The word “twist” exerts a strange power over crime fiction addicts like me. Publishers know this all too well, which is why the promise of a twist is often used to advertise books that don’t have twists at all. “You’ll never see the breathtaking twist coming!” screams the press release. Well, no, you won’t, because it doesn’t exist. And so many people think a brilliant resolution is the same thing as a twist. It isn’t. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express offers the most impressive puzzle solution in all of detective fiction. But, however ingenious and surprising, it’s not a twist ending.
So what is a bona fide twist? In my view, it has to be something that overturns or negates an already drawn conclusion or a firmly entrenched and reasonable assumption (Orient Express overturns an unreasonable assumption on the part of the reader, which is why I wouldn’t call it a twist).
Writing a twist isn’t an exact science, but part of what makes the brilliant ones so attractive in fiction is that feeling of having everything you thought you knew reversed, inverted or demolished; the fictional equivalent of being on a rollercoaster that suddenly turns upside down, leaving everything looking and feeling very different for the rest of the ride. And the new picture created by the shake-up of the twist has to be one that makes sense and is not risible. For example, if you find out at the end of the novel that the murderer is not the person whose fingerprints were on the knife, but rather his long-dead second cousin who developed marvellous fingerprint-forging technology unknown to science or the reader – that’s not a twist, it’s a travesty.
It’s going to be very hard to do this without spoilers, but I will try. In my opinion, these are 10 excellent examples of novels with genuine twists:
1. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
A moving, complex moral-dilemma story about a girl who takes her family to court in order to win the right to refuse a life-saving bone marrow transplant to her dying sister. What’s great about the twist is that you were neither waiting nor hoping for it – the story feels totally satisfying and complete without it – and yet when it arrives, you realise that there was a carefully and subtly carved space all throughout the novel for that perfect twist to fit into.
2. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
A psychological suspense classic about a woman who marries a man she adores, only to discover that he, his home and his staff are apparently still obsessed by his far more charismatic first wife, to whom our heroine fears she can never measure up. Without revealing anything that’s gone before to be a lie, the twist changes the meaning of everything we’ve seen so far and provides the novel with an exemplary and memorable resolution.
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Not all superb twists need to come at the end. There’s a twist in the middle of this classic novel that takes it to another level of passion, intrigue and excitement. There are hints before the big reveal, but not even the most imaginative reader would dare to imagine the truth. Twists in the middles of stories rather than at their ends tend to say: “And what do we all think now?” rather than, “So THIS is what we’re supposed to think!” – and this one does that brilliantly.
4. Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson
An unputdownable novel about a woman who loses her memory every night as she sleeps, and wakes each next morning remembering nothing. The author expertly leads the reader to assume that there is a binary choice in terms of who and what to suspect, and then reveals at the last moment that there is a third and even more terrifying possibility…
5. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
You can tell when a twist is brilliant, because copycats spring up all over. The twist at the end of Lionel Shriver’s masterpiece about a school shooting and a difficult mother-son relationship is one that literally takes your breath away. I’ve read two novels since that have copied and pasted Shriver’s twist as if it hadn’t been done before (or perhaps they simply hadn’t read Kevin!). Either way, neither of the copycats used the twist with Shriver’s panache.
6. Innocent Blood by PD James
I know I don’t have to choose a No 1 – this is, after all, a top 10 – but this novel contains my favourite twist in all of crime fiction. Halfway through this story of an adopted young woman determined to trace her biological parents, there is a twist that made me leap up off my sun-lounger and yell at random holiday makers that they needed to read this book urgently. I won’t say any more – just, please, read it.
7. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
This novel about a US Marshal trapped on an island, trying to find an escaped murderer in a sanatorium, has a twist of such audacity, I’m not sure I’d have dared, but I’m very glad Lehane did. It’s so bold and all-encompassing, it’s perfect.
8. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
This brilliant thriller contains a meta-twist, devised and inflicted by a central character within the novel rather than by the author herself. It’s a middle-twist rather than an end-twist, and the character responsible spends much of the novel afterward boasting about it. It works exceptionally well.
9. The Secret House of Death by Ruth Rendell
A brilliant crime novel by one of the UK’s finest crime writers, in which the murder itself is the twist. You won’t understand what I mean by that – so you must read the book! The last line, which underscores how profoundly the reader has been fooled, sent a shiver down my spine.
10. Behind Closed Doors by BA Paris
I’m not sure all readers would recognise that this is a twist-based story, but it is. It twists our expectations of the entire psychological thriller genre. The novel begins as a portrait of a marriage in which the wife seems to be a little nervous around her husband… What could possibly be going on? Is he abusive? Does she have a guilty secret? I liked this novel from the start, but a few chapters in, one of the main characters provides information that’s so startling, it shakes up all of the reader’s expectations about the genre they think they’re reading, making the rest of the story all the more exciting.
So there you have it – I hope these have whetted your appetite. If you haven’t yet read them, add them to your TBR pile immediately! Happy reading 🙂