Category Archives: Håkan Nesser

It All Keeps Adding Up, I Think I’m Cracking Up*

BuildupofPressureI’m sure you’ve heard of the old expression, ‘It’s always the quiet ones…’ As any crime fiction fan can tell you, there are all kinds of murderers, both loud and quiet. But even though it’s really not true, not even in fiction, there is this lingering idea of the murderer as the ‘the quiet type.’

Perhaps one reason might be that very often, those who are relatively quiet and unassuming tend to be taken for granted. Sometimes, this can mean that the pressures of life that can get to any of us build up without anyone taking notice. And then the proverbial kettle boils over.

Crime writers sometimes use this strategy – of the pressure building up and up – to add suspense to a novel or to shed light on why a character might commit murder. It’s got to be done thoughtfully of course; otherwise there’s the risk of characters who don’t act credibly. But when it is done with care, that quiet character who is more and more pressured can add a lot to a novel. Here are just a few examples.

Agatha Christie used that sort of character in several of her stories. It’s difficult to choose one without giving away spoilers, but here goes. In Appointment With Death, the Boynton family is on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East. The family is headed by tyrannical matriarch Mrs. Boynton, who has made a life of keeping every other member cowed. One afternoon, during a family visit to Petra, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure. But even though the explanation makes sense (Mrs. Boynton was getting on in years and not in good health), Colonel Carbury isn’t completely convinced it’s a natural death. Hercule Poirot is also in the area, so he agrees to look into the matter. As he interviews the various family members and fellow sightseers, we see just how much pressure Mrs. Boynton put on everyone. Christie gives us a sense of the buildup of pressure too, right from the beginning of the novel. In fact, the first sentence is:
 

‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?’
 

It turns out to have been spoken by one of the suspects, and shows how desperate all of them had become.

In Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery are summoned – that’s really the best word for it – to Bendigo Island, a private island owned by munitions magnate Kane ‘King’ Bendigo. It turns out that there have been threats on Bendigo’s life and, although he himself doesn’t take them seriously, others do. And Bendigo’s safety matters greatly, since his business is seen as pivotal to the world’s balance of power. The Queens are asked to find out who has threatened Bendigo’s life and stop that person. The island is a heavily-guarded private place, so there aren’t many suspects. The most likely are Bendigo’s two brothers Abel and Judah, and his wife Karla, so Ellery Queen begins there. Right away we sense the dysfunction in the relationships among those living on the island, and we also see how ‘King’ Bendigo earned his nickname. While he’s not sadistic or cruel, he is very much in charge, and doesn’t tolerate the least resistance to his wishes. It seems that Bendigo is well-enough protected, but one night, he’s in his hermetically-sealed study with Karla when he is shot. Badly wounded, he’s given immediate treatment. It’s now clear that someone really does intend to kill him. But the Queens’ first question is: how did the would-be killer manage it? The study was sealed shut; there was no gun anywhere in it; and it can be proven that neither Karla nor her husband fired a gun. Judah Bendigo is a likely suspect, since he bitterly resented his brother. What’s more, both of his brothers are contemptuous of him and exclude him from all business decisions. The only problem is that Judah was with Queen at the time of the shooting. He has an iron-clad alibi, as the saying goes. So Queen is faced with an ‘impossible-but-not-really’ mystery as he tries to figure out who shot King Bendigo. The trail leads him to the Bendigo brothers’ home town of Wrightsville, where he finds out some surprising truths about the family. The more he learns, the more we see how pressure building up can have grave consequences.

We also see that in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. Met Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin have been named as a special investigative team with a focus on crimes of special interest – crimes that are likely to generate a lot of media attention. Such a crime is the murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, whose body is found in a local church one morning. Along with his body is the body of a tramp Harry Mack. Part of the job of investigating the murder is, of course, looking into the lives of Berowne’s family members and others living in the house. One of them is Evelyn Matlock. The Berowne family took her in after her father was convicted of murder; since then she’s become the family housekeeper as well personal assistant to family matriarch Lady Ursula Berowne. The family isn’t abusive to her, but at the same time, she’s never been treated as an equal. As the novel goes on, we see how the stress of her situation has impacted her. In fact, when the investigating team finds out who killed Paul Berowne and Harry Mack, here’s what Evelyn has to say:
 

‘This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.’
 

