Somebody Help Me, We Gotta Stop a Crime*

preventing-murderIn many crime novels, a great deal of the suspense comes from the effort to catch the culprit(s). But there are some crime stories in which the real tension comes as the sleuth tries to prevent a crime (usually murder). That sort of story is a bit tricky to do, since it may mean a crime story in which there is no murder. And it’s a bit more difficult to keep the pace and suspense going with that sort of story. But when it’s done well, such a story can keep readers’ interest. And it allows the author some flexibility (will the murder be prevented?).

In Agatha Christie’s short story Wasps’ Nest, Hercule Poirot pays a visit to an acquaintance, John Harrison. He tells Harrison that he’s there to prevent a murder, and then brings up the subject of Claude Langton. It seems that Langton was formerly engaged to Harrison’s fiancée, Molly Deane, but Harrison claims that all is well between him and Langton. Nevertheless, Poirot insists, there is a real likelihood of murder. And it’s interesting to see the impact of Poirot’s visit.

Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes starts with an attempt to prevent a death. New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he comes upon a young woman who’s about to jump off a bridge. He manages to coax her away from the bridge, and then takes her to an all-night diner, where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Although she lost her mother when she was only two, she’s had a more or less happy life until recently. Not long before her suicide attempt, her father met a man named Jeremiah Tompkins – a man who is cursed, as he puts it, with knowing the future. Since that time, Harlan Reid has paid regular visits to Tompkins, and every prediction he’s heard has come true. Now, Tompkins has said that on a certain night at midnight, Reid will die. Since that prediction, Reid has been a shadow of his former self, and his daughter is distraught. Shawn decides to do what he can for her and her father. Part of the plot of this novel follows the Reids and Shawn as the time for Harlan Reid’s death (at least, the time foretold by Tompkins) gets closer. It’s interesting to see how all three respond to that stress.

Elmore Leanord’s Maximum Bob tells the story of Florida judge Robert ‘Maximum Bob’ Gibbs (so named because he has a habit of giving out the harshest penalties the law allows). One day, an alligator is found on his property. It does its share of damage, but no-one’s injured. Still, the police are called in, in the form of Gary Hammond. Gibbs wants to make as little of the incident as possible, but Hammond wonders whether the animal might have been brought to the property deliberately. Then, matters get more serious: shots are fired at Gibbs’ home one night. It’s now clear that someone is trying to kill the judge, and Hammond has to start to work quickly before there’s another, perhaps successful, attempt. He’s got plenty of suspects, too. For one thing, Gibbs’ harsh justice has made him plenty of enemies. So has his wandering eye. Hammond and parole office Kathy Diaz work to find out who’s trying to kill the judge.

There’s quite a lot of suspense in Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw. In that novel, SP (Special Police) Officer Kazuki Mekari of the Tokyo Municipal Police gets a new, and very difficult, assignment. A fugitive named Kunihide Kiyomaru has turned himself in to police in Fukuoka. He is guilty of the rape and murder of a young girl, Chika Ninagawa, and Mekari’s task will be to go to Fukukoa and bring Kiyomaru back to Tokyo to face justice. This isn’t going to be an easy task, though. Chika’s grandfather, who is extremely wealthy, has offered a one-billion-yen reward to anyone who kills Kiyomaru and proves that the deed has been done. Thousands of people already know about this bounty, and are planning to have their try for the money. And as the journey begins, many more learn about it. So, Mekari and his team will have to go up against many thousands of possible killers if they’re going to bring Kiyomaru back to Tokyo alive.

And then there’s Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. In that novel, Brighton and Hove Police Superintendent Roy Grace and his team are investigating the murder of a man whose torso was found in a disused chicken coop. It’s not an easy case, and matters are not helped when Grace is told that he will need to provide protection for superstar entertainer Gaia Lafayette. Originally from Brighton, she now lives in Los Angeles, where she’s become an international celebrity. She’s also become the target of a stalker who’s already made one attempt on her life. She and her entourage want to return to Brighton to do a film there, and of course, that will mean all sorts of potential revenue for the city. But it will also mean a potential security nightmare. So, Grace is told to make protecting her a priority. With the other case going on, as well as the usual police work (and some story arc events in Grace’s own life), it’s going to be a difficult assignment. And he’s up against someone who is determined to get to the star.

These are just a few examples, of course, of that plot point. And it can be very suspenseful to follow along as the protagonist tries to prevent a murder. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jackson Browne’s Voice of America.  

12 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Cornell Woolrich, Elmore Leonard, Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Peter James

12 responses to “Somebody Help Me, We Gotta Stop a Crime*

  1. Fascinating and hard to pull off I imagine. Thanks for the examples.

  2. mudpuddle

    i’m thinking there was a sherlock holmes story with that theme, but i can’t remember it… wish i could…

  3. Margot: As I read the post I thought of The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth where there is an intense manhunt to prevent the assassination of Charles de Gaulle. Not only did Forsyth create a brilliant thriller he created a story where every reader knew de Gaulle was not killed. Even though it was four decades ago I remember racing through the book eager and anxious to know what would happen next.

    • Oh, I couldn’t possibly agree more, Bill. It’s a very well-crafted plot, with plenty of tension. I’m glad you brought it up, as it’s a perfect example of what I had in mind with this post. You filled in an important gap there, so thanks.

  4. I can never think of any examples, Margot. You have some great ones here. It also made me think of (not sure if it was a book or movie) where the suspense is trying to find out who poisoned someone before they actually died.

    • Oh, I’m so glad you brought up Rudolph Maté’s 1950 film, DOA, Mason! That’s a suspenseful well-done noir film. For those who haven’t seen it, a man’s been poisoned, and the film is all about his quest to find out who the killer is and what the motive is before the poison kills him. Thanks, Mason for mentioning it!

  5. Yes, I bet it would hard to pull off, especially with no previous victims. I’m drawing a blank for examples. Not enough caffeine yet. 😉

    • I know what you mean, Sue, about the caffeine… And you make a well-taken point about the difficulty of making such a plot work. It would certainly take some finesse and skilled writing.

  6. In the Miss Marple collection 13 Problems/ Tuesday Night Club, Miss M prevents a crime (not a murder!) when she recognizes something important about the way in which a story is being told…I always thought it was a clever final twist to that story, which I know you know!

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