It Don’t Take Long*

condensed-storiesIn real life, murder investigations take time. And that makes sense, when you consider all of the factors that go into solving a crime. But that doesn’t always work well in a novel. Many readers prefer a faster pace and more engagement in their stories. And it’s interesting to see how different crime writers have approached that balance between telling a story in a realistic way, and keeping the story’s pace in mind.

Some writers have even managed to tell an absorbing story that takes place over just a few days, or even less. It’s not easy to pull that off, and still make the story credible. But when it works, that approach can add tension and a solid pace to a story.

Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley is one of those novels. In it, Dr. George Abbershaw is among several guests invited for a house party at Black Dudley, the family of home of academician Wyatt Petrie. The only permanent residents of Black Dudley are Petrie and his uncle, Colonel Gordon Coombe. This weekend, though, there are several other people there, including Albert Campion, who would become Allingham’s sleuth. On the first night, Petrie tells the guests about an old family legend concerning a large dagger that’s hanging over the fireplace in the drawing room. Everyone decides to go through the ritual associated with that legend. During the night, Colonel Coombs is killed. Abbershaw is asked to sign a death certificate that identifies the cause as heart failure. But he has his doubts, and very quickly deduces that the victim was stabbed with the dagger. What’s more, one of the other guests turns out to be associated with a criminal gang that claims to be missing ‘something important,’ and demands its return. The gang refuses to let anyone leave until that property, which turns out to be a set of papers, is returned. With this pressure, Abbershaw and, to an extent, Campion, have to work quickly to find out the truth about Coomb’s death and the papers.

There’s a similar sort of short time span in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. A group of people, including Hercule Poirot, board the famous Orient Express for a three-day journey across Europe. On the second night, one of the passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed in his bunk. Poirot is asked to investigate and, hopefully, find out the who the killer is before the train reaches the next frontier, so that the murderer can be handed over to the police. Poirot agrees, and begins by interviewing each of the passengers. A search is also made of their luggage. That information, plus certain clues and pieces of information, leads Poirot to the truth. The truth about the murder stems from an event several years earlier. But the action in the story takes place mostly over just two days.

The context for Kalpana Swaminatham’s The Page 3 Murders is a weekend ‘foodie party’ hosted by Dr. Hilla Driver. In part, the party is a sort of ‘housewarming,’ as she’s just inherited a beautiful upscale home. It’s also intended as a celebration of her niece Ramona’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. Hilla is very well-connected, so her guests represent Mumbai’s elite, including a food critic, a well-known writer, a dancer, a model, and a socialite and her husband. Also invited is a retired police detective, Lalli, and her niece (who narrates the story). Right away, it’s clear that there are conflicts among some of the guests, and hidden animosity. But everyone settles in and looks forward to what’s supposed to be the culminating event: a seven-course gourmet meal prepared by Hilla’s chef, Tarok Ghosh. The meal begins with custom-designed starters/appetizers, and it’s soon clear that Tarok planned them as his way of hinting at secrets that each guest is keeping. It’s clear now that he knows more than it’s safe to know. When his body is discovered late the next morning, Lalli is not shocked, given what he revealed. But she is dismayed, of course, and wants to find the killer as soon as possible. Then another death is discovered. Now there’s even more time pressure, and Lalli and her niece work quickly to find out who’s responsible. Again, some of the secrets we learn in this story go back some years. But the action in it takes place over only a few days.

There’s also Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw. Kazuki Mekari, of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department is given a difficult and unusual assignment. He and a specially-chosen group of officers are to travel to Fukuoka and bring back Kunihide Kiyomaru to face justice in Tokyo. Kiyomaru is responsible for the rape and murder of a young girl, and escaped to Fukuoka. This trip isn’t going to be easy, though. The girl’s very wealthy grandfather has publicly offered a one-billion-yen reward to anyone who kills Kiyomaru. So Mekari and his team will have to protect their prisoner from potentially thousands of people. What’s more, they’ll have to keep their own greed in check. The longer the trip takes, the more likely it is that someone will get to Kiyomaru. So, the team has to move as quickly as possible. The distance between Fukuoka and Tokyo is about 1100 km/685 mi, and on a ‘bullet train,’ that would normally take about six hours. But it doesn’t turn out to be nearly that simple. The bulk of the action in this novel takes place as Mekari and his team travel with their prisoner. But a lot can happen even in the space of less than two days…

As the name suggests, Herman Koch’s The Dinner takes place over the course of one upmarket gourmet meal. Paul and Claire Lohman meet Paul’s brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette, for dinner at one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive restaurants. As the dinner progresses, we slowly learn the backstories of these characters, and we learn about a dark secret both families are keeping. Paul and Claire’s son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, are guilty of a terrible crime. As we find out what happened, we also find out that this dinner had a very specific purpose: trying to decide what to do about that crime. It’s a fascinating story structure: it takes place during one meal, but it has to do with the characters’ entire lives.

There are, of course, plenty of other stories where the action is ‘telescoped’ into a short period of time. It can be tricky to do that effectively but the result can be a solid layer of suspense and an interesting plot structure. Which stories like that have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charlie Sexton.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Herman Koch, Kalpana Swaminathan, Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Margery Allingham

21 responses to “It Don’t Take Long*

  1. Tim

    Your one example with which I am familiar — Christie’s novel — seems to set up a perfect paradigm for pacing: the crime must be solved before the train reaches its destination (i.e., the classic locked-room mystery with a twist: everyone is in the locked room and the crime must be solved before the room is opened). I will dig through my Swiss-cheese memory for examples from my reading to match Christie’s exemplar, but I doubt that I can come up with anything so perfect. As always, I enjoy reading your post, and I am astonished at your recall of so many crimes and so many details.

    • That’s very kind of you, Tim – thanks. I’m glad that you enjoy what you find here. I like your perspective on Murder on the Orient Express, too. I hadn’t thought of it, really, as a ‘reverse locked room’ sort of story, but it is if you think about it. Interesting! Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  2. I’m certainly one of those people who likes a speeded up version of events – often with police procedurals in particular I get tired of the long gaps when nothing much happens to move the investigation along, even though I suspect it’s much truer to real life than everything being all tied up within a few days. Another of the reasons I enjoy the Golden Age authors – they didn’t have to wait three weeks for DNA results! I really must try Margery Allingham again sometime – I wasn’t as keen on her as the other Queens of Crime, but my tastes have changed over the years. This one sounds good…

    • This Allingham has a lovely, creepy house that lends a great atmosphere to the story, FictionFan. If you do read it, I wonder what you’ll think of it. You make an interesting point about liking things to be somewhat speeded up. I feel that way, too, sometimes, although like you, I understand that waiting for results and so on is more realistic. I think that creates a challenge for, especially, authors of police procedurals.

  3. Margot: In Craig Johnson’s book, Hell is Empty, Sheriff Walt Longmire pursues an escaped killer up a mountain. Though early May there is a vicious storm. The chase is over the course of a day and a night. Excerpts from Dante’s Inferno confirm he is in the midst of a living hell.

    • That’s a good example, Bill, of exactly what I had in mind with this post. I’m very glad you mentioned that one. Johnson is good at ‘telescoping’ like that…

  4. THE DINNER knocked me out-not totally in a good way but worth reading.

  5. Reblogged this on .

  6. Pingback: We Gotta Get Out of This Place* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

  7. I know it is not realistic, but I do enjoy those crime stories with artificial time constraints, it’s a real selling point for me. I have read and enjoyed a couple of the ones you mention, and always glad to have others recommended.

  8. tracybham

    I wondered if you would include The Dinner. I am very curious about that book, and may have to read it just to satisfy my curiosity, even though I am not sure I will like it.

  9. kathy d

    Well, another version of a locked-room mystery is a locked-house mystery, such as Hans Olav Lahlum’s first book in his series, entitled “The Human Flies.” All the occupants of a house are not allowed to leave until the perpetrator is caught. Someone was killed inside an apartment and it’s clear the murdered lived in the building.
    Also, Deon Meyer’s Thirteen Hours deals with a crime that must be solved and a young woman saved within the period of time.
    There are many books with time limits on solving a crime. Sometimes, it’s finding a kidnap victim and the kidnapper. With Jussi Olsen-Adler’s Book entitled, “Mercy,” there is a sense of urgency to quickly find perpetrators and victim fast.

    • You’re right, Kathy. When you put those time limits in a story, this really does add to the tension. And you’ve thought of great examples, too. And definitely the fact of an abduction just makes that tension even greater.

  10. kathy d

    And some of the stories involve kidnapped children who have health problems and need medication fast. I can’t think of one like that but in real life, these real mysteries are on the news too often.

  11. As reading I was reminded of One Cold Night by Katia Lief, where the protagonist’s daughter goes missing. The story occurs during a twenty-four hour span, as the title suggests. The author did an incredible job with it too. She also wrote Five Days in Summer, which I loved, and Seven Minutes to Moon, which is on my TBR list.

    • Those sound like great examples of exactly what I had in mind with this post, Sue. When you add in that added tension of having to find someone who’s been abducted, you do get so much tension and suspense in a story.

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