In The Spotlight: Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Psychological thrillers come in a variety of different forms, with different sorts of characters. And it’s interesting to see how various authors add suspense to this sort of novel. Let’s take a look at one today and turn the spotlight on Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood.

The main action in the story begins when novelist Leonora ‘Nora’ Shaw gets an email from a woman named Florence ‘Flo’ Clay. It seems that Flo is planning a hen do for her best friend Clare Cavendish, who’s getting married soon, and Nora is on the invite list. Nora hasn’t seen Clare for ten years, and isn’t sure why she would have been invited, but Flo insists. So, Nora makes a pact with her friend, Nina da Souza, who’s also been invited. Neither wants to go, but each agrees to go if the other does. The final attendee list includes Clare, Flo, Nora, Nina, Tom Deauxma and Melanie Cho.

The hen weekend is to take place at a remote summer house belonging to Flo’s aunt, and Flo has planned every detail, so everything will be perfect for Clare. As you can imagine if you’ve read enough crime fiction, things don’t work out that way. For one thing, there are good reasons that Clare and Nora haven’t seen each other for ten years, so there’s awkwardness there right away. For another, no-one else is particularly enthusiastic about the party games, etc…  And, there’s an undercurrent of unease for several reasons.

Little by little, there are some uncomfortable revelations made on that first night. As if that’s not enough, the group begins to wonder whether they are as alone as they think they are. Is someone watching them? Nerves begin to fray, and it’s not long before everything starts to unravel. Then, what’s supposed to be a fun getaway turns sinister.

This is a psychological thriller in a lot of ways. So, there’s emphasis on the unsettled atmosphere. And, as we slowly start to learn about the characters and their histories, we learn that there’s a lot more going on then just a group of friends getting together. And, as everyone gets more and more tense, this leads to unkind remarks, little ‘sideways’ snipes, and more. The sense of ‘we’re here to have fun’ begins to fall apart quickly. This, too, adds to the suspense.

So does the setting for a lot of the book. It’s a lovely house, but it’s located in a remote place where there’s no reliable telephone signal or Internet. That feeling of being cut off adds to the tension, especially as things begin to turn sour. The woods are beautiful, too, but they are also eerie, especially at night. So, no-one feels entirely comfortable to begin with.

It’s also a psychological thriller in that it’s not clear (and I’m being careful, so as to avoid spoilers) which characters are who they seem to be, and which are not. As we learn new things, and get new perspectives, little pieces of the puzzle start to come together. But throughout the novel, there’s a sense that we don’t always know the real truth about any of the characters.

Still, we do get to know things about them. Clare, the bride-to-be, works in PR, for the Royal Theatre Company. She’s a sort of ‘golden girl,’ beautiful, successful, and she can be quite charismatic. Nora is a reclusive author who’s never been overly comfortable in groups. Nina is an outspoken doctor who can be sarcastic, but who is also both honest and loyal to Nora. Tom is involved in theatre. He’s witty, sometimes sarcastic, and genuinely caring. Flo is completely devoted to Clare and obsessed with making sure she has the perfect hen do. Melanie is a little more removed than the others. She’s looking forward to a chance to take a break from her newborn baby, but she finds that she misses her family a lot more than she thought she would. Yet there’s more to these characters than it seems, and it’s not really clear what they may be hiding.

That’s particularly true of Nora. The story is told from her point of view (both past and present tense, at different parts of the story’s timeline), so we see the events and other characters through her eyes. But how accurate is her perception? Is it a case of the unreliable narrator?

The timeline of the novel goes back and forth from the events at the house to the present time. Readers who prefer a sequential, linear story will notice this. That said, it’s not difficult to tell when the various parts of the story happen.

Since this is a psychological thriller, there isn’t a focus on violence. I can say without spoiling the story that it’s there. But the suspense comes much more from the psychological than it does from the physical, if I can put it that way. Readers who don’t like a lot of gore in their stories will appreciate that.

The story doesn’t have what you’d call a happy ending. No-one who spends the weekend at that house will be the same afterwards. But there is a note of hope, and we get the sense in several cases that pieces might be put back together.

