A common thread seen in online discussions of crime fiction is "Why do we read mysteries?"
For me, there are many reasons, depending on my mood. But one of the things I love most is an unforgettable plot twist. So why not do a blog entry on "Agatho's Best Plot Twists of All Time"?
Everyone knows what a "plot twist" is, so let me instead list my criteria for what makes a classic plot twist more than just a good plot development.
1. It shocks/surprises even the smartest, savviest, and most experienced and cynical of readers.
2. Upon rereading the book, you see how inevitable it was. But you'd had no clue during your first read because the author executed a first-class sleight-of-hand with such skill.
3. Years later, you still remember that delicious thrill of your first read, when you'd been so completely taken off guard.
4. Its perfection springs from a superior set of writing skills. Because, while writing a mystery is all about keeping secrets, the authors of the classic twists have created them not simply through plotting skills but also through mastery of the language.
5. It is psychologically consistent with everything that has preceded and does not make the reader feel cheated. In other words, no cheap, tawdry endings like the final bathtub scene in FATAL ATTRACTION (I know, it's a movie, not a book....)
And now for the Honor Roll.
1. IRA LEVIN
A KISS BEFORE DYING
Everyone knows Ira Levin's horror fiction, from Rosemary's Baby thorough The Stepford Wives. When I think of A Kiss Before Dying, I can think only of what Levin could have done if he'd continued to write crime fiction. A Kiss Before Dying was his first book, and what a book it was.
You've likely heard that the book contains the best plot twist of all time. And it just might be.
The book starts out quite conventionally and for the first few chapters doesn't seem to be anything too out of the ordinary: A vile young charmer is planning to wed an innocent girl for her money. But wait...just wait.
What I find so intriguing about THE TWIST--and you will know it when you see it--is that it does not come in the last chapter, as some of the most memorable twists do.
I originally read this book back in the day, after hearing about THE TWIST, and feeling rather arrogantly confident that I'd see it coming. I didn't. I will never forget the feeling that I had been completely and utterly made a fool of by Ira Levin. And I loved that feeling!
2. BEAST IN VIEW
Readers of Mysterious Matters know the esteem in which I hold Margaret Millar, whom I consider the world's finest crime novelist. Beast in View is the book that won her the Edgar.
The book is as intricately plotted and expertly written as all of Millar's other work, but this one is much tighter than most of Millar's other work. It's the shortest of Millar's novels, with the most immediate menace. In most of Millar's books, there's a puzzling setup that leads to strange and unexpected interactions. With Beast in View, however, there is danger, and a damsel in distress, right from the first chapter. That quality alone gives the book the most suspenseful urgency of Millar's oeuvre.
As for THE TWIST: It's so perfect simply because it is so obvious in retrospect. Many others have used this plot device after Millar, which is why it may not seem quite as shocking today as it did back then. Don't let that, and the fact that some of the societal things seem out of step with 2010, stop you from picking up this very scary thriller.
3. THE EIGHT
When The DaVinci Code was taking over the world in 2003, there was very little talk about the book that had done it all, and better, 15 years earlier. That book was THE EIGHT, an epic story about Charlemagne's cursed chess set. The novel follows two tracks. One story, set in the 18th century, follows a young nun's quest to hide the chess pieces - and the deadly secret they hold - from those who would use them for evil. The other story, set in the present, finds a young computer programmer caught in a similar quest in the 1970s, just as OPEC is starting to flex its muscles.
When this book came out in 1988, there was a lot of talk about THE SECRET. "Don't tell anyone THE SECRET," was the catchphrase, just as it was for THE CRYING GAME later on. Because the book is long and intricate, I distinctly remember thinking: This secret had better be damn good, because the book has made me wait so long for it.
And it WAS damn good. Not just good - PERFECT. The final reveal of the secret of the chess set - and the key to tying the two stories together - is an example of plotting abilities of the highest order. THE TWIST (or, in this case, the final culmination of the plot) is so thoroughly prepared for that, upon rereading, one sees it inevitability.
4. THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
Where would a list of World's Best Plot Twists be without Dame Agatha? We all know of her achievements; they are legend.
So why would I choose The Witness for the Prosecution (actually a short story/novella, before it became a play) over The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or And Then There Were None?
Because this is the work that I like to talk about when I hear people complain that Christie was all plot and no character; all story and no psychological acumen. THE TWIST in this one--found in the last sentence--demonstrates Dame Agatha's psychological acuity and her mastery of such matters. If you haven't read this one, you simply must...no "mysterious education" is complete without it.
Turow's first book was also his best. Presumed Innocent, impressive and shocking upon first read, manages to get even better with a second reading.
Courtroom dramas are known for their twists and turns, their shocking reveals, and so forth. What makes Presumed Innocent such a classic, though, is the way the ending--THE TWIST--combines the protagonist's work life and personal life to bring out the truth. Like The Witness for the Prosecution, Presumed Innocent demonstrates a deep understanding of what makes people tick and what drives them to desperate acts, as well as the disgusting things they will do hide their guilt (or pin it on someone else).
Readers: If you can recommend any other books with fantastic plot twists, please do so by clicking on the COMMENTS button below.