I Know the End is Comin’ Soon*

murder-warningsAn 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.

25 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Cecil Day-Lewis, Cornell Woolrich, Georges Simenon, James M. Cain, John Grisham, Nicholas Blake, Ruth Rendell

25 responses to “I Know the End is Comin’ Soon*

  1. Pingback: I Know the End is Comin’ Soon* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. I am quite pleased that I have read most of these. And such an interesting group. I especially used to enjoy Nicholas Blake. Haven’t thought of him in a long time.

    • Blake did write some really interesting stories, Patti. And it really does take some skill to actuall announce there’s going to be a murder – and still pull it off.

  3. Wow! What a great book review site. My new, humble effort has an impressive model to emulate. I will be back often to visit and learn.
    http://crimefictions.blogspot.com/
    By the way, Judgment in Stone is one of my all time favorites. The author’s characterizations were excellent. I haven’t read the other books you discuss, but I will try to do so soon.
    Lillian B.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Lilian, and I’m so pleased you’ve added a new crime fiction blog. The more of us talking about it, the better. And I agree: A Judgement in Stone is an excellent book.

  4. On the whole I prefer books that work forwards to the crime rather than back from it, but I agree – it can really work when it’d done well. You’ve picked some great examples, especially Double Indemnity which has to be one of the best of those kinds of stories. I’m basing that on the film since I haven’t read the book (yet), and another film that springs to mind is the fab Sunset Boulevard which starts with the corpse in the swimming pool. Don’t think it was based on a book though, but I could be wrong.

    • I don’t think Sunset Boulevard was based on a book, either, FictionFan, though I could be wrong, too. But I do agree with you that that’s a great example of a story working backwards, so to speak. I’m glad you’ve mentioned it, as I think it’s one of several films that do that very well. As to Double Indemnity, I do recommend the story, if you get the chance to read it. It’s a novella, so it’s not long, and it’s a classic noir story, at least in my opinion.

  5. kathy d

    I haven’t read these books and don’t think I’ve read any with this theme, unless a Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe book escapes me.
    However, there’s the classic film D.O.A., where someone is poisoned and he is trying to find the murderer and let the police know before he dies.

    • I’m glad you brought up DOA, Kathy. It’s a classic example of the story where you know there’s been a murder, and the tension comes from trying to catch the killer before it’s too late. It was stylishly done, I think.

  6. Margot: My favourite in this area is The Suspect by L.R. Wright where we meet the killer in the victim’s home beside the body on the opening page. The suspense comes from both being over 80 and whether the RCMP can figure out the unlikely killer.

    • You know, Bill, I almost mentioned The Suspect. As you say, it’s a great example of the way a writer can keep the suspense going, even if we know who the killer is. I ended up not including it, so I’m glad you did. Folks, it is a fine book which I recommend.

  7. I like the variety of how authors build suspense. Sometimes I like not knowing who the killer is to see if I can figure it out before it’s revealed. Other times the cat and mouse game is intriguing. Then there are those stories where the killer is known only to find out later it was a red herring and they didn’t do what they thought they did. Great examples here, Margot.

    • Thanks, Mason. I know what you mean, too. There’s definitely something to having a variety of different ways to tell a story like that. There are many ways, as you say, to build suspense, and that means the reader can experience all sorts of different story structures, contexts and so on.

  8. Margot, I have no problems with spoiler alerts, so to speak, and I’m actually quite comfortable reading crime fiction where the killer is revealed or broad hints are dropped as to his or her identity. As a reader, it helps to ease the tension and suspense, and settle down to a leisurely read.

    • That’s an interesting point, Prashant, and one I hadn’t thought of before. It certainly does allow the reader to focus on the characters and the atmosphere and so on. And if they are well-enough written, there’s no lessening of reader engagement.

  9. In this group I have only read Double Indemnity. I may have read The Beast Must Die, but if so, don’t remember a thing and I want to read it again. All of them sound good. I am fine with knowing who the killer is from the beginning. (I loved Columbo.)

    • Oh, Columbo was a great show, wasn’t it, Tracy? And the suspense is there, even though we always know, right from the start (or close to it), who the killer is. The writers did a fine job of keeping the tension going through the ‘cat and mouse’ interaction between the killer and Columbo; and for me, that added to the show. If you (re)read The Beast Must Die, I hope you’ll enjoy it (or enjoy it again).

  10. In general I prefer a straightforward story, I think of myself as resisting inverted stories. But then, it turns out I have read quite a few of those mentioned above, and liked them too. You must have chosen the very best ones. (Why am I not surprised?)

    • Thank you, Moira. You know, I think a lot of people may not think of themselves as liking inverted stories. But when they’re done well, they have their own unique style and way of keeping suspense going. And they add their uniqueness to the genre.

  11. kathy d

    Ditto to the comments about L.R. Wright’s The Suspect. An excellent, suspenseful book where one knows the killer from the get-go, but it’s not just the police investigation that’s compelling.
    It’s the motive of the killer which causes the reader to feel compassion for him and what drove him to commit the violent act.

  12. One of my favorites is a 1937 classic by John Dickson Carr (writing as Carter Dickson) called The Peacock Feather Murders. Scotland Yard receives a note: “There will be ten teacups at Number 4, Berwick Terrace, w. 8., on Wednesday, July 31 at 5 p.m. precisely. The presence of the metropolitan police is respectfully requested.” Police are forced to take this seriously because the same note was received at the yard two years earlier, when William Dartley was murdered. So the police turn out in force, even planted inside the house as well as outside. A man arrives, goes into a room alone, locks the door – and gunshots are heard. The police break down the door and find the man dead, apparently shot at close range – but no murderer in the room…

    • Trust you to think of a classic Carr that’s a perfect example of what I had in mind, Les. He really knew how to put together perplexing (but not really, if you think about it) mysteries, didn’t he? And that’s exactly the sort of thing I was thinking of with this post, so thanks.

  13. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Readers & Writers 10-6-2016 | The Author Chronicles

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