In real life, murder investigations take time. And that makes sense, when you consider all of the factors that go into solving a crime. But that doesn’t always work well in a novel. Many readers prefer a faster pace and more engagement in their stories. And it’s interesting to see how different crime writers have approached that balance between telling a story in a realistic way, and keeping the story’s pace in mind.
Some writers have even managed to tell an absorbing story that takes place over just a few days, or even less. It’s not easy to pull that off, and still make the story credible. But when it works, that approach can add tension and a solid pace to a story.
Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley is one of those novels. In it, Dr. George Abbershaw is among several guests invited for a house party at Black Dudley, the family of home of academician Wyatt Petrie. The only permanent residents of Black Dudley are Petrie and his uncle, Colonel Gordon Coombe. This weekend, though, there are several other people there, including Albert Campion, who would become Allingham’s sleuth. On the first night, Petrie tells the guests about an old family legend concerning a large dagger that’s hanging over the fireplace in the drawing room. Everyone decides to go through the ritual associated with that legend. During the night, Colonel Coombs is killed. Abbershaw is asked to sign a death certificate that identifies the cause as heart failure. But he has his doubts, and very quickly deduces that the victim was stabbed with the dagger. What’s more, one of the other guests turns out to be associated with a criminal gang that claims to be missing ‘something important,’ and demands its return. The gang refuses to let anyone leave until that property, which turns out to be a set of papers, is returned. With this pressure, Abbershaw and, to an extent, Campion, have to work quickly to find out the truth about Coomb’s death and the papers.
There’s a similar sort of short time span in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. A group of people, including Hercule Poirot, board the famous Orient Express for a three-day journey across Europe. On the second night, one of the passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed in his bunk. Poirot is asked to investigate and, hopefully, find out the who the killer is before the train reaches the next frontier, so that the murderer can be handed over to the police. Poirot agrees, and begins by interviewing each of the passengers. A search is also made of their luggage. That information, plus certain clues and pieces of information, leads Poirot to the truth. The truth about the murder stems from an event several years earlier. But the action in the story takes place mostly over just two days.
The context for Kalpana Swaminatham’s The Page 3 Murders is a weekend ‘foodie party’ hosted by Dr. Hilla Driver. In part, the party is a sort of ‘housewarming,’ as she’s just inherited a beautiful upscale home. It’s also intended as a celebration of her niece Ramona’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. Hilla is very well-connected, so her guests represent Mumbai’s elite, including a food critic, a well-known writer, a dancer, a model, and a socialite and her husband. Also invited is a retired police detective, Lalli, and her niece (who narrates the story). Right away, it’s clear that there are conflicts among some of the guests, and hidden animosity. But everyone settles in and looks forward to what’s supposed to be the culminating event: a seven-course gourmet meal prepared by Hilla’s chef, Tarok Ghosh. The meal begins with custom-designed starters/appetizers, and it’s soon clear that Tarok planned them as his way of hinting at secrets that each guest is keeping. It’s clear now that he knows more than it’s safe to know. When his body is discovered late the next morning, Lalli is not shocked, given what he revealed. But she is dismayed, of course, and wants to find the killer as soon as possible. Then another death is discovered. Now there’s even more time pressure, and Lalli and her niece work quickly to find out who’s responsible. Again, some of the secrets we learn in this story go back some years. But the action in it takes place over only a few days.
There’s also Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw. Kazuki Mekari, of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department is given a difficult and unusual assignment. He and a specially-chosen group of officers are to travel to Fukuoka and bring back Kunihide Kiyomaru to face justice in Tokyo. Kiyomaru is responsible for the rape and murder of a young girl, and escaped to Fukuoka. This trip isn’t going to be easy, though. The girl’s very wealthy grandfather has publicly offered a one-billion-yen reward to anyone who kills Kiyomaru. So Mekari and his team will have to protect their prisoner from potentially thousands of people. What’s more, they’ll have to keep their own greed in check. The longer the trip takes, the more likely it is that someone will get to Kiyomaru. So, the team has to move as quickly as possible. The distance between Fukuoka and Tokyo is about 1100 km/685 mi, and on a ‘bullet train,’ that would normally take about six hours. But it doesn’t turn out to be nearly that simple. The bulk of the action in this novel takes place as Mekari and his team travel with their prisoner. But a lot can happen even in the space of less than two days…
As the name suggests, Herman Koch’s The Dinner takes place over the course of one upmarket gourmet meal. Paul and Claire Lohman meet Paul’s brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette, for dinner at one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive restaurants. As the dinner progresses, we slowly learn the backstories of these characters, and we learn about a dark secret both families are keeping. Paul and Claire’s son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, are guilty of a terrible crime. As we find out what happened, we also find out that this dinner had a very specific purpose: trying to decide what to do about that crime. It’s a fascinating story structure: it takes place during one meal, but it has to do with the characters’ entire lives.
There are, of course, plenty of other stories where the action is ‘telescoped’ into a short period of time. It can be tricky to do that effectively but the result can be a solid layer of suspense and an interesting plot structure. Which stories like that have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charlie Sexton.