As this is posted, it’s 137 years since Australian bushranger Ned Kelly was captured. Later that year, he was hanged. His exploits became the stuff of legend; in fact, some of Australia’s highest awards for crime fiction are called the Ned Kelly Awards – the ‘Neddies.’
That dramatic sort of confrontation and capture certainly makes the news in real life. And it can add suspense and tension to a crime novel, too. Of course, some stories don’t lend themselves well to this sort of drama, and are better off with a lower-key unmasking of the killer. But when it suits the story, that sort of confrontation can add much to a crime story.
For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a strange case brought to them by pawnbroker Jabez Wilson. Through an unusual series of events, he was offered a job that promised easy money. All he had to do to get paid was copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Then, the job abruptly ended. Now, Wilson wants to know what was really going on with this job. Holmes takes the case, and he and Watson begin to investigate. What they find is that this strange job is connected to a gang of robbers who want to tunnel into a bank. The confrontation between the ‘good guys’ and the robbers adds tension to this story.
In Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski, Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett and his wife, Emmy, take a skiing trip to the small town of Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’ll be staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, which caters to such holidays. One day, one of the other hotel guests, Fritz Hauser, is shot, and his body discovered on the downward-facing ski lift that runs between the hotel and the village below. Capitano Spezzi and his team begin to investigate. And, once he finds out that Tibbett is with Scotland Yard, the two men slowly begin to work together. They find that there are plenty of suspects among the hotel guests. Hauser was involved in smuggling, blackmail, and other dirty business, and no-one mourns his loss. Bit by bit, Tibbett and Spezzi find out who the killer is. And there’s a dramatic scene – a ski chase – when the killer is unmasked. That confrontation adds to the tension in the novel.
Michael Connelly uses such tension in several of his stories. For instance, in The Black Ice, LAPD detective Harry Bosch happens to hear of the suicide of fellow copper Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore. He goes to the scene of the suicide, and it’s not long before he notices a few things that aren’t consistent with suicide. The official word on the case is that Moore had ‘gone dirty’ and then committed suicide. But Bosch isn’t so sure of that. He persists, as is his way, and discovers that this death is not what it seems. The trail leads to a dangerous Mexican drugs gang, and to Moore’s background. Towards the end of the novel, there’s a dramatic showdown between the Bosch and some allies he’s made, and some of the ‘bad guys’ in the novel, and it adds a great deal to the suspense of the story.
Meg Gardiner’s China Lake is a thriller, so you’d expect that it would include a dramatic confrontation. And it does. In the novel, we are introduced to science fiction author and legal researcher Evan Delaney. She’s at the funeral of an AIDS activist friend one day, when the mourners are accosted by a fanatic religious group called the Remnant. That’s when Delaney learns that her ex-sister-in-law, Tabitha, has joined the group. Worse, Tabitha’s made it clear that she wants custody of her six-year-old son, Luke, who’s been in the care of his father, Delaney’s brother, Brian. And the Remnant is willing to take all sorts of measures to get Luke away from Brian. They engage in vandalism, harassment, and more. Then, Pastor Pete, the leader of the Remnant, is found murdered in Brian’s home, with Brian being the chief suspect. Now, Delaney has to clear her brother’s name, try to keep Luke safe, and try to convince the police that the Remnant are much more dangerous people than is known. In the end, there’s a quite a confrontation…
And then there’s Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy, in which we meet Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck. In the novel, he’s just getting back to work after a line-of-duty incident in which he was badly injured. For several reasons, he’s put in charge of a new department – Department Q – which is dedicated to those cases ‘of special interest.’ In this case, that means cold cases. He’s given an assistant, Hafez al-Assad, but very few other resources. Still, he and Assad begin their duties. Their first case of interest is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Linggaard. At the time she went missing, it was believed that she’d fallen overboard in a tragic ferry accident. But little pieces of evidence suggest otherwise, so Mørck and Assad look into the matter. And in the end, they find out the truth. There’s a dramatic confrontation in the novel between the police and a perpetrator that adds quite a lot of tension to the last bit of the novel.
And that’s the thing about those confrontations and captures. When they’re done well, they can add a lot of suspense to a novel, even if it’s not a thriller. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s Smackwater Jack.