I’ll bet you know the feeling. You’re at a job interview, a medical appointment, a bank, or perhaps even a mechanic. At some point, you’re asked to wait. That wait can seem endless, especially if you’re already feeling a little tense (you’re anxious about the job, or wondering what the medical news will be, or whether you’ll get that loan, or how much the car’s going to cost this time).
The tension people feel at those times is almost palpable, and in real life, it can be useful. People may not be as much on their guard, and that can be helpful for police detectives. It can also add a layer of suspense to a crime story. There’s an element of character depth, too that such suspense can add (how does a certain character behave under stress?).
In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, a group of passengers is on a flight from Paris to London. Towards the end of the flight, one of those passengers, Marie Morisot, is discovered dead of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in that same cabin. So, the police, in the form of Chief Inspector Japp, ask those people to wait in a separate room until each can be interviewed. That scene is full of tension as the wait goes on. In this case, Japp doesn’t artificially extend the passengers’ wait, but it’s interesting to see how it impacts all of them. Hercule Poirot was on this flight, so he works with Japp to find out who the killer was.
Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger takes place mostly at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime military use. One day, a postman named Jospeh Higgins is brought to the hospital with a broken femur. The operation to set the bone is risky, as all operations are; still, it’s considered straightforward. Tragically, though, Higgins dies during the surgery. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police is assigned to do the routine paperwork, but he soon comes to believe that this death was not an accident. Then, there’s another death, this time, an obvious murder. The only really viable suspects are the people who were involved in the original death. So, Cockrill keeps a close eye on them, more or less keeping them in the same place. And they’re soon shunned by other people at the hospital. The tension that goes with being suspected, and with being cooped up, adds much to the atmosphere of this novel.
In Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called to the exclusive Randolph Hotel. Laura Stratton, an American tourist who was staying there, has died of an apparent heart attack, and a valuable jewel has been taken from her room. The missing piece is called the Wolvercote Tongue, and is part of a Saxon buckle that’s on display at the Ashmolean Museum. Before her death, the victim was going to donate that piece to the museum, so the fact that it’s missing is a real blow on several levels. The next day, Dr. Theodore Kemp, the museum’s curator, is found dead. It seems clear that the two incidents are related, so Morse and Lewis investigate them that way. And they start with Laura Stratton’s tour group. During the investigation, the tour group can’t move on to the rest of their stops, so there’s a bit of a claustrophobic feel as they wait for Morse and Lewis to unravel the truth. In the end, it’s all tied to a past tragedy.
Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quiet Holiday begins as Judge Harish Shinde and his law clerk, Anant, travel to Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, for a two-week holiday. One of Shinde’s old friends, Shikhar Pant, has invited them for a visit, and it’s a good excuse to get out of the Delhi heat. Among the other guests at Pant’s home is his cousin, Kailish Pant, a well-known writer. There’s tension right away, mostly over the work being done by two other guests, Ronit and Kamini Mittal, who run an NGO. They’re trying to provide AIDS information and other reproductive health support to some of the rural areas, and many people see that as obscene. Others feel threatened for other reasons. And opinion among Pant’s guests is quite divided. Matters come to a head one afternoon when Kailish Pant is murdered. Inspector Patel is assigned to investigate, and he begins to talk to the house party. The judge and Anant work with Patel to find out who the killer is, and their job isn’t made any easier by the very tense atmosphere that’s created by that feeling of having to wait.
And that feeling of anxiety and suspense is there no matter how luxurious the atmosphere. For instance, in Swati Kaushal’s Drop Dead, we are introduced to Shimla Superintendent of Police Niki Marwah. She and her team are called to the ultra-luxurious Lotus Resort when the body of Rakesh ‘Rak’ Mehta is discovered in a valley not far from the resort. He was the CEO of Indigo Books India, and had brought his senior staff to the Lotus for a retreat. The case is soon identified as a ‘suspicious death,’ and Marwah and the team look more closely at the members of the victim’s staff. They learn that each of Mehta’s senior employees had a motive for murder, so until the investigation is complete, the staff will have to stay where they are. And that adds a solid layer of atmosphere and suspense, even in an elegant, extremely comfortable place like the Lotus.
There are plenty of other examples of this sort of tension. You see it as people wait for police interviews, in those ‘country house’ mysteries, and in other places, too. And it’s little wonder; anxious waiting really does add a layer of tension to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Kinks.