Part of the way James builds suspense in this story is by hinting at this pressure early on and showing readers how it’s slowly built up over time.

Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery is the story of the murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn. He and some of his friends have gone in together on the purchase of a lottery ticket. Much to their joy, the ticket is a winner, so the group of them go out to celebrate. Later that night Leverkuhn is stabbed to death in his own bed. Intendant Münster of the Mardaam police leads the investigation into this murder, and he and his team naturally begin with the victim’s family and friends. Also considered are of course the other residents of the building where the Leverkuhns live. There are several motives, too. For one thing, Leverkuhn’s death means that his fellow lottery winners each get more money. And then there’s the family itself. While there’ve been no ‘official’ reports of problems, there are always secrets in a family. There are also the other people who live in the building, who may have had their own reasons for wanting Leverkuhn dead. Bit by bit, the investigating team follows up leads and slowly discovers the truth. It turns out that the slow building up of pressure has played an important role in this story.

It does in Shelly Reuben’s The Boys of Sabbath Street too. Artemus Ackerman, mayor of the small city of Calendar, wants the town to have a museum of magic. The idea is that it’ll bring in tourists and therefore, more revenue. The plan is to convert the old Baldwin Theater for the purpose, and Ackerman has hopes that he can get the funding he needs for the project. Then, there’s a fire on the same street as the site of the proposed museum. No-one’s killed, but the property destruction worries everyone. Matters get worse when there’s another fire. And another. Now it’s clear that an arsonist is at work. Ackerman’s assistant and publicist Maggie Wakeling works with Fire Marshal George Copeland to find and stop the arsonist before there’s any more damage or any loss of life. When they find out who that person is, we discover that the slow buildup of stress has had a lot to do with the events in the story.

It isn’t always ‘the quiet ones’ who commit crime. But the slow buildup of stress and trouble can have all sorts of terrible consequences. These are a few examples. Your turn.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Green Day’s Basket Case.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Håkan Nesser, P.D. James, Shelly Reuben

Hooray and Hallelujah, You Had it Coming To Ya*

Bursting Bubbles and BalloonsMost of us don’t take pleasure in others’ misfortune. Every once in a while, though, we do like to see certain people being ‘taken down a peg.’ That’s especially true if the person being humbled is arrogant or annoyingly officious. It can be satisfying to see people like that put in their proverbial place. That’s certainly true in real life, and we see it in crime fiction too.

There’s a incident like that in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links. Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer in France at the request of Paul Renauld. He’s written to Poirot claiming that he is in possession of a secret that some very nasty people want to know. Because of that, his life’s in danger. By the time Poirot and Hastings get to France though, it’s too late. Renauld has been stabbed and his body found by a golf course that abuts his home. The Sûreté has sent M. Giraud to solve the murder, and almost from the moment they meet, he and Poirot are at odds. Poirot is not known for his humility about his detection skills, but Giraud is far worse. He’s arrogant, rude and condescending, and Poirot soon has enough of him. It gets to the point where Poirot decides to put Giraud in his place. He bets the Inspector five hundred francs that he can solve Renauld’s murder before Giraud does. As you might expect, Poirot wins the bet, pulling Giraud down more than one peg, as the saying goes. And what does Poirot do with his winnings? He buys a model foxhound to adorn his mantel. Here’s what he says to Hastings about it:

 

‘Is he not a splendid fellow? I call him Giraud!’

 

It’s not hard to fault him for that…

I think we all have our particular favourite quote or ‘zinger’ that puts a character in her or his place. One of mine comes in Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, the first of his Van Veeteren series. Eva Ringmar has been found murdered in her bathtub. Her husband Janek Mitter is the most likely suspect, and it doesn’t help his case that he was so drunk on the night of the murder that he remembers very little about anything. He’s put on trial and cross-questioned by an officious prosecutor who quickly gets everyone annoyed. When the prosecutor asks Mitter how he knows he didn’t kill his wife (since he was so drunk), here’s what Mitter says:

 

‘I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’

 

Truly an inspired response…

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad, Colonel Halburton-Smythe and his wife Mary plan a weekend house party, mostly for the purpose of ‘showing off’ up-and-coming playwright Henry Withering, who’s become engaged to their daughter Priscilla. One of the guests is Captain Peter Bartlett of the Highland Dragoons. He may be ‘important,’ but he’s unpleasant, arrogant and lecherous. Needless to say he doesn’t get on well with the other guests. The weekend begins, and Bartlett makes a bet with fellow guest Jeremy Pomfret that he can bag a brace of grouse before Pomfret does. Early the next morning, Bartlett sneaks out before the agreed-upon hour, so he has more time to get his grouse. He never makes it back to the house and is later found killed, apparently the result of a terrible shooting accident. At least that’s what DCI Blair thinks. And that’s what the Haliburton-Smythes think too. But local bobby Hamish Macbeth isn’t so sure of that. Fans of this series will know that Blair is arrogant, pushy and sometimes rude, especially to Macbeth. So it’s with great pleasure that Macbeth presents Blair – in the presence of the ‘well-born’ Haliburton-Smythes and their guests – with evidence that Bartlett’s death was murder. Blair’s consternation is quite satisfying…

In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, sometimes-attorney Jack Irish is investigating the murder of a former client Danny McKillop. That murder is very likely connected to the hit-and-run killing of citizen activist Anne Jeppeson, so Irish ends up looking into both deaths. The trail leads him to a charity group, the Safe Hands Foundation, and he goes to see one of its executives. However, the security guard is both officious and implacable and refuses at first to telephone up to announce Irish’s arrival. Here’s how Irish handles it:

 

‘Then he wanted my driver’s license.
‘I’m not trying to cash a cheque here, sonny,’ I said. ‘Just phone the man.’
Tight little smile. ‘The body corporate lays down the security proceedings.’ Flat Queensland voice. Pause. ‘Sir.’
‘This isn’t Pentridge,’ I said. ‘Didn’t they retrain you for this job? Just phone.’
He held my gaze briefly but I’d got him in one. ‘I’ll check,’ he said.’

 

Irish wastes no time whatever bursting this security guard’s proverbial bubble.

Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that Brunetti is supervised by Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta. Fans will also know that Patta is self-important and arrogant, unless he’s in the company of the well-to-do and powerful, in which case he’s a toady. Whenever an investigation may lead to someone who ‘matters,’ Patta does everything he can to dissuade Brunetti from pursuing it. So it’s always especially satisfying to Brunetti when he can burst his boss’ bubble, so to speak, with irrefutable proof that someone important is guilty of murder. That’s what happens in Through a Glass, Darkly, when Giorgio Tassini is killed. Tassini is night watchman at a glass blowing factory, and at first, his death is put down to a tragic accident. But Brunetti isn’t sure that’s true, and starts to dig deeper. He discovers who the killer is, and when he finally gets the proof he needs, it gives him great pleasure to be able to

 

‘…ruin the Vice-Questore’s lunch.’ 

 

Fans of these series really can’t blame Brunetti for that attitude…

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges is chief of police in the small French town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. The area is known for its cuisine; for centuries, residents have taken pride in the way they prepare and serve food. But since the advent of the EU and EU policies, there are new rules about the way food is to be stored, handled, prepared and served. On the one hand, the residents of St. Denis don’t want to make or eat tainted food any more than anyone else would. It’s not that they object to food safety. On the other, the EU inspectors are not local and don’t understand local traditions and customs. What’s more, they’re officious and obdurate, and they refuse to accept that the locals may have their own legitimate ways of ensuring food safety. So although Bruno is sworn to uphold the law, and is generally law-abiding himself, he does take pleasure in taking the EU inspection team down a few notches. When he learns that they’re paying a visit to St. Denis in Bruno, Chief of Police, he helps to let everyone in town know, so that code violations can be covered up. And it’s not hard for him (or the reader) to feel some sympathy for some locals who slash the tires on the inspectors’ official car. Bruno certainly doesn’t want violence, and he can’t condone breaking the law. But seeing the inspectors taken down a notch has a real appeal.

