Most authors work very hard ‘behind the scenes’ to organise the characters and events in a story so that the reader can make sense of them. The better organised and ‘displayed’ the story line is, the more inviting it is to readers to get drawn into the story. There are a lot of ways this can be done, just as there are a lot ways to organise and display merchandise in a shop. But the best crime fiction stories ‘hang together’ in a structured way, so that moving among events and, sometimes, points of view feels seamless.
One of the classic ways this is done is of course the chronological structure. Many of Agatha Christie’s novels are written like that. For example, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is told more or less chronologically. It begins with the death of Mrs. Ferrars of the village of Kings Abbot. Then, Dr. James Sheppard, the local doctor and the narrator of the story, pauses for a bit to tell about some of the people who live in the village. Then the story goes on to tell about Sheppard’s introduction to his new neighbour, Hercule Poirot, who has retired to Kings Abbot. After that the story moves on to the stabbing death of Roger Ackroyd, a retired manufacturing magnate who also lives in the village. Captain Ralph Paton is suspected of the murder, but his fiancée Flora Ackroyd is sure that he’s innocent and asks Poirot to clear his name. The investigation, the clues and so on come up in a chronological way, and the very famous dénouement is the climax of the story.
A lot of other whodunits, whether police procedural, PI novel or amateur-detective novel are structured in the same way. For example, Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People is more or less like that. Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin is pleasantly surprised when he gets an unexpected visit from his estranged wife Liz. He’s hoping this means that she wants to reconcile, but that’s not her reason for coming. She tells Devlin that she’s run away from her lover Mick Coghlan because she’s afraid of him. She needs a place to stay for a few days, and she wants Devlin’s help. Devlin reluctantly agrees. He doesn’t really trust Liz but he’s still hoping they’ll get back together. The next night, Liz is stabbed and her body left in an alley. Devlin wants very much to find out who killed the woman he loved – still does, really. And he becomes even more motivated when he becomes a suspect.
The chronological approach to ‘displaying’ the pieces of a story is only one option of course. There’s also the point of view approach. Some authors tell the same story through two or more different perspectives. So even when the chronology of events is a little fuzzy, it’s still easy for the reader to be drawn into what happens and to make sense of the events. For instance A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife tells the story of Jodi Brett, a successful Chicago psychologist, and her partner Todd Gilbert, an also-successful developer. The two have been together for twenty years when Todd begins a relationship with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his good friend Dean Kovacs. Todd’s strayed before, but this time it’s different. When Natasha tells him she’s pregnant, Todd decides to leave Jodi and marry Natasha. Then, Jodi gets another shock. She is served with eviction papers which require her to vacate the home she and Todd have shared. With nowhere to go, and already having to deal with the humiliation of Todd’s leaving her, Jodi tries to at least keep her home. But the lawyer she contacts tells her that she has no legal right to stay, since she and Todd were never married. Then everything changes when Todd is shot in a drive-by incident. This story is told from alternating points of view (Jodi’s and Todd’s), with each section clearly indicated. So even though there are several flashbacks, ‘side thoughts’ and reflections as well as the actual chronology of events, it’s easy for the reader to follow the story and it’s an effective way to ‘display’ what happens.
That strategy is also used in Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack. Superintendent Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano of the Buenos Aires police is trying to do the best job he can as a good cop in the dangerous and violent world of 1979 Argentina. The military junta in control of the country has taken extreme measures to get and keep power, and all sorts of people are disappearing. Everyone knows that asking questions can be fatal, so most people do their best to stay ‘under the radar.’ One morning, Lascano is called to investigate a report of two dead bodies dumped at a riverbank. But when Lescano gets there, there’s a third body. Two of the killings bear all the hallmarks of an Army ‘hit,’ and Lascano knows the risks of asking any questions about them. The third though is a different kind of murder. This one looks like a more personal murder so despite all of the danger, Lascano determines to solve it. This story is told from several points of view, including those of Lescano, Fusili the medical examiner, Elías Biterman the victim, and the other people involved in the case. Through each person’s eyes we see the sequence of events that led to the murder, and Mallo makes it clear whose perspective is being shared. The narrative itself sometimes weaves back and forth between past and present as the characters’ backstories are told. But the story itself is ‘displayed’ and organised through the use of different points of view.
Mallo also uses another strategy for ‘displaying’ the story: the use of past and present tense. The story of Biterman’s murder and its investigation and consequences is told in present tense. Backstories and past histories are told in the past tense. This helps to invite the reader to follow the story of the crime without getting distracted by the histories of the various characters. Interestingly enough, Åsa Larsson chose the opposite way to organise The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). In that novel, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson returns to her home in Kiruna when a former friend Sanna Stråndgard is accused of murdering her brother Viktor. Martinsson, who also knew Viktor, is reluctant to go to Kiruna but she agrees. She begins to look into the killing and soon finds that more than one person had a good motive for murder. The story of that investigation and its consequences is mostly told in the past tense (although that does change in the climactic scene). But the flashbacks in which we learn why Martinsson left Kiruna in the first place are told in the present tense. Although the use of different tenses might seem counterintuitive, Larsson uses this strategy effectively to organise the story and ‘display’ the events in it.
There are lots of other ways too to organise and present a story. We all have our preferences of course, but there isn’t one ‘right’ way to go about it, just as there isn’t one ‘right’ way to make merchandise in a shop appealing. What’s your preference? Do you like chronological approaches? Point-of-view? Use of tense? Something else? If you’re a writer, how do you ‘display your wares?’ What draws you to that approach?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Call’s With or Without Reason.