Authors use a lot of different tools for building suspense. One of them is a slowly-growing sense that someone you thought you knew well could be a murderer. If you think about it, that’s an unsettling, even frightening, feeling. Even if you don’t think you’re an intended victim, it’s still a scary thought. And you can’t bring up the topic very easily, either. You may be wrong, in which case you’ve ruptured a relationship, possibly permanently. Or, you could be right, in which case voicing your suspicions could put you in danger.
That sort of suspense can add a lot to a crime story, and there are lots of examples of it. Space only permits me a few, but I know you’ll come up with lots more. Oh, and you’ll notice that there won’t be any domestic noir titles mentioned. Too easy.
Agatha Christie used that approach to building suspense in several of her stories. For instance, in Hickory, Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory, Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s normally unflappable secretary, Felicity Lemon, asks for his help. Her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, has gotten concerned about a spate of petty thefts and other strange occurrences at the student hostel she manages. Partly as a courtesy to Miss Lemon, Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and visits the hostel. On the night he goes there, one of the residents, Celia Austin, admits to several of the thefts. At first, that seems to settle the matter. But when Celia herself dies two nights later, it’s clear that there’s more going on than just some petty thefts. It’s soon proven that she was murdered, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find the killer. As the novel goes on, several of the residents are made very uneasy by the idea that one of them could be a murderer, and it impacts them. Then, there’s another murder. And another. That almost-claustrophobic feeling of being trapped with someone wo’s dangerous adds tension to this story. I see you, fans of And Then There Were None.
There’s also Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, in which a group of people attend a very creepy séance. The purpose of it is to contact Grimaud Désanat, who died several years earlier. He left behind a successful wood processing business, but the land he owned has now been thoroughly logged. His widow, Irene, and his business partners, believe in spiritualism. So, they decide to use a séance to get his permission to develop a piece of land that he had said must be left unlogged for 20 years. The séance is eerie enough, but matters get far more frightening when Irene is killed later that night. If it wasn’t Désanat (and there are several people present who don’t believe in ghosts), then it had to have been someone in the group. That possibility is as frightening as a haunting, and adds to the suspense of the novel.
In Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s A Window in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro Inspector Espinosa faces a similar kind of growing suspicion. Three police officers are killed in quick succession. At first, it looks very much like the work of someone who’s got a vendetta against the police. But then, the mistress of one of the victims is killed. Then the mistress of another victim dies. And the third victim’s mistress goes into hiding to avoid the same fate. It’s now clear that this isn’t a case of a person who just wants to kill police officers. Something else ties these victims together, and that something could very well be corruption. Now, Espinosa and his hand-picked team have to be very careful. One or more of the cops with whom they work could be involved in the same corruption, or could be a killer. That feeling that one of their own might be a killer adds a solid layer of suspense to this novel.
Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring finds her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, investigating the murder of a university colleague. The body of Reed Gallagher is found in a seedy hotel, and at first it looks as though he was killed as a result of some sort of double life he was leading. But it’s not as simple as that. As the case goes on, Kilbourn learns that there are several possible leads. Unfortunately for her, one of them is her friend and temporary office-mate, Ed Mariani. On the one hand, Kilbourn knows that just about anyone is capable of murder, given the right circumstances. She’s not so naïve as to believe that Mariani couldn’t possibly be the killer. On the other hand, he is a friend. She’s been to his home, attended meetings with him, and currently shares an office teapot with him. It’s a really awkward and unsettling situation for her, and that adds to the suspense in the story.
And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? Yvonne Mulhern has recently moved with her husband, Gerry, from London to Dublin. The move represents an excellent career opportunity for Gerry, but it’s all much more difficult for Yvonne, who is a brand-new first-time mum. With no friends or family in Dublin, she soon turns to Netmammy, an online forum of other mothers. In the group, Yvonne finds the solidarity and support she’s been missing, and all goes well at first. Then, one of the group’s members goes missing. Yvonne gets concerned; although she’s never meet the woman, she considers her a friend. In the meantime, Sergeant Claire Boyle, herself a mum-to-be, is faced with a difficult case. A woman’s body has been found in an abandoned apartment. When Yvonne hears about this, she begins to wonder whether the dead woman is her missing online friend. If so, that could mean that someone in the forum is not who she seems to be. And that possibility adds quite a lot of tension to this story.
And I don’t think I could discuss this topic without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film, Shadow of Doubt. In that film, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Newton is excited to learn that her uncle, Charlie Oakley, will be coming for a visit. All goes well at first. But everything changes as Charlie slowly comes to suspect that Uncle Charlie may in fact be a murderer.
When it’s done well, that slow building up of suspicion can be very suspenseful. It’s also realistic, if you think about it. I’ve only had space for a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati.