Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cat and Mouse...

Suspense is an important aspect of any mystery or crime novel. More than many other genres, well-written crime/mystery fiction depends on keeping the suspense strong. One successful approach that some mystery authors use is the “cat and mouse” game between the murderer and the sleuth. There’s precedence for this in real life, too. We’ve all read news stories where the killer sends messages, leaves clues at crime scenes, calls in, or in some other way makes it obvious that he or she is matching wits with the sleuth. When that happens in a well-written mystery, it can build tension and add to the suspense. It can also allow the reader a glimpse into the mind of the killer.

Some mystery novels use changes in point of view to show the “cat and mouse” game. We often (although not always) know who the killer is fairly early in the novel, and the suspense comes as the killer and the sleuth get closer and closer to each other. Several of Robin Cook’s novels take this approach. For example, in Blindsight, New York City medical examiner Laurie Montgomery notices an inordinate number of cocaine-related deaths among a group of wealthy urban professionals. Their relatives, however, insist that the victims didn’t use drugs. As Laurie begins to look into the deaths more closely, she realizes that these deaths are murders. In the course of her investigation, Laurie finds herself up against opposition from her bosses, the victims’ relatives – and the killer. In the end, Laurie’s own life is at stake as she closes in on the murderer. Throughout the book, the point of view shifts between Laurie’s own and that of the killer, so that the reader can feel the suspense as the two get closer to each other.

Another medical thriller that makes use of the “cat and mouse” scenario is Michael Palmer’s The Second Opinion, in which Dr. Petros Sperelakis, who directs the Sperelakis Institute for Diagnostic Medicine, is gravely injured in a hit-and-run-accident. His daughter, Alathea “Thea” Sperelakis, who’s been working with Doctors Without Borders in Africa, rushes back to Boston to be with her father. Thea tries to uncover the facts behind her father’s accident and begins to believe that someone tried to kill her father. She takes a job on the clinic’s staff to see if she can find out the truth, and soon discovers a dangerous conspiracy that threatens her own life as well as that of her father. Thea’s search is complicated by the fact that two of her three siblings are lobbying to have her father’s life support cut off, and block her every attempt to find out what he knows. As an aside, one interesting aspect of this novel is that Thea Sperelakis has Asperger’s Syndrome, which affects her social skills as well as her ability to perceive others’ intentions.

Carol O’Connell’s Shell Game also has a very interesting use of “cat and mouse.” In that novel, magician Oliver Tree attempts a daring escape from four crossbows. The trick goes horribly wrong and Tree is killed. Detective Kathleen “Kathy” Mallory suspects that Tree’s death was no accident, and begins to investigate. Her search for the truth leads her to some dark secrets buried in Tree’s past and that of three other magicians. We know fairly early in the novel who the killer is, and the novel’s perspective shifts between that of the killer and Mallory’s own. The reader also gets a look at the way the killer thinks, and the killer’s reasons for committing the murder. What adds even more to the suspense in this novel is that Mallory has several interactions with the killer, even after she knows the killer’s identity. There’s an especially suspenseful (if graphic) scene towards the end of the novel when the killer explains all.

There’s also an interesting “cat and mouse” plot in Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s Anasazi series. That three-book series is focused on two periods in time: the present day in the Sonora Desert in New Mexico, and the 13th Century in the same area. In the present day, archeologist William “Dusty” Stewart works (at first, very reluctantly) with forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole to find out the truth behind several sets of remains they’ve found. In a parallel story, War Chief Browser and his close friend and trusted assistant Catkin work to find out how the same people died. Throughout the novels, we also see some of the events from the killer’s perspective, and that point of view builds the suspense, especially later in the series when a present-day murder ends up being related to the past deaths.

Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway has a very suspenseful “cat and mouse” game between Jim Chee, one of Hillerman’s sleuths, and a ruthless killer who’s already murdered two people on the Navajo Reservation, and is now after a young Navajo teenager whom Chee is trying to protect. Chee first gets involved in the case when he’s asked to find Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s been hiding on the Reservation. Chee and the FBI agent he’s riding with find Gorman’s body, and Chee is then told the leave the case alone and instead, search for Margaret Billy Sosi, a teenager who’s a distant kinswoman of Gorman’s and who’s disappeared. Chee’s search for Margaret leads him to the outskirts of Los Angeles – and into the sights of Gorman’s killer. It’s then that Hillerman gives us the killer’s perspective as well as Chee’s, and this adds a level of tension and interest to the novel as Chee races against time to find Margaret before the killer does.

Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders has a very unexpected twist on the “cat and mouse” game. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is drawn into the investigation of the murder of Alice Ascher, an elderly shopkeeper. At first, her death doesn’t merit much attention. Poirot only gets involved because he received a letter a few days before the killing, announcing the murder. The next month, though, a young woman, Betty Barnard, is killed, and the killer sends Poirot a letter announcing her murder as well. Then a third death occurs and Poirot and the police believe that they’re up against a serial killer who’s playing a game of “cat and mouse” with Poirot. The story is told from two perspectives: that of Hastings, who accompanies Poirot on his investigations, and that of Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust, an eccentric World War I veteran and door-to-door stocking sales representative who’s got an odd personality and an even stranger name. The suspense builds quickly after Poirot receives the second letter, and Christie has some real surprises in store for the reader at the end of the novel.

