Category Archives: Daphne du Maurier

You Can Run a Household*

HousekeepersWouldn’t it be wonderful to have someone to manage your household? The cleaning chores would be done, the dry cleaning would be sent out and picked up, the food would be purchased, cooked, and served, and perhaps even your household accounting would be done. That’s the life people live when they have a skilled housekeeper.

A recent comment exchange with Kathy D. and with Tim at Solitary Praxis has got me thinking about the role of housekeepers in crime fiction. And housekeepers are certainly woven through the genre. It makes sense, too, when you consider that housekeepers have been part of the social and economic structure of many societies for a long time.

In days past, of course, people of means (and even plenty of people who weren’t extremely wealthy) had household staffs (cooks, maids, drivers, nannies, and so on). The housekeeper supervised those people – not always an easy job.

We see that sort of household structure in Emily Brightwell’s historical (Victorian Era) Mrs. Jeffries series. Mrs. Jeffries serves as housekeeper to Inspector Gerald Witherspoon. In that role, she supervises his cook, maids, coachman and footman. Witherspoon also finds that Mrs. Jeffries is a very helpful ‘sounding board’ when he’s on a case. What he doesn’t know is how deliberate that is on Mrs. Jeffries’ part. She has a good relationship with her employees, who serve as her ‘eyes and ears.’ So when Witherspoon is conducting an investigation, Mrs. Jeffries gets a lot of information from her staff. After all, who pays attention to a maid? Or a coachman? Those people can hear things and see things without really being noticed.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories feature housekeepers. And it’s interesting to see how their roles evolved over time as they’re portrayed in her work. For example, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926. In that novel, wealthy manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night. His stepson, Captain Ralph Paton, is the most likely suspect, but he’s gone missing, so the police can’t question him. His fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, believes he’s innocent, though, and asks Hercule Poirot (who has moved to the area) to investigate. Poirot agrees, and looks into the matter. One of the ‘people of interest’ is Ackroyd’s housekeeper, Miss Russell. She’s certainly very much in charge of the staff. But she is, if you will, a victim of the social mores of the day, and has to be very careful of what she says and does. She’s also very much aware that Ackroyd could fire her at any moment.

Things changed quickly, especially after World War II. So in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!) (published in 1957), we see quite a different role for the housekeeper. In that novel, Miss Marple works with her friend, Elspeth McGillicuddy, to find out the truth about a murder Mrs. McGillicuddy witnessed. The body ends up at Rutherford Hall, the property of Luther Crackenthorpe, so Miss Marple needs an ‘in’ to get to know the Crackenthorpe family. For that, she relies on professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow.  Lucy is very good at her job, so she’s in demand, and basically sets her own work schedule and working conditions. The Crackenthorpe family eagerly hires her, and, technically speaking, she is an employee. But there’s no question who really runs the household and is subtly in charge.

We see that also in Barbara Neely’s novels featuring professional housekeeper Blanche White. Like other skilled housekeepers, Blanche is observant and quick-thinking, and is able to multi-task. On the surface, Blanche is an employee who can be dismissed at any time. What’s more, she is black, while many of her employers are white. This in itself puts her and her employers in different social classes in many areas. And yet, fans of this series can tell you that Blanche has her own way of being much more ‘in charge’ than many of her employers may think. They depend on her in ways they’re probably not even aware of, and they go along with her wishes without noticing it.

Sometimes it can be dangerous to be a housekeeper. Just ask Vera Pugsley, whom we meet in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. In that novel, TV personality Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford has decided to give up the pressures and hassles of the media, and open an antiques business with her recently-widowed mother, Iris. Everything changes, though, with one telephone call from Iris. It seems she’s suddenly moved from London to Little Dipperton, Devon, and taken the former carriage house on the grounds of Honeychurch Hall, home of the Honeychurch family. This abrupt change of plans shocks Kat, and she rushes to Devon to see what’s going on. When she gets there, she discovers that her mother has injured one of her hands in a car accident, so Kat makes plans to stay on a bit until Iris is well. It’s not long before a strange series of events starts happening. First, someone seems to be sabotaging Iris’ attempts to get settled in her new home. There’s also the matter of the disappearance of the nanny that the Honeychurch family has hired. Then, there’s a theft from Honeychurch hall – a valuable antique snuff box. Then, the Honeychurch family’s housekeeper, Vera Pugsley, is murdered. Kat gets drawn into this mystery, as well as the history of the Honeychurch family.

