In 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.