Wednesday, November 4, 2009


One of the hallmarks of a well-written mystery novel is suspense. Of course, solid characterization and a believable plot are important as well, but more than many other genres, the crime fiction/mystery genre makes use of suspense to keep the reader interested. Sometimes, the suspense is created by the tension between characters. We see that, for instance, in novels where we know who the murderer is right away, and the novel focuses on the matching of wits between the murderer and the sleuth. In other novels, the suspense is created by unexpected plot twists; Agatha Christie, for instance, was famous for that kind of suspense. One of the most compelling ways that suspense is created in mystery novels is through the “ticking clock” – letting the reader know that the sleuth doesn’t have much time to solve the mystery.

Sometimes that sense of urgency is created because the killer has targeted other victims who are in real peril if the sleuth doesn’t solve the murder in time. Robin Cook’s medical thrillers are clear examples of this. In many of those novels, the sleuth has to find out who’s behind a series of unexplained deaths in time to stop even more deaths from occurring. A chilling example of this is in Vector. In that novel, Yuri Davydov, who’s a disgruntled Russian √©migr√© to the United States, decides to get revenge on the country he feels has wronged him. He uses his background in biological weapons development to create a modern bioweapon capable of causing millions of deaths. Medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery become aware of this weapon when Stapleton connects a series of unexplained deaths at a hospital and a prison. He and Montgomery have to find out who’s behind those deaths and stop Davydov before he’s able to unleash his bioweapon.

There’s a similar use of the “ticking clock” in Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor, which focuses on Dr. Calvin Doohan, who works for the World Health Organization. He’s asked to find out what’s behind a new and particularly virulent strain of influenza that’s responsible for a large number of sudden deaths in California. When Doohan and his team find out that that the deaths are part of a terrifying larger plot, their lives are in danger, and Doohan has to stop the killer before he and his team are killed and the lives of more innocent people are put at risk.

The “ticking clock” can be effectively used even when there’s only one other person’s life at stake. In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, for instance, an elderly Navajo witnesses a murder. When Jim Chee starts to look into the case, he finds that that murder is connected with an investigation into a Los Angeles crime ring and the disappearance of Margaret Billy Sosi, a Navajo teenager. Margaret’s received a cryptic postcard from her grandfather, and goes to see him although the postcard warned her to stay away. When she finds that he’s disappeared, she goes in search of him; Chee’s, who’s been directed to find her and bring her safely back, goes after her. As Chee tracks down both the killer and Margaret, he ends up in a race against time, especially once the killer finds out about Margaret and targets her.

We also get that sense of urgency in Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage, where Inspector Wexford and his team are after a group of environmentalists who’ve targeted Kingsmarkham for a protest against a planned roadway. When Wexford’s wife, Dora, is among a group of hostages that the protesters kidnap, the reader gets the sense that time is running out, and that sense of real urgency adds an important layer of suspense to the story.

That same kind of suspense is an important part of Louise Penny’s Still Life, in which Chief Inspector Armand Gamache investigates the death of Jane Neal, who’s apparently been killed in a tragic bowhunting accident. Gamache comes to suspect that Neal’s death is actually murder, and is soon on the trail of the killer. Another character, Clara Morrow, also tries to figure out who the murderer is and makes the right guess from an important clue. Once the murderer realizes that Clara knows what really happened, she becomes the next target, and Gamache and his men have very little time to find the killer before Clara becomes the next victim.

Sometimes, the “ticking clock” comes in the form of some kind of time limit that forces the sleuth to solve the mystery quickly. Agatha Christie does this in several of her novels. For example, in Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Samuel Ratchett, a wealthy American businessman who’s stabbed to death on the second night on a three-day train journey through Europe. Poirot has to solve the mystery within the first day and night after murder; otherwise, all the suspects will leave the train and go their separate ways. The same is true in Death on the Nile, where Poirot solves the murder of wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who’s on a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. He’s under pressure to solve the case before the cruise ship returns to port, so that the murderer doesn’t have the chance to escape.

There’s a different, equally compelling, kind of use of the time-limit “ticking clock” in Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is That?. In that story, down-and-out actor Charles Paris gets a chance at a role in a provincial repertory company’s production of Macbeth. Among the cast is Warnock Belvedere, an obnoxious lead actor who’s managed to make enemies of almost everyone else connected with the play. One night after rehearsal, Paris drinks too much, falls asleep and gets locked in the theater. He wakes up to find that Belevedere’s been poisoned and he, Paris, is a major suspect. Paris needs to solve Belevedere’s murder quickly before he himself is arrested.

