The Atmosphere is Electric*

AtmospheresAn interesting guest post on crime writer and fellow blogger Sue Coletta’s site has got me thinking about atmosphere. In part, the post’s focus is on character development, and that’s important of course. But the post also mentioned the larger context – the atmosphere.

Writers, of course, can use context for a number of purposes, far too numerous to discuss here. So I’m going to just mention a couple of ways in which crime writers use atmosphere.

Sometimes, crime writers use atmosphere to serve as a stark contrast to the murder(s) that are the main plot threads of their story. You know the sort of thing, I’m sure: the peaceful, lovely small town that hides secrets.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories are like that. For instance, Hallowe’en Party takes place in the village of Woodleigh Common, a small, outwardly peaceful place. One afternoon, several residents are visiting Apple Trees, the home of town social leader Rowena Drake. They’re helping her to get ready for a Hallowe’en party planned for later that evening. Also among the group is detective story author Ariadne Oliver. During the preparations, twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds boasts that she saw a murder once. Everyone immediately hushes her up, and the assumption is made that she said what she said to call attention to herself, especially as Mrs. Oliver was there. But later, at the party, Joyce is murdered. Now everyone has to face the possibility that Joyce was telling the truth. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to come to Woodleigh Common and help find out what happened, and he agrees. When the two of them visit Apple Trees to talk to Mrs. Drake, Mrs. Oliver says,

‘‘It doesn’t look the sort of house there’d be a murder in, does it?’’

And it doesn’t. It’s a neatly-kept, pleasant house in a small, peaceful community. Nothing creepy about it. And that contrasts with what happens at the house, and with what is later revealed about some events in the town.

Ira Levin uses a similar strategy in The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut, hoping to find low taxes and good schools. At first, everything goes smoothly. The town is beautiful, the residents are pleasant, and everyone settles in. But then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t take her seriously. But then, some things happen that show just how right Bobbie was. Levin fans will know that he takes quite a different approach in Rosemary’s Baby, where the apartment building that features so heavily in the novel is depicted as rather eerie right from the start.

Nelson Brunanski’s novels featuring John ‘Bart’ Bartowski often feature the small town of Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. It’s a quiet town where everyone knows everyone, and where life is mostly peaceful. That lovely small-town backdrop contrasts with the main murder plots of the stories. For example, in Crooked Lake, the first of the series, the body of Harvey Kristoff is found on the grounds of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The most likely suspect is former head greenskeeper Nick Taylor, whom Kristoff recently had fired. But Taylor claims he’s innocent, and asks Bart to help clear his name. In Frost Bite, Bart gets involved in the murder of Lionel Morrison, a CEO with quite a lot of ‘clout.’ He spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge owned by Bart and his wife Rosie. Later, Bart discovers Morrison’s body under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. Crooked Lake’s peaceful, ‘down home’ sort of atmosphere serves as a really interesting contrast to the murders that happen there.

Of course, some crime writers use a story’s overall atmosphere to add to the suspense. That, too, can be quite effective. For example, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is the story of Mary Yellan. When her mother dies, Mary obeys her mother’s last request and goes to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss, who own Jamaica Inn. The inn is in Cornwall, between Bodmin and Launceston. Before Mary even arrives, she’s warned about Jamaica Inn, but she chooses to continue the journey. And when she arrives, she finds that it’s every bit as dreary and unpleasant as she’d heard. The place is isolated, run-down and creepy. Her uncle is unpleasant and abusive, and her aunt so downtrodden that she does nothing about it. This atmosphere serves as the backdrop for a case of murder, and for some very dark secrets that Mary discovers.

Several novels in Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache make mention of the old Hadley house. Fans of this series will know that it has a dark history, and that adds to its eerie atmosphere. Even Gamache, who is not a fanciful person, doesn’t like going there. In The Cruelest Month, a murder takes place there. A well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying in Three Pines, and is persuaded to hold a séance during her stay. The first attempt doesn’t go well, but another is scheduled during the Easter break, and is to be held at the Hadley place. During that second séance, Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies. At first, it’s said that she was frightened to death. But soon, it’s discovered that she’s been given a lethal dose of a diet drug. In this case, the house’s creepy history and atmosphere add to the suspense and tension.

And then there’s Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, which features DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper. In that novel, two sets of remains are discovered in the Peak District on Pity Wood Farm, which used to be owned by the Sutton family. It now belongs to a Manchester attorney named Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the property after the remains were already there. So the detectives focus on the Suttons and on the people who lived in the area when they owned the farm. The nearest village is Rakedale, and Fry and Cooper are hoping to get some background from the residents. But Rakedale is a close-mouthed, creepy place. Few people are interested in speaking to the police, and even fewer in discussing the Suttons. It makes for a tense sort of atmosphere.

Whether the author chooses to use atmosphere to contrast with a murder (or murders), or add to the tension, it’s hard to deny the importance of atmosphere in adding to a story. Which atmospheres have stayed with you?

