Thursday, January 14, 2010

Look Out!

Even without reading the blurb on a book jacket, we know that if a book’s a murder mystery, someone’s going to end up dead. Although we know that in advance, we sometimes still have the urge to shout out to the victim to warn her or him of the danger. One reason we get that involved in a story is characterization. If we care enough about the soon-to-be-victim, we don’t want him or her to be killed. Many authors introduce readers to the victim before the actual murder with just that reaction in mind. Another reason we get so caught up in a story that we want to shout out is that in some well-written mystery novels, we know what’s going to happen before the victim does. In other words, we see all of the little signs that point to impending doom, and we want to either warn the victim (if the victim is a sympathetic character) or watch with malicious satisfaction as the victim “gets his” (if the victim is unpleasant).

Sometimes, the tense atmosphere of a novel warns us that the victim isn’t going to live long. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, the victim is Louise Leidner, wife of noted archeologist Eric Leidner. The Leidners and their team are on a dig in Iraq when Louise begins to be afraid that her life’s in danger. When she’s found dead one afternoon from a blow to the head, Hercule Poirot, who’s on his way through Iraq back to London, is persuaded to break his journey and investigate. Although Louise Leidner does fear that her life might be in danger, it’s not really her fears that clue us in to her impending death. It’s the “curious atmosphere of tension” among the characters that lets us know she’s about to be a victim. There’s an attitude of false politeness masking underlying spite and hatred that’s a sure sign of the danger to come. What’s especially effective here is that we learn of this atmosphere by seeing it through the eyes of an “outsider,” hospital nurse Amy Leatheran, who’s hired to look after Louise Leidner and ease her fears.

We also see that buildup of a tense atmosphere in Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. In that novel, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the poisoning murder of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Examination Syndicate, which oversees Oxford exams that are given to residents of other countries with a British connection. As the novel opens, there’s disagreement among members over whether Quinn should be named to the Syndicate, and we can tell immediately that there’s tension in the group over that and other matters. So it’s not a shock when, shortly after Quinn joins the Syndicate, he becomes the victim of one of its members.

In other mystery novels, we can sense danger coming because the victim has an unpleasant personality. In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, for instance, the murder victim is an obnoxious matriarch who’s tyrannized the members of her family for years. We witness several scenes in which she is cruel and mentally abusive. So it’s no surprise when, the day after her family’s arrival in Petra on an excursion, she’s found dead.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies also has an example of an unpleasant victim. Parke Stockard, a recent arrival in Bradley, North Carolina, has succeeded in alienating nearly everyone in town. She’s a ruthless real-estate developer who runs roughshod over everyone. Besides that, she’s been given prime column space in the Bradley Bugle, much to the dismay of all of the other columnists, including retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover. So when Parke is found murdered in the local church, we’re really not shocked that she’s the victim.

Threatening dialogue can also give us an important clue that someone’s about to become a victim. For instance, in Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer, Felix Gardener has been given an important role in the Unicorn Theater’s production of The Rat and the Beaver. Arthur Surbonadier, who’d coveted the role for himself, is incensed about the change of cast. Moments before the show is to begin, he bursts into Felix Gardener’s dressing room, where Sir Roderick Alleyn is having a chat with Gardener and Stepahnie Vaughan, a member of the cast. After commenting on what a lovely scene it is, Surbondier (who’s obviously drunk), says,

“I’ve come to see the fun. Come to see Gardener, really, and found him – having his fun.”

When Stephanie Vaughan tries to intervene, Surbondier says,

“Well,”…”I’ve made up m’mind to stop the fun – see?”

Although Surbondier leaves Gardener’s dressing room without further incident, that dialogue warns us that someone’s about to die. As it turns out, it’s Surbondier who’s shot on stage when a prop gun that Gardener is using turns out to be loaded.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Jane Wilkinson, an actress who’s married to George Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware, asks Poirot to help her get rid of her husband. She wants to marry the Duke of Merton, so she wants to be free of her current husband. At the end of her plea, Poirot asks what will happen if he doesn’t help her. Her response?

“I’ll have to call a taxi and go round there and bump him off myself.”

Not long after her threat, Edgware is found murdered, but we’re not shocked. The dialogue has given the alert reader a hint of Edgware’s fate.

Some authors set the scene for an impending murder with descriptions that are designed to give a sense of foreboding. Here, for instance, is part of the description of the scene leading up to the death of Patrick Selby in Ruth Rendell’s To Fear a Painted Devil. As the scene opens, Patrick’s hosting a birthday party for his beautiful wife, Tasmin. Then, someone notices some wasps. Before long….

“By now the patio was clouded with wasps. Droves of them gathered on the tables.”

We already know that there’s going to be trouble with the wasps, and Patrick agrees to climb up a ladder to the roof, where the nest is located.

“Patrick began to climb. From the lawn they watched him peer along the eaves, his face white and tense in the patch of light.”

This tense scene prepares for what happens next: Patrick Selby is stung by wasps and falls from the ladder. A few days later, he dies from what looks like a reaction to the stings. Dr. Max Greenleaf, who attends Selby, isn’t so sure, though, and begins to investigate.

And here’s a scene from Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, in which landscaper Warren Howe is murdered with his own scythe. We don’t even really know Howe yet when this scene in which his killer approaches occurs, but we can tell he’s about to be a victim:

“The hooded figure inched forward, as if along a tightrope, flicking nervous glances up the fell-side. But they were alone, even the ravens had fled from the trees.”

In case the reader doesn’t get a hint that something bad’s about to happen, here’s more:

“The hooded figure reached into the trailer and yanked out the scythe.”

It’s scenes like that, designed to alert us (if not the victim) that capture our attention. They may make us want to shout out a warning, or they may make us wait with grim pleasure for the death of an obnoxious victim. Either way, they keep us turning pages.

How do your favorite authors warn you of what’s coming?


  1. Send the soon-to-be victim down into the dark cellar without a flashlight to check out an ominous noise. No good ever comes of that!

  2. I enjoy books where you get a warning something is going to happen. It helps keep you alert so you don't miss a clue the author may decide to drop in.

  3. Alan - I had to laugh; no doubt about it - basements are dangerous, aren't they? Maybe I'll have my next murder mystery take place there : ).

    Mason - I know exactly what you mean. When the reader gets a hint that there's going to be a murder, it's easier to pay attention to clues. It also builds the suspense, which is is important, I think, in a good mystery.

  4. I'm half-way through Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks and just read how her jottings show that she hadn't decided for some time just who the victim would be in Murder in Mesopotamia. Fascinating book, demonstrates how her creativity was anything but methodical. Almost as fascinating as your blog!

  5. Bobbi - Awwww....that's so kind of you. You are such a sweetie!! It is fascinating, isn't it, to learn about how the "great ones" like Christie thought. It's heartening to know that she didn't always have a plan, and that she struggled with the same things we do as writers.

  6. I'm particularly affected when everything is too pleasant - too ordinary - then I know something is going to happen. Suburban scenes of order are particularly chilling.

  7. Jan - Ah, yes, the "too peaceful" scene. When I read your comment, I thought immediately of Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives and some of Agatha Christie's novels that are set in peaceful places. "Setups" like that really are suspenseful, aren't they? Things are quiet - a little *too* quiet...

  8. I enjoy both methods; the body thrown at you right away and you have to find out the whys and whos after the fact, or huge hints given on who's about to (to quote Mr. Orloff's comment) go down to the cellar and not come back and you have to start watching for clues before the grisly deed comes to pass.

    Digression: What is this Secret Notebooks by Agatha Christie and more importantly, how do I get my grubby paws on a copy?


  9. Elspeth - I know what you mean! When the author's talented, and you know there's going to be a murder, it doesn't much matter whether the author gives lots of creepy suspense ahead of time or not.

    Now, to Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks. It's a just-published collection of some of the notes that Christie kept while she was writing. Really fascinating stuff, from what I have heard. I haven't gotten my copy yet, but believe me, it's *way* up there on the TBR list.

    Here is where you can purchase the book from Amazon.

    And.... here is a video interview with John Curran, who's responsible for getting this collection put together and published.

  10. One thing I find really hard to read about as the tension is just "too" high is if the potential victim is immobilised, eg in hospital. For example, the first part of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest uses suspense in this way, and you're never quite sure if the two characters who are paralysed from their injuries are going to survive attempts on their lives.

    I didn't enjoy Mark Billingham's debut for this type of reason (Sleepyhead)- I found the method of dispatch just too creepy to be able to stand it!

  11. Maxine - I know what you mean. There is such a thing as too much suspense that way. When I read your word "immobilised," I thought of Stona Fitch's Senseless, a gruesome example of the trapped person. The scenario is too creepy for me, too. I was wondering whether Sleepyhead is good. It's gotten some good reviews. But now I'm not sure...

  12. Mark Billingham is amazingly popular in the UK. I think part of this is because he is (apparently) well known as a stand-up comic, before turning his hand to crime fiction. He isn't to my taste, but his books (I have read 2 I think) are professional,and his protagonist is an interesting, developed character. However, for me, I cannot quite cope with the gruesome imagination of the crimes, I just feel as if someone is scraping their fingernails down a blackboard! I think I tend to prefer more detection than descriptions of ever-more esoteric crimes!