An important part of the appeal of crime fiction is the suspense. Sometimes that comes from not knowing who the killer is, and the sleuth’s search for the truth. It might also come from a ‘cat and mouse’ sort of plot, where the killer and the sleuth face off against each other. There are other ways, too, in which the author can build suspense. Whichever way the author decides to go about it, building suspense is an important part a crime novel.
That’s why it takes skill to create a plot where we’re told at the beginning that there’s going to be a murder. It takes even more when readers are told who the victim will be. A few stories, such as Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone let the reader in on that information right away. We know from the first sentence of that novel who the killer is (a professional housekeeper named Eunice Parchman). We know who the victims are, too (members of the Coverdale family, Eunice’s employers). Even with this information having been provided, Rendell builds the tension by showing what the characters are like, how they met, and how the murders happened.
There are other ways in which authors handle that tension, too. For instance, in Georges Simenon’s The Saint-Fiacre Affair, the Paris police receive a note warning them that a crime will be committed,
‘…at the church of Saint-Fiacre during First Mass.’
For Commissaire Jules Maigret, the place has special meaning. It’s a church near Matignon, where he was born and raised. He takes an interest in the note, although his colleagues think it’s a prank, and travels to Matignon, where he attends the service mentioned in the note. Sure enough, after the Mass ends and everyone else leaves, the Countess of Saint-Fiacre is found dead. Maigret knew the victim, so it’s very difficult for him to be objective in this case. Still, he investigates, and finds out who the killer is, and why the note was sent. In this novel, part of the suspense comes from the search for answers. Part comes as Maigret faces his own past.
Nicholas Blake’s (AKA Cecil Day-Lewis) The Beast Must Die begins with the sentence,
‘I am going to kill a man.’
This comes from the journal of Frank Cairnes, a crime writer who uses the pen name Felix Lane. Cairnes/Lane plans to murder the man who killed his son Martin ‘Martie’ in a hit-and-run incident. He returns to the town he and Martie lived in at the time of the boy’s death, and starts looking for information. Soon enough, he learns that the driver was probably a man named George Rattery. After getting an ‘in’ to the Rattery household, Cairnes puts in motion his plan for revenge. But on the day’s Cairnes has chosen for the crime, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes is the natural suspect, but he claims he didn’t actually commit the murder. Then, he contacts poet/PI Nigel Strangeways, and asks for his help. According to Cairnes, he planned to kill Rafferty – even tried. But his method was attempted drowning, and the plan fell through. Why, says Cairnes, would he have planned to poison the man he’d already planned to drown? It’s a complicated case, and the suspense in it comes from Strangeways’ efforts to make sense of it.
In Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn meets a young woman named Jean Reid, who’s about to jump off a bridge. He manages to talk her into getting off the bridge and going with him, and soon hears her story. As it turns out, her distress has come from the fact that her father, Harlan Reid, has been told he is going to die on a certain day at midnight. The predication came from Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who considers himself cursed with being able to see the future. Shawn takes an interest in the Reid case, and joins Jean in the effort to prevent her father’s death, if that’s possible.
There’s also Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced (You were waiting for this, right, Christie fans?). The novel begins with a personal advertisement in a local newspaper that states,
‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6:30pm. Friends, please accept this, the only invitation.’
The residents of Chipping Cleghorn can’t resist the invitation, and several of them go to Little Paddocks to see what it’s all about. At the appointed time, a man bursts into the house, demanding that everyone ‘stick ‘em up.’ No-one takes it seriously – until shots are fired into the room, and the man is killed. Even though we know there’ll be a murder, Christie doesn’t make it exactly clear who the victim will be, and certainly not who the killer is. That’s part of what adds to the suspense.
The main focus of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is a plot to murder H.S. Nirdlinger. It all starts when Nirdlinger’s insurance representative, Walter Huff, stops by the house to see about a policy renewal. Instead of his client, Huff meets Nirdlinger’s wife, Phyllis. He’s immediately smitten, and it’s not long before he and Phyllis are involved. She convinces him that, with his help, her husband can be killed, and she and Huff can be together and enjoy his insurance payout. Huff goes along with the plan and the murder is duly committed. But as fans of this novella know, that’s only the beginning of the complications in Huff’s life…
And then there’s John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. When ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped and left to die, her father, Carl Lee, is understandably devastated and angry. There’s a lot of sympathy for him, too. Tonya’s attackers, Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard are promptly arrested. The case gets the attention of Jake Brigance, an attorney whose office is just across the street from the courthouse. Out of interest, he attends the preliminary hearing for the two men, where he sees Hailey (whom he knows). Lee makes some cryptic remarks that give Brigance the idea that he intends to exact revenge on Cobb and Willard. Brigance tries to warn him not to do anything drastic, but Hailey says,
‘What would you plan, Jake?’
Sure enough, Hailey gets some help from his brother Lester, ambushes Cobb and Willard, and murders them. Then he asks Brigance to defend him. Along with several other elements, the legal and ethical issues add to the suspense of this novel. So does the fact that the stakes turn out to be a lot higher than just one man killing his daughter’s rapists.
In deft hands, even a story where we (and the sleuth) are told there’s going to be a murder can still draw us in. When it’s done well, the fact that we know what probably (or definitely) will happen can add to the tension. Which stories like this have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedance Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising.