Have you noticed that there seems to be a trend in crime fiction towards telling stories in the present tense? Using the present tense is not a brand-new phenomenon in the genre. Still, it seems that many modern crime writers make that choice. Some writers claim that using the present tense conveys more immediacy, and allows a certain character depth. Other writers choose it for other reasons.
Use of the present tense is by no means universally popular though. Traditionally, publishers have frowned on that choice, requesting instead the use of the past tense. And lots of readers dislike reading books told in the present tense. It’s certainly not a settled question.
That said though, there are a lot of writers who’ve used that option. For instance, Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind is told in the present tense. It’s the story of the Anderson family, whose lives are changed forever when four-year-old Gemma Anderson goes missing during a school picnic one terrible day. A massive search is undertaken, but no trace of the girl is ever found – not even a body. The Andersons try to move on as best they can, but they are left shattered. Seventeen years later, Gemma’s older sister Stephanie is a fledgling psychologist who lives and works in Dunedin. She begins working with a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, only to learn that she, too, had a younger sister who disappeared at a young age. Against her better professional judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who is responsible for the abductions. Her journey takes her back to her home town of Wanaka; and as she finds out the truth, she also slowly begins the healing process.
Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin/Vincent Ruiz series is also told in the present tense. It begins with The Suspect. In that novel, the body of Catherine McBride is pulled out of London’s Grand Union Canal. DI Vincent Ruiz discovers that she was a patient of psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, and wants his help in the matter. Then there’s another murder; this time O’Loughlin is clearly implicated. Ruiz already had questions about O’Loughlin, and now it seems that those suspicions are confirmed. Since the story is told from O’Loughlin’s point of view, I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that he is innocent and is being cleverly set up. The question, of course, is by whom and why. It’s an interesting pairing of these two protagonists, and as fans will know, it’s a fruitful partnership.
Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, which takes place in 1981, is the story of Houston area lawyer Jay Porter. One night, he takes his pregnant wife Bernadine ‘Bernie’ out for a bayou cruise to celebrate her birthday. During the trip, they hear a woman’s screams and then gunfire. Then they see a woman tumble into the water. Almost by instinct, Jay rescues her and they return to the boat dock. The woman says very little about herself, and claims that she’ll be fine. But she does consent to be taken to the nearest police station. After she’s dropped off there, the Porters return home. The next morning. Porter learns of a fatal shooting in the area where they rescued the young woman. He doesn’t want to be involved, but ends up drawn into the case, which turns out to be a complicated web of corruption and greed at high levels. This story is told in the present tense; but, interestingly, its follow-up, Pleasantville, is not. That novel takes up Porter’s story fifteen years after the events of Black Water Rising.
Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak/Danny Boyle novels are also told in the present tense, from Boyle’s point of view. Beginning with Tilt a Whirl, this series takes place in fictional Sea Haven, New Jersey, and features Boyle, who starts out as an extra ‘summer cop,’ hired to help deal with the tourists. As the series goes on, he becomes a full-time member of the Police Department, and works under the supervision of John Ceepak. These novels are told in the way that you might tell a friend about something that happened to you (e.g. ‘So there I am, sitting at the café, when these two guys come in. They go up to the counter and order…’).
Another author who uses present tense is John Burdett, whose Sonchai Jitpleecheep series takes place in modern Bangkok. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police. He is also an observant Buddhist who tries to live his life according to those principles. Beginning with Bangkok 8, the series chronicles some of Sonchai’s cases as well as his own personal development. The novels are told in the first person, so we see the events clearly from his point of view. Burdett also uses the present tense/first person as a tool to convey interesting information to the reader. More than once in the series, Sonchai figuratively turns to the reader and offers ‘asides’ on Buddhism, Thai society and philosophy.
And then there’s Ernesto Mallo. His Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano series takes place in late 1970’s Argentina. Lescano is a police officer at a very dangerous time. The far-right military government does not hesitate to silence any opposition, however illusory. And since everyone is trying to stay alive, very few people can be trusted not to ‘sell out’ others. Against this backdrop, Lescano is just trying to do his job and solve cases. The series begins with Needle in a Haystack, in which Lescano investigates the death of a successful moneylender and pawn broker, Elías Biterman. Every effort is made to make his death look like an Army hit so that the police will leave the case alone, as they so often do. But enough things are different about this case that Lescano stars asking very risky questions.
There are many other novels and series, too, that are written in the present tense (I know, I know, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels). Some people enjoy the use of that tense; some people really dislike it. Others don’t really notice, or care, one way or the other.
Writers, do you use present tense? Why or why not?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Geddy Lee’s The Present Tense.