If you read enough crime fiction, you soon learn to expect that something bad – perhaps very bad – is going to happen. After all, most crime fiction is about bad things happening. Much of the time, the terrible thing that happens is murder.
Even though crime writers know that their readers expect something awful to happen, they still want to draw those readers in. Sometimes, they do this by building the tension right from the beginning. It’s a bit like storm clouds gathering and building up the suspense that happens just before a major downpour. Authors have different ways of doing this, but no matter what way the author chooses, it can build suspense and get the reader turning and swiping pages.
Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for instance, begins as a group of ten people travel to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They’ve all been invited to spend time there, and, for different reasons, each has accepted. As the various guests arrive, we follow their thoughts, and tension begins to build. It builds even more when it becomes clear that the host is not there. It’s all a bit odd, but everyone settles in. After dinner that evening, each person is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Later, one of the guests suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Then, there’s another death. Now the survivors begin to see that someone has deliberately lured them to the island and is trying to kill them. They’ll have to find out who that person is if they’re to stay alive. We may not know from the start who the killer is; right away, though, as the people gather, we know that something very, very bad is going to happen.
There’s a similar sense of the tension building at the beginning of Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski. In that novel, Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett and his wife, Emmy, are on their way to a skiing holiday at Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’ll be staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, and they soon find that several other people on the trip are staying there, too. As the group arrives at the hotel, there are already undercurrents of unease, and it’s easy to sense that something awful is about to happen. And it soon does. One of the guests, an Austrian businessman named Fritz Hauser, is shot, and his body found on a ski lift. Capitano Spezzi and his team arrive and begin to investigate. When it comes out that Tibbett is with Scotland Yard, Spezzi grudgingly, and then more willingly, works with him. In the end, and after another death, they find that Hauser brought his fate on himself, in a manner of speaking.
Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye starts as a teacher named Janek Mitter slowly wakes up after having had far, far too much to drink. He was so drunk that, at first, he doesn’t remember who he is or where he is. That sense of disorientation starts to build the suspense right away. Slowly, Mitter remembers who he is, and that he’s at home. Just as he’s beginning to get his bearings, he discovers the body of his wife, Eva Ringmar, in their bathtub. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate, and it seems at first that all of the evidence points to Mitter as the killer. But he insists that he is innocent, and it’s not long before Van Veeteren starts to believe him. Mitter is still convicted, though, and remanded to a mental hospital until his memory recovers enough to assist the police. Not long afterwards, he himself is brutally murdered. Now, Van Veeteren knows that MItter was telling the truth, and works backwards to find out who would have wanted to kill both Mitter and his wife.
In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She’s very close to her brother, Bill, so she’s understandably very interested when he starts to date former Hollywood seamstress’ assistant Alice Steele. From the moment Alice makes her appearance, there’s a sense that something isn’t quite right. And that feeling gets even stronger as Bill and Alice continue to date, fall in love, and decide to marry. At first, Lora tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law for Bill’s sake. The more she finds out about Alice’s life, though, the more repelled she is by it. And the more questions she has about Alice. At the same time, she is drawn to that life, so she has conflicting feelings when there’s a death, and Alice seems to be mixed up in it. Telling herself that it’s to protect her brother, Lora starts to ask some questions. But long before the death, in fact, from the beginning of the story, we know that something bad will happen.
We know that about Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, too. Science fiction novelist Zack Walker decides that he and his family should move from the city that he considers too dangerous to the suburbs. The Walkers choose Valley Forest Estates as their new development, and move in. But right from the beginning, we know there’s going to be trouble. First, Walker notices some problems with the house that need to be fixed. Then, he witnesses an argument between a Valley Forest executive and a local environmentalist. Later, he finds that environmentalist dead near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker’s involved in a web of conspiracy and murder. But we know right from the beginning that this move is going to present real problems…
And then there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner. This book follows the structure of a meal, with sections that have titles such as ‘Appetizer,’ ‘Main Course,’ and ‘Dessert.’ Within each section are the various chapters. At the beginning of the book, two couples meet for dinner at a very exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, meet Paul’s brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. In some ways, there’s little indication of what’s to come. But very soon, there’s a sense of uneasiness, especially as we learn about Paul’s relationship with his brother. Little by little, we learn the real reason the two couples have met. Their fifteen-year-old sons have committed a horrible crime. Now, the four adults have to decide what they will do. As the novel goes on, we learn about what happened, and we learn about the histories of these dysfunctional people. And that sense that something is wrong starts early in the book.
Sometimes, especially if you’re a crime fiction fan, you know right away that things will turn awful. Little nuances, the atmosphere, and other clues can give the sense that trouble is on the way. And that can draw the reader in.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Storm Front.