I think that’s probably a common feeling. We may not like embarrassing people publicly. And we may not condone violence. But sometimes we do get some real satisfaction when officious, arrogant people, especially if they are powerful, have their proverbial balloons burst. These are just a few examples. Which have I left out?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matty Malcek and Johnny Mercer’s Goody Goody. This song has been recorded several times, including by Ella Fitzergald, Frankie Lymon and Chicago. Check out a few versions and see which one you like.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Håkan Nesser, M.C. Beaton, Martin Walker, Peter Temple

How Long Has This Been Going On?*

Long BooksI think most people would agree that there is such a thing as a book that’s too long. And if you’ve ever stopped reading a very long book halfway through, wondering why you’d even bothered with it, you know that some such books could do with a good editing. Both in my reading and in my writing, I tend to like books that aren’t overly long.

At the same time, some stories take longer to tell than others do. And some highly regarded books are longer than you might think. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but there are some longer books that really don’t seem too long when you’re reading them. Let me offer just a few examples. Keep in mind, everyone’s taste is a bit different. Still, I think you’ll get my point.

On Monday, I spotlighted Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which is the story of a protracted lawsuit, a suspicious death, and a murder. Those aspects of the novel are woven into a larger picture of social class, the legal system and family dynamics in Victorian England. It’s a long book. And yet, fans will tell you that the story moves along, the characters are well-developed, the plot threads mesh together and the novel unfolds beautifully. In other words, the length isn’t a problem because the story keeps the reader absorbed. It’s a novel that needs extra time to evolve, if I may express it that way. It’s also worth noting that this novel (and plenty of others too) started life as a set of monthly instalments. The story unfolded over a period of time.

But there are plenty of long novels that didn’t start out as instlaments that have gotten a great deal of praise. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is one of them. It is the fictionalised account of the rise of Thomas Cromwell to power in the court of King Henry VIII. Wolf Hall isn’t a typical crime novel (is there such a thing?) complete with detective, suspects and an investigation. Yet it is a crime novel in the sense that there is plenty of court intrigue as well as plotting and untimely deaths. But it’s also the story of an era, of Cromwell’s background and the events that led to his coming into power and a lot more too. The novel is long and there are a lot of characters in it. It begins in Cromwell’s adolescence and moves through the next thirty years. There are a lot of events in the novel. But the story is woven together into a cohesive whole, so that a lot of people feel it isn’t ponderous at all. The story needs extra time.

Ian Rankin’s Exit Music has as its focal point the murder of Alexander Todorov, a dissident Russian poet whose death looks like a mugging gone horribly wrong. But as Inspector Rebus and DS Siobhan Clarke get deeper into the investigation and trace Todorov’s movements, they begin to believe there’s more to this case than a mugging. That’s even more likely when local recording engineer Charles Riordan dies and his studio goes up in flames. Todorov had done some recording of his work at that studio not long before, so Rebus and Clarke suspect the deaths might be related. Matters become more complex when it’s discovered that a group of wealthy Russian business executives were not happy about Todorov’s political stance. And when Rebus finds out that his nemesis ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty might have been involved with this group – might even have arranged for the murders – he thinks he’s found his man. Of course, this is Ian Rankin, so things aren’t quite what they seem. This is a long book; my paperback edition comes out at just over 520 pages. But Rankin draws the story threads together and the plot and action move along, so that fans of the novel don’t see the length as being burdensome.

