Anyone who’s ever lived in wildfire/bush fire country can tell you that, when even a small fire starts, things can turn very, very bad, very, very quickly. So, there’s often a lot of tension as everyone looks at things such as prevailing winds, terrain, availability of firefighting staff, and size of the blaze. Wise people take precautions, in case they need to evacuate. After all, there may only be 10-30 minutes to evacuate once the order is given. That’s not the time to discuss who will take what, or where to go. By the way, if you want to read a realistic account of what this situation is like, read Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350. G’wan, read it. Admittedly, it’s not crime fiction, but it’s such a good fit here that I decided to mention it, anyway.
That tension, as people wait to see what will happen, is almost palpable. In real life, it can be a big challenge. In fiction, it can add an engaging layer of suspense. And crime writers have used it in several different ways.
For instance, Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood begins in Hercule Poirot’s club. Everyone’s taking shelter there against World War II air raids, and it’s not in the least clear how things will pan out. So, there’s a lot of tension. In part to break that tension, Poirot listens to a story told by fellow member Major Porter. It seems he knew a Robert Underhay who died in Africa. Underhay’s widow, Rosaleen, later married Gordon Cloade. But Porter’s story suggests that Underhay might still be alive. This possibility becomes crucial later, when Cloade is killed in a bombing. He dies without having made a will, which in most cases would mean Rosaleen inherits all of his considerable wealth. But if her first husband is alive, that would mean she couldn’t inherit. And that’s exactly what Cloade’s family wants, for various reasons. So, Poirot’s interest is piqued when he learns that a stranger named Enoch Arden has been killed in Warmsley Vale, where most of the Cloads lived. Arden hinted that he knew Underhay was still alive, and that could certainly have something to do with his murder. Poirot travels to the village and slowly learns the truth about Arden, the Cloades, and Rosaleen.
Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors takes place mostly in the East Anglia village of Fenchurch Saint Paul. When a car accident strands Lord Peter Wimsey and his assistant/valet, Mervyn Bunter, the village’s vicar, Reverend Theodore Venables, rescues the men and lodges them in the rectory until the car is fixed. That’s how Wimsey ends up getting involved in a case involving an unknown ‘extra’ corpse in a grave, some missing emeralds, a long-ago robbery, and change-ringing. In one plot thread of this novel, heavy rains bring on a flood. Venables wants to do what he can to save the villagers, and there are some very tense moments as everyone watches and waits to see how high the waters will rise, and how severe the damage will be.
Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke introduces Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel. It’s 1931, and the Great Depression has meant that everyone is desperate for money. Hannah herself has very little, although she has enough to eat and keep her home. What’s more, there’s a great deal of tension as everyone waits to see whether and to what extent the Nazis will get power. They’re already a force to be reckoned with, and people know that it’s best not to get in their proverbial sights. Against this very suspenseful background Vogel learns that her brother, Ernst, has been found dead. She wants to know why, and, if he was murdered, who killed him. So, she starts to ask questions. She’ll have to work very quietly, so as not to call too much attention to herself. But she’s determined to find answers. The background tension to this novel adds a real layer of atmosphere, as people watch and wait and wonder what will happen to the country.
Adrian McKinty’s The Cold, Cold Ground is the first of his series to feature Sean Duffy. He’s that rare thing, a Catholic member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The novel takes place in 1981, in the midst of the Troubles, when everyone’s nerves are frayed from the constant conflict. People do try to go about their lives, but they watch and wait to see what ‘the other side’ will do, and where the next attacks might be. There aren’t many really trustworthy people, and for Duffy, it’s especially difficult. For one thing, almost all of his colleagues are Protestant, reason enough for suspicion on both sides. For another, the public is suspicious, too. He’s a police officer, which is a problem in itself. Then, he’s a Catholic in the RUC; hence, he’s a traitor to a lot of Catholics. And Protestant civilians won’t trust him, either. All of that undercurrent of tension, as people wait to see what will happen, adds to the story as Duffy works to solve two murders that seem to be related.
And then there’s Peter Temple’s Truth. That novel takes place during a siege of brush fires that are threatening the state of Victoria. It’s an extremely tense time, and it’s not at all clear how much damage there will be, which way the fires will go, and so on. Everyone is very much on edge as people watch and wait. Against this backdrop, Inspector Stephen Villani and his team work to solve the murder of an unknown woman whose body was found in a very posh apartment. Meanwhile, they’re also investigating the killings of three drug dealers whose bodies were found in another part of the Melbourne area. The brush fires are not the central focus of the novel. But the suspense they cause adds much to the novel.
Watching and waiting, and not knowing how things will pan out, can be extremely hard to deal with in real life. In a novel, though, that suspense can add much to a plot if it’s not done in a melodramatic way. Which examples have stayed with you?
ps. The ‘photo is of a wildfire evacuation map. Red means a mandatory evacuation. Purple is voluntary/evacuation warning. Everyone who’s anywhere near a wildfire pays close attention to those maps, and the tension often builds as people watch and wait to see what will happen on their streets.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Aerosmith song.