Monday, July 5, 2010

The Lone Voice...

One of the things that crime fiction fans look for in their novels is suspense. If there isn’t a solid level of tension and suspense in a story, it’s hard to keep the reader’s interest. In fact, things like police procedure and forensic details in crime fiction story can even get tedious if the story doesn’t have a layer of suspense. One way that authors build suspense is through the character who insists that a death was murder, even as the authorities (sometimes even the sleuth) don’t think it was. That tension adds interest to a story as the character tries to convince the police and/or the sleuth that a death is worth investigating. Of course, there is the risk of this strategy stretching the limits of credibility; readers need to believe that a death could have been murder, and that a character would insist on it. When it’s done well, though, the “lone voice crying” strategy can add a layer of suspense to a story.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington, Elspeth McGillicuddy is traveling from her native Scotland to visit her friend, Miss Marple. During the journey, Mrs. McGillicuddy’s train passes another train going in the opposite direction. She looks through her window into the window of the other train and sees someone strangling a woman. Alarmed, Mrs. McGillicuddy tries to convince the police that she’s seen a murder. However, there was no dead body found on the train, and no-one has reported a missing woman. So no-one is willing to believe that Mrs. McGillicuddy saw a murder – except Miss Marple. Miss Marple knows that her friend isn’t given to melodrama, and sees no reason that she couldn’t have seen a murder. So the two women, along with Miss Marple’s acquaintance, Lucy Eylesbarrow, devise a plan to investigate. They figure out that if a body was dumped from the train, it could only be on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, which is located near a bend in the tracks. Lucy manages to get a position there as housekeeper and begins to search for clues. She finds the body and later, with Miss Marple’s help, finds out who the dead woman was, and who would have wanted to kill her.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Unnatural Death, Dr. Edward Carr overhears a conversation between Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend, Inspector Parker. That conversation leads him to approach the two men and tell them about a case he’s faced himself. It seems that Carr had been attending Miss Agatha Dawson, a wealthy elderly lady who’d been suffering from cancer. When she died, no-one was surprised, and everyone assumed she’d died of her disease. Carr, though, wasn’t convinced her death was natural, and didn’t want to sign the death certificate. He raised concerns and questions about the case, but the resistance to his questions was so strong that he started losing patients and eventually, had to sell his practice. Carr is still convinced he was right, though, and Wimsey and Parker begin to look into the case. They find that more than one person might have had a reason to kill Miss Dawson. As it turns out, Dr. Carr was right, but it’s not until Wimsey and Parker begin to investigate that we learn who killed Miss Dawson and why.

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine introduces us to Benny Frayle. She’s the companion to wealthy Carey Lawson, who lives in the village of Forbes Abbot. When Carey Lawson dies, most of her considerable fortune passes to her nephew, Mallory Lawson, provided he and his family take up residence at her home and employ Benny Frayle. Mallory Lawson and his wife, Kate, agree and are soon established at Forbes Abbot. All is well until one day Benny Frayle goes to visit her friend, financial consultant Dennis Brinkley. He’s the executor of Carrie Lawson’s will and also financial advisor to Mallory and Kate Lawson. Benny is horrified to find that Dennis is dead – caught underneath one of the antique torture devices he collected. She raises the alarm, but the police think it’s a terrible accident. Benny insists that Dennis Brinkley was murdered, but no-one believes her – not even Inspector Tom Barnaby, whom she visits to plead her case. Graham builds the suspense here as Benny tries through letters and a ruse to get in to see Barnaby to try to convince him to investigate. When he and Sergeant Troy to begin to look into the case, they find plenty of secrets in Forbes Abbot, and more than one person who might have wanted to kill Dennis Brinkley.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, Andrea Curtin pays a visit to Mma. Precious Ramotswe, the sleuth in McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Mrs. Curtin wants to find out the truth about the disappearance of her son, Michael. Ten years earlier, Michael Curtin had gone to join a small community – a commune, really – of people devoted to eco-friendly agriculture and lifestyle. Then, one of the other members of the group reported him missing. At first, the police did investigate and ask questions, but no-one seemed to know what had happened. Even though everyone was sympathetic to the Curtins’ loss, the case was eventually dropped. The theory was that either Michael Curtin had been killed by a wild animal, or that he’d been attacked and his body taken away. Either way, the case was left to “go cold.” Mrs. Curtin, though, believes that there might be more to her son’s death than what she’s been told, and for her own peace of mind as much as for anything else, she wants the case pursued. So Mma. Ramotswe agrees to investigate. She eventually learns that several people involved in the case knew more than they said at the time of the original investigation, and she’s able to get to the truth of the matter.