Of course, not all housekeepers are sleuths or victims. Some are decidedly not on the side of the angels, as the saying goes. Any fan of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca can tell you that. In that story, we follow the fortunes of Maxim de Winter’s second wife as she tries to adjust to life at Manderley, the de Winter home. One major obstacle is that the place still seems permeated by the presence of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. And the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, does nothing to dispel that presence. In fact, she works as hard as she can to manipulate, frighten, demean, and belittle the new Mrs. de Winter. Matters are made worse by the fact that Rebecca did not die naturally.  The psychological tension in the story increases as the second Mrs. de Winter slowly discovers the truth about her husband, Rebecca, and Mrs. Danvers.

And then there’s Eunice Parchman, whom we meet in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family needs a housekeeper. So Jacqueline Coverdale advertises for the position. Eunice applies, and is hired with very little ‘vetting.’ And that proves to be disastrous. It turns out that Eunice has a secret – one she is determined that no-one will discover. When a family member accidently stumbles on that secret, the result is tragedy.

See what I mean? Housekeepers are woven into crime fiction in many different ways. Thanks, Tim and Kathy D., for the inspiration. Which fictional housekeepers have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s The Grass is Always Greener.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Daphne du Maurier, Emily Brightwell, Hannah Dennison, Ruth Rendell

I Was Running For the Door*

Creepy PlacesI was reading an excellent review by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading, when I was struck by a comment she made about the setting of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. As you’ll see if you read her review (which you should!), the post itself wasn’t about that novel. It wasn’t even, really, about setting. But in the course of it, Bernadette mentioned that,
 

‘Insular settings can provide a powerful sense of place in their own right (I’m still having nightmares about the house in Dame Christie’s And Then There Were None) …’
 

She’s right. Settings such as that house can add a great deal to the tension in a story. In this particular novel, knowing that the people on the island can’t escape makes the story that much eerier. So I can see how that house would stay with a reader.

There are plenty of other crime-fictional novels, too, where we see the impact of the insular setting. Here are just a few that have stayed with me. I know you’ll have your own selection.

In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, Inspector Cockrill travels to Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime (WWII) military use. Local postman Joseph Higgins has died, apparently a tragic, but accidental, death on the operating table. But Higgins’ widow insists that he was murdered. Cockrill starts asking questions, particularly of the seven people most closely associated with Higgins during his hospital stay. He soon learns that this case isn’t at all as it seemed on the surface. As he starts to home in on the killer, he insists that all of his suspects stay together as much as possible. That, plus the fact that two people end up dead in the same operating theatre, makes the hospital a really insular setting that gets creepier and creepier as the story goes on – at least for me. There’s something about that sort of setting, isn’t there, fans of Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder?

In John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air, Columbia University Professor of Law Jake Landau is on a flight from Boston to New York when a bomb goes off (this novel was written before today’s careful screening of passengers). Landau’s friend and attorney Martin Ross is killed in the tragedy, and of course, Landau wants answers. But the airline people aren’t very forthcoming. And, since he’s not a police officer, neither is anyone else, including the police who are investigating the incident. So Landau starts asking questions on his own. His questions get too close for comfort for the powerful international drugs ring that’s connected to this bombing, so they target Landau. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that there’s a really memorable scene at New York’s Grand Central Station that’s stayed in my mind. As it is, the station has a long history (it was built about 1871). It’s large, with lots of different passageways and so on. It can feel very creepy, and Graham takes advantage of that.

P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness has as its focus Hoggatt’s Laboratory in East Anglia. It’s a private forensic laboratory that performs different sorts of tests in cases of unnatural death. As such, it’s used by both sides when a murder case is tried in court. One night, Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, one of the senior staff at the laboratory, is working late on a recently-opened case when he is bludgeoned. Commander Adam Dalgliesh is assigned to the investigation. One thing he and DI John Massingham quickly learn is that Lorrimer had very strict security procedures, especially after normal working hours. So it’s unlikely that anyone ‘on the outside’ could be the killer. That leaves Lorrimer’s colleagues and subordinates, and that’s a wide field. Lorrimer was much disliked, and for good reason. As Dalgliesh and Massingham look into the matter, the lab itself comes under plenty of scrutiny (how many entrances, where are the windows, etc.). It takes on a sort of eerie personality of its own, especially at night.