That’s also true of Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case). In that novel, Intendant Münster and his team investigate the stabbing death of Waldemar Leverkuhn, who’s murdered after a night out with friends to celebrate a lottery winning. Münster’s team begins of course with Leverkuhn’s family members. There’s also interest in what Leverkuhn’s neighbours were doing at the time of the murder. And when it’s discovered that Leverkuhn and his friends had gone in together on a lottery ticket and won, the investigating team also takes a look at those friends’ backgrounds. Their alibis become especially important when one of them goes missing and is later found dead. It takes time for the team to trace the Leverkuhn family background and follow up on all of the evidence from Leverkuhn’s neighbours and friends. And there are some sub-plots in the novel too. So it’s not a short novel. And yet, fans will tell you that the story is absorbing, the pace solid and the character development rich.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine introduces readers to Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police. He and his assistant Detective Yu Guangming get involved in a very delicate case with far-reaching implications when the body of a young woman is discovered in Baili Canal. The woman is soon identified as national model worker Guan Hongying. Because the victim was a celebrity and a national role model, this investigation will have to be handled very delicately and very carefully. The first theory is that she was raped and murdered by a taxi driver, since she was known to have taken a taxi on the night of her death. But Chen and Yu soon find other possibilities. And as the trail begins to lead to some highly-placed people, the need for care and delicate handling becomes even more urgent. This novel is long by a lot of people’s standards – over 400 pages. But those who’ve loved it say that it includes solid sub-plots, interesting characters and a realistic look at 1990’s Shanghai. In this case, the book doesn’t feel too long, if I may put it that way.

Of course, everyone has a different idea of what counts as ‘long.’ What’s more, plots that feel too long to one person may not to another. So what’s your view? Are there any novels you’ve read that are long but that you’ve really enjoyed?  Do you have a cutoff point for novels (i.e. you won’t read novels longer than __ pages)? If you’re a writer, do you have a mental page limit as you write?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Carrack’s How Long, made famous by Ace.

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Filed under Charles Dickens, Håkan Nesser, Hilary Mantel, Ian Rankin, Qiu Xiaolong

As the Torch is Passed From Hand to Hand*

PassingtheTorchRight now my third Joel Williams novel is in the hands of a publisher, and I’m waiting to hear whether it’ll be a go. In the meantime, I’m thinking about the direction that the series might eventually take. At some point (and I don’t yet know when that point will be), Williams will realistically retire, both from his professional position and from the series. Or at the very least, his role in the series will change if he’s to age in something like real time. And that’s fine; to me that’s realistic. The question is: how would that process affect the series? 

One possibility (and it’s got real appeal for me actually) is to ‘bring up’ another character who will eventually take the lead. I already actually have one in mind. That, to me, is realistic too. Younger detectives learn their job, become good at it and then lead investigations in real life. Why shouldn’t they in crime fiction too? And there’s no reason that can’t happen with amateur sleuths as well. 

But what does that do to a series? Obviously the series has to change as the characters evolve and develop. That’s all to the good. And there are some series where this kind of change has been successful. For instance, as Håkan Nesser’s Maardam series begins, Inspector Van Veeteren leads the investigation team. The other characters certainly play important roles, but he’s the one in charge. As the series has gone on though, Van Veeteren has left the police force and now has a different life of his own. In the most recent novels, he’s hasn’t supervised the investigation. Instead, other police detectives have started to take the lead. Both Intendant Münster and DI Ewa Moreno have had the opportunity to take charge of investigations and the results have been successful. Of course, Van Veeteren is still a part of the series, but it’s clear that the torch is being passed if I can put it that way. 

We see a similar transition in Arnaldur Indriðason’s series. Many of the novels feature Inspector Erlendur in the lead, and those stories have been both highly regarded and successful. But recent books have featured other team-mates more or less heading up investigations. Both Detective Elinborg and Detective Sigurdur Óli have taken ‘starring roles,’ and that’s been very successful too. It will be very interesting to see whether there will be any new novels featuring those detectives again, even if Erlendur doesn’t appear in them. 

Colin Dexter’s series featuring Inspector Morse ended with The Remorseful Day. As of that novel, Morse’s second-in-command Sergeant Lewis was still that: second in command. But Dexter fans will know that on television anyway, Lewis became the lead character in his own series. He was promoted, he got his own team and they pursued new investigations. That’s realistic. Lewis is smart and skilled and it makes sense that he’d move along in the ranks so to speak. I wonder what it would be like if Dexter wrote some Lewis novels… 

Fans of Louise Penny’s Three Pines novels have become accustomed to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache as the leader of the investigations in that series. I don’t want to give away spoilers for those who haven’t read these novels, but I can say that Penny has laid the groundwork for a new direction in the series It will be very interesting to see what happens as some of the other team members who’ve figured in the series continue to develop and as Gamache makes some choices too. 

Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man is, so far as I know (so correct me if I’m wrong please), the last of his Kurt Wallander series. But what if that torch were passed to Wallander’s daughter Linda? What sort of series might that make? What about a series featuring Ian Rankin’s Siobhan Clarke, whom fans will know as Inspector John Rebus’ second-in-command. What if she featured in her own series? What about Karin Fossum’s Jacob Skarre?  In one way, it would be very realistic to have those characters assume leadership roles. They’ve evolved and developed and matured over time so it’s only natural that they’d feature in their own series. 

On the other hand, part of all of this is the author’s vision. That’s the ‘spark’ behind many series and without it characters can become flat and dull. If the author’s vision of a series doesn’t include passing the proverbial torch, then the series may not have its original appeal.  It’s also a matter of the characters themselves. They may be excellent characters in certain roles, but not as effective if they’re protagonists. So building a new series around one of them is a risk. 

What do you think? Does it make sense for a second-in-command or other character to take the lead in a new series? Or should a series end when the original protagonist stops investigating? If you’re a writer, what’s your vision for your work? Have you thought about where you’ll take your series when your protagonist no longer investigates? 

As for me, I’m thinking about it, but it’s not something I have to decide today. Joel Williams still has some good years ahead of him. ;-)

 

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dan Fogelberg’s Forefathers.

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Filed under Arnaldur Indriðason, Colin Dexter, Håkan Nesser, Henning Mankell, Ian Rankin, Karin Fossum, Louise Penny

And Then? And Then?*

Keeping the TensionIn a lot of crime fiction, part of the reason for investing oneself in a story is to try to work out who the culprit is. It’s a bit like a matching of wits between author and reader. But there are plenty of crime novels where we know who the killer is right from the start or soon after the story begins. In those cases, the author has to find some other way to keep the reader interested and wanting to know what happens next. That’s not easy to do, as it means one’s got to keep the tension level strong and add interest. But when it is done well, that sort of story can be an interesting alternative to the more traditional whodunit approach to telling a story.

Some authors keep readers engaged by exploring the background of a crime. And that approach can be very powerful. That’s what Ruth Rendell does in A Judgement in Stone. The very first sentence of the novel tells us who the murderer is, and even a bit about the motive:

 

‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’

 

And yet, the story stays strong throughout as Rendell explores Eunice Parchman’s background and psychology, and describes how the well-off and educated Coverdales hire her as housekeeper. The story of Eunice’s tenure in the household and the events that lead up to the murders takes a psychological approach that explains how and why someone like Eunice Parchman would kill people like the Coverdales. And that’s part of what keeps the tension and interest strong.

Sometimes, especially in thriller-type crime novels, the author builds the tension and keeps readers interested by putting the focus on the battle of wits between the criminal(s) and the protagonist(s). That’s what Frederick Forsyth does in Day of the Jackal. A far-right French terrorist group Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) plans to have French president Chales de Gaulle assassinated. The group’s members are already known to the police because of a prior attempt at assassination, so none of them will be able to get close to the president. That’s why they decide to hire an outside killer – an Englishman known only as The Jackal. The contract is agreed on, and The Jackal starts to prepare. The French government becomes aware that there’s a plot, but no-one knows who the assassin will be or where and when the killer will strike. Against those odds, French detective Claude Lebel is assigned to track down the killer and stop him before he can carry out his end of the contract. In this novel, the details of the preparation for the assassination, and the battle of wits between Lebel and his enemy add interest and tension to the story.

