Yesterday I had the honour of having lunch with the terrific Rob Kitchin, who blogs at The View From the Blue House. Kitchin’s blog has great reviews of crime fiction novels, and is well worth a place on your blog roll if you’re a crime fiction fan. But Kitchin isn’t just a blogger – not by any means. Like me, he’s an academic. He’s also the author of The Rule Book and The White Gallows, both featuring his sleuth Detective Superintendent Colm McEvoy. Oh, and he’s the author of Killer Reels, a linked collection of short stories featuring the very creepy film buff Jimmy Kiley. And his standalone Stiffed, which he’s called ‘screwball noir,’ is due to be released this year. Check out The View From the Blue House for details about all of those books and about Kitchin’s many short stories and 100-word Drabbles.
One of the things we talked about was the way that authors use suspense and tension in their novels to engage the reader and to keep the reader turning pages. Some authors start their novels with lower levels of suspense, but gradually add it in as the novel goes on. For instance, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) is like that. The story starts, if you will, innocently enough. Ten people have been invited to Indian Island, off the Devon coast and for different reasons, each accepts. The story begins as they all travel to the island and although there are little hints of what’s to come, the tension hasn’t really set in yet. Then, when they arrive on the island and discover that their host hasn’t yet made an appearance, the tension begins. It builds after dinner that night, when each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Then there’s another death that night. One by one, the other guests also begin to die and it’s soon clear that they’ve been lured to the island and that one of them is the killer. The suspense continues to build as the survivors try to find out who the murderer is and avoid getting killed themselves.
Suspense builds gradually in Louise Penny’s A Rule Against Murder too. In that novel, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec goes on an annual wedding anniversary trip with his wife Reine-Marie. They’re staying at Manoir Bellechasse and hoping for a relaxing getaway. Soon they meet several members of the Finney family, who are also staying at the lodge. There are Thomas and Sandra Finney, Thomas’ elderly parents, and his sisters Julia and Marianna and Marianna’s child. At first all seems to be going smoothly enough although it’s clear that the Finneys are not exactly a happy family. The suspense begins to build though when it becomes clear just how dysfunctional the family really is. Then there’s a murder. Of course the tension increases then, and even more so as more revelations come out about the family and as Gamache uncovers an unexpected connection to a character fans of this series already know.
Of course, not all authors choose to build the suspense in their stories slowly. Some choose to start with a high level of tension and more or less keep up the same pacing and tension throughout the novel. That’s the case with Megan Abbott’s Die a Little. The tension in that story is built early when Bill King marries Alice Steele. Alice is a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant who seems to settle quickly into life as a suburban housewife. But Bill’s sister Lora doesn’t care much for Alice. She tells herself it’s because there’s just something about Alice that doesn’t seem quite right. And indeed, she finds out things about Alice that suggest that Alice isn’t telling the truth about a lot of her life. But Lora has always had a close relationship with Bill and although she doesn’t admit it to herself at first, she’s also jealous of this new woman’s presence in her brother’s life. The suspense and pacing continue as Lora gradually gets drawn more and more into Alice’s world at the same time as she feels repelled by it. Then there’s a murder. What’s more, Alice may have had something to do with it. As Lora starts asking questions, she learns more than she wanted to admit about Alice and about herself.
T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton also starts with a strong dose of suspense and keeps that level steady throughout the novel. An enigmatic young woman Sarena Gunasekera has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. Evidence shows that she was stabbed and possibly raped, and then thrown over the cliff. The evidence also strongly suggests that Elton Spears is the murderer. Spears is a troubled young man with mental problems and deficiencies, so he can’t really participate in his own defence. And yet some things he says hint that he may not be guilty. And there is also the principle of British law that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. Solicitor Jim Harwood has worked with Spears before and takes his case now, working with barrister Harry Douglas, who will defend the case in court. As the novel goes on, we learn bit by bit what Sarena’s history was, how her story is tied up with that of crime boss Sammy Todd, and what really happened on the night she was murdered. The story is told from Harwood’s point of view, and through his narrative we learn that in this case, little is as it seems.
There are also crime novels and series where tension and suspense are not really strongly featured. The interest in those novels comes instead from character development and sometimes atmosphere and setting. Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series featuring Mma. Precious Ramotswe is like that. In each of the novels, Mma. Ramotswe and her associate Mma. Grace Makutsi are hired to solve several cases. For instance, one client hires Mma. Ramotswe to find out whether his teenage daughter is secretly seeing a boyfriend. Another wants to know which of several young women would be the best candidate to win Botswana’s Miss Beauty and Integrity pageant. Other cases involve finding long-lost people and uncovering shady practices at a health clinic. In all of these cases, there is real interest as we follow the way Mma. Ramotswe and Mma. Makutsi go about finding answers. And as the series goes on, their characters and the characters of the people in their lives develop and evolve. There’s also a strong sense of the Botswana setting. Those are the features that hold the reader’s interest rather than a high level of action and suspense.
That’s also true in M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series. Fans of this series know that Macbeth is the constable in the small Scottish town of Lochdubh. He’s got little ambition and would rather fish than do a lot of detecting. But he’s good at what he does, and he has a deep knowledge of the Highlands and its people and culture, having lived there all his life. These novels do feature murders, some of them not exactly pretty. But the real interest in the novels isn’t the suspense and tension of the cases, although of course, they are important. Rather, it’s the setting, the quirky characters and of course Macbeth himself.
Everyone’s different about the way they like their suspense. Some like it to start high and stay that way. Others prefer a different focus in their novels. And still others like the suspense to build gradually. What about you? How do you like your suspense? If you’re a writer, how do you use suspense to keep readers engaged?
Thanks, Rob, for a real treat of a meeting and conversation. Hey folks, do read Rob’s work. You won’t regret it.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from King Prawn’s No Peace.