One of the ways authors can amplify tension in their novels is to include simple domestic scenes (e.g. setting the table, folding laundry, etc.). Those very ordinary scenes can serve as a contrast to the tension the author’s building, and make it even stronger. If you’ve ever been through a time of real tension, but still sat down to eat, or washed dishes, you know how that contrast works in real life. It does in crime fiction, too.
Agatha Christie used that contrast in several of her stories. For instance, in And Then There Were None, ten people are invited for a stay on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They’re all invited for different reasons, and they all have their personal reasons for accepting the invitation. Their host isn’t present when they arrive, but everyone settles in. After dinner on the first night, they’re all shocked when each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long afterwards, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, another guest dies. Now, it’s clear that someone has lured these people to the island, and is killing them. The survivors will have to stay alive if they’re going to find out who the killer is. As you can imagine, a great deal of suspense is built up as the characters suspect each other of being the killer. At one point, a few of them are in the kitchen, getting a meal ready. The preparations are, on the surface, normal enough. And that throws the underlying tension into stark relief. You’re absolutely right, fans of Murder in Mesopotamia.
In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, mystery novelist Frank Cairnes decides that he is going to commit murder. Six months earlier, his beloved son Martin ‘Martie’ was killed in a hit-and-run tragedy. Cairnes is devastated, and wants to find the person responsible, and kill that person. He moves back to the town where the tragedy occurred, and starts to ask a few questions. It doesn’t take long before he learns that a man named George Rattery was probably driving the car that killed Martie. He manages to get an ‘in’ to meet Rattery and his wife, and, soon enough, he’s invited to stay with them. Then, he works out his plan. He decides he’ll go sailing with Rattery, and, when they’re out alone on the water, he’ll drown his enemy. But, of course, he’ll have to get Rattery to agree to go sailing. One afternoon at lunch, he brings up the topic. It’s a regular lunch, where everyone’s eating, talking, and so on. But, for Cairnes, it’s an important part of putting his plan in motion. And there’s a lot of tension as that underlying suspense contrasts with the ordinariness of the meal.
Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is the story of Walter and Joanna Eberhart. They and their two children have just moved from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. They settle in a bit, and at first, everything goes well enough. Then, Joanna’s new friend, Bobbie Markowe, begins to suspect that something is wrong in the town. Joanna doesn’t agree, and she’s unwilling anyway to make a move so soon after having moved to town. But as time goes by, she comes to believe that Bobbie was right, and that something dark is going on. Now, she herself is in very real danger. At one point, Walter invites a few of his friends over to the house, and Joanna agrees to play hostess. There’s a very tense scene in which she’s in the kitchen, and one of the guests joins her there. On the surface, it’s an everyday situation, where someone’s doing something in the kitchen, and chatting with another person. But there’s a lot of underlying tension, as Joanna’s trying to work out what’s going on in Stepford.
There’s another kitchen scene in Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which takes place in 1950s California. Lora King has always been close to her brother, Bill. So, when he begins to date a former Hollywood seamstress’ assistant named Alice Steele, she’s naturally concerned that he might get hurt. Then, he marries Alice. Lora has her doubts, but she tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law, mostly for Bill’s sake. And Alice does seem to be fitting in among Bill’s friends. In fact, she’s quite the hostess. Slowly, though, Lora begins to learn little things that make her very uneasy. The more she discovers about Alice’s life, the more repulsed she is. At the same time, she’s drawn to it. Then, there’s a death, and Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s protecting her brother, Lora starts to ask questions to find out what really happened. At one point in the novel, Alice is preparing for a get-together will some friends, and Lora’s in the kitchen, helping her. It’s a very ordinary-looking scene on the surface. Underneath, though, there’s a great deal of tension as Lora has become convinced that something is badly wrong.
And then there’s Wendy James’ The Mistake. In that novel, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow and her family. Her husband, Angus, is a successful attorney whose name has been brought up as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. She’s attractive, smart, and has two healthy children and a comfortable life. Everything’s going well for this family. Then, her daughter, Hannah, is involved in an accident, and is rushed to a Sydney hospital. It turns out to be the same hospital where, several years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child, one she’s never mentioned to anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie, and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks into it, she finds no formal record of the adoption. Now, whispers start, and soon turn very ugly and very public. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Before she knows it, Jodie becomes a social pariah. In the midst of all of this, she is invited to visit a local book club. Pleased at this sign of acceptance, Jodie accepts the invitation, and attends the book club meeting. On the surface, it’s an ordinary book club discussion. But the tension soon rises when Jodie discovers the reason she was invited. The group is discussing a book about the famous Lindy Chamberlain case, and they’ve drawn a parallel to Jodie’s situation. That underlying suspense contrasts with the surface-level peace of the book club.
And that’s the power that those ordinary scenes can have in crime fiction. They can contrast very effectively with underlying tension, and bring that tension into sharp focus. And that can add much to a novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Robillard’s Blown Away.