And Then? And Then?*

Keeping the TensionIn a lot of crime fiction, part of the reason for investing oneself in a story is to try to work out who the culprit is. It’s a bit like a matching of wits between author and reader. But there are plenty of crime novels where we know who the killer is right from the start or soon after the story begins. In those cases, the author has to find some other way to keep the reader interested and wanting to know what happens next. That’s not easy to do, as it means one’s got to keep the tension level strong and add interest. But when it is done well, that sort of story can be an interesting alternative to the more traditional whodunit approach to telling a story.

Some authors keep readers engaged by exploring the background of a crime. And that approach can be very powerful. That’s what Ruth Rendell does in A Judgement in Stone. The very first sentence of the novel tells us who the murderer is, and even a bit about the motive:


‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’


And yet, the story stays strong throughout as Rendell explores Eunice Parchman’s background and psychology, and describes how the well-off and educated Coverdales hire her as housekeeper. The story of Eunice’s tenure in the household and the events that lead up to the murders takes a psychological approach that explains how and why someone like Eunice Parchman would kill people like the Coverdales. And that’s part of what keeps the tension and interest strong.

Sometimes, especially in thriller-type crime novels, the author builds the tension and keeps readers interested by putting the focus on the battle of wits between the criminal(s) and the protagonist(s). That’s what Frederick Forsyth does in Day of the Jackal. A far-right French terrorist group Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) plans to have French president Chales de Gaulle assassinated. The group’s members are already known to the police because of a prior attempt at assassination, so none of them will be able to get close to the president. That’s why they decide to hire an outside killer – an Englishman known only as The Jackal. The contract is agreed on, and The Jackal starts to prepare. The French government becomes aware that there’s a plot, but no-one knows who the assassin will be or where and when the killer will strike. Against those odds, French detective Claude Lebel is assigned to track down the killer and stop him before he can carry out his end of the contract. In this novel, the details of the preparation for the assassination, and the battle of wits between Lebel and his enemy add interest and tension to the story.

Martin Clark takes a slightly different approach to that battle of wits in The Legal Limit. Brothers Mason and Gates Hunt have grown up in rural Patrick County, Virginia. They’ve had a terrible childhood with their abusive alcoholic father, but the two brothers have responded to life in very different ways. Mason took advantage of all the opportunities that came his way. He went to university on a scholarship and has become a lawyer. Gates on the other hand squandered his athletic ability and now lives mostly on money he gets from his mother and from his girlfriend’s Welfare benefits. One day Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Thompson ends up leaving but that night, the Hunt brothers are coming home from a night of drinking when they encounter Thompson again. Before anyone really knows what’s happening, Gates has shot Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and life goes on for both. Years later, Mason has become a commonwealth prosecutor. When Gates is convicted of cocaine trafficking, he begs his brother to help him get out of jail. Mason refuses and Gates threatens him with implication in the murder of Wayne Thompson. Mason calls his brother’s bluff as the saying goes, and Gates follows through. In this story, we know who the killer is. We know what led up to it too. The tension is built in part through following the legal battle between the brothers and their lawyers. It’s also built through Clark’s exploration of the complicated relationship between them.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle is another interesting example of how authors keep the tension and interest going even when we know the truth about a crime. Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer gets a visit from Runi Winther. She’s worried because she hasn’t seen or heard from her son Andreas for a few days. At first, Sejer doesn’t do very much about the case. He sees no cause for great concern, and he reassures his visitor that her son is probably just fine. But when more time goes by with no sign of Andreas, Sejer starts to look into the matter. The last person to see Andreas seems to have been his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. The two young men spent the day of Andreas’ disappearance together, and Sejer is sure that Zipp knows something about what happened. But Zipp claims he doesn’t. Sejer has reason to think that Zipp’s not telling everything he knows and he’s right. We know from early in the novel exactly what happened to Andreas and the events that led up to it. And no, Fossum avoids the obvious: Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But he does indeed know the truth and part of the interest in this novel is the conflict between him and Sejer as Sejer tries to find out the truth while Zipp is just as determined to keep quiet about it all.

Sometimes it’s the ‘whydunit’ aspect of a crime or set of crimes that keeps the reader’s interest. That’s what happens in Håkan Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team are called in when Ryszard Malik is shot twice and killed in his own home. They’re just working on that case when there’s another murder. And another. Now the police have to figure out what the three victims have in common. When they do, they learn that there will be a fourth unless they can catch the killer first. What’s interesting about this novel is that we know who the killer is very quickly in the novel. But at first, we don’t know what the motive is. The slow reveal of that motive is part of what keeps the interest alive. Another element that keeps the reader engaged is the ‘chess game’ between Van Veeteren’s team and the killer.

T.J. Cooke takes a slightly different approach to building tension when we know the killer’s identity in Defending Elton. The body of an enigmatic young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. Some pieces of evidence point to Elton Spears, a troubled young man with mental problems and some deficiencies. And yet, there is the principle that under British law, an accused person is considered innocent until proven guilty. What’s more, the evidence isn’t entirely conclusive and there are hints that Spears may not be guilty. Since Spears can’t be much help in the case, solicitor Jim Harwood works with barrister Harry Douglas to investigate what really happened. We know soon after the novel begins who the killer is. Instead of using the ‘whodunit’ approach to keeping the tension and interest, Cooke takes a ‘Will the killer get away with it?’ angle on the story. The answer to that question is not a given…

A lot of crime fiction fans (myself included) like to match wits with the author in the ‘whodunit’ kind of novel. But there are lots of other approaches to keeping the reader engaged in a novel, even if we know who the killer is. Oh, and did you notice that I’ve not mentioned novels where we follow a serial killer’s thought processes throughout the novel? Maybe it’s my own bias, but that’s just not my thing. And it’s my blog, so there! 😉



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Along Came Jones, made popular by the Coasters.


Filed under Frederick Forsyth, Håkan Nesser, Karin Fossum, Martin Clark, Ruth Rendell, T.J. Cooke

37 responses to “And Then? And Then?*

  1. Margot: My favourite fiction read of 2012 was The Suspect by L.R. Wright published in 1985 in which, on the opening page, George Wilcox, 80 years old, stands stunned in the living room of his 85 year old neighbour Carlyle Burke having just killed Burke. I recommend the book to all.

    I have read no book faster than The Day of the Jackal. I raced through the book with continually rising tension though I knew De Gaulle would not be killed. I also greatly enjoyed the movie.

    • Bill – I’m so glad you mentioned The Suspect. It’s a pitch-perfect example of the kind of novel where we know who the culprit is right from the beginning, but the author keeps the interest and tension strong. Readers want to know what happens (or in retrospective novels, what happened) next.
      Day of the Jackal is another great example and I agree; it’s one of those ‘race through it’ novels. Doesn’t matter that readers know about The Jackal and that they know de Gaulle will live. It’s still incredibly engaging. Folks, if you’ve not read it, I recommend it. Even if you don’t think you like thrillers.

  2. Interesting post, Margot. I like to read novels like this when the pacing is good and there’s enough suspense to keep the reader hooked.

    • Pat – Thanks. I completely agree about the suspense level and pacing. If those are well-done, then the reader stays hooked even if we know who the culprit is right away.

  3. I like the inverted mystery a lot but have not read many … especially recently. Only The Suspect, which Bill has already mentioned.

  4. Terrific blog Margot ( as all yours are) but this one does absolutely define suspense and tension in crime writing. I enjoyed reading it very much. Thank you. I send you my very best wishes.
    PS Day of the Jackal-what a great story and so well transferred to the screen.

    • Harry – Thank you for the kind words. I’m very glad you enjoyed the post. And you’re right; it’s all about the writing style when it comes to building and keeping tension in a story isn’t it? That’s what matters much more than whether we know the killer right off or not. And yes indeed, Day of the Jackal is an excellent film.

  5. Thanks Margot, you have provided some very interesting examples. I esp. want to read The Legal Limit. Two books that I can think of are The Devotion of Suspect X and The Story of Ivy. In both the books, we know the murderers but the tension remains razor-sharp.

    Incidentally, Margot, what is the difference b/w a caper and an inverted-detective story? I always get a little confused b/w the two, so could you help me please.

    And I for one am very glad that there is no mention of serial-killers and their twisted thought-processes.:)

    • Neeru – It’s good to know I’m not the only one who’s not particularly interested in mad serial killers..
      As to your question about capers vs inverted detective stories, my understanding is that a caper has a strong thread of wit in it, and usually focuses on that aspect of a novel. They have crimes and they can sometimes have violence and so on in them. But they’re humourous. Inverted novels start with an understanding of who the killer is, and build from that. So actually a a novel can be both. I hope that helps.
      Thanks very much too for mentioning both The Devotion… and The Story of Ivy. I appreciate your filling in that gap.

      • Thanks so much Margot for the reply. Things are a little clear now,

        Incidentally, Karen Russell’s comment has made me very interested in the Devil Holds the Candle.

