Five of a Kind

My high school English curriculum was stuffed with Charles Dickens.  I never understood his appeal.  The wordiness for one thing, which, though explained by multiple English teachers as a by-product of getting paid per word, helped me understand why he wrote such long-winded sentences but did not help me enjoy them any more.  But most of all, the reliance on coincidence.  Even A Tale of Two Cities, regarded by many as his best work, would fall apart without a series of happenstances that shatter credulity.

When preparing to write my own novel, I wondered if my aversion to coincidence were uncommon; after all, it certainly didn’t hurt ol’ Charles.  I came across a great encapsulation of how I felt about it:

We’ve all read stories where coincidence or fate (perhaps one of the literal Fates) saves the day or provides the missing clue or wraps up the loose ends for characters and readers.

And don’t you absolutely hate when that happens?

When coincidence rather than the inevitable (and no, they aren’t the same thing) shows up in fiction, the reader notices. {The Editor’s Blog}

Indeed.

Yet I recently finished – and loved – I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes.  It’s a huge bestseller, and rightly so – it’s a goddamn thrill ride from start to finish, an amazing cat-and-mouse game with richly-drawn characters, breathless suspense, and even a great ending.  That said, its reliance on coincidence would make Dickens blush.  Let us count the ways:

  1. First, an easy one.  The Greek drug cartel that the protagonist tangles with at the beginning of the book turns out to be partnered with his ultimate enemy.  Not very likely, though it seems unfair to count this against the book as the plot doesn’t hinge on it.  It makes sense that the bad guy would have armed thugs available to him, and if they were some anonymous group of thugs the protagonist didn’t know, the plot wouldn’t really change.  This would be like sitting down at a poker table and getting dealt a full house from a single deck of cards.  Improbable but not unheard of.

  2. Pilgrim goes to Turkey to find the Saracen’s accomplice.  He goes under the false pretense of investigating the death of a rich American tourist.  The Turkish police partner him with a young female detective.  Guess who the Saracen’s accomplice turns out to be?We just got dealt a royal flush.  Even the most stoic poker player would display his amazing fortune on his face.  He’d be looking around for hidden cameras, wondering if he were part of a prank.  Yet, even this I can let slide.  We know the Saracen had an accomplice.  We know he or she was in a specific town in Turkey.  So it had to be somebody.  It could, I suppose, be Pilgrim’s partner.

  3. But it could not be the case that the rich American happened to be murdered by the same person who committed an unsolved murder months before in New York City that Pilgrim just happened to be asked to help investigate, and that, despite said murderer being an expert who meticulously cleaned the New York crime scene, she left behind one critical piece of evidence which would link the New York crime to the rich American’s vacation home in Turkey, without which Pilgrim would not have been able to apprehend the Saracen.five aces

    The dealer just handed us five aces.

And don’t you absolutely hate when that happens?  Imagine the consequences: The pit boss would accuse us of cheating, his henchmen would drag us into a windowless basement room where they strip-search us to find our hidden deck and beat us with a pipe until we roll on our partners.

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