Martin Clark takes a slightly different approach to that battle of wits in The Legal Limit. Brothers Mason and Gates Hunt have grown up in rural Patrick County, Virginia. They’ve had a terrible childhood with their abusive alcoholic father, but the two brothers have responded to life in very different ways. Mason took advantage of all the opportunities that came his way. He went to university on a scholarship and has become a lawyer. Gates on the other hand squandered his athletic ability and now lives mostly on money he gets from his mother and from his girlfriend’s Welfare benefits. One day Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Thompson ends up leaving but that night, the Hunt brothers are coming home from a night of drinking when they encounter Thompson again. Before anyone really knows what’s happening, Gates has shot Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and life goes on for both. Years later, Mason has become a commonwealth prosecutor. When Gates is convicted of cocaine trafficking, he begs his brother to help him get out of jail. Mason refuses and Gates threatens him with implication in the murder of Wayne Thompson. Mason calls his brother’s bluff as the saying goes, and Gates follows through. In this story, we know who the killer is. We know what led up to it too. The tension is built in part through following the legal battle between the brothers and their lawyers. It’s also built through Clark’s exploration of the complicated relationship between them.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle is another interesting example of how authors keep the tension and interest going even when we know the truth about a crime. Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer gets a visit from Runi Winther. She’s worried because she hasn’t seen or heard from her son Andreas for a few days. At first, Sejer doesn’t do very much about the case. He sees no cause for great concern, and he reassures his visitor that her son is probably just fine. But when more time goes by with no sign of Andreas, Sejer starts to look into the matter. The last person to see Andreas seems to have been his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. The two young men spent the day of Andreas’ disappearance together, and Sejer is sure that Zipp knows something about what happened. But Zipp claims he doesn’t. Sejer has reason to think that Zipp’s not telling everything he knows and he’s right. We know from early in the novel exactly what happened to Andreas and the events that led up to it. And no, Fossum avoids the obvious: Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But he does indeed know the truth and part of the interest in this novel is the conflict between him and Sejer as Sejer tries to find out the truth while Zipp is just as determined to keep quiet about it all.

Sometimes it’s the ‘whydunit’ aspect of a crime or set of crimes that keeps the reader’s interest. That’s what happens in Håkan Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team are called in when Ryszard Malik is shot twice and killed in his own home. They’re just working on that case when there’s another murder. And another. Now the police have to figure out what the three victims have in common. When they do, they learn that there will be a fourth unless they can catch the killer first. What’s interesting about this novel is that we know who the killer is very quickly in the novel. But at first, we don’t know what the motive is. The slow reveal of that motive is part of what keeps the interest alive. Another element that keeps the reader engaged is the ‘chess game’ between Van Veeteren’s team and the killer.

T.J. Cooke takes a slightly different approach to building tension when we know the killer’s identity in Defending Elton. The body of an enigmatic young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. Some pieces of evidence point to Elton Spears, a troubled young man with mental problems and some deficiencies. And yet, there is the principle that under British law, an accused person is considered innocent until proven guilty. What’s more, the evidence isn’t entirely conclusive and there are hints that Spears may not be guilty. Since Spears can’t be much help in the case, solicitor Jim Harwood works with barrister Harry Douglas to investigate what really happened. We know soon after the novel begins who the killer is. Instead of using the ‘whodunit’ approach to keeping the tension and interest, Cooke takes a ‘Will the killer get away with it?’ angle on the story. The answer to that question is not a given…

A lot of crime fiction fans (myself included) like to match wits with the author in the ‘whodunit’ kind of novel. But there are lots of other approaches to keeping the reader engaged in a novel, even if we know who the killer is. Oh, and did you notice that I’ve not mentioned novels where we follow a serial killer’s thought processes throughout the novel? Maybe it’s my own bias, but that’s just not my thing. And it’s my blog, so there! ;-)

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Along Came Jones, made popular by the Coasters.

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Filed under Frederick Forsyth, Håkan Nesser, Karin Fossum, Martin Clark, Ruth Rendell, T.J. Cooke