Sometimes, we don’t know the identity of the murderer in a “cat and mouse” mystery plot, and the suspense comes from the sleuth trying to find out who his or her opponent is. That’s what happens in Debra Purdy Kong’s Fatal Encryption, in which Alex Bellamy, a young British Columbia computer analyst, tracks down a blackmailer and killer. The story opens with the stabbing death of Zachary Ternoway on Hallowe’en night. Meanwhile, across town, Alex Bellamy, a computer analyst, is without work and willing to take just about any job. He accepts a computer security job at McKinley’s Department Store and is asked to help catch a computer prankster. The “game” soon turns ugly when the “prankster” threatens to encrypt all of the company’s data unless a ransom of one million dollars is paid. We don’t know who Bellamy’s enemy is at first, but one of the suspects is the brother of Zach Terroway, so Bellamy comes to believe that the two incidents are related. Now, Alex has to win this “cat and mouse” game within two weeks, or the company’s data will be lost – and Alex and his family might lose their lives, too

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the very many fine spy thrillers that feature “cat and mouse” games. This is certainly an exciting category of mysteries; there are just too many of them for me to name. It’s interesting, though, to notice how many of them make use of this sort of plot.

Do you agree? Do you like “cat and mouse” plots? Do you prefer mysteries where the sleuth slowly puts the clues together? Does it make a difference for you?

19 comments:

  1. I enjoy the "cat and mouse" game when the author lets you know who is the killer is and you get to "feel" the suspense of "will the sleuth catch the killer or will the killer make the sleuth their next victim." Some authors keep you guessing up until the very end and that will draw most readers back again and again.

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  2. I like the cat and mouse. Often these types involve more peril for the sleuth, which I think is cool.

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  3. Mason - You're right; when the author makes the reader really wonder whether the sleuth or the killer will win, that keeps the suspense going, and certainly gets readers lined up for the next book. It's also interesting when the author lets the reader into the killer's mind, so the reader can tell what the killer's strategy is as well as what the sleuth's stategy is.


    Alan - You make a good point; it adds an interesting layer of suspense if the sleuth's in danger - real danger. It really is more of a "cliffhanger" that way.

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  4. Gee you have an encyclopedic knowledge of this. How do you remember it so well?

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  5. I enjoy cat and mouse. As you mention, Margot, thrillers are what come to mind when I think of cat and mouse. I read thrillers quite often and when they're well written, I am captivated, particularly when it switches view point between chapters.
    I am thinking that you should put together a book about all of these aspects of crime fiction, Margot. I am amazed at your knowledge and impressed by the extensive research that goes into each blog topic.

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  6. Patti - Thank you : ). I actually don't remember details as much as you might think, though. When I have to, I go back and look over something I've read.

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  7. Bobbi - How kind of you! What nice things to say. Funny, you're not the first person who's suggested that I do a book. It certainly would be a "labor of love." I'll seriously think about it...

    You're right, too, about well-written spy thrillers. The best ones let the reader see what each "side" is thinking, so the reader can watch the game of wits. My favorite ones are those where it's not really clear, at least at first, which "side" will win.

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  8. "Cat and mouse" isn't my favourite plot form, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy them from time to time. I'm generally not a fan of action. There are exceptions. I'm much more in tune with the put the clues together plot - especially when I think I might have figured it out before the author reveals. That's when I can't put a book down. I just have to find out if I've beaten the protagonist.

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  9. Sunnie - I know exactly what you mean. One of the many reasons I enjoy Agatha Christie as much as I do is that her books allow one to match wits with her, so to speak, and see if one can find out the truth before Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, or one of Christie's other protagonists does. I like putting clues together. As you say, though, there are times when a good "cat and mouse" plot is engaging and when they're done well, they can be very suspenseful.

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  10. Another phenomenal post, Margot! You are a walking encyclopedia! Thanks for sharing all this great info on "cat and mouse." What a terrific blog topic, and so chock full of info and great examples. I am in awe! I also love the photos you chose to accompany your post.

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  11. I enjoy it from time to time--especially in thrillers. But I loved the way that Christie did it: gave us a little insight into Poirot. He was not pleased that someone was playing with him!

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  12. Kathleen - Thanks very much : ). I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I appreciate your kind words. I'm also glad you liked the photo; the cat you see is the owner of a good friend of mine; the mouse is the one I use.


    Elizabeth - I know exactly what you mean about the way Christie handled the "cat and mouse" game. There are several novels in which the killer tries to manipulate Poirot or engage him in that game, and you can see his very human anger at being used. It really does give us insight into Poirot and adds a layer of interest to the story.

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  13. "Cat and mouse" are fun if you've got an interesting cat and an interesting mouse. Superhero versus supervillain is just boring. Give me a cat with quirks and blind spots. Give me a mouse with a super brain. Now; give me the book!

    Elspeth

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  14. Elspeth - I agree completely! If there's to be a "cat and mouse" game, it should be between interesting opponents. I like to know a little about the people who are involved in the "game," and I enjoy it best when they've got strengths, faults and so on, so that they're interesting. Otherwise, it's easy to lose interest. I'd also add that this kind of plot works best when the two are relatively evenly matched.

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  15. I have to agree with Elspeth, it doesn't work unless you are interested in the two people facing off.
    Margot, thanks for a really interesting post.

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  16. Cassandra - You're very kind - thanks : ). You make a well-taken point. If the reader isn't interested in the two main characters, then even the best "cat and mouse" game won't be engaging.

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  17. I enjoy 'cat and mouse' too. The ABC Murders is a brilliant example.

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  18. Martin - I love The ABC Murders as an example of this type of novel, too. On many levels, it's such an excellent book, and it's got a terrific twist at the end.

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  19. Hi Margo, thanks for mentioning my book, Fatal Encryption. I write cat and mouse mysteries because I love to read them. Agatha Christie was a huge inspiration, though I love to read all types of mysteries and all types of genres.

    All the best,
    Debra

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