Now We Gotta Run*

One of the staples of a lot of crime fiction novels is the chase scene. I don’t mean necessarily a scene in which one car pursues another (although that certainly happens too). I mean the general sense of chasing. It’s easy to see why such scenes are a part of the genre. They can add suspense to a story. And when they’re done well, they can also be believable. After all, if a culprit is running away, it makes sense that the police would go after her or him. If a criminal thinks someone may have been a witness to a crime, it makes sense that that criminal would go after the witness too. But there’s a caveat here. Chase scenes can be overblown, melodramatic and unconvincing. They’re not as easy to write as they are to film, either, so they have to be not just believable but also written in a way that conveys the tension the author wants to convey. When chase scenes are well-written and used effectively though, they really can be effective ways to ratchet up the suspense of a story.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the French village of Merlinville-sur-Mer when Poirot gets an urgent letter from Paul Renauld, who has settled there. Renauld’s letter claims that his life is in danger and that he needs Poirot’s help. By the time Poirot and Hastings get to Renauld’s home though it’s too late; he’s been murdered. Poirot works with Hastings and with the French authorities to find out who killed Renauld and why. Towards the end of the novel, Poirot has figured out who the killer is and he makes a plan to trap the killer by offering human ‘bait.’ The killer takes the ‘bait’ and there’s a chase scene in which Poirot, Hastings, and Hastings’ new romantic interest race to get to the killer before that person claims another victim.

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, we are introduced to the Eberhart family. Photographer Joanna Eberhart and her attorney husband Walter have just moved with their children from New York City to the quiet suburban town of Stepford Connecticut. At first the town seems perfect. But slowly Joanna and her new friend Bobbie Markowe begin to suspect that something sinister is going on in Stepford. They both become convinced that the only solution is for the families to get out of Stepford as soon as possible, and they make plans to move at the end of the school year. But then, a frightening incident proves that the end of the school year is going to be too late. Now Joanna has to convince Walter that she’s not crazy and that they must leave Stepford immediately. Towards the end of the novel there’s a very effective chase scene in which Joanna is frantically trying to get away. And what makes this scene so effective (at least to me) is that the suspense doesn’t come from guns, threats and so on. It’s almost entirely psychological.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice features another kind of chase scene. L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch learns of what looks like a suicide in his territory. He goes to the scene even though he wasn’t officially assigned to do so and discovers that the victim is Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, a fellow cop. The official explanation for Moore’s death is that he had gone ‘dirty’ and killed himself. Because of the potential embarrassment to the department, Bosch is ordered to leave the case alone. In fact, he’s even given other cases to work on to keep him occupied. But when one of those other cases seems to be related to Moore’s death, Bosch begins to investigate what really happened to his colleague. The trail leads to a small Mexican border town and a nasty drugs ring that’s been pushing a dangerous new drug called ‘black ice.’ As Bosch pursues the leads that took him to Mexico he finds himself up against some dangerous people and there’s a very effective chase scene in which he and a colleague go after the leader of the drugs gang. That chase leads Bosch to the truth about Cal Moore, too.

In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, Ystad detective Kurt Wallander and his team investigate the murders of local farmers Johannes Lövgren and his wife Maria. At first it looks like a robbery gone wrong, but there are signs that the explanation isn’t that simple. The last word Maria Lövgren said before her death was foreign, so there is a possibility that the killers were immigrants. That possibility inflames already-simmering anti-immigration feeling in the area and one night, there’s another murder, this time of a Somali immigrant who lives at a camp not far away. Now Wallander and the team have two cases to solve. At one point in the novel, Wallander has deduced who the killer of the Somali immigrant is and tracks that person down. There’s a very effective chase scene in which he goes after the killer; besides adding to the tension, it really reflects the danger of fanaticism.

There’s also Åsa Larsson’s The Blood Spilt. Kiruna police officers Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murder of Mildred Nilsson, a local priest. Her death means that the house in which she and her husband lived will revert to the Swedish Church. So attorney Rebecka Martinsson works with the church and with Nilsson’s widower to arrange for the transfer of property; that’s how she gets involved in the murder case. She is able to provide Mella and Stålnacke with valuable information about the murder but the killer finds out that she’s gotten too close. That leads to a chase scene in which Martinsson ends up in a truly perilous situation. She survives (I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that) and it’s Larsson’s credit that the scene is depicted realistically and so is its aftermath. Martinsson does not come out unscathed.

And then there’s Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool, in which DCI Hanna Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. Her death turns out to be related to two more recent deaths which are being investigated by Scarlett’s friend DCI Fern Larter and her team. So the two detectives pool their resources. They also get help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, who’s pursuing a separate angle of interest in the case. With the insight she gets from Kind, and her own deductions, Scarlett figures out who the murder in all three cases is. She also figures out that another person is very likely going to be killed if she doesn’t get to the killer and the next victim in time. So she goes after the murderer in what makes for a very effective sort of chase. This chase isn’t a traditional ‘one person runs after another’ chase but it adds a great deal of tension to the story.

There are a lot of other really well-done chase scenes too – many more than I have space for in this one post. And in case you didn’t notice, none of the chase scenes I’ve mentioned come from novels that are automatically branded as ‘thrillers.’ It’s easy to find chase scenes in thrillers; it’s a little more interesting to find them in novels that aren’t…

What’s your view? Do you enjoy chase scenes? Do you find them too stereotypical (cue eye-rolling)? If you’re a writer do you use them?


ps. Oh, the ‘photo? The room in which my dogs are so kindly modeling chase scenes is soon to become… my ‘Ma’am Cave’/writing room.  🙂   The good side of being an ‘empty-nester…’




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Dave Clark Five’s Catch Us If You Can.




Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Henning Mankell, Ira Levin, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly

16 responses to “Now We Gotta Run*

  1. When it comes to chase scenes, Margot, I can think of few that equal the climactic chase in G. K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare.” The 1908 book, in its Chestertonian exuberance, is almost impossible to characterize – mystery, thriller, philosophy debate, spy story, struggle between good and evil – all that and more, written with humor and wit. It is, as Chesterton subtitled it, a nightmare. And it all ends in a fantastic, utterly surrealistic chase sequence which eventually involves a hot air balloon…and an elephant. Now THAT’S a chase!

    • Les – I’ll have to check that one out. Trust you to think of an excellent example like that to fill in a gap. I’ve read Chesterton but not that one. Time for me to read it, methinks.

  2. Very good points here Margot – in movies and on TV chases are either padding or (in a Bond movie) one of the reasons for actually turning up. In a book it is really rare to think of a pursuit sequence that really stands out, unless its a thriller about someone on the run (e.g. Geoffrey Household’s ROGUE MALE or Graham Greene’s THE CONFIDENTIAL AGENT), in which case chances are the narrative is broken down into a succession of major and minor chases. Thanks for the examples, none of which i would have been able to come up with myself probably as I rarely find such moments truly memorable in fiction.

    • Sergio – I honestly have to say I don’t look for chase scenes myself. As you can tell by the post I’ve read some good ones. But usually that’s because the characters are well-developed (i.e. I care about them and what happens to them) and the chase scene is truly believable, so that I don’t get the feeling it’s padding (good choice of word, by the way). Thanks too for mentioning those thrillers. Some thrillers do contain well-written chase scenes and I think they ‘fold into’ the story fairly well.

  3. Margot: In Shaman Pass by Stan Jones there is a chase into the wilderness which has a plane ride that will have readers who dislike flying clutching their chair.

    Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson is one of those books where the whole book is a chase. Here Sheriff Walt Longmire doggedly pursues escaped criminals in the mountains of Wyoming.

    Another book long chase which is the most unique chase I can recall took place in Vertical Run by Joseph Garber where the chase took place in a high rise building.

    • Bill – As always you’ve contributed some terrific examples. I’d meant to mention Shaman Pass and forgot about it, so thanks for that. And I’m not quite far enough into the Walt Longmire series to have read Hell is Empty yet. But you’ve definitely piqued my interest; it’s a good series. And I’d never heard of a chase through a high-rise building as the basis for a crime novel, but I can see how it might be effective. And you’ve put me in mind of John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air which has an effective chase scene through New York City’s Grand Central Station. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. I completely agree with you Margot that chase scenes aren’t restricted to thrillers. Often the best crime novels have an impetus that comes from a chase but this can be a very slow form of action. I’m thinkind of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’. Although this is a thriller I suppose, the chase for the mole is very slow moving but compelling.

    • Sarah – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a great example of a really effective chase. I’m glad you mentioned it. As you say, it’s slow-moving, but none the less riveting (in my opinion anyway) for that. Chases can add momentum to a story when they’re done well.

  5. Great examples here, Margot! I’d forgotten about that scene in the Stepford Wives until you mentioned it…chilling stuff!

    I think they’re definitely tricky to write. I’ve done a couple, but I really sweated over them.

    • Elizabeth – Thank you 🙂 – I agree too about that scene in The Stepford Wives; it really is creepy. What I like about your chase scenes is that they fall out very naturally from the story. They don’t feel contrived and you don’t overuse them.

  6. Ah yes, so easy to watch and so hard to write – as I’m finding out right now.

  7. Dull in movies by now. Just seen too many. But in a book, where it is words rather than pictures, I can enjoy it if it’s done with a skilled hand. And a whole book with someone on the run can be thrilling.

    • Patti – I know what you mean about chase scenes in movies. It’s been done so many times hasn’t it? It does take a deft hand to write a good chase scene as you say, and I like it too when it’s done well and falls out naturally from a plot development. And yes, if a novel is about someone on the run that can be compelling, again, if it’s done well.

  8. kathy d.

    Yes. I am not a particular fan of chase scenes, but have read some good ones. The criteria are that I am enjoying the overall plot and liking the main characters. So, if a fitting chase scene is written in, fine, as in Nemesis. However, if one is inserted in the book to provide a “thriller” feel to the story, it doesn’t pass muster. So many movies and TV shows are one big chase scene. I yawn and keep channel surfing.
    And so glad to see you’re getting your own writing room. Every writer deserves one.

    • Kathy – Thanks 🙂 – I’m looking forward to getting everything set up in my writing room. I agree with you too about chase scenes. If I care about the characters, if the plot is well-written and if the chase scene comes naturally, then it can work very well. Otherwise, no, thanks. Chase scenes that aren’t a natural part of a story, etc., feel sometimes like ‘scotch-tape-and-glue’ solutions to plotholes. And like you, I don’t linger long on TV movies that have those kinds of chase scenes.

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