Category Archives: Ruth Rendell

Don’t Push Me Too Far*

pressureMost of us learn that we can only push people so far before they push back. Everyone has a different limit, but we all have one. Crime writers know this, and sometimes use it to real advantage in their novels.

That pressure, as someone pushes too hard, and someone else nears the breaking point, can add real suspense to a story. And it can serve as a credible motive for murder, at least in the mind of the killer.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we meet the Boyntons, an American family on a sightseeing visit to the Middle East. Matriarch Mrs. Boynton is malicious, vindictive, and tyrannical. She has her family so browbeaten that no-one dares go against her wishes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t resent her. A few of the members have been pushed so far for so long that they are at the proverbial breaking point. So, when Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies on the second day of a trip to Petra, Colonel Carbury decides to look into the matter. The death looks on the surface like heart failure, but the family dynamics make Carbury wonder. So, he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s also in the Middle East, to investigate. As we learn who really killed the victim and why, we see the wisdom in not pushing people past their limits.

Talmage Powell’s short story, To Avoid a Scandal, features a banker named Horace Croyden. He leads a quiet, well-ordered and completely scandal-free life, and he likes it that way. In fact, for quite a while, his life is, for him, perfect. Then he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. At first, she seems demure, with good taste and good manners. And that’s what draws him to her. They court in an utterly respectable way, and then marry. That’s when Horace discovers that his wife isn’t all the person he thought he’d married. She’s more vivacious than he’d prefer, and her habits, in his opinion, aren’t well-ordered at all. She shops without a list, she doesn’t always dress before breakfast, and so on. More and more, she pushes him to the limit. Then comes the day she accidentally destroys some ciphers he’s been working (ciphers are Horace’s passion). That’s when she pushes him too far…

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater is the first in his long-running 87th Precinct series. As the novel begins, the city of Isola (a thinly-disguised New York City) is suffering from a terrible heat wave. This novel was written before air conditioning was a common amenity for homes, so everyone’s sweltering and miserable. That includes Detective Steve Carella and his team, who are investigating the murders of two fellow police officers. They’re also expected to attend lineups of those who’ve been arrested for major crimes, so that they can become familiar with those cases. One of those suspects is Virginia Pritchett, who’s been arrested for killing her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the allegation. Rather, she explains that the murder was the end result of a buildup of tension between her and her husband that pushed her beyond her breaking point. And the miserable heat didn’t help:
 

‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”
 

In this case, we see what happens when a person is pushed too far by both the heat and a tense domestic situation.

Ruth Rendell’s One Across, Two Down tells the story of Stanley Manning, who works as a fuel attendant. He has a prison record, but he’s trying to stay on the proverbial straight and narrow, and make a life for himself and his wife, Vera. But he’s got a big problem: Vera’s mother, Maude, who hates Stanley. The feeling is mutual, but Stnaley has to put up with her, because he and Vera stand to inherit a fortune when she dies. Still, the pressure of having to tolerate Maude gets worse and worse, until Stanley decides to take matters into his own hands. And as you can guess if you’ve read Rendell’s work, this doesn’t end well.

Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s An Easy Thing addresses another sort of pressure. In that novel, Mexico City PI Héctor Belascoaran Shayne gets three different cases. One of them concerns the death of an engineer named Gaspar Alvarez Cerruli, who was killed in his office at Delex, the company where he worked. The Santa Clara Industrial Council hires Belascoaran Shayne to find out who the killer was, and bring them the proof. This case is complicated by the fact that there’s a great deal of tension between union members and management at Delex. There’s a great deal of agitation for better wages and working conditions, and the union activists have been very busy. As the novel goes on, those tensions reach the boiling point, and this plays its role in this case. What’s more, the tension adds much to the suspense in the story.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place during the last years of the British Raj in Madras (today’s Chennai). In A Madras Miasma, the first of the series, Le Fanu and his assistant, Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah, are investigating the murder of Jane Carstairs, an English visitor whose body was found in the Buckingham Canal. It’s a difficult case, made more challenging by the fact that the trail leads to some very high places. In the midst of the investigation, there’s a protest. There are many who believe that India should move to Home Rule, and that the Raj should end. These people clash with the local authorities and the police, and the situation turns very, very ugly. Then, there’s a murder. And Le Fanu finds that this death is related to the Carstairs murder, and that the killer has used the protest to ‘disguise’ that connection. Part of the suspense in this novel comes from the simmering resentment against British rule, and the increasing pressure on the government to reform, and on the protesters to be quiet and go away.