There’s also Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. In that novel, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels travels to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which is located on Shutter Island, in Massachusetts’ Outer Harbor. With him is his assistant, Chuck Aule. They’re there because one of the patients, Rachel Solando, has escaped, and is loose somewhere on the island. She’s a dangerous person, and that alone is reason enough to want to find her. But as Daniels and Aule soon discover, there’s much more at stake here than just one escaped prisoner, and all sorts of things are going on in the ward from whence she escaped. Then a storm comes up, which makes the investigation even more difficult. Throughout the story (and the film, if you saw it), the hospital compound is depicted in a very eerie way. It’s a former wartime hospital, converted for postwar use. It’s old and, since it’s on an island, it’s isolated. And there’s the fact that it’s psychiatric facility for the most dangerous of criminals. It’s the sort of place that stays with many readers. And so does the island.

Of course, I couldn’t do a post on eerie, insular places without mentioning the Bates Motel, vividly depicted in Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho. The medium Hitchcock used to tell the story is especially effective at evoking that isolated, creepy place. It’s definitely not a welcoming stop for the night. I know, I know, fans of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

Bernadette’s right about some places in crime novels. They really can be insular, eerie, and frightening. And that can make them stay with the reader long after the novel’s finished.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Eagles’ Hotel California.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Christianna Brand, Daphne du Maurier, Dennis Lehane, John Alexander Graham, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James

That’s When the Fog Rolls In*

FoggyHave you ever seen a thick fog roll in? Or waked to find that the fog had already settled in? There’s just something about fog that can make anything seem a little eerier. Things don’t show up clearly, so it’s easy to imagine things that aren’t there, or misunderstand things that you do see.

Fog can be dangerous, too. People get lost, drivers can get into accidents, and so on. With all of that eeriness and danger, it’s little wonder there’s so much fog in crime fiction. Space permits only a few examples here, but I know you’ll think of a lot more of them than I could, anyway.

One of the classic examples of crime-fictional fog adding to the atmosphere is in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. The story has always gone that the Baskerville family is haunted by a curse brought on them by long-ago ancestor Hugo Baskerville. The story is that he sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was badly smitten. Ever since then, the curse has taken the form of a phantom hound that haunts the family. The most recent victim is Sir Charles Baskerville, and now, the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, may be at risk. At least that’s what family friend Dr. Mortimer tells Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is busy with another case, and sends Watson to the family home, Baskerville Hall, in Dartmoor. Later, Holmes joins him. Here’s a bit of one of their experiences out on the moor:
 

‘So as the fog-bank flowed onward, we fell back before it until we were half a mile from the house, and still that dense, white sea, with the moon silvering its upper edge, swept slowly and inexorably on.’
 

The fog certainly makes it hard for Holmes and Watson to really see well. But in the end, they discover the truth about the Baskerville curse and the death of Sir Charles.

Dartmoor fog also plays its role in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Mary Yellan keeps a deathbed promise to her mother and goes to stay with her Uncle Joss and Aunt Patience at their property, Jamaica Inn. From the first, it’s an eerie and unpleasant place, and Mary soon finds that it hides some awful secrets, including murder. Without spoiling the story, I can say that at one point, Mary finds herself in grave danger, and a thick fog just makes things worse.
 

‘And then, in front…barring…progress, rolled a great bank of fog out of the night, a white wall that stifled every scent and sound.’
 

If you’ve ever been out in that sort of fog, you know that it can make moving around nearly impossible.

London fogs are, of course, legendary. And Marie Belloc Lowndes used the fog to great atmospheric advantage in The Lodger. In that novel, we meet Ellen and Robert Bunting, who have recently retired from domestic service. They’ve opened their home to lodgers as a way to add to their income, but haven’t had much luck. Then one day, a man calling himself Mr. Sleuth comes to the house asking about a room. He’s willing to pay well, and he seems to be a man of quiet habits, so the Buntings take him in quickly. He’s eccentric, but all goes well enough at first. Besides, everyone’s attention is caught up with a series of awful murders committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger. Then, first subconsciously, then with more awareness, Ellen Bunting begins to wonder if there is something truly wrong about her new lodger. He goes out in all kinds of weather, including the worst fogs, and behaves strangely in other ways, too. Gradually, she begins to suspect that he may be The Avenger that everyone is seeking. There are mentions of fog in several places in this story. It makes it hard for witnesses to see the killer as he leaves crime scenes. It makes it difficult, too, for anyone to pursue him. And in a literary sense, it adds a great deal to the atmosphere of the story.

