If You Only Knew*

OmnicientReaderSome crime writers build suspense in their novels by making the reader privy to information that the sleuth doesn’t yet have. The reader knows something’s going to happen, or knows a certain fact, but the sleuth hasn’t worked it out yet. On the one hand, that approach can add tension and invite the reader to find out how the sleuth will handle whatever it is she or he doesn’t yet know. It can also make for interesting perspectives on other characters. On the other hand, if it’s not done effectively, that strategy can make the sleuth seem incompetent, especially if it’s information you’d expect the sleuth ought to have or try to get. That said though, it’s used in a number of crime novels. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot to look into the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was murdered by her lodger James Bentley. There’s evidence against Bentley, and in fact he was convicted of the crime and is soon to be executed. But even though Spence himself collected the evidence, he’s begun to think that perhaps Bentley isn’t guilty. Poirot agrees to investigate and travels to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder takes place. He soon discovers that Mrs. McGinty had found out something about one of the villagers that it wasn’t safe for her to know. There are several suspects too; Broadhinny is full of ‘very nice people,’ but they all have their secrets. Then, there’s another murder. Now Poirot has to find out how the two deaths are connected, if they are. At one point, there’s a conversation between Edna Sweetiman and her mother, who runs the local post office. It turns out that Edna saw something on the night of the second murder. Poirot isn’t privy to that piece of information, but it’s a very interesting clue.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle is the story of the disappearance of Andreas Winther. One day, he meets up with his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe as usual. By the end of that day, Andreas has disappeared. His mother Runi is concerned, and goes to the police. At first, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer isn’t too worried. There are many legitimate reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother. But when time passes and he still doesn’t return, Sejer begins to share Runi Winther’s fears. He starts to ask questions and interview people, beginning with Zipp. By this time in the novel, readers know much more about what happened to Andreas than Sejer does. Fossum uses that fact to build tension as Sejer tries to find out everything Zipp knows. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But there is a lot that he knows, and that adds a thread of suspense to the interviews between Sejer and Zipp. Sejer of course is convinced that Zipp knows more than he is telling, and he’s determined to get the truth. For his part, Zipp has his reasons for not sharing everything that he knows.

T.J. Cooke takes a slightly different approach 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. In a very short time it’s established that she was stabbed to death and her body thrown over the cliff. Soon enough, the police have a suspect: Elton Spears. Spears is a mentally troubled young man who’s had brushes with the law before. He’s not particularly likeable and there’s evidence against him. But his solicitor Jim Harwood knows Spears, and takes on his case. This isn’t a traditional ‘whodunit’ kind of novel. Rather, the reader knows who the killer is early in the novel. The suspense in this novel comes from the question of whether the murderer will get away with the crime. In a way too the suspense comes from the question of motive. It’s not clear at first why the victim was killed; that’s revealed as the story evolves.

Several of the novels in Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace series also take the approach of giving the reader more information than the sleuth has. For instance, in Dead Simple, Grace and his team launch a major search when Michael Harrison disappears just days before his wedding to Ashley Harper. All the police know at first is that Harrison had gone out with some friends for a ‘stag night.’ Later that evening, their borrowed SUV was hit by another car, killing nearly everyone on board. Only one man survived that crash, but he is in a coma and dies without regaining consciousness. Harrison’s best friend and best-man-to-be Mark Warren was out of town on business and wasn’t with the group, so he doesn’t add much to Grace’s store of knowledge. Neither does Ashley, who says that she didn’t know what sort of prank the groom’s friends were planning. The reader is privy from the first few pages to what happened to Harrison. As the novel goes on, the reader also learns several things about some of the characters that Grace doesn’t know, at least at first. So part of the suspense in the novel lies in whether and how quickly Grace and his team can get that information.

In James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, John Carlyle of Charing Cross Station, and his assistant Joe Szyskowski are called to the scene when Henry Mills discovers the murdered body of his wife Agatha. There are no signs of home invasion, and nothing is missing. So the police make the logical deduction that Mills is responsible. His account of the killing is that his wife had enemies who were out to get her, but that’s a very thin alibi and he’s soon arrested and imprisoned. However, it’s not long before Carlyle finds a piece of evidence that adds considerable weight to Henry Mills’ story. So he and his team begin to look into the victim’s background to see who might have wanted to kill her. In the meantime, the reader has already learned, in a general sense, the answer to that question. We are given important background information that Carlyle doesn’t yet have. So part of the suspense in this novel is the ‘cat and mouse’ game between Carlyle and the person involved in the murder.

