There are a number of ways to build tension and suspense in a crime novel. And that suspense is an important part of keeping the novel engaging for readers. One of the approaches crime writers sometimes use is to include what you might call an unknown enemy.
I’m not talking here of the evil villain out to take over the world. Rather, I mean situations where a character is targeted by an unknown person. If you think about it, that is an eerie feeling. Most of have a fairly good sense of who might be gunning for us. But what if you had no idea who was targeting you? That anxiety, and the wondering whom to trust, would likely add to your unease.
We see that in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, we are introduced to Jerry Burton and his sister, Joanna. They’ve recently moved to the village of Lymstock, so that Jerry can continue his recovery from a wartime injury. They’ve not been there long when they receive a vicious anonymous letter that suggests they are not siblings, but lovers. Soon, the Burtons learn that they’re not the only victims. Other people in town are also receiving such ‘poison pen’ letters, and it’s got everyone upset. Then, a letter to a local solicitor’s wife leads to a suicide. And then there’s a murder. Miss Marple takes an interest in the case when the local vicar’s wife, who knows her, suggests she might be able to help. Part of the tension of the novel comes from the fact that people don’t know who this unknown enemy is, and why that person might be targeting them.
There’s a similar plot point in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. Amsterdam Inspector Piet Van der Valk is sent to the small town of Zwinderen to help with an unusual problem. Several people in town have received ugly anonymous letters. This is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so one’s local reputation matters a lot. The tension caused by the letters is so high that the result has been two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t made much progress, so it’s hoped that Van der Valk will be able to help. And in the end, he and his wife, Arlette, find out who wrote the letters and why. One important cause of unease in the novel is that the local residents don’t know who their enemy is, if I may put it that way.
In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, we are introduced to London psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. He gets involved in a murder case when the body of a former client, Catherine McBride, is pulled from Grand Union Canal. Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz wants whatever insights O’Loughlin may have about this case, so he persuades a very reluctant O’Loughlin to help out. Then, there’s another murder – one that very much implicates O’Loughlin. Now, Ruiz actively wonders whether his consultant may know more about the case than he’s letting on. What’s more, the leads that O’Loughlin has given Ruiz don’t seem to pan out. Before long, it’s clear that someone has set O’Loughlin up, and is framing him for multiple murders. The problem is, O’Loughlin doesn’t know who would deliberately target him. He’ll have to go back to his own past, and go after a very dangerous killer, if he’s going to clear his name. And part of the suspense as he does so comes from the fact that he doesn’t know who’s after him.
Neither does Merete Lynnggard, who is featured in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). In the novel, Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck is assigned to head up a new police initiative, ‘Department Q.’ This new department will be devoted to cases ‘of special interest’ (i.e. cold cases), and is at least in part designed as a way to demonstrate that the police take all of their investigations seriously. Shortly after Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad take up their duties, they begin to look into the five-year-old disappearance of Lynnggard, who was a promising politician. Everyone thought that she went overboard in a tragic ferry accident. But new evidence suggests that she may still be alive. If so, Mørck and Assad may not have much time to find her. I can say without spoiling the story that part of its tension comes from the fact that Lynnggard didn’t even know who was targeting her.
And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder, the first of her series featuring research assistant Verity Long. She works for famous crime novelist Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport, who uses old cases as inspiration for her novels. When Long goes house-hunting, she discovers the body of well-known TV presenter Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson. Badly shaken up by the experience, she’s happy on one level to let the police handle the investigation. At the same time, though, she found the body, so like it or not, she is involved. And she’s both curious and skilled as a researcher. So, she starts to ask questions. And it’s not long before she runs into serious danger. More than once in the story, it’s clear that someone is targeting her. And part of the suspense comes from the fact that she doesn’t know her enemy.
There are, of course, a lot of other crime novels in which someone has a secret enemy. That plot point can add suspense, even drama, to a story if it’s done effectively. And it can add to character development.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by CKY.