Ann Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez stories take place in Shetland, where fog can make travel to, from or among the islands impossible. That’s what happens, for instance, in White Nights. In that novel, Perez and his new girlfriend Fran Hunter are attending an art exhibition at which some of her work is being displayed. Unexpectedly, one of the other attendees breaks into tears and claims he doesn’t know who he is. Perez does his best to help the man, but the next day, he’s found dead in a beachside storage shed, apparently a suicide. But Perez begins to suspect that this man was murdered. Then, there’s another murder, and Perez has to re-think everything. And he has to do his share of it alone, too. The fog is so thick that at first, the Inverness police can’t send anyone to support him. In the end, though, Perez finds out the truth about the deaths and about the secrets that several people are keeping.

And then there’s John Meany’s In The Fog. An elderly couple, Frank and Dora Parker, are fishing one morning near their Oregon home. Then a thick fog rolls in, obscuring almost everything. Through it, Frank sees what looks like a young woman coming out of the fog with a knife.  She starts to clean it, and Frank thinks she looks as though she needs help. But she doesn’t answer when he calls to her. Next, he sees a young man come out of the nearby woods dragging a body. Soon, Frank is convinced he’s seeing the immediate aftermath of a murder. But the trouble is, Dora hasn’t seen anything. All she sees is fog and shoreline. It doesn’t help matters that Frank has dementia. It hasn’t completely incapacitated him, but how much can one rely on what he says he sees? If Frank is going to prove he’s not crazy, he’s going to have to find out the truth about what he thinks he saw.

But that’s the thing about fog. It can make you think you’re seeing things that you’re not. Or are you? Little wonder it rolls in on all sorts of crime novels.
 

ps. The two ‘photos you see were taken on the same day, of exactly the same scenery. See what a difference fog makes??
 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Train’s When the Fog Rolls In.

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Filed under Ann Cleeves, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daphne du Maurier, John Meany, Marie Belloc Lowndes

The Atmosphere is Electric*

AtmospheresAn interesting guest post on crime writer and fellow blogger Sue Coletta’s site has got me thinking about atmosphere. In part, the post’s focus is on character development, and that’s important of course. But the post also mentioned the larger context – the atmosphere.

Writers, of course, can use context for a number of purposes, far too numerous to discuss here. So I’m going to just mention a couple of ways in which crime writers use atmosphere.

Sometimes, crime writers use atmosphere to serve as a stark contrast to the murder(s) that are the main plot threads of their story. You know the sort of thing, I’m sure: the peaceful, lovely small town that hides secrets.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories are like that. For instance, Hallowe’en Party takes place in the village of Woodleigh Common, a small, outwardly peaceful place. One afternoon, several residents are visiting Apple Trees, the home of town social leader Rowena Drake. They’re helping her to get ready for a Hallowe’en party planned for later that evening. Also among the group is detective story author Ariadne Oliver. During the preparations, twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds boasts that she saw a murder once. Everyone immediately hushes her up, and the assumption is made that she said what she said to call attention to herself, especially as Mrs. Oliver was there. But later, at the party, Joyce is murdered. Now everyone has to face the possibility that Joyce was telling the truth. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to come to Woodleigh Common and help find out what happened, and he agrees. When the two of them visit Apple Trees to talk to Mrs. Drake, Mrs. Oliver says,
 

‘‘It doesn’t look the sort of house there’d be a murder in, does it?’’
 

And it doesn’t. It’s a neatly-kept, pleasant house in a small, peaceful community. Nothing creepy about it. And that contrasts with what happens at the house, and with what is later revealed about some events in the town.

Ira Levin uses a similar strategy in The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut, hoping to find low taxes and good schools. At first, everything goes smoothly. The town is beautiful, the residents are pleasant, and everyone settles in. But then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t take her seriously. But then, some things happen that show just how right Bobbie was. Levin fans will know that he takes quite a different approach in Rosemary’s Baby, where the apartment building that features so heavily in the novel is depicted as rather eerie right from the start.