In my own B-Very Flat, talented violinist Serena Brinkman dies suddenly of anaphylaxis on the night of an important music competition. Since she had a violent allergy to peanuts and peanut dust, her death is put down to a tragic accidental exposure. Serena’s partner, Patricia Stanley, doesn’t believe that Serena’s death was an accident, and it seems that the police aren’t inclined to consider the death a murder. So Patricia asks her advisor, former police-officer-turned professor Joel Williams to help her find answers. At first, Williams isn’t convinced that there’s anything to investigate, but he reluctantly agrees to ask some questions. As it turns out, the more he and the local police investigate, the clearer it becomes that Serena was murdered.

Sometimes, the sleuth is “the lone voice.” For instance, in Donna Leon’s Through A Glass, Darkly, we meet Georgio Tassini, who works nights at a local glass factory. Tassini believes that several of the glass blowing factories are illegally disposing of dangerous toxic waste. In fact, he blames this dumping for his own daughter’s physical and mental special needs. When Tassini dies late one night, his death is first put down to a terrible accident. Commissario Guido Brunetti thinks there’s more to this death than an accident, in part because of recent protests against illegal dumping and the information he’s learned about industry practices. So he and Ispettore Vianello look into the case more deeply. In the end, they find that Tassini was, indeed, murdered.

When a character frantically tries to convince the police that a murder took place, this can add suspense and tension to a story. On the other hand, it’s important that it be done in a believable way. After all, how realistic is it that the police would completely ignore a person who says a murder has been committed? That said, though, it’s an interesting plot point. What’s your view? Which novels have you enjoyed that use this strategy to build suspense?


  1. Another book I liked where the main character was thought to have died of natural causes but it turned out to be a murder is also by Caroline Graham entitled "The Killings at Badger's Drift." Great look at novels...once again.

  2. Probably the most difficult aspect of a story and the most necessary in crime fiction. Nice examples.

  3. Clarissa - Thank you : ). And yes, The Killings at Badger's Drift is a terrific example of a murder that, at first, no-one believes was a murder. I'm glad you brought it up, too, because I like Caroline Graham's work : ).

    Patti - Thanks : ). And you put that quite well, too. It isn't easy to make that aspect of a story believable and engaging, but it is important.

  4. I enjoy this type of plot because it shows the murderer has got a brain in his/her head. Think about it - yes it's important not to leave any tell-tale evidence behind (although with modern forensics, seriously, good luck there), and not to have witnesses hanging about; but the best scenario of all is for the murder to be seen as an accident. The murderer is home-free. Of course, in crime fiction there always has to be someone who is suspicious - but I really give those murderers credit.

  5. Elspeth - I know exactly what you mean. The really clever murderer is able to make her or his crime look like an accident or suicide. Murderers who can pull that off are, indeed, intelligent - or at least shrewd. And in those cases, anyone who gives the "it was murder" alarm is not likely to be believed. I like the tension, too, that you get when the character who is suspicious tries frantically to get others to believe the crime was murder.

  6. Your own examples are very fine, especially Unnatural Death. And the ending of the story, when Peter Wimsey meets the doctor again, is hilarious!

    My current manuscript is also about a woman whose neighbour dies. An accident, apparently, but Anna can´t help wondering because something just feels wrong.

  7. Dorte - Oh, I agree! That ending to Unnatural Death is priceless!

    I'm very excited to read what you've written; it sounds delicious! I really like those stories where a death looks like it could be an accident. But maybe it's not....Great stuff