How Can I Be Sure?*

suspicion-growingAuthors use a lot of different tools for building suspense. One of them is a slowly-growing sense that someone you thought you knew well could be a murderer. If you think about it, that’s an unsettling, even frightening, feeling. Even if you don’t think you’re an intended victim, it’s still a scary thought. And you can’t bring up the topic very easily, either. You may be wrong, in which case you’ve ruptured a relationship, possibly permanently. Or, you could be right, in which case voicing your suspicions could put you in danger.

That sort of suspense can add a lot to a crime story, and there are lots of examples of it. Space only permits me a few, but I know you’ll come up with lots more. Oh, and you’ll notice that there won’t be any domestic noir titles mentioned. Too easy.

Agatha Christie used that approach to building suspense in several of her stories. For instance, in Hickory, Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory, Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s normally unflappable secretary, Felicity Lemon, asks for his help. Her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, has gotten concerned about a spate of petty thefts and other strange occurrences at the student hostel she manages. Partly as a courtesy to Miss Lemon, Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and visits the hostel. On the night he goes there, one of the residents, Celia Austin, admits to several of the thefts. At first, that seems to settle the matter. But when Celia herself dies two nights later, it’s clear that there’s more going on than just some petty thefts. It’s soon proven that she was murdered, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find the killer. As the novel goes on, several of the residents are made very uneasy by the idea that one of them could be a murderer, and it impacts them. Then, there’s another murder. And another. That almost-claustrophobic feeling of being trapped with someone wo’s dangerous adds tension to this story. I see you, fans of And Then There Were None.

There’s also Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, in which a group of people attend a very creepy séance. The purpose of it is to contact Grimaud Désanat, who died several years earlier. He left behind a successful wood processing business, but the land he owned has now been thoroughly logged. His widow, Irene, and his business partners, believe in spiritualism. So, they decide to use a séance to get his permission to develop a piece of land that he had said must be left unlogged for 20 years. The séance is eerie enough, but matters get far more frightening when Irene is killed later that night. If it wasn’t Désanat (and there are several people present who don’t believe in ghosts), then it had to have been someone in the group. That possibility is as frightening as a haunting, and adds to the suspense of the novel.

In Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s A Window in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro Inspector Espinosa faces a similar kind of growing suspicion. Three police officers are killed in quick succession. At first, it looks very much like the work of someone who’s got a vendetta against the police. But then, the mistress of one of the victims is killed. Then the mistress of another victim dies. And the third victim’s mistress goes into hiding to avoid the same fate. It’s now clear that this isn’t a case of a person who just wants to kill police officers. Something else ties these victims together, and that something could very well be corruption. Now, Espinosa and his hand-picked team have to be very careful. One or more of the cops with whom they work could be involved in the same corruption, or could be a killer. That feeling that one of their own might be a killer adds a solid layer of suspense to this novel.

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring finds her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, investigating the murder of a university colleague. The body of Reed Gallagher is found in a seedy hotel, and at first it looks as though he was killed as a result of some sort of double life he was leading. But it’s not as simple as that. As the case goes on, Kilbourn learns that there are several possible leads. Unfortunately for her, one of them is her friend and temporary office-mate, Ed Mariani. On the one hand, Kilbourn knows that just about anyone is capable of murder, given the right circumstances. She’s not so naïve as to believe that Mariani couldn’t possibly be the killer. On the other hand, he is a friend. She’s been to his home, attended meetings with him, and currently shares an office teapot with him. It’s a really awkward and unsettling situation for her, and that adds to the suspense in the story.

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me?  Yvonne Mulhern has recently moved with her husband, Gerry, from London to Dublin. The move represents an excellent career opportunity for Gerry, but it’s all much more difficult for Yvonne, who is a brand-new first-time mum. With no friends or family in Dublin, she soon turns to Netmammy, an online forum of other mothers. In the group, Yvonne finds the solidarity and support she’s been missing, and all goes well at first. Then, one of the group’s members goes missing. Yvonne gets concerned; although she’s never meet the woman, she considers her a friend. In the meantime, Sergeant Claire Boyle, herself a mum-to-be, is faced with a difficult case. A woman’s body has been found in an abandoned apartment. When Yvonne hears about this, she begins to wonder whether the dead woman is her missing online friend. If so, that could mean that someone in the forum is not who she seems to be. And that possibility adds quite a lot of tension to this story.

And I don’t think I could discuss this topic without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film, Shadow of Doubt. In that film, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Newton is excited to learn that her uncle, Charlie Oakley, will be coming for a visit. All goes well at first. But everything changes as Charlie slowly comes to suspect that Uncle Charlie may in fact be a murderer.

