I’ll bet you’ve had this experience. You walk into a room, flick the light switch, and… nothing happens. Or you click to get online, only to get the message that there is no Internet connection. It’s a bit of a jolt when that sort of thing happens. Part of the reason is, of course, that you’re annoyed when the electricity, or the hot water, or the Internet, or…. isn’t available. But another part of it is that we take a lot of those things for granted. When something we take for granted suddenly isn’t there, this can be quite a jolt.
That jolt’s irritating at best in real life. But it can add interesting tension and even suspense to a crime novel. And the way in which characters cope with those jolts can add character depth.
In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Death, we are introduced to a group of young people who live in a hostel for students. Everyone begins to get unsettled when a strange series of petty thefts begin to occur. As one example, one of the residents, Sally Finch, is planning to go out to a party. Her outfit includes a new pair of evening shoes. But, when she gets ready for the party, she finds that one of the shoes is missing. There’s quite a search, but it’s not found. Sally took for granted that the shoes were both in her closet, but she was wrong. There are other jolts like that as well which add to the atmosphere and tension in the story. The manager, Mrs. Hubbard, tells her sister, Felicity Lemon, what’s happened. Miss Lemon tells her employer, Hercule Poirot, who agrees to look into the matter. When one of the other residents, Celia Austin, confesses to some of the pilfering, everyone thinks the matter is settled. Then, Celia is murdered two nights later, and it’s clear that something much more is going on.
In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is attending a community barbecue, at which the main speaker is to be Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. He’s an up-and-coming politician, and his speech is an important one. During his remarks, he suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Boychuk was a friend of Kilbourn’s, so she grieves his loss. In part to cope with that, she decides to write a biography of his life. And that’s how she begins to find out the truth about his death. In the meantime, something mysterious is happening. Kilbourn begins to show signs of illness. She’s losing weight rapidly, and there are other symptoms, too. As her health, which she’s always taken for granted, starts to fail, Kilbourn gets more and more anxious. And that sub-plot adds a layer of suspense to the story.
Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight tell the story of the Sutherland family. Andy Sutherland, his wife, Jenny, and their two children are caught in the global upheaval that results when the world’s supply of oil is deliberately cut off. Now, millions of things that people have taken for granted are no longer available. Of course, that includes most forms of transportation. As it happens, the members of the family are in four different places when the oil supply is stopped, so a major part of the plot in Last Light is their attempts to reunite, and to find ways to make do without the oil they’ve always taken for granted. Afterlight takes up the story ten years after the events of Last Light. At this point, Jenny Sutherland is the leader of a small group of people who’ve made a home on an abandoned North Sea oil rig. One of the main plot threads here is the story of what happens when the group hears that another group, housed in London’s Millennium Dome, may have access to oil. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at how frantically people try to get back what they’ve taken for granted (ever kept flicking a light switch, even after you know the power’s off?).
In both A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife and Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise, there’s an important plot point of long-time couples ending their common-law marriages. In both cases, the couples never legally married, and that adds a real complication. Both couples lived together for many for many years, and that led to certain assumptions. When the relationships end, this puts the women (Jodi Brett in The Silent Wife and Lindy Markov in Breach of Promise) in jeopardy. For instance, they’ve taken their homes for granted for years, until the day that they are served with formal notices of eviction. And, since the US states they live in don’t have protection for common-law spouses, neither woman has much legal recourse. It all adds a great deal of tension to both novels, and it’s interesting to see how these characters react to suddenly not having the home they’ve taken for granted.
And then there’s Zoran Drvenkar’s You. In one plot thread of this novel, a 1995 snowstorm blocks the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. Suddenly, people who’d taken for granted a clear road and just over 35 minutes of driving time find everything changed. Many cars are stranded on the road, and even emergency vehicles can’t get through. People have to do what they can to stay warm and safe, and even finding food won’t be easy. A man named the Traveler takes advantage of this situation, and works his way among the stranded cars, killing twenty-six people. He then makes his getaway without being caught. His story later merges with other important plot points, and we learn more about him, and what he does after these murders.
It’s always a jolt when something you’ve taken for granted simply isn’t there. And it takes adjustment – sometimes a lot of adjustment. That tension can add much to a crime story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dave Matthews’ One Sweet World.