In a Dark, Dark Wood is the story of what happens when hidden truths and the past come back to haunt a group of people who are gathered together for what’s supposed to be a fun weekend. It takes place in an eerie, atmospheric setting, and features a narrator who never really wanted to be there in the first place. But what’s your view? Have you read In a Dark, Dark Wood? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 27 August/Tuesday, 28 August – Faces of the Gone – Brad Parks

Monday, 3 September/Tuesday, 4 September – Bats in the Belfry – E.C.R. Lorac

Monday, 10 September/Tuesday, 11 September – Down Cemetery Road – Mick Herron


Filed under Dark Wood, Ruth Ware

All Woven Into Tapestry*

There’s a sometimes very delicate network of relationships among the police, politicians, and high-level business executives. Because of that, investigating a case of murder can be a bit tricky. It’s not so much that a case is stalled because the murderer is blocking it. Rather, it’s the possible consequences for an important relationship. For instance, suppose a murder investigation leads to a highly-placed city official, who has a lot of say over things like police budgets. It’s in the interest of both parties to keep any investigation very, very quiet, if it even proceeds.

This sort of ‘roadblock’ certainly happens in real life. It happens in crime fiction, too, and it can add suspense to a novel. There are risks, of course. Many readers don’t want a sleuth who’s a real ‘maverick,’ as it’s not always credible. But when it’s done well, that ‘behind the scenes’ network can build a story’s tension.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot investigates when his dentist, Henry Morley, is shot. One of the possibilities is that the murder had something to do with one of Morley’s other patients, powerful banker Alistair Blunt. He’s certainly made his share of enemies, but the Home Office deems that it’s in the country’s interest to be sure that he is safe. Then, another of Morley’s patients goes missing. And another dies of an overdose of medication. Chief Inspector Japp is assigned to the case initially, but then, he is pulled from the case, because it all may be connected to some of the government’s covert activities. Poirot, however, is under no such restriction, and he continues to ask questions. In the end, he finds out what links the events, and who’s responsible for it all.

Anne Perry’s The Face of a Stranger introduces Inspector William Monk. It’s the early 1850s, and a ‘blueblood’ named Joscelin Grey has been found murdered in his own home. His wealthy and powerful family claim that he was murdered by a ‘low-life’ thief or other such criminal – certainly not one of ‘the better class,’ and Monk is exhorted to find the person responsible. There’s in fact a lot of pressure on him from his superiors and the press, as well as the family, to bring someone to justice. But Monk doesn’t want to discount the possibility that one of the family members might be involved. So, he wants to interview them. This creates a major challenge, since, according to more than one in the family, someone of their class couldn’t possibly be involved. In fact, Monk’s job is threatened if he continues to ‘harass’ the family. It’s a very delicate situation, and it shows just how much power the aristocracy can wield over the police.

Several of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti novels show a similar thing. Brunetti works for the Venice questura, where he and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello frequently encounter links between crimes and very highly-placed people. Brunetti follows leads wherever they take him, but his boss, vice-questore Giuseppe Patta, is much more cautious. Patta is very conscious of the influence that rich, powerful business leaders and aristocrats have, and he tries to protect them (and his own career). That doesn’t stop Brunetti, though, and he sometimes finds himself going up against his own superiors as well as suspects.

William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev novels take place mostly in Moscow during the years just before World War II. Stalin is firmly in control, and the dreaded NKVD has eyes and ears everywhere, as the saying goes. The police have a very delicate relationship with the NKVD. On the one hand, they are under pressure to catch criminals and prove that Soviet society is crime-free. On the other, every police officer knows how powerful the NKVD is. Any hint of not going along with their wishes can lead to arrest, banishment, and much worse. Against that background, Korolev and his assistant, Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka, have to quietly and carefully do their jobs. If they don’t solve a case, the consequences could be truly dire. If they do, they could be in just as much trouble.

Because of this delicate relationship, Korolev is often given an ‘official’ account of a crime, and it’s made clear that that’s what his bosses want in his reports. And it’s a real risk to suggest anything else. The same is arguably true in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series. Those novels take place in Shanghai, at the end of the 1990s/beginning of the 2000s. The Party is in control, and everyone knows that it’s not wise to go against what the Party leaders want. These government leaders have a very delicate relationship with the police. On the one hand, they need the police to help prove that they are tough on crime, committed to a harmonious society, and unwilling to tolerate corruption. On the other hand, every detective is keenly aware of the consequences if an investigation trail leads where the Party doesn’t want it to lead. So, there are often ‘roadblocks’ as Chen investigates.

