It’s All Clear to Me Now*

There are many ways authors use to build suspense in a crime novel. One of them is to give the details of the crime right away. Then, the suspense builds as the sleuth looks for clues, follows up on leads and so forth. Another way to build suspense is to leave the details of the crime uncertain. As the story unfolds, suspense builds as readers slowly discover the truth about the crime. That kind of novel can be tricky. There needs to be enough detail about the crime so that the reader isn’t confused. But there also needs to be enough left unsaid to hold the reader’s interest. When it’s done well, keeping the details of a crime or major event a little hazy can build tension. It can also add some authenticity. After all, we don’t always know the details of real-life crimes. Let me show you what I mean with a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s  Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot gets an unusual commission. Carla Lemarchant hires Poirot to find out the truth about the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, Crale’s wife Caroline was arrested and convicted for the crime, but Carla believes her mother was innocent and wants Poirot to find the real killer.  Poirot begins by interviewing the five people who were at the Crale home at the time of the murder. From each of them he also gets a written account of the day of the murder and the days leading up to it. As Poirot gets these narratives, we slowly build up a picture of what happened that day. The very astute reader will notice a few things that point in one direction, but more than that, readers get a slowly clearing image of that day and the days before it.

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers is like that too. In that novel, former cop turned amateur private investigator Matthew Scudder gets a visit from successful businessman Cale Hanniford. Hanniford’s daughter Wendy has recently been murdered, and all of the evidence points to her room-mate Richard Vanderpoel as the culprit. There’s plenty of physical and circumstantial evidence against him too. In fact, Vanderpoel has already been arrested for the crime. Hanniford had been estranged from his daughter for some time before the murder though, and he wants Scudder to find out what kind of person Wendy had become. He wants to understand as much as anything else what led up to the crime. Scudder agrees and begins to ask questions and follow leads. Just days later, though, Vanderpoel commits suicide. Now Scudder wonders whether there might be more to this story than it seems. So he digs a little deeper.  As he slowly builds up a picture of Wendy Hanniford, we learn more and more about the kind of person she was. We also learn what kind of person Richard Vanderpoel was. In the end Scudder finds out exactly what happened on the day of the murder and in the time leading up to it, and that slow buildup of tension as he searches for answers adds to the story.

We also see a hazy sort of crime in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. Successful lawyer Ajay Kasliwal hires Delhi private investigator Vishwas “Vish” Puri to find out the truth about the disappearance of one of Kasliwal’s servants Mary Murmu. There’s talk that Kasliwal is responsible for her disappearance, and that he might even have raped and killed her. Kasliwal claims that he is innocent, and he wants his name cleared. The stakes get even higher when he is actually arrested. Puri is not convinced of Kasliwal’s guilt and what’s more, he knows that the police arrested his client in part as a show to prove that they can’t be bought by money and power. So Puri and his team begin to dig into the Kasliwal family’s structure, background and so on. Slowly, a picture emerges of them and of the life of Mary Murmu and eventually we learn the truth about what really happened to her. It’s an interesting case of a portrait of an event that gets clearer as the sleuths find out more and more.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost also offers a slowly-emerging picture. The story starts in 1984, when ten-year-old Kate Meaney opens her own detective agency Falcon Investigations. She spends a lot of time at the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center looking for suspicious activity. Kate’s content with her life as it is, but her grandmother Ivy, with whom she lives, thinks she’d be better off going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. At first Kate refuses, but her friend Adrian Palmer persuades her to at least go to the school for the exams. He even agrees to go with her. On the day of the exams he and Kate get on the bus to Redspoon, but Kate never returns. Everyone thinks that Palmer is responsible for her disappearance although he claims he had nothing to do with it. No trace of Kate is found – not even a body. So eventually the police give up their search. Twenty years later Adrian’s sister Lisa is working at Green Oaks when she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Kurt, who works with mall security. Kurt tells her about something strange he’s been seeing on the security cameras: a young girl with a backpack that looks a lot like Kate’s. This shocks Lisa, who knew Kate slightly, and each in a different way the two seek to find the truth about that day. As they do, we get a slowly-developed picture of what exactly happened to Kate Meaney.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Mistake. Jodie Garrow has what everyone thinks is a perfect upper-middle class life. She’s in a stable marriage to a successful lawyer who could very well be the city’s next mayor. She’s got two healthy children and a contented life. Then her fifteen-year-old daughter Hannah goes on a school trip to Sydney and is struck by a car. By chance, she is taken to a hospital that Jodie knows all too well. It’s the hospital where she had her first child – a child even her husband doesn’t know ever existed. When one of the nurses remembers Jodie, everything starts falling apart and questions begin to be asked. What happened to the child? Jodie claims she gave the child up for adoption but if that’s true, then why are there no official records? It’s really not cliché in this case to say that the resulting gossip and accusations tear the Garrow family apart. As the story unfolds, we learn about Jodie’s life, about the child and about what really happened after she gave birth.

In Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer we meet Catherine Monsigny, who is trying to make her legal reputation. She gets her chance when she is chosen to represent Myriam Villetreix, who’s been charged with murdering her wealthy husband Gaston. Myriam claims that she is being framed by her former husband’s cousins, who are just greedy for his money. Monsigny travels to Guéret, the scene of the murder, to investigate. The area is eerily familiar to her and she soon remembers why: her mother was murdered not far away. At the time, Monsigny was just a toddler, so her memory of that day is extremely hazy. But she is driven to put the pieces of the puzzle together. As she investigates both the Villetreix murder and the murder of her own mother, the suspense builds as we slowly get a clearer picture of what exactly happened on the day of each of those murders.

The slowly developing image of a murder or other crime can add a lot of interest and suspense when it’s done well. And that approach can add to character development as well. But not all readers like to be kept in suspense as to what exactly happened and it’s not always easy to leave the reader in just the right amount of doubt. What’s your view? Do you enjoy this kind of suspense? If you’re a crime writer, do you give details of the crime right away, or do you allow them to unfold?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gary Wright’s Love is Alive.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Lawrence Block, Sylvie Granotier, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

10 responses to “It’s All Clear to Me Now*

  1. I like to see the crime happen at the beginning but like to be surprised with who the murderer is. Or when we think the murderer is someone but as we go along, find out that they didn’t commit the murder.

    • Clarissa – You’re definitely not alone in that. I think a lot of people like to match wits against the author that way. They like the details, and they like to feel challenged to find out who the murderer is. And many people think that having the crime detailed at the beginning of a novel is a good ‘hook’ to get readers engaged.

  2. Margot, as a lover of the traditional puzzle-type mystery, some of my favorite books fall into this category. For example, “Lament for a Maker,” by Michael Innes carefully sets up the mysterious death of the miserly and mad laird of Erchany Castle. Did he fall? Jump? Murder seems impossible. But gradually, through a series of narrators, layer after layer is peeled away from the complex mystery until the truth about the laird’s death is revealed. I think it is the best book Innes ever wrote.

    • Les – Oh, that’s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind – the kind of book where we know something happened, but we don’t have clarity as to what. Therefore, we can’t nail establish whodonit if there was anything done. A lot of those ‘puzzle novels’ fall into this category and you’ve suggested one of the best at those. Thanks.

  3. I like the little rule that says details of the crime should be revealed to the reader at the same time the details are revealed to the sleuth. Also cool, however, is when we have a multiple point of view novel where we get to see what the bad guy is up to even before the sleuth does..

    • Patti – I’ve heard that rule too and it makes sense. I agree though that when it’s done well, it can work to let the reader in on what the ‘bad guy’ is doing. To me that’s a little trickier, but it can be done.

  4. I do like books in which the details of the crime are only revealed slowly – and don’t even mind if we don’t know if a crime has been committed at all. Just like in WHAT WAS LOST which I adored, and THE MISTAKE which I thought very good too. I suppose I find that quite realistic – things in real life are rarely quite so clear cut as in standard whodunnit in which it is clear at the outset what the crime is.

    • Bernadette – You’re quite right. Real life often isn’t clear-cut. We have to learn to deal with ambiguity in real life and it makes sense to have it in crime fiction too. When a story only reveals a crime’s details slowly, or when we’re not even sure there was a crime, that can make a story feel more authentic. I think that uncertainty about what really happened works very well in both What Was Lost and The Mistake.

  5. This is quite a tricky format to get right, but when it’s done well, it is very thought-provoking. It makes you want to go back and linger on some of the earlier scenes, to see the hints more clearly the second time around.

    • Marina Sofia – You have a well-taken point. It really is tricky to create a novel where one’s not quite sure exactly what happened, but at the same time one’s not confused. As you say though, when it’s done well, it can really be engaging. I like the way you put it too that it can make the reader want to linger over some of those passages that contain hints and try to figure it all out.

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