One really effective way for building tension and suspense in a crime fiction story is to create an atmosphere in which no-one can really be trusted. Of course a wise sleuth doesn’t trust any of the murder suspects. But there are some novels in which that atmosphere of suspicion – even paranoia – goes beyond the detective not trusting the suspects. When it’s done well, an atmosphere of suspicion can build suspense very effectively without resorting to gore, and in some cases, that atmosphere can lend a dose of realism to a story, too.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), ten people receive invitations to spend a holiday at a house on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, all ten accept the invitation. When they arrive, they’re surprised that their host isn’t there to greet them, but they settle in nonetheless. After dinner on that first night, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Another dies later that night. And then there’s another death. Now it’s clear that they’ve all been lured to the island deliberately. It’s also clear that one of them is a murderer. The survivors now have to find out which of them is the killer while they also do their best to stay alive. As the story moves on, we see how the characters suspect each other and the tension builds as the characters realise that no-one can be trusted.
There’s also a very effective atmosphere of background suspicion in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. In that novel, someone’s been sending out anonymous letters to several of the residents of the small Dutch village of Zwinderen. The notes have accused the recipients of all sorts of immoral behaviour, and in two cases, the notes have led to suicide. One recipient has had a complete mental breakdown. No-one in the town has been willing to speak out very much to the local police, so Inspector Van der Valk of the Amsterdam police is sent to Zwinderen to find out who’s been sending the notes. He and his wife Arlette arrive in the town and settle in, and it’s not long before they discover why the townsfolk are so unwilling to get to the bottom of the matter. Zwinderen is the kind of town where everyone knows everyone’s business; even the most personal details of other people’s lives get around. No-one trusts anyone and it’s against that backdrop that Van der Valk has to find out who has wreaked the havoc in the town. Van der Valk does find out who wrote the letters and why. He also discovers another, even more important secret. In this novel, the atmosphere of suspicion lends a real air of tension to the pace of the story.
We also see that atmosphere in Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors. Shane Scully is an L.A.P.D. homicide detective who gets a frantic call late one night from Barbara Molar, wife of Scully’s ex-partner Ray Molar. Barbara is terrified that her abusive husband is about to kill her and Scully rushes to the rescue. When he gets there, Molar fires at him, but his bullet misses; Scully’s doesn’t and he soon gets involved in an Internal Affairs Division (IAD) investigation. Soon enough, though, it’s clear that the top brass are not going to treat this as they do other IAD investigations. Instead, they are planning to charge Scully with murder. IAD officer Alexa Hamilton is put on the case and soon, Scully is in deeper than he could have imagined. He begins to ask questions about why he’s been made a department pariah and learns that he’s stumbled onto something bigger and more corrupt than a case of an accidental shooting. In this novel, we learn that nobody in the department trusts anyone else, really. As the novel goes on, we see that that atmosphere of mutual suspicion causes many people to turn their backs on Scully or at the very least refuse to help him openly. That suspicion adds a solid layer of suspense to this novel.
Sometimes, the tenor of the times means that no-one really feels safe, and that’s enough to make people suspicious of just about everyone. That’s the case, for instance, in Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel novels, which take place in pre-World War II and World War II Berlin. In A Trace of Smoke, for instance, crime reporter Vogel discovers that her brother Ernst has been killed. As she begins to look for answers, readers discover that he kept many secrets and had many “companions,” among them top officials in the increasingly powerful Nazi party. Because of the dangers of falling afoul of the Nazi authorities, very few people are willing to help Vogel, and she encounters a great deal of fear and suspicion, even at the very top of the Nazi echelon. The fear, suspicion and mistrust of the times are woven through this novel and add not just suspense but realism to it.
That’s also the case with William Ryan’s The Holy Thief, which also takes place just before World War II. In this novel, Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID is assigned to investigate the brutal murder of Maria Ivanovna Kuznetsova, whose body has been found in a former church. As Korolev begins to ask questions, we see just how much mistrust and suspicion there is in Stalinist Moscow. Since Korolev is a member of the police, people who don’t know him personally do their very best not to say anything to him. And even people who do know him don’t want to be seen talking to the police. What’s worse, the NKVD takes an interest in this murder, especially as it may be related to a smuggling operation that’s of interest to them. The NKVD doesn’t trust the Moscow CID, and the feeling is quite mutual. There’s also the fact that this murder may be related to the work of the Moscow criminal underworld, and that adds yet another layer of suspicion. Korolev has survived because he knows better than to trust anyone, and he knows that anything he says could mean imprisonment or worse. As Korolev tries to solve this murder, and later murders that occur, we see the powerful effect of that atmosphere of suspicion on the action in the story. It really adds tension and interest.
And then there’s Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm) in which Stockholm tax attorney Rebecca Martinsson returns to her home town of Kiruna to help a friend who’s been accused of murder. The victim is Viktor Strångard, who was a powerful leader in the Church of the Source of All Our Strength, and it’s among the church members that Martinsson thinks she’ll find the answers she needs. But the church itself is cloaked in mystery and no-one really trusts anyone else. Certainly the church members do not trust outsiders, and that atmosphere of suspicion adds to the tension as Martinsson works with Inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke to get to the truth about the murder.
When there’s an overall atmosphere of suspicion in a novel so that none of the characters trusts anyone, this can add a very effective layer of tension and suspense if it’s not made melodramatic. It can also add a solid layer of realism. Which novels have you enjoyed that use this suspense-builder?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds.