If you read enough crime fiction, you get to the point where you can almost give advice to the characters. Just as an example, there are plenty of novels where there’s a ‘boy meets girl’ situation that you absolutely know is not going to go well. If it’s handled deftly, that kind of scene or plot thread can add real tension and suspense to a novel. If it’s done poorly it gets predictable and therefore, just pulls the reader out of the story. Let me offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.
In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood hires private investigator Philip Marlowe to help him solve a delicate family problem. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Marlowe’s job will be to make Geiger leave the Sternwood family alone. By the time he gets to Geiger’s place of business though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. What’s worse, it seems that Carmen Sternwood was a witness. Marlowe does his best to protect Carmen and thinks his business with the Sternwood family is done. But it’s really only beginning, as soon enough the Sternwood chauffer is killed. Then there’s another blackmail threat. It turns out that this is a very complicated case, but Marlowe manages to find out the truth. At one point in the novel, Carmen Sternwood tries to seduce Marlowe. It’s definitely one of those, ‘There is no way this can go well’ moments and it’s interesting to see how Marlowe handles it.
In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg has recently discovered that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful. She’s devastated of course, and even more so when she finds out who the other woman is. One evening, she goes out with no particular purpose in mind. She ends up at a pub where she meets Jonas Hansson, who has his own personal tragedy. The two strike up a conversation and by the time they leave the pub together, the reader has learned enough about both to know that this is not going to work out well. And it doesn’t. Instead, the situation spirals more and more out of control and ends tragically for more than one person.
Jane Casey’s The Burning introduces DC Maeve Kerrigan of the Met. She and her colleagues are on the trail of a killer that the press has nicknamed the Burning Man because he tries to destroy his victims by fire. At one point, they think they have their man, but while that suspect is in custody there’s another death. This time, PR professional Rebecca Haworth is the victim. At first it looks as though the Burning Man has struck again. But there are enough inconsistencies that this could also be a ‘copycat’ murder. For various reasons Kerrigan is asked to focus her attention on the Haworth case instead of the larger Burning Man investigation. She’s not thrilled about it, but she knows the consequences of not ‘playing by the rules.’ So she begins to dig into Haworth’s past. It turns out that there’s more than one possible suspect. Soon it’s clear that this is a separate investigation. Kerrigan and her team do get to the truth about both Rebecca Haworth’s murder and about the Burning Man murders. And without spoiling the novel, I can say that dangerous liaisons play a role. There are several moments in the novel where the reader is tempted to shout out a warning. There are enough plot twists though that it isn’t predictable.
In Out of the Silence, Wendy James offers a fictionalised account of a real-life case. In 1900, Maggie Heffernan was convicted in Melbourne of killing her infant son. James uses the novel to tell Maggie’s story, which begins in rural Victoria. There, Maggie meets Jack Hardy, who’s in from Sydney visiting relatives. The two soon begin a romantic relationship. At first, all seems fine. Then, Maggie begins to hope for a marriage proposal. The two do become secretly engaged, but Jack tells her that they’ll have to keep things private until he can earn enough to provide for a family. Instead of being alerted by this, Maggie agrees. Then Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant and writes to Jack. There is no answer, even after several letters. In the meantime, Maggie’s about to give birth and she knows that her own family won’t have her back. So she goes to Melbourne where she finds work in a Guest House. Baby Jacky duly arrives and for a short time, Maggie and her son stay in a home for unwed mothers. Then she learns that Jack may be in Melbourne and decides to go in search of him, sure that he’ll be overjoyed to have a family. Instead, Jack rejects her harshly, saying that she’s crazy. Devastated and desperate, Maggie takes the baby to six different lodging homes and is turned away from each one. That’s when the tragedy occurs. Savvy readers see it coming, but at the same time, the story is deftly told, so it keeps the reader’s interest.
And then there’s Jane Risdon’s short story The Honey Trap. In that story, a British agent spends the evening with a beautiful woman. You know immediately that something bad is going to happen. Such evenings have a nasty habit of going very, very wrong. I don’t want to spoil the story, so check it out to see how this one works out.
In Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, Stewart Macintosh is out one night at a Glasgow club called Heavenly. There he meets a beautiful woman Zara Cope. She seems attracted to him and the two become quite friendly. By the time this happens, the reader has learned that Zara is the girlfriend of drug dealer Lewis Winter, who’s been targeted for murder. As it happens, he’s at the club too, but he’s quite drunk, and Macintosh is besotted. He’s so besotted in fact that he agrees to help Zara get Winter back to the house and into bed, the idea being that he and Zara will then have the rest of the night together. You know this isn’t going to end well and it doesn’t. Two professional hit men burst in and Macintosh finds himself caught up in a web of murder, conspiracy and drug ‘patch wars.’
Agatha Christie uses that plot point in a few of her stories too, but since specific examples would give away too much, I’ll refrain from mentioning them. Sometimes, you just know that nothing good is going to come from a ‘boy meets girl’ situation, but when it’s done well, the suspense and interest help carry it off. Which examples have you thought worked really well?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jason Mraz’ The Remedy (I Won’t Worry).