Sometimes, the “ticking clock” comes in the form of imminent danger to the sleuth him- or herself. That’s what happens in John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air, when Professor Jake Landau and his good friend, Martin Ross, are involved in a tragic airline crash caused by a bomb. When Landau finds out that Ross has died, he becomes determined to find out what happened, and why his friend died. The police aren’t interested in helping; the man who had the bomb’s been killed, and they believe the case is closed. But Landau thinks differently. He decides to dig deeper and soon finds that a dangerous criminal organization has found out about his interest in the case. Now, Jake himself becomes a target as he searches for answers. Jake ends up in a race against time as he tries to stop the killer before the killer gets to him first. In fact, there’s a truly gripping climactic scene towards the end of the book as Landau finds some crucial evidence and tries to escape with it in a desperate dash through New York City’s Grand Central Station, with the killer in pursuit.

The sense of urgency that the “ticking clock” creates can add a real level of suspense to a well-written mystery story. However, it’s just as important that the urgency not be contrived. The need to “beat the clock” is only suspenseful if it’s a natural part of the story.

What’s your preference? Do you enjoy crime fiction where the suspense comes from a “ticking clock?” Or do you prefer the slow buildup of suspense that’s independent of time?


  1. A very timely blog. Just the other day I received feed back on part of my manuscript regarding the sugject of suspense:

    I would also really like to see the suspense in the beginning beefed up. They are facing a confrontation that could result in the death of one of them or Staci. They are way too relaxed about it and I don’t get the feeling by their actions or the descriptions used that this confrontation is as dangerous as it should be.

    I'll go back and add some serious sizzle to this section. Thanks for the post.

    Stephen Tremp

  2. Personally I like stories, that build up slowly and pick up pace & suspense gradually. If you see me biting my nails while reading, you can be sure I'm reading that kind of book and the suspense is growing :).

  3. I think both methods can be really effective. It would be great to shake it up a little bit--have the gradual build up of tension and then suddenly the need to act quickly. Thanks for your makes me think!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Stephen - It's funny you would mention adding in suspense. My novels tend to be more "slow burn," with the suspense building gradually. But that always means that I have to be careful to add enough "sizzle" early on to get the reader interested. It's always a tricky question where and how to do that.

    Christine - I'm with you; I really do like stories where the tension and suspense build slowly. The "ticking clock" can be useful and make for good novels, but I really like the other kind of novel.

    Elizabeth - Well-said! Why can't a good novel start with a slow buildup of tension and then all of a sudden introduce a "ticking clock?" Hmm.... I'll have to think about how I can do that...

  5. awesome post w/ great examples: it occurs to me that there has been several times where i've finished a mediocre book (or even poorly written and entirely dispensible ones) simply because of the suspense factor. i wanted to at least find out *what* or *why* or *who*...and was willing to slog through the crap just to find out! You're entirely on to something, here :)

  6. Alex - Thanks : ). I'm glad you mention books where the rest of the plot/characters are poor or mediocre but the suspense keeps one reading. That's how powerful it can be. I've read books like that, too, where the "ticking clock" can keep a reader interested throughout even a less-than-great book. However, it's no substitute for a solid plot and good characters.

  7.'s tricky. Too much and it loses its effect, just like you stop hearing a continuously ticking clock. Too little and the book's pace slows to a crawl. I'm trying to find ways to up the ante without tricks. I think I'm following the Christie example in that there's a limited time to discover the murderer. I'm hoping that readers will so busy trying to figure out 'who' and 'why' that they don't miss a large ticking clock. Really, really hoping.


  8. Elspeth - You're absolutely right that the "ticking clock," like other tools for keeping the suspense going, is best when given in measured doses. As you say, too much "ramping up" and the "clock" becomes contrived. Tool little and the reader loses interest. I think that what keeps readers engrossed in a book has to start with a solid plot and interesting characters. Without them, the "ticking clock" won't be successful. With them, it's not always necessary.

  9. I like clock race books very much, when they are well done. A master of this type of story was Cornell Woolrich.

  10. Martin - That's definitely the key - the "ticking clock" approach is only succesful if it's in deft hands. And you're right; Woolrich had them. I admit I've not read a lot of his work, but he certainly did keep the pace and adrenalin going.