Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hanging By a Thread

One of the most important things that mystery lovers look for is suspense. Good mystery novels keep the reader wondering what’s going to happen next and the best crime fiction uses suspense to keep the reader focused on the mystery and involved in the story. In movies, of course, the director can use visual effects to build suspense, but that’s not an option that we mystery novelists have. We use words.

In some mysteries, the backdrop for the story helps to build suspense. For instance, one of the early scenes in Stanislaw Law’s The Investigation takes place in a morgue. That backdrop builds suspense right away and gets the reader involved in the story from the beginning. That’s the setting for some of the action in Robin Cook’s novels, too, and it’s quite effective. Much of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) takes place on a bleak island. The suspense in the novel builds as the characters realize how little protection the island really offers them, and that they’re not going to be able to leave it.

Christie also uses weather to build suspense in that novel. The worsening weather heightens the suspense and keeps the reader riveted. So does a gathering snowstorm in Emma Lathen’s Going For the Gold, which takes place at the 1980 Lake Placid, New York Winter Olympic Games. In the novel, which centers around the death of an Olympic skier, the snowstorm wreaks havoc on travel, food supplies and practice runs for the games. All of this chaos adds deliciously to the suspense as the group of suspects is more or less trapped in Olympic Village. Lilian Jackson Braun uses bad weather just as effectively in The Cat Who Came to Breakfast, in which Jim Qwillleran investigates some unsavory business practices on a local tourist island. At the climactic point in the novel, a terrible storm hits the island, nearly destroying the inn where Qwilleran’s been lodging. As everyone scrambles for safety, the reader can’t help but stay captivated.

Some authors use pieces of information – even clues – to build suspense. In those mysteries, the reader has knowledge that a character doesn’t yet have. For instance, in Patricia Cornwell’s Body of Evidence, there’s an especially suspenseful scene that takes place shortly after her sleuth, Kay Scarpetta, returns home after a trip she’s taken. I won’t spoil the novel for anyone, so suffice it to say that at this point, the reader has knowledge (or at least, a strong suspicion) that Scarpetta hasn’t quite tumbled to yet, and that fact makes that scene truly engrossing.

In some mysteries, it’s the twists and turns of the plot that add to the suspense. That happens frequently in Agatha Christie’s novels. In Third Girl, for instance, the plot takes several unexpected turns as Poirot investigates a young woman’s claim that she may have committed a murder. I try to do a similar thing in my Joel Williams stories. For instance, in Publish or Perish, the plot takes a dramatic turn when one of the suspects in the murder of a graduate student begins to distrust another. Colin Dexter, too, is highly skilled at building suspense as the plot moves from one surprise to the next. This often happens as his Inspector Morse follows the clues, makes deductions, realizes he’s wrong and finds the truth.

There are also mysteries in which the sleuth (or another character) gets in real danger. That danger also builds suspense, sometimes very effectively when the author does it well. In Third Girl, for instance, Ariadne Oliver, Christie's fictional mystery novelist, decides to do some sleuthing of her own. In one scene, she's following another character in the novel. Christie builds the suspense so well that the reader is tempted to call out to Oliver to be careful. In fact, Hercule Poirot warns her beforehand to do just that. Janet Evanovich's sleuth, Stephanie Plum, gets into danger on a regular basis; after all, she's a bounty hunter. Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson use danger particularly well in The Nightmare Factor. In that mystery, Dr. Calvin Doohan is investigating an outbreak of mysterious deaths for the World Health Organization. When he finds out the truth about the deaths, his own life is threatened. The way in which that danger arises, and the way in which Doohan deals with the danger, add real suspense to an already-gripping novel.

There are, of course, lots of other ways in which mystery authors keep their readers turning pages. How does your favorite author build suspense? What are some of your favorite suspenseful moments (No spoilers, please)?

17 comments:

  1. I think sustaining suspense is one of the most difficult things to achieve/learn. How to dole out the facts, the events, over 300 pages? How to play fair and yet satisfy the reader's need for surprise and suspense.

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  2. Well-said, Patti!
    It's challenging to keep the reader turning all 300 pages, and it's especially satisfying when it works well. Suspense is a delicate element that, when it works, works very well. When it fails, it can fail miserably.

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  3. Creating suspense only with words is a tricky business. I have always approached it with the thought that the reader has to care about the characters involved. If the reader doesn't care that the character is in danger then the most skillful writing in the world won't be able to create suspense. Agatha Christie created a highly-lovable character when she created Ariadne Oliver and that is why we care when poor Ariadne blunders into danger.

    Settings help. An island. A ship. A snowbound mansion. A broken down car on a deserted highway. But if the reader has no rapport with the character(s)? You're toast.

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  4. Elspeth - That's a very well-taken point! Without a sense of rapport with the character, the reader isn't going to really care about what happens in the story, so no matter what scary events or setting the author creates, it won't matter. Thanks for that thought; it reminds of a very well-written comment that Dorte made about another post of mine. She mentioned giving up on a novel where the victim was so unpleasant that she didn't care what happened to him. When the reader doesn't care about the characters, nothing can make a book truly suspenseful.

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