Those challenges can add to the suspense in a story if they’re done well. And they reflect the very real nature of the network of relationships among police, highly-placed businesspeople, and politicians. It’s not easy to negotiate these relationships, and that challenge can add leaven to a story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from All About Eve’s Pieces of Our Heart.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Perry, Donna Leon, Qiu Xiaolong, William Ryan

I Won’t Kill Again*

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot solves the murder of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who is shot on the second night of a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. Poirot finds out the truth about that murder and two others that take place. Later in the novel, he has a conversation with the killer, who says this:

‘‘I might do it again…I’m not a safe person any longer.’’

And there certainly are people who, having killed once, would kill again.

But that’s not true in all cases. There are plenty of fictional (and real) murders committed by people who wouldn’t kill again. Sometimes it’s because the victim was the only one who posed a (perceived) threat. Sometimes it’s because the killer was defending her or himself (or a loved one). There are other situations, too, in which someone might kill once, but never again. And those cases can be very interesting, not least because they can make the reader feel (at least a little) for the murderer.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the murder of Sir Eustace Brackenstall. On the surface, it looks as though the killers are the notorious Randall gang, who’ve been going the rounds of the wealthy homes in the area. But there are pieces of evidence that suggest a different solution to Holmes. He discovers what really happened and confronts the killer with the truth. Once we know the facts, it seems clear that this is not a person who is likely to commit another murder. Holmes and Watson, at least, think so…

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to crime wrier Frank Cairnes, who writes under the name of Felix Lane. Cairnes has been devastated since his son Martin ‘Martie’ was killed in a hit-and-run incident. He’s determined to find the person responsible and kill that person. It’s not long before he learns that a man named George Rattery is most likely the driver who killed Marti. He finds a way to wangle an introduction to Rattery, and, soon enough, plans the murder. But it doesn’t work out as planned. As Cairnes lays out, he planned to kill Rattery on a short boating outing. But Rattery found out about the plan when he came across Cairnes’ dairy and threatened to have the diary sent to the police if anything happened to him. For his part, Cairnes threatened that Rattery’s role in Martie’s death would be made public if the police got the diary. At a stalemate, the two return to the Rattery home. Later that day, Rattery is killed by poison that’s been put in his medicine bottle. Cairnes claims he’s not guilty, and enlists Nigel Strangeways, poet and PI, to clear his name. Strangeways is inclined to believe Cairnes. After all, who would try to kill someone on a boating trip and plan a poison murder? There are other very likely suspects, too. In the end, Strangeways gets to the truth about Rattery’s death. And it certainly seems unlikely that this killer would commit another murder.

As L.R. Wright’s The Suspect begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just murdered eight-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. We don’t know the motive right away, and neither does RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, who investigates the case. It’s not very long before he begins to suspect Wilcox, but the lack of motive proves to be a real sticking point. It’s slowly revealed as the story goes on, though, and in the end, we find out the truth. While there’s rarely a guarantee in these things, it seems extremely unlikely that Wilcox would take another life.

And then there’s Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime. In that novel, successful politician Lluís Font, Member of the Parliament of Catalonia, hires Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep “Pep” (who goes by the name Borja) Martínez for a personal matter. He believes his wife, Lídia, has been unfaithful, and he wants proof. The brothers take the case, but after a week of surveillance, they find no evidence that she has strayed. Then, Lídia suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Now, Font is suspected of her murder. He asks the Martínez brothers to continue working for him, this time to clear his name. Neither brother has any experience investigating murder, but they agree to do what they can. And they discover that more than one person might have had a motive for murder. In the end, we find out who the killer is. And it seems very unlikely that that person will ever kill again.

And there are plenty of other killers, both real and fictional, who are the same. They may take a life, for whatever reason, but they wouldn’t do it again. And those types of killers can make interesting characters. Which have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Silverstein’s Discovering the Waterfront.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, L.R. Wright, Nicholas Blake, Teresa Solana

Well, It Seems So Real*

One of the traditional maxims of writing is to ‘write what you know.’ And there’s certainly a lot to be said for that. Readers want a sense of authenticity in their stories, and that’s just as true of a story’s setting as it is anything else. So, does that mean that an author shouldn’t write about a different place or time, even a different country?