Gene Kerrigan uses a similar approach to building suspense in The Rage. Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney investigate when banker Emmet Sweetman is murdered in the hallway of his own home. Little by little they learn that Sweetman had been involved in some dubious ‘business transactions’ during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. When the ‘boom years’ ended, Sweetman was in debt to some very nasty people who wanted their money back. In the meantime, we follow the story of Vincent Naylor, who’s recently been released from prison. He meets up again with his brother Noel and his girlfriend Michelle Flood, along with some other trusted friends. Together they plan a major heist: the armed robbery of a cash transfer vehicle. Their target is Protectica, a security company that moves cash among banks and businesses in the area. Tidey doesn’t know about these plans, and he doesn’t know at first that the group do in fact steal the money. But then everything falls apart for the thieves, and Vincent Naylor decides to take his own kind of revenge. Tidey doesn’t know that either at first, and Kerrigan builds tension as the reader learns about the robbery and its aftermath from the thieves’ point of view and, later, from Tidey’s.

Sleuths can’t know everything, so it’s logical that there would be some things they wouldn’t be privy to, at least at first. And it can work very effectively to have the reader know more than the sleuth, at least at first. That way the reader gets a broad perspective on a given story. At the same time, this approach needs to be handled carefully so that the detective isn’t made out to be too incompetent for credibility. What are your thoughts on this strategy? Do you enjoy novels where you know more than the sleuth does, at least at first?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Arlo Guthrie’s Someday.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gene Kerrigan, James Craig, Karin Fossum, Peter James, T.J. Cooke

27 responses to “If You Only Knew*

  1. *clears throat and climbs on soapbox* This is another reason I so much prefer third person to first person narratives. In first person, the reader can only really know what the narrator knows, and that can make the book very narrow. Or else the author can trap him/herself into making the narrator know things s/he can’t possibly know, just to keep the thing moving. But in third person, the author and the reader can share info behind the main protagonist’s back, so to speak – for me this gives much more scope for complexity. I enjoy the suspense that comes from knowing or at least suspecting things the protagonist doesn’t know – getting that feeling where you want to shout ‘No! Don’t go into that house…’

    • FictionFan – Yes! That’s exactly the feeling I had in mind when I was writing this post. That sort of ‘Look out!’ feeling isn’t really feasible if a story is told in the first person. It’s much harder as you say for the sleuth to know a credible amount of information and still build that particular kind of suspense. I’ve read some first-person novels that worked very well, but it’s got to be done with a deft hand, there’s no doubt in the least about that.

  2. I agree, it often heightens the suspense if you, the reader, know something the sleuth doesn’t. I find myself saying aloud, “No, don’t go there!” or, “Can’t you see that clue?!”, “Oh no!”, and so on.

    • Caron – I know what you mean! When the reader knows something that the sleuth doesn’t, it can invite the reader to be even more drawn into the story. And that can build suspense beautifully.

  3. That sort of ‘knowing what the sleuth doesn’t know’ seems to be more prevalent in filmed versions of crime stories rather than in novels, and they do require a good writer to pull off (without losing too much of the suspense and mystery). I have to admit I sometimes find it annoying when you get those short chapters in first person purporting to show you the disturbed psyche of the killer (but without revealing the killer’s identity) – they often don’t add that much to the story and can be deliberately misleading, when I’d rather just get back to the investigation.

    • Marina Sofia – Those chapters can indeed be annoying. As you say, they don’t really add much to the story itself, and many of them don’t even work (well, for me anyway) as character development. Interesting you’d mention film. Perhaps it’s true that that whole scenario of knowing what the sleuth doesn’t know is easier to pull off in film. I hadn’t thought about that when I was writing this post, but it could be. Hmmmm…definitely something interesting to think about – thanks.

  4. Do you know, I never realised that Poirot doesn’t know that piece of information in ‘Mrs McGinty’. It’s one of my favourite AC books. Thanks for the enlightenment.

    • Sarah – I hadn’t thought about it much myself until I started planning this post. He does learn about it, but we know the information before he does. And I have a very special fondness for Mrs. McGinty’s Dead; it was my first Christie novel.

  5. I also dislike getting inside the criminal’s head if he is a psychopath. I like the safety net of a detective between us. And really if you’ve seen one psychopath you’ve seen them all.

    • Patti – Agreed about fictional psychopaths. I It can work very well if the reader knows something before the sleuth does, but I think it can be done much better than the often-overused ‘in the killer’s head’ approach.

  6. Col

    I do like this approach, but not always – only every so often as it keeps my reading “fresh”. A James McKimmey book I read last month – The Perfect Victim has this set-up to it. Kerrigan’s – The Rage is highly recommended to anyone who hasn’t read it.

  7. More food for thought. Pantomime came to mind….the audience can see what the main character can’t often see – look out, he’s behind you! The same tension and fascination you get when watching one. Will he/won’t he spot whoever it is in time, or does someone have to tap him on the shoulder?