Thanks for the inspiration to Sue and her guest, David Villalva! Now, please go visit Sue’s excellent blog. It’s a fantastic resource for crime writers, and a fascinating place to learn all kinds of interesting things.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Little River Band’s So Many Paths.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ira Levin, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Stephen Booth

25 responses to “The Atmosphere is Electric*

  1. The balance between urban and pastoral settings once favored the latter but perhaps now favors the former; the more noir the book, probably the more urban the setting. Of course, pastoral settings underscore the Edenic disruptions which symbolically infuse all crime fiction; we yearn for Eden, and we deplore being polluted by disruptions (miasma), so we look forward to crimes/criminals being banished and peace being restored to our pastoral illusions.

    • That’s a fascinating argument, Tim. And it may very well be one of the factors that makes that contrast between a peaceful context and a murder mystery so effective. As you say, we want to restore peace and order to a peaceful setting. In the case of a grittier or eerier setting, this can serve to enhance (well add to, anyway) the tension.

    • mudpuddle

      i think that’s a good point: there seems to be an inherent desire for justice or some kind of balance that’s instinctive in all of us…

  2. Nice post, Margot. I am still planning on reading Nelson Brunanski’s novels, some of the others may be too atmospheric for me. I did read The Cruelest Month in the last year and enjoyed it.

    • Thanks, Tracy. Actually, I think that all of Louise Penny’s novels are worth reading, and most are excellent, so I’m biased. Still, I’m glad you enjoyed The Cruelest Month. And I do recommend Brunanski’s work when you get to it.

  3. Coincidentally I was finishing a re-read of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ earlier today and thinking to myself how well he had used different kinds of darkness to create atmosphere – the London fog, candlelight etc. He also used a door set into a windowless wall very effectively to create a sense of creepiness. And, leading on from that, I loved how Shirley Jackson reversed all that in ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ – everything happening in bright sunshine and the house having huge windows to let the light in – and yet still managed to create a gothic feel. Neither strictly crime novels, I know, but they both came to mind as examples of atmosphere.

    • Oh, those are great examples, FictionFan! So thanks for adding them in. You’re quite right, I think, about Stevenson used atmosphere, and not just in that story. And oh, Jackson did that so well, too. As you say, sunlight or not, you do get that creepy sense of impending menace.

  4. Ethel Lina White wrote some great crime stories in the 1930s, and got rather associated with ‘old dark houses’ – especially with her book that became The Spiral Staircase. A few years later she did one called Step in the Dark, which was largely set in a super-modern house in Sweden, the last word in contemporary design. She still made it very atmospheric, and quite terrifying, but I wondered if she did it deliberately, to show she didn’t need old creaking staircases to entertain her readers…

    • Interesting question, Moira! And I’m glad you mentioned her work, too. I really need to read some of her stuff more closely and get more familiar with it. Certainly she did a great job of evoking a creepy atmosphere!

  5. Thank you for the shout-out, Margot. I thought I heard your wheels spinning when you commented. 🙂

    In the book I just started, Between Good and Evil by R. Michael Phillips, the mystery is set in a small town not far from where I live. I can already tell the location will dramatically add to the suspense.

    • Oh, I’m sure it will, Sue. I think there is something about an environment we know well that really adds to the suspense. And it’s my great pleasure to mention your fantastic blog!

  6. Kay

    I think that using atmosphere in such a way is an example of the mystery genre flirting with the edges of the horror genre, on occasion anyway. I do think that the Hadley House in The Cruelest Month would qualify as a sort of horror location. Mention is made over and over of the atmosphere in the house. It also made me think of the one book that author Anne Rivers Siddons wrote was so very creepy. It’s called The House Next Door and things keep happening to people at that house. I defy anyone to read it and not get a chill down the spine. That being said, it’s not strictly a horror novel. Very interesting post, Margot. I really enjoyed it.

    • Thank you, Kay, for the kind words. I really think you have a well-taken point about the use of atmosphere in horror genre stories, and in stories that come close to that genre, even if, technically speaking, they aren’t given that label. Certainly the sense of creeping horror that you see in those novels is impacted by the atmosphere, and you’ve given great examples, for which thanks.

  7. Noir has been traditionally associated with urban life, but I’ve now found quite a few books recently that are what one might call ‘rural noir’ – Cormac McCarthy, Barry Gornell’s The Healing of Luther Grove, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series and a French discovery waiting to be translated Franck Bouysse. The atmosphere is so claustrophobic in these small places, there is such a sense of being lost and forlorn and not able to understand what’s going on…

    • Oh, absolutely, Marina Sofia. And you’ve mentioned some authors who really do that very, very well. It’s a different sort of suspense and eeriness, but it’s no less there.

  8. The book I just finished, “You Don’t Want to Know” by Lisa Jackson, takes place in a big old house on an island where a lot of bad things have happened. There’s a sense of creepiness (like fog and dampness and isolation) throughout the story that keeps the tension level high.

  9. As always loving your examples for this post – I always thought Tom Vowler’s That Dark Remembered Day managed the atmosphere by having a small town setting giving a real feel of claustrophobia to

  10. Col

    Brunanski’s book sounds interesting, but I probably shouldn’t…

  11. I agree, Margot. Atmosphere is everything in fiction. Some genres like crime-mystery and western can’t do without atmosphere, a perfect complement to character development.

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