Nelson Brunanski’s novels featuring John ‘Bart’ Bartowski often feature the small town of Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. It’s a quiet town where everyone knows everyone, and where life is mostly peaceful. That lovely small-town backdrop contrasts with the main murder plots of the stories. For example, in Crooked Lake, the first of the series, the body of Harvey Kristoff is found on the grounds of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The most likely suspect is former head greenskeeper Nick Taylor, whom Kristoff recently had fired. But Taylor claims he’s innocent, and asks Bart to help clear his name. In Frost Bite, Bart gets involved in the murder of Lionel Morrison, a CEO with quite a lot of ‘clout.’ He spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge owned by Bart and his wife Rosie. Later, Bart discovers Morrison’s body under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. Crooked Lake’s peaceful, ‘down home’ sort of atmosphere serves as a really interesting contrast to the murders that happen there.

Of course, some crime writers use a story’s overall atmosphere to add to the suspense. That, too, can be quite effective. For example, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is the story of Mary Yellan. When her mother dies, Mary obeys her mother’s last request and goes to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss, who own Jamaica Inn. The inn is in Cornwall, between Bodmin and Launceston. Before Mary even arrives, she’s warned about Jamaica Inn, but she chooses to continue the journey. And when she arrives, she finds that it’s every bit as dreary and unpleasant as she’d heard. The place is isolated, run-down and creepy. Her uncle is unpleasant and abusive, and her aunt so downtrodden that she does nothing about it. This atmosphere serves as the backdrop for a case of murder, and for some very dark secrets that Mary discovers.

Several novels in Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache make mention of the old Hadley house. Fans of this series will know that it has a dark history, and that adds to its eerie atmosphere. Even Gamache, who is not a fanciful person, doesn’t like going there. In The Cruelest Month, a murder takes place there. A well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying in Three Pines, and is persuaded to hold a séance during her stay. The first attempt doesn’t go well, but another is scheduled during the Easter break, and is to be held at the Hadley place. During that second séance, Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies. At first, it’s said that she was frightened to death. But soon, it’s discovered that she’s been given a lethal dose of a diet drug. In this case, the house’s creepy history and atmosphere add to the suspense and tension.

And then there’s Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, which features DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper. In that novel, two sets of remains are discovered in the Peak District on Pity Wood Farm, which used to be owned by the Sutton family. It now belongs to a Manchester attorney named Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the property after the remains were already there. So the detectives focus on the Suttons and on the people who lived in the area when they owned the farm. The nearest village is Rakedale, and Fry and Cooper are hoping to get some background from the residents. But Rakedale is a close-mouthed, creepy place. Few people are interested in speaking to the police, and even fewer in discussing the Suttons. It makes for a tense sort of atmosphere.

Whether the author chooses to use atmosphere to contrast with a murder (or murders), or add to the tension, it’s hard to deny the importance of atmosphere in adding to a story. Which atmospheres have stayed with you?

Thanks for the inspiration to Sue and her guest, David Villalva! Now, please go visit Sue’s excellent blog. It’s a fantastic resource for crime writers, and a fascinating place to learn all kinds of interesting things.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Little River Band’s So Many Paths.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ira Levin, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Stephen Booth

But You Just Keep Me Hanging on Again*

Building Tension Without GoreI think most of us would agree that a high-quality crime novel builds tension and suspense without resorting to a lot of gore and gratuitous violence. Everyone’s idea of what ‘counts’ as ‘too much’ or ‘gratuitous’ violence is likely to be a little different. But all of us have our limit. And there are ways to keep people turning and swiping pages without a bloodbath.

How, exactly, does a crime writer go about that, though? How can an author keep the tension strong in other ways? Here are just a few of my ideas. I’m sure you’ll have your own, too, and I’d love to learn from them.

 

Creepy Settings
 

Eerie settings can take on a life of their own, as the saying goes. When they’re depicted well, they can add quite a lot of suspense to a story. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle uses Baskerville Hall to good effect in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In that novel, Sherlock Holmes sends Dr. Watson to Baskerville Hall on Dartmoor to help investigate the recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville. Legend has it that the Baskerville family is cursed by a phantom hound, and that’s the reason for his death. Holmes isn’t sure that’s true, though. In any case, family friend Dr. Mortimer wants to prevent a similar fate for the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville. As you can imagine, Sir Charles’ death has a much more prosaic explanation than a curse. One interesting thing about this story is that there isn’t a lot of violence in it. The tension and suspense aren’t built that way. The setting, though, is eerie. First, there’s the bleak moor, which at night is not exactly a warm, welcoming place. There’s the house itself, too, which
 

‘…was a heavy block of building from which a porch projected. The whole front was draped in ivy, with a patch clipped bare here and there where a window or coat-of-arms broke through the dark veil. From this central block rose the twin towers, ancient, crenelated, and pierced with many loopholes.’
 

