Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lights, Camera..... Action!

In many murder mysteries, there's a climactic scene in which the sleuth and the murderer confront each other. Authors handle this differently, of course. In some kinds of mysteries, the confrontation is full of physical action (e.g. a chase scene or shootout). In other kinds of mysteries, the action is not as much physical as it is a psychological battle of wits.

"Action-packed" confrontations have a really important role to play in a good mystery novel. They keep the reader's attention and they can add a lot of suspense to a mystery if they're done well. For instance, Tony Hillerman's novels (particularly the earlier ones) include some very well-written action scenes. In The Blessing Way, for instance, the climactic confrontation comes as Lt. Joe Leaphorn chases a murderer through the high mesa of Navajo country. Leaphorn's been wounded and he's alone, which of course, adds to the action. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels often include such action scenes. In Two for the Dough, for instance, the confrontation takes place in a funeral parlor, with both Stephanie and her grandmother, Grandma Mazur, in imminent danger.

One might say that action scenes are a good "fit" for series like Hillerman's and Evanovich's, where the sleuth is in law enforcement, so one would expect that kind of confrontation. But other authors do the same thing, and some do it quite well. For instance, Robin Cook's Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton (neither of whom is in law enforcement) have been in more than one "action-packed" confrontation with killers. For example, in Contagion, Stapleton ends up trapped by a murderer in a remote vacation cottage. The way in which he escapes adds to the suspense and Cook even manages to add humor to the scene - not an easy task. My personal favorite "action-packed" confrontation is in John Alexander Graham's Something in the Air. In that novel, Professor Jake Landau has a dramatic confrontation with a killer in New York's Grand Central Station. The scene is truly suspenseful, full of action, and kept me on the edge of my proverbial seat. When an action scene is well-written, authentic and richly underlaid with plot and atmosphere, it can add much to a good mystery. Some people argue that such scenes too easily descend to the level of a Hollywood blockbuster car chase scene, and in some novels, they do. But in well-written mystery novels, action scenes are taught and spine-tingling.

Of course, not all authors choose "action-packed" confrontations. In general, Agatha Christie's climactic scenes aren't what I'd classify as "action-packed" in the Poirot novels. With one notable exception (more on this in a moment), most of her novels involve a psychological, more than a physical confrontation, and those can be just as suspenseful - perhaps even more so. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Poirot lays out his solution to the murder of a temperamental artist to the group of suspects (a familiar Christie scenario). There is no physical confrontation, yet the suspense is palpable. That's also true in the climax of Murder in Mesoptamia, where Poirot unmasks the murderer of the wife of a noted archeologist. Of course, in several Christie novels (a few are Evil Under the Sun, Mrs. McGinty's Dead and Murder in Three Acts (AKA Three Act Tragedy), the murder lashes out when Poirot reveals the truth. However, even they don't involve physical, "action-packed" scenes. The only exception to this is The Big Four, in which Poirot uncovers a major worldwide crime conspiracy; that novel's climax comes complete with a major explosion. Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Beresford stories involve "action-packed" confrontations more than do the Poirot novels. For instance, in the climactic scene of Postern of Fate, Tuppence is in real danger from the killer she and Tommy have unmasked, and only the timely arrival of their dog, Hannibal and their faithful friend/employee, Albert, saves her.

Some mystery novels don't include a direct confrontation between the sleuth and the murderer. Colin Dexter takes that approach in some of his Inspector Morse novels. For instance, in The Dead of Jericho and The Secret of Annex Three, the moment of highest suspense occurs as Morse and Lewis put the evidence together and Morse realizes that he's been wrong up to that point. Dexter writes those "ah-hah!" scenes so well that there's really no need for a confrontation.

In my own Joel Williams series, I avoid the "action-packed" confrontation, although I admire writers such as Hillerman and Carol O'Connor who do it well. That kind of confrontation, I think, wouldn't fit well with Williams' style of sleuthing. He uses his wits, he puts pieces of the puzzle together, and he makes deductions. He doesn't really chase criminals. In general, he helps uncover the criminal and lets the police do the apprehension. It's not that he's afraid of a confrontation; he isn't. But he uses his brain instead of his fists.

What do you think of "action-packed" climactic scenes? Do you see a fit for them? Do you prefer the more psychological kind of confrontation?


  1. My work falls into the psychological camp and my pressed-in-service detective does have an 'ah-ha' moment when all the puzzle pieces fall into place. I do enjoy reading the action-packed climactic scenes, but sadly, I know I don't write them. Mine is far more of a 'whydunnit'.


  2. Elspeth - I like your name for it: the "whydunnit!" That's quite creative. I know what you mean about enjoying reading the "action-packed" scenes. I have to admit I don't write them, either. I respect those can do that well.

  3. I do have a scene in my books where the sleuth meets up with the perp. It's less of an action sequence, though, and more of a frightening surprise, followed by the sleuth trying to outsmart the murderer (which, of course, they're able to do!) But I'm interested in writing my next book differently. Thanks for the ideas you've given me on doing that.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth - How interesting that you combine action (well- nasty surprise, anyway) with psychological outwitting. It's an integration that can be very effective! I'll have to think about that for my own work...