The Novelist as Illusionist

I’m currently reading John le Carré’s book Our Game. It has all the classic le Carré elements: spies, questions of loyalty, isolated figures with murky pasts and a constant sense of moral ambiguity. Reading the book has reminded me of how good a novelist le Carré was. His attention to detail when it comes to characterization and setting are wonderful. His portraits of human behaviour, in all its absurdity and contradictions, are sharp and powerful.

However, one thing I wasn’t expecting was a sudden plot twist. I hadn’t associated le Carré with plot twists.

A plot twist is often used as a cheap gimmick. I’ve lost count of the number of books I see online, which are advertised as having a “killer twist”. I enjoy the crime novels of Sophie Hannah, who is sometimes described as being a master of plot, and someone whose narratives feature twists and turns. If I’m honest about this, sometimes I find these convincing, sometimes not. The same could be said for Harlen Coban. Both great thriller writers, but are we always convinced by the plot twists? There have been times when I could barely suspend any more disbelief.

When I say “convinced”, I mean does the twist seem right. Does it illuminate what’s gone before or undermine it? I’ve come across plot twists which simply undermined the story up to that point. An example would be this: A character seems really nice, a perfectly friendly and normal person. The twist: They are a killer who is not nice at all.

The problem I have with this kind of plot twist is that when we reach the twist, everything we know about that person so far is undermined. In other words, it is dishonest. (I will point out here that this is the cheapest kind of twist, and that the two writers I’ve just mentioned are both above it.) The clues must always be there for the reader to pick up on; the game must always be fair.

This brings me back to le Carré. The reason I was so taken by this plot twist was that the author had pulled off an illusion. I was carefully watching the whole time, and the truth was there for me to work out if I only could, and yet I was taken in. When I learned how I had been tricked I said, ‘Of course! I should have known that the whole time!’ And in the example of Our Game, the twist undermined nothing, but illuminated a lot.