One of the things that just about all crime novels have in common is that something bad happens in the novel. Often it’s murder. So crime fiction fans know before they even begin to read a novel that it’s probably going to involve something terrible.
In that sense, you wouldn’t think that foreshadowing – giving the reader a hint about bad things to come – would be a useful device for a crime writer. But the fact is, even in crime novels, foreshadowing can build suspense and tension, and can get the reader caught up in the story.
Some authors are quite straightforward. They don’t hint at danger; they let you know about it. Here for instance is the first line of Liza Marklund’s The Bomber:
‘The woman who was soon to die stepped cautiously out of the door and glanced around.’
While Marklund doesn’t tell us who the woman is or how she will die, that’s a very clear sign of what’s to come. The woman, in fact, turns out to be civic/business leader Christine Furhage, who’s played a major role in bringing the Olympic Games to Stockholm. When her body is found after a bomb blast at Olympic Village, it’s thought at first to be the work of terrorists. Crime reporter Annika Bengtzon and her team know that this is major story, so they begin to look into it. What they find is that this death has nothing to do with extremists or terrorists.
In Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, we meet superstar enertainer Gaia Lafayette:
‘Gaia Lafayette was unaware of the man out in the dark, in the station wagon, who had come to kill her. And she was unaware of the email he had sent. She got hate mail all the time…’
It turns out that the danger to the star is real. She’s just taken the leading role in an historical drama, to be filmed on her ‘home turf’ of Brighton and Hove. So she travels there with her son Roan and her entourage. Superintendent Roy Grace, who’s already involved in a difficult and brutal murder case, is told that protecting Gaia Lafayette is a priority, since no-one is interested in the bad publicity that would come to the area if anything happens to one of its most famous citizens. Grace agrees to do his best to provide protection. But he finds himself caught in a much more complicated situation than he’d imagined, where it’s not really clear what the source of the danger to his charge is. And James alerts us clearly to that danger.
Some authors foreshadow by contrasting the beginning of a story with a hint that things are about to change. That’s what Wendy James does in The Mistake.
‘Later, when she looks back on that time – the time before it all began to change – Jodie will see that it was more than good, more than happy enough. It was idyllic.’
And it is, too. Jodie Evans Garrow is the wife of successful attorney Angus Garrow, who’s being mentioned as the possible next mayor of their New South Wales town of Arding. She’s the mother of two healthy children who’ve been doing well, and life really is content. It all changes when her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child. No-one knows about that other child, whom Jodie named Elsa Mary – not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the over-curious nurse looks into the matter, she can find no record of adoption. Now questions begin to be raised. What happened to the baby? If she was adopted, where is she? If not, is she alive? If she died, did Jodie have something to do with it? Now the Garrow family become pariahs, and as we slowly learn the truth about Elsa Mary, we see what happens as a family starts to come apart at the seams, so to speak.
Some crime writers use foreshadowing that’s a little more subtle. In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas for instance, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is hired by business magnate Charity Wiser to find out who is trying to kill her. To that end, he’s invited to join the members of her family for a cruise on her ship The Dorothy. That way, so the plan goes, he can ‘vet’ them and figure out which one of them is the would-be murderer. Here are Quant’s thoughts about the cruise:
‘I’m not convinced my decision would have been different otherwise, but I found myself answering in the affirmative before I’d thought the whole thing through. But really. A free Mediterranean cruise? Come on!’
We know, because this is a crime novel, that something bad is going to happen. In fact, several bad things, including murder, happen. Quant knows the cruise is risky too. Rather than go on and on about the possible danger, Bidulka hints at it and invites the reader to board the ship and find out what happens next.
In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, Boston art historian/expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from an acquaintance Simeon Pawlovsky, who owns a pawn shop in the area. Pawlovsky thinks that he may have gotten his hands on a valuable painting and he wants Revere’s judgement about its worth. Revere agrees and visits the pawn shop. To his shock, he discovers that Pawlovsky is probably right. This looks to be a very valuable Velázquez that was ‘borrowed’ by the Nazis ‘for safekeeping.’ Revere wants to do more research on the painting before he can be absolutely sure, so he asks Pawlovsky to lend him the painting, saying that it’s not safe to keep something so valuable in a pawn shop. Pawlovsky refuses, which is the first hint that something is about to go very wrong. Revere agrees to be gone no more than two hours. When he returns,
‘I saw that Simeon hadn’t come back out front to pull the metal shutters closed, although five o’clock had come and gone.’
You can imagine that things take a very bad turn, as Revere discovers that Pawlovsky has been killed. Revere feels guilty about having left the man alone with such a valuable painting, and determines to find out who the killer is. It occurs to him that if he can trace what happened to the painting after the Nazis ‘secured it for safekeeping,’ he can find the killer. This he sets out to do, and it ends up bringing him danger he hadn’t imagined.
And then there’s Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, which begins in the village of Malton-under-Wode. There, we are witness to a conversation between Mr. Burnaby, the landlord of the Three Crowns, and a friend. They’re discussing Linnet Ridgeway, who’s just purchased nearby Wode Hall. Here’s what Mr. Burnaby’s friend says about Linnet:
‘It seems all wrong to me – her looking like that. Money and looks – it’s too much. If a girl’s as rich as that, she’s no right to be a good-looker too. And she is a good-looker…got everything, that girl has. Doesn’t seem fair.’
It turns out that Mr. Burnaby’s friend is right about Linnet Ridgeway. She’s beautiful, wealthy and smart, so it’s understandable that she’d turn the head of Simon Doyle, fiance of her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. When she and Simon marry, they take a cruise of the Nile as part of their honeymoon. On the second night of that cruise, Linnet is shot. Jackie’s the primary suspect, since she had a very good motive and since she’s along on the cruise. But it’s soon proved that she could not have killed the victim. So Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race, who are also aboard, have to look elsewhere for the murderer. Christie hints from the beginning that all will not go well for Linnet and although the foreshadowing is faint at first, crime fiction fans know that something is going to go very, very wrong.
And that’s the thing about foreshadowing. It can be subtle or obvious; it can happen right at the beginning of a novel or a bit further on. But however it’s used, it can build suspense and tension. Which ‘foreshadowing moments’ have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Storm Front.