When it’s done well, that slow building up of suspicion can be very suspenseful. It’s also realistic, if you think about it. I’ve only had space for a few examples. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Gail Bowen, Hake Talbot, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Sinéad Crowley

18 responses to “How Can I Be Sure?*

  1. Margot, Hitchcock was a master at this, no more so than in Shadow of a Doubt. He also created a wonderful sense of growing suspicion in my favorite Hitchcock film, Rear Window. Of course, in SOAD, Charlie wants more than anything to believe that her dear Uncle Charlie is innocent, while in RW, Jimmy Stewart is so bored sitting around with a broken leg that he HOPES his neighbor killed his wife!

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Brad. And thanks for mentioning Rear Window. That’s such an interesting distinction between the two films, isn’t it? The protagonists have different feelings about whether someone could be a murderer. But the films have in common that Hitchcock leaves just enough of a question as to guilt that the viewer is drawn in. As you say, he did that brilliantly.

  2. Tim

    Very interesting (again, as always), Margot. Let me make two points about crime fiction in which suspense (or lack of it) becomes important: (1) I think it was Umberto Eco (I could be wrong about the source and the exact statement) who said that the one crime fiction that has yet to be written is the one in which the reader is either the victim or the murderer; (2) I just finished reading Doyle’s _The Sign of the Four_, one of the most unsatisfying stories because of the long (boring!) denouement and exposition at the end of the story (i.e., the criminal tells the story of his crime, going on and on and on ).

    • Thanks, Tim, for the kind words, and for your thoughts. The only story I’ve ever encountered where the reader is that directly involved is Frederic Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind You. It’s a very well-done story, in my opinion. Recommended if you ever get the chance to read it. Folks, if you know of others, please let me know!

  3. As always you’ve included fantastic examples and as you say when the doubt starts as an almost ludicrous idea it is difficult to speak out – I particularly enjoyed this in Shadow of Doubt, a true masterpiece!

    • Thanks, Cleo. And I agree completely about Shadow of a Doubt. It’s so well done, isn’t it? You point out something really interesting, too. People do tend to keep their thoughts to themselves when that little worm of doubt seems to fantastic to be true. And that sense of, ‘No! It couldn’t be!’ can really make characters question their own thinking.

  4. Margot, I think there’s a good example in Rex Stout’s final Nero Wolfe novel, “A Family Affair,” in which Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin come to the realization that someone they have trusted and worked with is actually a killer. (Anything else I say would be a spoiler, but if you’ve read the book, you know what I mean.) It adds hugely to the tension and suspense.

    • I do know what you mean, Les, and I agree that that thread adds quite a lot of suspense to the story. I’m glad you mentioned it, because it certainly belongs in this discussion. I appreciate your filling in the gap.

  5. Oh, I love Shadow of a Doubt! A true masterpiece – but then so many of Hitchcock’s movies were. Another Agatha Christie one where she uses that aspect is The Moving Finger where Jerry, having already fallen in love with Megan, briefly wonders whether she could have been driven to murder her step-mother, and you can see him trying to work out how this would, or wouldn’t, affect his feelings for her.

    • Yes, indeed, FictionFan! It’s interesting to see how he speculates about that. I think that, along with adding to the plot, it also adds a hint to Megan’s character (is she really the type of person who might be driven to kill…). Nice touch on Christie’s part, in my opinion. And I agree with you about Shadow of a Doubt, too. That’s one thing that Hitchcock did so well – build the tension as the protagonist wonders, ‘Is it me? Is Uncle Charlie a killer?’ I love it!

  6. Great examples, Margot. I can’t think of a title but those are the types of stories that one really can get invested in. Just when you think you know who the killer is, the author gives you a bit of doubt that it may not be as clear as you thought. For some reason, a scene from Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant popped into my head. It’s when he first suspects his aunts are killers. It’s a funny movie but it is also one where you don’t want to believe it possible these two little old ladies are killers.

    • That’s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind with this post, Mason. I’m very glad you thought of it. And you’re right that that little bit of doubt can draw the reader it. As you say, just when you think you know whodunit, you learn that it’s not quite that clear, and that can add suspense to a story.

  7. I think this situation pulls me into a story because I can wonder how I would feel in that situation. Gets me more involved in the story.

  8. One of my favourites is Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger – the small group of drs and nurses realize slowly that it must be one of them, and the tension goes stratospheric – And no-one else in the hospital wants to have anything to do with them…

    • I love GFD too, Moira. Brand was excellent at presenting a group of people who knew each other well and then dropping that glimmer of suspicion in the water and watching the ripples spread outward and take effect on the group dynamic!

    • Oh, that’s a great example, Moira! Brand does that buildup of tension so very well, doesn’t she? And it’s helped along by the fact that everyone still has to work together.

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