It doesn’t take a physical fight, an explosion, or other such dramatic scene to build tension in a novel. Sometimes, just as in real life, tension can mount even during something as mundane as eating lunch or dinner. And an everyday event like washing up dishes or eating a meal can form a very effective contrast to tension that may be building up between characters.
Crime novels use such scenes a lot, and they can work very well when they’re done deftly. I’m sure some of those memorable scenes have stayed with you. Here are just a few that have stayed with me.
In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda have been invited to send the weekend with Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. The plan is for them to leave right after lunch on the Friday, and Christow is eager to go. For one thing, he enjoys the Angkatells. For another, one of the Angkatell cousins (and Christow’s mistress), Henrietta Savernake, will also be there. For her part, Gerda loathes going to the Angkatells. She feels completely uncomfortable with them, and wants nothing more than to stay in the family’s comfortable home, where she feels safer. Her husband has no real idea of this, though, and happily talks about the trip. As if that’s not enough, Gerda is very worried about what to do about the lunch, since John is late on that day. She frets about it for quite a while, during which time the meal is getting cold. It all makes very a very tense meal. I know, I know, fans of And Then There Were None.
In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, insurance salesman Walter Huff happens to be in the same area where one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, lives. So he decides to pay a visit and try to get a renewal on Nirdlinger’s policy. Huff’s client isn’t home, but his wife, Phyllis is. She and Huff strike up a conversation and before he knows it, Huff is completely smitten with Phyllis. She does nothing to discourage him, either. Soon enough, Huff is so besotted that he falls in with Phyllis’ plan to kill her husband so that she can inherit. Part of the plan involves getting some paperwork signed off and getting some signatures and money from Nirdlinger, so Huff has to think of a plausible excuse. He does, and pays a visit to his client at Nirdlingher’s office. Their conversation is more or less what you’d expect: a perfectly normal conversation between insurance representative and client. But under the surface, a great deal of tension has built up, chiefly because readers know what Huff’s plan is, and Nirdlinger doesn’t. It’s a very effective use of an ordinary conversation to build suspense.
Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn has a very tense couple of interactions in A Killing Spring. That novel begins with the murder of Reed Gallagher, who heads the Department of Journalism at the university where Kilbourn teaches. In a separate incident, there’s vandalism to the building that houses the department, and Kilbourn’s friend and colleague Ed Mariani ‘bunks’ in her office until the repairs are made. At first, the arrangement works well. But then, Kilbourn begins to wonder if her temporary office mate might be the killer. She doesn’t want to jump to conclusions, but there are pieces of evidence that suggest he could be responsible. This makes for an extremely tense situation in her office, since at least on the surface, Mariani has no idea that she suspects him at first.
There’s also awkwardness and suspense in Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls. One of Mma. Precious Ramotswe’s clients in that novel is an important Government Man, who believes that his new sister-in-law is trying to poison her husband (and his brother). He insists that Mma. Ramotswe travel to his family home and find out whether his suspicion is true. She agrees to go, and when she arrives, joins the family for lunch. On the surface, it’s an ordinary sort of lunch, set out to welcome a guest. Underneath, though it’s a very awkward meal, since Mma. Ramotswe is there to see if someone is poisoning other people. The tension is built, too, with some remarks about men and women, and by the fact that the food tastes just a little odd to Mma Ramotswe, All in all, it’s not a comfortable meal; and it’s made worse when everyone later gets sick. It turns out that someone has poisoned the food, so now Mma. Ramotswe has another mystery to solve.
Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quiet Holiday begins as Judge Harish Shinde and his law clerk Anant travel to the town of Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, for what’s supposed to be a relaxing couple of weeks of holiday away from the crowds and heat of Delhi. They’ll be staying with an old friend of the Judge’s, Shikhar Pant, who’s also hosting some other house guests. Two of them are Ronit and Kamini Mittal, who run an NGO that has an emphasis on AIDS information and education. Not everyone thinks that disseminating information about AIDS is a good idea; some people are even deeply offended at any hint that they or someone they know might have AIDS. Still others dislike what they see as obscenity. So conversation with and about the Mittals is bound to be tense, and it is. At one lunch in particular, there’s a very awkward and stressful conversation about whether the Mittals are, in fact, distributing obscene material, as is alleged. The different characters stake out their positions, and it’s interesting how some of the characters try to balance what’s supposed to be a pleasant, ordinary lunch with expressing their views. When one of them, Kailash Pant, is murdered, suspicion falls on the Kittals, since they’re already considered dubious. But the Judge and, later, Anant, are not so sure they are guilty.
Possibly one of the best examples of using an everyday event like a dinner to build suspense is in Herman Koch’s The Dinner. Two Amsterdam couples, Paul and Claire Lohman and Paul’s older brother Serge and his wife Babette, meet at a very upmarket restaurant for dinner. On the surface, it’s simply two brothers and their wives meeting for a meal. But as we soon learn, it’s much more suspenseful than that. As each course is served, we learn more and more about these brothers, their families, and the dark secret they’re keeping. We discover what actually brought them together, and a lot about their family histories. It may seem like a family dinner at a nice restaurant, but this meal is much more than that.
Ordinary things – meals, cups of tea, dishes, and so on – may be mundane. But they can serve as an effective backdrop, and can be very useful as a context for building tension. All you need do is look below the surface.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Great Suburban Showdown.