If crime fiction shows us nothing else, it shows us that people do have their limits. There’s only so far that most of us can be pushed. If the pushing continues, there are bound to be consequences. And that tension can add a great deal to a crime story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Divinyls’ Back to the Wall.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Ed McBain, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Ruth Rendell, Talmage Powell

Do You Really Think I Care What You Eat or What You Wear*

small-and-diverse-communitiesOne of the most important sociological changes we’ve seen in modern times has arguably been the transformation of smaller-town/suburban demographics. If you read the work of Agatha Christie or other classic/Golden Age crime writers, you see that small towns and villages are often composed of people who have very similar cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Christie mentions some diversity (there are Belgians and a German in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, as well as the English people who live in the small village of Styles St. Mary). There are a few other examples as well. But, by and large, we don’t see major cultural and ethnic diversity in the small towns and villages that figure so much in crime fiction of the times.

We do now. Wars, easier travel, easier communication, and other factors have meant that now, suburban towns and small towns have gotten very diverse. People in big cities (or even medium-sized cities) have been aware of this trend for a long time. But it’s a fact of life now in smaller places, too. And crime fiction reflects that. In the best depictions of more modern small-town diversity, it’s discussed in a very matter-of-fact way. People from other cultures settle in, make lives for themselves, and not a great deal of fuss is made about it. At the same time, though, there is the extra layer of cultural differences and the need to adjust (on both sides). That can add to character development, and certainly makes for a more realistic depiction of today’s small towns and villages.

We see this more modern sort of town in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola. Dr. Raymond Akande is from Nigeria; his wife is from Sierra Leone. They’ve settled in the English town of Kingsmarham with their twenty-two-year-old daughter, Melanie. As far as Inspector Reg Wexford is concerned, the Akandes are simply another family living in the town, and Raymond Akande happens to be his doctor. At least that’s what Wexford thinks on the surface. He starts to question those assumptions about himself when Melanie Akande goes missing. Her father is worried when she doesn’t come home (it’s not like her) and asks for Wexford’s help. That request ends up drawing Wexford into a case of multiple murders. It also forces him to confront his own assumptions. It’s an interesting case of a changing small town, and what that means for the people who live there.

Fans of Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series will know that he is chief of police in the small town of St. Denis, in France’s Périgord region. People have lived there for hundreds of years, and created a solid community. In recent decades, that community has changed and begun to include people from many different places. For instance, the owner of the Café des Sports is Karim al-Bakr, whose family immigrated from Algeria. He and his wife, Rashida, are woven into the fabric of the community, as is his father, Mohammad (Momu). As far as Bruno is concerned, they’re at least as much a part of St. Denis as he himself is. For the most part, their presence is taken for granted and they’re treated just like anyone else. This isn’t to say that there’s no tension ever. But they aren’t regarded as oddities or outcasts.

Neither are the members of the Basque community in Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series. We learn a bit about that community in Death Without Company. In that novel, Longmire and his team investigate the murder of Mari Baroja, a resident of the Durant Home for Assisted Living. She’s been poisoned; and on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much motive. As it turns out, this crime has roots that go back fifty years. As Longmire looks into the case, readers meet the Sheriff’s Department’s newest hire, Santiago Saizarbitoria, who also has a Basque background. And it’s interesting to see how, in both his case and that of the Barojas family, there’s not much fuss made about the fact that they’re Basque. They’re simply farmers who live in rural Wyoming. Yes, they have a unique culture, and some references are made to it. But this community is woven into the fabric of Absaroka County, where Longmire lives and works.

Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark introduces readers to Gerda Klein and her daughter, Ilse. They immigrated to New Zealand from the former East Germany during the Cold War, and settled in the small South Island town of Alexandria. Now Ilse teachers secondary school, and has become an accepted part of the community, as has her mother. One of Ilse’s most promising students is fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. That’s why she’s so concerned when Serena starts skipping class. And when she is there, she no longer shows much interest in learning anything. Ilse contacts the school’s counseling team, and a visit is paid to the Freeman family. That’s less than successful, though. And then, Serena disappears. Ilse and her mother find themselves drawn into Serena’s life in ways they hadn’t imagined. It’s obvious throughout the novel that the Kleins are accepted in the community, just as everyone else is. And Gerda is extremely grateful to the people in her new home for making her welcome and considering her ‘one of them.’ Ilse doesn’t feel the same way (she misses her old home in Leipzig), but that’s not to say she dislikes New Zealand or its people. She knows that she’s been most fortunate in being accepted with no real fuss.

Several of D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington stories take place in the fictional village of Tuesbury. Heatherington is a retired milliner who now does occasional work on special order. He also seems to get drawn into murders and their investigation. In Model For Murder, we are introduced to one of the shop owners in town, Elroy Tuvey. He’s originally from Jamaica, and has found success as an antiques dealer in Tuesbury. On the one hand, he’s had to deal with prejudice. On the other, he is very matter-of-fact in his business dealings, and Heatherington doesn’t really see him as ‘other.’ There’s a little awkwardness at times, as there often is when culture meets culture. But in the main, Elroy Tuvey is much a part of life in the village as anyone else is.

And that’s the thing about many modern small towns and villages. They’re more diverse than ever, and cultures mix there in a way they didn’t in the past. And it’s interesting the way crime fiction depicts that change.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Join Together.

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Filed under Craig Johnson, D.S. Nelson, Martin Walker, Paddy Richardson, Ruth Rendell

Look Out of Any Window*

windowsI’ll bet you do it without even thinking about it. I’m talking about looking out the window. Even if your view isn’t exactly stunning, it’s almost impossible to resist glancing out, especially if you see movement or hear something. Don’t believe me? I challenge you to go for a day without looking out of your office window if you work from an office that has one. I’ll bet you’d find it hard-put to avoid looking out of your windows at home, too.

But windows can be very dangerous things, if you think about it. Just a quick look at crime fiction shows that looking out of a window can put you smack in the middle of a crime. And that can be risky. Windows can make people quite vulnerable, too.

In John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Mystery, Julius Tregarthan is shot one night through the open window of his sitting room at the family home, Greylings. Dr. Pendrill is summoned to the scene, and brings with him his old friend, the Reverend Dodd. It’s soon very clear that this was neither an accident nor a suicide. Inspector Bigwell takes the case, and works to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. What’s interesting is that three shots were fired through the window, from three slightly different angles. Two went wide; one found its mark. So, one question is: were there three killers? If not, how did the murderer fire from three different angles so quickly? It’s a complicated case, but the Reverend Dodd slowly puts the pieces together, and works with Pendrill and Bigwell to get to the truth.

In Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy is on her way by train to visit her friend, Miss Marple. She happens to look out her window just as another train goes by, heading in the same direction. Her view lets her see through the windows of the other train, which is how she sees a woman apparently being strangled. She alerts the conductor, but no-one believes her, since there hasn’t been a body discovered. Miss Marple does take her seriously, though, and does some research of her own. She deduces that the body is likely on the property of Rutherford Hall, which belongs to the Crackenthorpe family. Not having an ‘in’ of her own, Miss Marple enlists her friend, professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to be her eyes and ears. Lucy agrees and is soon hired as the Crackenthorpes’ housekeeper. Sure enough, she finds the body of a woman, and the police soon take charge. In her own way, Miss Marple stays involved, and works out who the killer is. There’s even a Christie novel in which a murder is committed through a window. But no spoilers!

In one plot line of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, Inspector Reg Wexford and his team investigate the strangling murder of Annette Bystock. She was killed in her bed, so it’s going to be important to find anyone who might have seen someone coming or going at the time of the murder. Fortunately for the police, retiree Percy Hammond lives next door to the murder scene, and spends his share of time looking through his window. And it turns out he saw something very important to the investigation. In the end, this murder is related to a missing person case that the police are also investigating.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa is faced with a difficult and dangerous case in A Window in Copacabana. Three police officers are murdered with expert precision, and in quick succession. Now, there’s a general fear that someone is targeting cops. But that’s not the only possibility. The victims might have been involved in corruption and gotten mixed up with the wrong people. There’s nothing in their backgrounds or records to suggest that, but it’s certainly not impossible. Everything changes when the mistress of one of the victims is found shot in her car. Then, Rosita, who was the mistress of another of the police victims, is killed by a fall from her window. It looks like suicide at first. But Serena Rodes, the wife of a wealthy businessman, contacts Espinosa. It seems she was looking out her window and saw Rosita get pushed through the window (‘though she didn’t see by whom). This complicated case turns out to be rooted in corruption – only not in the way you might think.

Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage features Maura Cody, a former nun who’s now trying to live as quiet and unassuming a life as she can. She looks out her window one day and sees something that puts her in grave danger. It’s relevant to two cases that Dublin D.S. Bob Tidey, and Garda Rose Cheney, are working. So, they do their best to protect her as they get to the truth about those cases, and the link between them. What’s interesting here is that Maura had no desire to get involved in something so risky. But a look out the window changes everything for her.

Christopher Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane learns the hard way how risky windows can be in Quite Ugly One Morning. He wakes up one morning with an awful hangover, and hears a commotion outside. So, he leaves his flat and goes downstairs to see what’s going on. Unfortunately, his door locks behind him and he’s forgotten his key. He does remember that he left a window open, though. So, he decides that the best thing to do is to sneak through the downstairs flat, which has a corresponding window, and get back into his own place that way. Things don’t work out well, though. First, he discovers a brutally-murdered body in the flat downstairs. Then, as he’s trying to sneak out the window, he’s caught by Jenny Dalziel,the police detective who’s investigating that murder. After a great deal of initial suspicion, he and Dalziel see that they can be of help to each other, so they work together to find out who the killer is.

See what I mean? Looking out the window or using it is as natural as anything. But safe? I’m not so sure of that. Right, fans of Jeffery Deaver’s The Broken Window?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Grateful Dead’s Box of Rain.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Brookmyre, Gene Kerrigan, Jeffery Deaver, John Bude, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Ruth Rendell

We Can Discover the Wonders of Nature*

natural-restorativeIf you’ve read novels featuring Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, you’ll know that she’s very fond of her garden. Admittedly, she likes the opportunity that gardening gives her to – erm – observe others. But she also likes being outdoors when the weather allows it.

She’s not alone. There’s actually credible research that suggests that we all benefit in many ways (cognitive, emotional, and more) from being in nature. In fact, research that a colleague and friend has done suggests that children learn better, have fewer mental and other health problems, and are more creative if they are out in nature. And that’s only a few of the benefits. That may be one reason so many of us were told to ‘run outdoors and play’ when we were young.

Certainly being outdoors, without electronics, can be a real restorative. So it’s not surprising that we see plenty of cases of sleuths who like their time in nature. For instance, in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is recovering from the traumatic experience of being charged with murder (read Strong Poison for the details of that). She decides to take a break from the world by going on a hiking holiday near Wilvercombe. And at first, she does find it both relaxing and restorative. It helps her get some perspective, as nature tends to do. One afternoon, she stops to take a rest near a beach. When she wakes up, the tide is out, and she sees the body of a dead man. She alerts the authorities, who begin the investigation. The man is soon identified as Paul Alexis, a Russian-born professional dancer who works at a nearby hotel. Before long, Lord Peter Wimsey joins Vane, and together, they work to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. It turns out that there are several possibilities.

The central focus of Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage has to do with Framhurst Great Wood, which lies near the town of Kingsmarkham. There’s a plan to run a road through the wood, and plenty of people are upset about it. And that includes Inspector Reg Wexford. He’s resigned to the development, but he’s not happy about it:
 

‘When I retire, he had told his wife, I want to live in London so that I can’t see the countryside destroyed.’
 

He’s not alone. Many people love the forest, and don’t want to see it ruined. Several activist groups arrive in the area to protest the new road, and Wexford knows there’s going to be trouble. Matters get far worse when the situation disintegrates to a hostage-taking incident. What’s more, one of the hostages is Wexford’s own wife, Dora. Then there’s a murder. Now Wexford and his team have to solve the murder as well as try to find a way to free the hostages.

Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache enjoys spending time in nature, too. In fact, in A Rule Against Murder, he and his wife, Reine-Marie, travel to the Manoir Bellechasse for an annual getaway to celebrate their anniversary. It’s a time for them to get away from it all, and at first, it’s a wonderful trip:
 

‘One day rolled gently into the next as the Gamaches swam in Lac Massawippi and went for leisurely walks through the fragrant woods.’
 

They enjoy themselves thoroughly until they begin to get to know the dysfunctional Finney family, who are also staying at the lodge. Then, there’s a murder. Now Gamache finds that his peaceful, natural retreat is anything but.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux can tell you that, in the first novels in the series, he lives in a small, rural home on a bayou where he operates a fish dock. Later, he lives in a house that’s a little less rural, but not far away from the bayou. Robicheaux often finds peace when he simply spends time out on a lake, away from ‘it all.’ Although he’s not an eco-warrior, he understands the value of nature’s rhythms, and some of nature’s healing power. And Burke’s descriptions share that natural beauty with the reader.

Many indigenous cultures are infused with the understanding of how important a connection with nature really is. Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, or of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte can tell you that those sleuths pay very close attention to nature, and are attuned to its rhythms. They connect on a regular basis with the natural world.

So does Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. In Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs), we learn that she spent her childhood among her mother’s Aborigine people:
 

‘…my little mob and I would hunt in the hills, fish in the creeks, climb the skeletal trees, scour the countryside on horses borrowed from the stock camps.’
 

Emily ended up being sent away to boarding school in Adelaide, but she returns to the Moonlight Downs encampment and finds a place to belong. And she reconnects in this novel and in Gunshot Road with the natural world.

Even dedicated city dwellers know how restorative it can be to take a walk in a park, listen to birds, grow plants, or sit watching the sea. For instance, there isn’t a much more determined ‘city person’ than Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. But fans know that he gets his ‘nature fix,’ too. He spends a few hours each day with his orchids. If you find that being in nature calms you and helps you focus, well, the research supports you. Little wonder we see so many fictional sleuths who know that.

Speaking of nature…just for fun, can you spot the baby lizard in the ‘photo (You can click on the ‘photo to enlarge it if you like)?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Grateful Dead’s Sugar Magnolia.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Dorothy Sayers, James Lee Burke, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

I Know the End is Comin’ Soon*

murder-warningsAn important part of the appeal of crime fiction is the suspense. Sometimes that comes from not knowing who the killer is, and the sleuth’s search for the truth. It might also come from a ‘cat and mouse’ sort of plot, where the killer and the sleuth face off against each other. There are other ways, too, in which the author can build suspense. Whichever way the author decides to go about it, building suspense is an important part a crime novel.

That’s why it takes skill to create a plot where we’re told at the beginning that there’s going to be a murder. It takes even more when readers are told who the victim will be. A few stories, such as Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone let the reader in on that information right away. We know from the first sentence of that novel who the killer is (a professional housekeeper named Eunice Parchman). We know who the victims are, too (members of the Coverdale family, Eunice’s employers). Even with this information having been provided, Rendell builds the tension by showing what the characters are like, how they met, and how the murders happened.

There are other ways in which authors handle that tension, too. For instance, in Georges Simenon’s The Saint-Fiacre Affair, the Paris police receive a note warning them that a crime will be committed,
 

‘…at the church of Saint-Fiacre during First Mass.’
 

For Commissaire Jules Maigret, the place has special meaning. It’s a church near Matignon, where he was born and raised. He takes an interest in the note, although his colleagues think it’s a prank, and travels to Matignon, where he attends the service mentioned in the note. Sure enough, after the Mass ends and everyone else leaves, the Countess of Saint-Fiacre is found dead. Maigret knew the victim, so it’s very difficult for him to be objective in this case. Still, he investigates, and finds out who the killer is, and why the note was sent. In this novel, part of the suspense comes from the search for answers. Part comes as Maigret faces his own past.