    • Jane – That is an interesting example, so thanks. That whole sense of knowing what’s going on while the main character doesn’t just adds to the suspense, I think.

  8. The instances you mention in the post are carefully planned and thought out (I should think) whereas I am with Marina Sofia in disliking the quite common trope of interspersed sections from the killer’s point of view. They are usually in italics and add nothing to the plot, atmosphere or investigation. They are a real bugbear of mine. I wonder if publishers like them and insist on writers adding them?

    • Moira – Now that an interesting question! I know that I’ve never included (or been asked to include) those bits of the killer’s thinking and I doubt I’d ever want to do so. I agree that they almost never add to the plot or move things along. As you say, there’s big difference between that sort of thing and an author strategy of providing information the sleuth doesn’t (yet) know. Perhaps the pre-planning is part of it.

  9. kathy d.

    I agree with everyone who dislikes first chapters in italics told from the killler’s point of view. Ugh! If I read a book with that plot device, I skip it.
    And I also dislike the killer’s thinking interspersed throughout the book.
    I don’t want to know it. I also want to read a mystery from either the detective’s viewpoint or else from other main characters’ perspective.
    I try to avoid books with these plot devices.
    I want to read a mystery, an investigation, and not be in the “head” of a psychopath or sociopath or other killer.

    • Kathy – You put that very well. I get tired of that ‘killer’s thinking in italics’ too. And I think there’s a major difference between that plot device and the plot device where we follow other characters and find out some things before the sleuth does. I think when that’s well done, it can build tension. But that said, I would rather learn those important clues from watching events from the ‘omniscient’ point of view than from finding out what’s going on in a fictional serial killer’s mind.

  10. What a fascinating post. I’ve read both types of book (where the reader does and doesn’t know the information before the detective does) and enjoy both, as long as they’re well written. One major advantage of knowing ‘whodunnit’ earlier on is that it avoids that whole ‘what the heck’ moment when a solution appears out of nowhere with (sometimes) insufficient signalling or explanation. Much as I love Louise Welsh’s ‘The Cutting Room’, there’s an element of that in there…

    • Tess – I completely agree with you about that ‘What?!?!’ moment. I like to match wits with the author well enough, but I like a fair shot, if that makes sense. and you’re right; when the reader knows something that the sleuth doesn’t (yet) know, there is more of a chance to figure things out and avoid that moment.

  11. kathy d.

    I have a friend who loves mysteries. She gets gleeful when she finds out the culprit before the detective does! I always thought it a bit strange, as the writer knows all and he or she is the one who did the plotting and set it all up for the reader to find out first.
    I don’t like unreliable narrators
    And I don’t mind either way whether or not I know the culprit before the sleuth does. It’s just the way the author has laid out the plot and the clues.
    I do think the reader should have a fighting chance to figure out the perpetrator, and that the detective should not pull out information at the last minute that we don’t know or couldn’t have known to name a killer. We need to know the clues planted along the way, even if they’re subtle.
    No spoilers here, but when I watched Broadchurch I picked out the killer because of some personal interactions and a conversation that was focused in a certain way, what was and wasn’t said. I thought it was fair, and that the writer had left the viewers with some clues, even though the production is full of red herrings.

    • Kathy – I think you touch on two things that really matter to crime fiction fans. One is that readers want to have a fair chance at working out the truth of a mystery. Readers don’t like those ‘unfair surprises.’ And a lot of readers share your friend’s pleasure at ‘besting the detective.’ For a lot of readers, especially readers of whodunit kinds of mysteries, it’s a bit of a game between the reader and the author in a way.

  12. kathy d.

    Yes! True, but isn’t the author the one who set up the clues so the reader could find out earlier than the sleuth? So one isn’t outsmarting the writer really. We mystery fans get quite “experienced” after reading a lot of crime fiction.

    • Kathy – That’s an interesting point. And I think you’re quite right that the more crime fiction one reads, the savvier one gets at figuring out what’s behind a given mystery.

  13. Pingback: Writing Links…10/6/14 | TraciKenworth's Blog

  14. Third person narrative gives you more scope as the author. You can weave a lot of threads into the tapestry of the story. To be honest, working out how you can build the suspense from either revealing or concealing information is half the fun. If you’re writing a traditional murder mystery you want to let out a slow trickle of clues so the reader can work it out along with the inspector. If you’re writing suspense (will the inspector work it out or will the perpetrator get away?) you need to let the reader in on some information the inspector hasn’t discovered yet to pull that off.

    • Peter – It is fun, isn’t it, to plan how to let out little bits of information, whether one’s doing a traditional ‘whodunit’ or something else. Building that suspense and deciding how to invite the reader to be engaged is something I like very much too. You also make a well-taken point about the use of third-person narration. It does make it easy to weave the various threads of the story together.

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