An interesting guest post on crime writer and fellow blogger Sue Coletta’s site has got me thinking about atmosphere. In part, the post’s focus is on character development, and that’s important of course. But the post also mentioned the larger context – the atmosphere.
Writers, of course, can use context for a number of purposes, far too numerous to discuss here. So I’m going to just mention a couple of ways in which crime writers use atmosphere.
Sometimes, crime writers use atmosphere to serve as a stark contrast to the murder(s) that are the main plot threads of their story. You know the sort of thing, I’m sure: the peaceful, lovely small town that hides secrets.
Several of Agatha Christie’s stories are like that. For instance, Hallowe’en Party takes place in the village of Woodleigh Common, a small, outwardly peaceful place. One afternoon, several residents are visiting Apple Trees, the home of town social leader Rowena Drake. They’re helping her to get ready for a Hallowe’en party planned for later that evening. Also among the group is detective story author Ariadne Oliver. During the preparations, twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds boasts that she saw a murder once. Everyone immediately hushes her up, and the assumption is made that she said what she said to call attention to herself, especially as Mrs. Oliver was there. But later, at the party, Joyce is murdered. Now everyone has to face the possibility that Joyce was telling the truth. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to come to Woodleigh Common and help find out what happened, and he agrees. When the two of them visit Apple Trees to talk to Mrs. Drake, Mrs. Oliver says,
‘‘It doesn’t look the sort of house there’d be a murder in, does it?’’
And it doesn’t. It’s a neatly-kept, pleasant house in a small, peaceful community. Nothing creepy about it. And that contrasts with what happens at the house, and with what is later revealed about some events in the town.
Ira Levin uses a similar strategy in The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut, hoping to find low taxes and good schools. At first, everything goes smoothly. The town is beautiful, the residents are pleasant, and everyone settles in. But then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t take her seriously. But then, some things happen that show just how right Bobbie was. Levin fans will know that he takes quite a different approach in Rosemary’s Baby, where the apartment building that features so heavily in the novel is depicted as rather eerie right from the start.
Nelson Brunanski’s novels featuring John ‘Bart’ Bartowski often feature the small town of Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. It’s a quiet town where everyone knows everyone, and where life is mostly peaceful. That lovely small-town backdrop contrasts with the main murder plots of the stories. For example, in Crooked Lake, the first of the series, the body of Harvey Kristoff is found on the grounds of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The most likely suspect is former head greenskeeper Nick Taylor, whom Kristoff recently had fired. But Taylor claims he’s innocent, and asks Bart to help clear his name. In Frost Bite, Bart gets involved in the murder of Lionel Morrison, a CEO with quite a lot of ‘clout.’ He spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge owned by Bart and his wife Rosie. Later, Bart discovers Morrison’s body under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. Crooked Lake’s peaceful, ‘down home’ sort of atmosphere serves as a really interesting contrast to the murders that happen there.
Of course, some crime writers use a story’s overall atmosphere to add to the suspense. That, too, can be quite effective. For example, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is the story of Mary Yellan. When her mother dies, Mary obeys her mother’s last request and goes to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss, who own Jamaica Inn. The inn is in Cornwall, between Bodmin and Launceston. Before Mary even arrives, she’s warned about Jamaica Inn, but she chooses to continue the journey. And when she arrives, she finds that it’s every bit as dreary and unpleasant as she’d heard. The place is isolated, run-down and creepy. Her uncle is unpleasant and abusive, and her aunt so downtrodden that she does nothing about it. This atmosphere serves as the backdrop for a case of murder, and for some very dark secrets that Mary discovers.
Several novels in Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache make mention of the old Hadley house. Fans of this series will know that it has a dark history, and that adds to its eerie atmosphere. Even Gamache, who is not a fanciful person, doesn’t like going there. In The Cruelest Month, a murder takes place there. A well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying in Three Pines, and is persuaded to hold a séance during her stay. The first attempt doesn’t go well, but another is scheduled during the Easter break, and is to be held at the Hadley place. During that second séance, Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies. At first, it’s said that she was frightened to death. But soon, it’s discovered that she’s been given a lethal dose of a diet drug. In this case, the house’s creepy history and atmosphere add to the suspense and tension.
And then there’s Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, which features DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper. In that novel, two sets of remains are discovered in the Peak District on Pity Wood Farm, which used to be owned by the Sutton family. It now belongs to a Manchester attorney named Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the property after the remains were already there. So the detectives focus on the Suttons and on the people who lived in the area when they owned the farm. The nearest village is Rakedale, and Fry and Cooper are hoping to get some background from the residents. But Rakedale is a close-mouthed, creepy place. Few people are interested in speaking to the police, and even fewer in discussing the Suttons. It makes for a tense sort of atmosphere.
Whether the author chooses to use atmosphere to contrast with a murder (or murders), or add to the tension, it’s hard to deny the importance of atmosphere in adding to a story. Which atmospheres have stayed with you?
Thanks for the inspiration to Sue and her guest, David Villalva! Now, please go visit Sue’s excellent blog. It’s a fantastic resource for crime writers, and a fascinating place to learn all kinds of interesting things.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Little River Band’s So Many Paths.