Nicholas Blake’s (AKA Cecil Day-Lewis) The Beast Must Die begins with the sentence,
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

This comes from the journal of Frank Cairnes, a crime writer who uses the pen name Felix Lane. Cairnes/Lane plans to murder the man who killed his son Martin ‘Martie’ in a hit-and-run incident. He returns to the town he and Martie lived in at the time of the boy’s death, and starts looking for information. Soon enough, he learns that the driver was probably a man named George Rattery. After getting an ‘in’ to the Rattery household, Cairnes puts in motion his plan for revenge. But on the day’s Cairnes has chosen for the crime, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes is the natural suspect, but he claims he didn’t actually commit the murder. Then, he contacts poet/PI Nigel Strangeways, and asks for his help. According to Cairnes, he planned to kill Rafferty – even tried. But his method was attempted drowning, and the plan fell through. Why, says Cairnes, would he have planned to poison the man he’d already planned to drown? It’s a complicated case, and the suspense in it comes from Strangeways’ efforts to make sense of it.

In Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn meets a young woman named Jean Reid, who’s about to jump off a bridge. He manages to talk her into getting off the bridge and going with him, and soon hears her story. As it turns out, her distress has come from the fact that her father, Harlan Reid, has been told he is going to die on a certain day at midnight. The predication came from Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who considers himself cursed with being able to see the future. Shawn takes an interest in the Reid case, and joins Jean in the effort to prevent her father’s death, if that’s possible.

There’s also Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced (You were waiting for this, right, Christie fans?). The novel begins with a personal advertisement in a local newspaper that states,
 

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6:30pm. Friends, please accept this, the only invitation.’  
 

The residents of Chipping Cleghorn can’t resist the invitation, and several of them go to Little Paddocks to see what it’s all about. At the appointed time, a man bursts into the house, demanding that everyone ‘stick ‘em up.’ No-one takes it seriously – until shots are fired into the room, and the man is killed. Even though we know there’ll be a murder, Christie doesn’t make it exactly clear who the victim will be, and certainly not who the killer is. That’s part of what adds to the suspense.

The main focus of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is a plot to murder H.S. Nirdlinger. It all starts when Nirdlinger’s insurance representative, Walter Huff, stops by the house to see about a policy renewal. Instead of his client, Huff meets Nirdlinger’s wife, Phyllis. He’s immediately smitten, and it’s not long before he and Phyllis are involved. She convinces him that, with his help, her husband can be killed, and she and Huff can be together and enjoy his insurance payout. Huff goes along with the plan and the murder is duly committed. But as fans of this novella know, that’s only the beginning of the complications in Huff’s life…

And then there’s John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. When ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped and left to die, her father, Carl Lee, is understandably devastated and angry. There’s a lot of sympathy for him, too. Tonya’s attackers, Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard are promptly arrested. The case gets the attention of Jake Brigance, an attorney whose office is just across the street from the courthouse. Out of interest, he attends the preliminary hearing for the two men, where he sees Hailey (whom he knows). Lee makes some cryptic remarks that give Brigance the idea that he intends to exact revenge on Cobb and Willard. Brigance tries to warn him not to do anything drastic, but Hailey says,
 

‘What would you plan, Jake?’
 

Sure enough, Hailey gets some help from his brother Lester, ambushes Cobb and Willard, and murders them. Then he asks Brigance to defend him. Along with several other elements, the legal and ethical issues add to the suspense of this novel. So does the fact that the stakes turn out to be a lot higher than just one man killing his daughter’s rapists.

In deft hands, even a story where we (and the sleuth) are told there’s going to be a murder can still draw us in. When it’s done well, the fact that we know what probably (or definitely) will happen can add to the tension. Which stories like this have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedance Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cecil Day-Lewis, Cornell Woolrich, Georges Simenon, James M. Cain, John Grisham, Nicholas Blake, Ruth Rendell