Deadlines are a fact of life for most of us. For students, assignments have to be handed in on time. Journalists and other writers have deadlines for publication, and TV professionals have production deadlines, especially if they’re in the news business. Lawyers must have their cases ready by the hearing or trial date; a lot of judges don’t like granting continuances. And the list goes on.
In real life, deadlines can cause anxiety. They can also spur on the procrastinator. Either way, they can add a layer of tension and suspense to a crime novel. And they are realistic, as just about all of us have to cope with them at one point or another. There are many examples of how deadlines work in the genre; here are just a few.
In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot receives an odd sort of deadline. He gets a cryptic note warning him of something that’s going to take place in the town of Andover. The writer of the note even goes so far as to give the date. Sure enough, on the appointed day, Alice Ascher, who owns a small newsagent shop, is murdered. At first, the police believe her estranged husband, Franz Ascher, is responsible. But he claims he is innocent, and Poirot is inclined to believe him. Then, Poirot gets another warning note, this time directing him to Bexhill-on-Sea. The body of twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard is found on the beach, and it’s shown that she was killed on the day specified in the note. It takes two more deaths before Poirot and the police work out who the killer is, and what the motive is. In the meantime, especially for the fourth death, everyone’s scrambling to get ready before the day mentioned in the notes, so there’s a great deal of time pressure. It’s not a main point of the story, but that tension adds to the suspense.
In Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice, LAPD detective Harry Bosch goes to the scene of what looks like a suicide. The body of fellow copper Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore has been found in a seedy motel, and the story is that he committed suicide because he’d ‘gone dirty.’ Little things about the scene suggest that Moore might have been murdered, so Bosch decides to look into the matter. But it’s soon made clear to him that the Powers That Be want this case to be left alone. In fact, Bosch is distanced from the investigation, and given eight other cases to close – cases left unsolved because another officer is on a stress-related leave of absence. Bosch is also given an impossible deadline – one week – to finish the job. It’s hoped that giving him a heavy workload will keep Bosch from asking too many questions about the Moore case. It doesn’t work. Bosch follows up leads and pursues the case, and, in the end, finds out the truth about Calexico Moore.
Anyone who’s ever been in academia can tell you that deadlines are a part of life in that world. For instance, in Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic, we are introduced to Cassandra James, who becomes Acting Head of the English Literature Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. Her predecessor, Margaret Joplin, has been murdered, and, since James found the body and, of course, knew the victim, she wants to find out who was responsible for the killing. Until arrangements can be made, someone needs to undertake the duties of Head of Department, and that person is James. One of those tasks is to prepare for the next Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The department’s funding depends heavily on how successful it is at passing that exercise, so James must get everyone’s research, including her own, updated and as polished as it can be. She’s on a deadline, too, as the RAE is already in the works. So, besides finding out who killed Joplin, she’s under pressure to gather everyone’s scholarship. That deadline stress adds tension to the story.
If you’re a writer, you know all about deadlines. That’s especially true in journalism, but it’s true of other sorts of writing as well. And there are plenty of journalist protagonists who have to meet deadlines. One is James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, who is featured in Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series. After inheriting a fortune from a friend of his mother’s, Qwill moved to the small town of Pickax, in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ Now, he writes a twice-weekly column for the Moose County Something. Qwill is somewhat of a celebrity, but that doesn’t excuse him from having to meet deadlines. In more than one scene in this series, Qwill rushes to the newspaper office to turn in his copy in time (most of the novels were written before today’s Internet made submitting copy a matter of a few keystrokes).
And then there’s Brad Parks’ Carter Ross. He’s a reporter for the Newark, New Jersey Eagle-Examiner. Because it’s a daily paper, there’s a lot of pressure to meet publication deadlines. And Ross certainly feels that pressure. Even his cat’s named Deadline. In Faces of the Gone, for instance, he’s working on a story about four bodies that were found in a vacant lot. The first police theory is that one of the victims had held up a local bar, and the bar’s owner had the thief and accomplices murdered. But Ross soon discovers that that’s probably not true. In one plot thread, his boss wants him to go with the police account and do a background story on the bar based on that assumption. And he gives Ross a short deadline. Ross is reluctant, because he doesn’t want to put in print something that’s not true, so he starts by procrastinating. It takes a lot of convincing to get his boss to agree to a different approach, and it’s interesting to see how the pressure to put out a newspaper plays a role in the story.
And that’s the thing. Newspapers have to be published. Grades have to be given. Trial dates have to be set. And all of that means deadlines. We may not always like them, but they add an interesting layer of suspense to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Against the Wind.