        • Neeru – Glad my comment was helpful to you. As to When the Devil Holds the Candle, I can recommend it (and actually the whole Konrad Sejer series). It’s an eerie psychological drama as much as anything else.

  6. When the Devil Holds the Candle is really one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read. I mean. Oh, never mind, I can’t even talk about it. 😛

  7. Margot – Another great post. Thanks for mentioning Day of the Jackal. I confess I haven’t read the book but the film is one of my favorites. I especially like the way it emphasizes the bad guy vs. the policeman aspect in a low-keyed but very gripping sort of way. Now I’ve got to read the novel!

    • Bryan – Oh, I hope you do read (and of course, enjoy) the novel. The film is a classic in my opinion – something that should be required viewing for anyone interested in film. You’re right too that the matching of wits is not done in a frenetic way, and that makes it all the more powerful.

  8. I liked the Francis Iles book, Malice Aforethought, with its famous opening line: ‘It was not until several weeks after he decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter.’ In general I prefer surprises, twists and unexpected killers, but I can be persuaded to an inverted story if it’s very good.

    • Moira – And that Iles book is a great example of a well-done inverted book. I love that sentence! Like you, I enjoy twists and unexpected killers myself, but when it’s done well, it’s done well…

  9. Two thoughts, Margot. First is a reminder that Dorothy L. Sayers created what is almost an inverted mystery story in “Unnatural Death.” We know the identity of the murderer quite early in the book – what we don’t know is first the “why” of it and, even more important perhaps, “how” the murders were committed.

    I should also mention the Columbo TV series and stories, of course – all (I think) were done as inverted detective stories; the audience always knew who committed the crime. The suspense and mystery came from finding out how Lt. Columbo would solve the case and bring the murderer’s guilt home to the right person.

    • Les – You’re quite right of course about Unnatural Death. Sayers does quite a good job there of keeping the reader interested even knowing the ‘who’ right from the beginning. And yes, the ‘how’ is interesting…
      And I’m glad you’ve mentioned Columbo, a series I always enjoyed very much. It never mattered to me that we knew who the killer was. As you say, the interest came from the way Columbo got the evidence and in the end, the confession. And of course, there’s the ‘chess game’ between him and the culprit.

  10. Col

    Day of the Jackal were superb both as a film and a book. I like this approach where the culprit is known, it does add a different dynamic to the narrative. Not always obviously, but it’s good to have things changed around now and again.

  11. I just love the thriller/crime story and I love trying to work out the who the what and the why. It is like a workout for the brain as far as I am concerned. It is hard work plotting and making sure that all the facts fit and make sense so the reader is not left wondering about loose ends. There are so many authors who do this brilliantly and you have covered them here, very succinctly and your analysis is thought-provoking and informative as usual. 🙂

    • Jane – Thank you. I’m like you in that I like the mental workout of matching wits with the author. And you’re absolutely right that doing the plotting is a challenge. If you reveal the culprit early in the novel, how will you keep the reader absorbed? If you don’t, how will you place the clues and so forth so that the reader stays interested but not confused or cheated? Not an easy task is it?

  12. kathy d.

    Woman with Birthmark and The Suspect are both excellent books. There are several others which tell you the perpetrator early on, but now why or how the murder was committed. I, also, hate the books, which start off with the murderer’s point of view and go on from there. Honestly, I skip those parts.
    Some books, such as The Scarecrow, by Michael Connelly, show detectives, public or private, finding who is thought to be the culprit, then tracking him/her down and getting evidence for charges to be filed. So, one knows very early on who is suspected.
    Same is true of the book after Devotion of Suspect X, Salvation of a Saint. It’s known generally who the murderer is, but how and why did the crime happen? Very cleverly figured out — and if anyone could figure out how coffee could be used as a weapon, well there’s a “c” word for Kerrie Smith’s next alphabetical series in crime fiction on murder weapons.

    • Kathy – I’m glad you mentioned those books where we have a very strong suspect from the start, even if we don’t know for sure that that person is guilty. As the sleuth gets closer to the truth, the interest builds, doesn’t it? And even if it’s later shown that the suspect is, in fact, guilty, that tension can keep readers interested.
      As for coffee as a murder weapon? You can slip a lot of different things into someone’s cup of coffee…

  13. kathy d.

    But how you kill one person drinking the coffee and not the other coffee drinker is a puzzle — and not being present either when the murder occurs.

  14. Thanks for mentioning Woman with Birthmark. It would make it into my top 5 crime novels.

    • Sarah – It’s a compelling and very well-written novel isn’t it? And there are some quite chilling parts to it. And yet, Nesser pulls it off without making it overly gory. An excellent novel.

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