No. Many authors set their stories in places other than their own countries or in different times. And those stories are often absorbing, engaging, and authentic. There are a lot of examples of this sort of series. I’ll just mention a few.

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels take place mostly in the fictional English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia, who is eleven at the time the series begins (with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), lives there with her father and two older sisters, Ophelia ‘Feely’ and Daphne ‘Daffy.’ Also very much a part of the family is her father’s factotum, Arthur Dogger. The novels have a strong sense of place and time (the 1950s). And the village itself is an important part of the series. And yet, Bradley isn’t English; he’s Canadian by birth and upbringing, although he now lives on the Isle of Man. But, as Bradley himself has said,


‘I grew up in a family of British expat storytellers who never tired of spinning stories about “back ’ome.” 


And that was at the core of Bradley’s interest in writing about England.

Sometimes, authors write about places they have lived, even if those places are not their home countries. That’s the case with Angela Savage, who writes the Jayne Keeney series. Keeney is an ex-pat Australian PI who now lives and works in Bangkok. She travels to different parts of Thailand in connection with her investigations, so readers get a chance to see different regions of the country. Savage is Australian, based in Melbourne, but she lived in Southeast Asia, including Bangkok, for six years. She’s also a skilled researcher who checks the accuracy of what she writes. And that’s important if one’s writing about a country with a very different language, culture and set of social expectations. Interestingly, Savage chose to make Keeney an Australian by birth, which adds to the authenticity of the stories as Keeney sometimes looks at the Thai culture ‘from the outside.’

>A similar thing might be said of Savage’s partner, Andrew Nette. One of his novels, Ghost Money, is set mostly in Cambodia. In it, Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan is hired to find a man named Charles Avery, who was last seen in Bangkok. Quinlan agrees to the job and begins to follow the trail, which soon leads to Phnom Penh. Later, the action moves to the northern part of Cambodia. Throughout the novel, there’s a vivid portrait of life in that country. Like his partner, Nette is Australian, based in Melbourne. But he’s lived in Asia, where he was a journalist there for seven years. That experience has arguably added to the authenticity of the story, even though Cambodia has a very different culture and language.

Fans of Deborah Crombie will know that she is American, born and raised in Texas. She got the chance to go to the UK after graduating university and fell in love with the place. She lived there for several years, until moving back to Texas. So it’s little wonder that her Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James novels take place in the UK, mostly in London. Both Kincaid and James work for the Met, where Kincaid is a Superintendent and James is a Detective Inspector (DI). They are partners in life, too, and the series follows their relationship and family as well as the cases they investigate. Crombie travels to the UK several times a year, and her connection adds to the authenticity of this series.

There are other authors, too, such as Timothy Hallinan and John Burdett, who spend quite a lot of time in the countries where their series are set (in these two cases, Bangkok). And that adds a lot of authenticity to what they write. But there’s more to authenticity of place than that.

There’s also research. K.B. Owen, for instance, sets her Concordia Wells series mostly in Connecticut at the very end of the 19th Century. In order to make this series ‘feel’ authentic, Owen has done quite a lot of research on life at that time. And I know you could think of many other authors, too, who write historical series that seem authentic. They do their ‘homework’ to ensure that their stories ring true.

How do you feel about this? Do you get a sense of authenticity from a story even if the author doesn’t live in the place or time where the story is set? If you’re a writer, do you write about places and times you haven’t experienced? How do you make it all authentic?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Buzzcocks’ Why Can’t I Touch It?


Filed under Alan Bradley, Andrew Nette, Angela Savage, Deborah Crombie, John Burdett, K.B. Owen, Timothy Hallinan

Over the Moor, Take Me to the Moor*

For many readers, the setting of a story is an important part of the appeal. And when it comes to crime fiction, a setting can add to the suspense, and even create its own particular challenges and conflicts. Case in point: moors.