It’s certainly not a cheerful, bright place.

Neither is the eponymous lodging that features in Daphne’s du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Also located on Dartmoor (hmm……), it’s owned by Joss Merlyn and his wife Patience. Their niece, Mary Yellan, goes to stay with them when her mother dies. Before she even arrives, she’s warned about the place; and when she arrives, she finds that the warnings have been more than justified:
 

‘She [Mary] went out of the room and into the dark passage, bumping against the settle in the hall, and so upstairs, feeling her way with her hands, judging her whereabouts by turning round and facing the stairs again. Her uncle had told her the room over the porch, and she crept across the dark landing, which was unlit, past two doors on either side – guest rooms, she imagined, waiting for those travelers who never came nowadays, nor sought shelter beneath the roof of Jamaica Inn – and then stumbled against another door and turned the handle, and saw by the flickering flame of her candle that this was her room, for her trunk lay on the floor.
 

Not the sort of place that suggests a happy, warm story. Like The Hound of the Baskervilles, the violence is more implied than depicted in detail (although there is more of it in this story). The setting builds the tension as much as anything else does.

 

The Elements

 

Along with physical setting, authors can also use the elements to build tension without getting gory. In Nevada Barr’s Firestorm, for instance, US National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon has been sent to Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. She’s to serve as a medic for those fighting a wildfire – the Jackson fire – in the area. Weather predictions are for colder air and snow to move in, so the hope is that the firefighters will soon be able to leave the area. Pigeon and a small group remain behind, though, to help an injured comrade. That’s when a freak thunderstorm forms and changes everything. A firestorm is whipped up, and all of the team dives for cover in individual shelters. When the storm passes, the firefighters check on each other only to find that one of them has been murdered. Now, Pigeon has to help the other exhausted firefighters, and at the same time find out who the killer is. This novel uses the quickly-changing and dangerous elements to add suspense to the story, rather than a very high ‘body count,’ or a lot of brutal gore.

That’s also true of Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, which introduces his sleuth, Sheriff Walt Longmire. In this novel, Longmire and his deputy, Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti investigate two murders, both of young men who were involved in a previous rape. There are a number of possibilities, including that the family of the rape victim has exacted vengeance. Although the story has some dark elements, it’s not a really gory novel. And the violence that there is, is not extended. Part of what builds the tension here is a snowstorm that moves in during a trek that Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear make to try to prevent a third murder. The weather is brutal, and the two men are at serious risk. That’s what adds to the suspense, rather than a lot of violence.

 

Psychological Tension

 

Authors can also use the buildup of psychological tension to invite readers to stay engaged in a story. That’s what Agatha Christie does in And Then There Were None. In that novel, ten people visit Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. They’re all there for different reasons, but as we learn early on, they’ve all been deliberately brought to the island. After dinner on the first night, each is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Shortly afterwards, one of them suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, another dies. Soon enough, it’s clear that someone is trying to kill all of them. The survivors have to find out who that person is, and stay alive themselves. Admittedly, there’s a higher ‘body count’ here than there is in some of Christie’s other work. But the deaths are not described in ugly, gory detail. The real tension lies in the growing paranoia and the knowledge that someone in the same house is a killer.

Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train also uses a solid buildup of psychological tension. The real action in that novel begins when Guy Haines travels across country by train to visit his estranged wife Miriam, from whom he’s hoping to get a divorce. While he’s en route, he meets Charles Anthony Bruno. The two men get to talking, and before very long, Bruno proposes that each man commit the other man’s murder. He will kill Haines’ wife if Haines kills his father. At first, Haines doesn’t take Bruno seriously. But then, Bruno actually kills Miriam, and demands that Haines fulfil his side of the bargain. Now Haines has a terrible dilemma. In this novel, the violence isn’t the main part of the story, really. It’s the buildup of psychological tension as we slowly see the kind of person Bruno really is, and as Haines tries desperately to get out of his situation.

There are a lot of other ways, too, to ramp up the suspense in a story without a bloodletting. Which keep your interest the most? If you’re a writer, how do you build suspense without gore?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hooters’ Hanging on a Heartbeat.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Daphne du Maurier, Nevada Barr, Patricia Highsmith