tem­po­rary fic­tion. It’s de­bat­able whether that is the fault of how these books are mar­keted, or if the au­thors them­selves lack the skill to fully ab­sorb the reader while lead­ing them along a tricksy path. And is there pres­sure on writ­ers from pub­lish­ers to cap­i­talise on this hot trend whether or not they are in­clined to­wards de­cep­tion?

A more trou­bling ques­tion for the book trade might be: When will twist fa­tigue set in? If you’ll par­don a mixed metaphor, how of­ten can writ­ers go to the well of the great re­veal be­fore the bucket scrapes the bot­tom? If ev­ery week the su­per­mar­ket shelves are loaded with more pa­per­backs with dark cov­ers and prom­ises of shock­ing se­crets, how long be­fore read­ers grow weary of them?

Sneaky mis­di­rec­tion

I’m no stranger to the Big Twist my­self. While I’ve never hung an en­tire story on a mo­ment of rev­e­la­tion, I do like to sneak in the odd bit of mis­di­rec­tion. In my third novel, Stolen Souls, a good Sa­mar­i­tan is re­vealed to have much darker in­ten­tions. Those We Left Be­hind spends most of its nar­ra­tive ar­gu­ing a young man’s in­no­cence when he is any­thing but in­no­cent.

My lat­est, Here and Gone (writ­ten un­der the pen name of Haylen Beck) gets its twist out of the way early on. Page 39, to be ex­act. Does it then qual­ify as a Big Twist? I’d like to think so. It (hope­fully) re­verses the reader’s as­sump­tions and shapes the story from then on. It is fur­ther built upon by more turns and sur­prises, keep­ing the reader on the hook un­til the last page.

Per­haps that’s the trick in all this: the Big Twist might be at the heart of the novel, but it’s the smaller turns that form the skele­ton, the mus­cle, the spark­ing nerves of the story. The mo­ment of the re­veal might be what sells a book, but it’s the meat and gris­tle of the nar­ra­tive that keeps the reader on board for the jour­ney.

Twists and re­veals have been with us as long as the novel it­self, span­ning hun­dreds of years and count­less gen­res, and will still re­main as long as there are read­ers to be shocked and de­lighted. But writ­ers and pub­lish­ers must re­mem­ber that, while it might pro­vide an easy sales pitch, if we don’t ap­ply the fun­da­men­tals of good sto­ry­telling, not even the most shock­ing twist can save us.

‘‘ More of­ten than not, these sto­ries hinge on a twist, some point that flips the nar­ra­tive, hope­fully wrong-foot­ing the reader


Au­thor Stu­art Neville: ‘Watch­ing out for clues . . . is be­com­ing an in­creas­ing peril with con­tem­po­rary fic­tion.’

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