Moors are beautiful, and they are unique in terms of the plant and animal life. But they are also potentially hazardous. The weather is frequently unreliable, and there are bogs and other dangers. They can be lonely and deserted, too. So, it’s little wonder that plenty of crime fiction is set on moors.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is set on Dartmoor. As fans can tell you, it’s the story of the Baskerville family and a curse that seems to have been laid on its members. For generations, a phantom hound has been said to haunt the family since the 1600s, when Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. And there certainly have been some strange deaths in the family. Most recently, Sir Charles Baskerville was found dead in the park of Baskerville Hall, the family estate. Now a new Baskerville is coming from Canada to take over the home and family leadership, and Dr. James Mortimer is concerned that this new Baskerville will also fall to the curse. He goes to Sherlock Holmes with his concerns. Holmes can’t get away from London immediately, so he sends Dr. Watson in his stead. It turns out that the explanation for the family curse is quite prosaic. In this novel, the wild, dangerous moor is an important part of the story.

It is in Gil North’s Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm, too. In that novel, Sergeant Caleb Cluff is called to the village of Gunnershaw when Amy Wright is found dead. It looks on the surface like a suicide, but Cluff isn’t entirely convinced. The victim’s husband, Alfred, was much younger than his wife, and it’s not out of the question that he would have killed her for her fortune. But Cluff can’t question Wright, as he’s gone missing. So, Cluff decides to try to find him. His search takes him across the Yorkshire moor where Gunnershaw is located, and it’s a very dangerous place. Cluff knows the area well, since he grew up there. But that doesn’t mean he’s entirely safe…

Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn takes place mostly on Dartmoor, where Mary Yellan has gone to stay with her Uncle Joss and Aunt Patience Merlyn. They own Jamaica Inn, which Mary soon learns is a depressing, foreboding place that gets no visitors. She also soon learns about some things going on at the inn. As she gets closer to the truth about the inn, she also finds herself in danger. Then, there’s a murder. Now, Mary’s life is in peril, because she’s found out some things she wasn’t supposed to know. Now, she’s going to have to get to safety if she’s to stay alive. And it won’t be easy. The moor is dangerous, and there are very few people around who could help her. It’s not spoiling the story to say that there are some tense scenes involving the moor in this novel.

Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands takes place mostly in the town of Shipcott, on Exmoor. Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb decides to help his family. Nineteen years earlier, his Uncle Billy Peters went missing and never returned. The family hasn’t recovered, and Steven wants to help with the healing. So, he decides to find Uncle Billy’s body, so that at least the family can bury him properly. He can’t, though, and isn’t sure what he’s going to do, until he gets another idea. A man named Arnold Avery, who’s in prison for another child murder, was always suspected of Uncle Billy’s murder, too, and Steven decides to find out from him where the body is. So, he writes to Avery. Avery answers his letter, and before long, the two are engaged in a very dangerous game of cat and mouse. There are some important scenes that take place both on Exmoor and on Dartmoor, where Avery is imprisoned. They add to the tension, and they add to the sense of atmosphere.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Genealogist Jefferson Tayte has been commissioned by business executive Walter Sloane to trace Sloan’s wife’s ancestry. The trail has led to England, where one of her ancestors, James Fairborne, went with his family during the American Revolution. There are several mysteries connected with the family, including the fact that Tayte is warned quite strongly to leave the genealogy alone, and go home. This he refuses to do, and he continues his search for the truth. At the same time, Amy Fallon is in search of some truth of her own. The house she lives in has a secret room in which she has found an old writing box containing a love letter. Her search for its writer takes her to previous owners of the cottage, and to the Prison Museum in Dartmoor. It turns out that Tayte’s search has led him to the same place, and the two end up searching for the same history from two different perspectives. The Dartmoor scenes are not the most important scenes in the novel. But the atmosphere there is evocative and adds to the suspense.

And that’s the thing about moors. They are beautiful, peaceful at times, and full of distinctive wildlife. But they can also be extremely dangerous and even eerie. Little wonder we see them in crime fiction.

The ‘photo is of Dartmoor. I was ‘sentenced’ there once, when I was visiting the UK. It’s magnificent, but it’s easy to see how perilous it could be.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Smiths’ Suffer Little Children.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Belinda Bauer, Daphne du Maurier, Gil North, Steve Robinson