Some crime writers build suspense in their novels by making the reader privy to information that the sleuth doesn’t yet have. The reader knows something’s going to happen, or knows a certain fact, but the sleuth hasn’t worked it out yet. On the one hand, that approach can add tension and invite the reader to find out how the sleuth will handle whatever it is she or he doesn’t yet know. It can also make for interesting perspectives on other characters. On the other hand, if it’s not done effectively, that strategy can make the sleuth seem incompetent, especially if it’s information you’d expect the sleuth ought to have or try to get. That said though, it’s used in a number of crime novels. Here are just a few.
In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot to look into the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was murdered by her lodger James Bentley. There’s evidence against Bentley, and in fact he was convicted of the crime and is soon to be executed. But even though Spence himself collected the evidence, he’s begun to think that perhaps Bentley isn’t guilty. Poirot agrees to investigate and travels to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder takes place. He soon discovers that Mrs. McGinty had found out something about one of the villagers that it wasn’t safe for her to know. There are several suspects too; Broadhinny is full of ‘very nice people,’ but they all have their secrets. Then, there’s another murder. Now Poirot has to find out how the two deaths are connected, if they are. At one point, there’s a conversation between Edna Sweetiman and her mother, who runs the local post office. It turns out that Edna saw something on the night of the second murder. Poirot isn’t privy to that piece of information, but it’s a very interesting clue.
Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle is the story of the disappearance of Andreas Winther. One day, he meets up with his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe as usual. By the end of that day, Andreas has disappeared. His mother Runi is concerned, and goes to the police. At first, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer isn’t too worried. There are many legitimate reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother. But when time passes and he still doesn’t return, Sejer begins to share Runi Winther’s fears. He starts to ask questions and interview people, beginning with Zipp. By this time in the novel, readers know much more about what happened to Andreas than Sejer does. Fossum uses that fact to build tension as Sejer tries to find out everything Zipp knows. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But there is a lot that he knows, and that adds a thread of suspense to the interviews between Sejer and Zipp. Sejer of course is convinced that Zipp knows more than he is telling, and he’s determined to get the truth. For his part, Zipp has his reasons for not sharing everything that he knows.
T.J. Cooke takes a slightly different approach 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. In a very short time it’s established that she was stabbed to death and her body thrown over the cliff. Soon enough, the police have a suspect: Elton Spears. Spears is a mentally troubled young man who’s had brushes with the law before. He’s not particularly likeable and there’s evidence against him. But his solicitor Jim Harwood knows Spears, and takes on his case. This isn’t a traditional ‘whodunit’ kind of novel. Rather, the reader knows who the killer is early in the novel. The suspense in this novel comes from the question of whether the murderer will get away with the crime. In a way too the suspense comes from the question of motive. It’s not clear at first why the victim was killed; that’s revealed as the story evolves.
Several of the novels in Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace series also take the approach of giving the reader more information than the sleuth has. For instance, in Dead Simple, Grace and his team launch a major search when Michael Harrison disappears just days before his wedding to Ashley Harper. All the police know at first is that Harrison had gone out with some friends for a ‘stag night.’ Later that evening, their borrowed SUV was hit by another car, killing nearly everyone on board. Only one man survived that crash, but he is in a coma and dies without regaining consciousness. Harrison’s best friend and best-man-to-be Mark Warren was out of town on business and wasn’t with the group, so he doesn’t add much to Grace’s store of knowledge. Neither does Ashley, who says that she didn’t know what sort of prank the groom’s friends were planning. The reader is privy from the first few pages to what happened to Harrison. As the novel goes on, the reader also learns several things about some of the characters that Grace doesn’t know, at least at first. So part of the suspense in the novel lies in whether and how quickly Grace and his team can get that information.
In James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, John Carlyle of Charing Cross Station, and his assistant Joe Szyskowski are called to the scene when Henry Mills discovers the murdered body of his wife Agatha. There are no signs of home invasion, and nothing is missing. So the police make the logical deduction that Mills is responsible. His account of the killing is that his wife had enemies who were out to get her, but that’s a very thin alibi and he’s soon arrested and imprisoned. However, it’s not long before Carlyle finds a piece of evidence that adds considerable weight to Henry Mills’ story. So he and his team begin to look into the victim’s background to see who might have wanted to kill her. In the meantime, the reader has already learned, in a general sense, the answer to that question. We are given important background information that Carlyle doesn’t yet have. So part of the suspense in this novel is the ‘cat and mouse’ game between Carlyle and the person involved in the murder.
Gene Kerrigan uses a similar approach to building suspense in The Rage. Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney investigate when banker Emmet Sweetman is murdered in the hallway of his own home. Little by little they learn that Sweetman had been involved in some dubious ‘business transactions’ during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. When the ‘boom years’ ended, Sweetman was in debt to some very nasty people who wanted their money back. In the meantime, we follow the story of Vincent Naylor, who’s recently been released from prison. He meets up again with his brother Noel and his girlfriend Michelle Flood, along with some other trusted friends. Together they plan a major heist: the armed robbery of a cash transfer vehicle. Their target is Protectica, a security company that moves cash among banks and businesses in the area. Tidey doesn’t know about these plans, and he doesn’t know at first that the group do in fact steal the money. But then everything falls apart for the thieves, and Vincent Naylor decides to take his own kind of revenge. Tidey doesn’t know that either at first, and Kerrigan builds tension as the reader learns about the robbery and its aftermath from the thieves’ point of view and, later, from Tidey’s.
Sleuths can’t know everything, so it’s logical that there would be some things they wouldn’t be privy to, at least at first. And it can work very effectively to have the reader know more than the sleuth, at least at first. That way the reader gets a broad perspective on a given story. At the same time, this approach needs to be handled carefully so that the detective isn’t made out to be too incompetent for credibility. What are your thoughts on this strategy? Do you enjoy novels where you know more than the sleuth does, at least at first?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Arlo Guthrie’s Someday.