One kind of contrast has to do with setting. The tragic fact of a murder stands out in start relief when the setting is peaceful or is supposed to be a happy occasion. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is hired to create a Murder Hunt – similar to a scavenger hunt – for an upcoming fête at Nasse House, the country home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. After a short time, Oliver suspects that there may be more going on at Nasse House than preparations for a fête so she asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he visits Nasse House, ostensibly to award the prizes for the Murder Hunt. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually strangled. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who killed Marlene and why. The contrast between the peaceful grounds of Nasse House (and the happy occasion of the fête) and the tragedy of Marlene’s murder adds interesting tension to this novel and keeps the reader’s interest.
We also see this kind of contrast in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. On a peaceful day at Chapman’s Pool off the Dorset coast, two young boys are exploring, using their father’s binoculars. All of a sudden, they come upon the nude body of thiry-one-year-old Kate Sumner. The stark contrast between the peaceful setting and the brutal fact of murder gets the reader’s attention right away. That contrast is heightened because at first, the boys who find the body think that they’ve come upon a nude sunbather. Their realization that Kate Sumner is actually dead brings the shock home to the reader. Once the boys sound the alarm, Constable Nick Ingram finds out as much as he can from them, and before long, the murder is under full investigation. As Ingram, DI Galbraith and Superintendent Carpenter work to find out who killed Kate Sumner, they also discover that almost no-one involved in the case – including the victim – is really the same underneath as on the surface.
That contrast between people’s “surface” personalities and what they really are like also builds suspense and adds a layer of interest to a story. For instance, Colin Dexter frequently uses a theme of surface persona versus what lies beneath in his Inspector Morse novels. In The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, for example, Morse and Inspector Lewis investigate the poisoning death of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of the Oxford Foreign Examinations Syndicate. That body is responsible for overseeing exams given to residents of other countries with a British connection. As Morse and Lewis begin to look into the murder, they find that the members of the Syndicate are quite different in their private lives from the respectable exteriors they present to the world. Many of them have what you might call, “dirty secrets,” and it becomes clear that Quinn found out about at least one of them. That contrast between what’s on the surface and what lies beneath is one of several elements in this novel that keep the reader turning pages.
Another contrast that Dexter uses is the “us vs them” contrast between the people associated with Oxford University and those who live in the town. That “town/gown” contrast is clear in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. We also see it in The Daughters of Cain in which Morse and Lewis investigate the murder of retired Oxford don Felix McClure. When they begin to look into McClure’s life, they discover that McClure was about to expose his former scout, Ted Brooks, as a drug dealer. Brooks is the prime suspect until he disappears and is later found dead. Morse and Lewis then have to re-think their ideas, and they examine McClure’s life in more detail. It turns out that McClure and Brooks both had connections among the Oxford locals, and as Morse and Lewis trace those relationships, we see the real contrasts in lifestyles, thought patterns and attitudes between the educated people associated with the university and those who aren’t.
Contrasts among groups of people are also an important element in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. As Brunetti and his team do their jobs, they often see harsh contrasts between the way middle- and upper-middle class (and wealthy) Venetians live, and the way that lower-class Venetians and immigrants live. For instance, in The Girl of His Dreams, Brunetti investigates the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich, a Rom who apparently fell to her death from the roof of an apartment she’d robbed. Ariana’s death is not as simple as that, though, and as Brunetti looks into the case, we see the real contrasts between the lives of the Rom people and the lives of the people in Brunetti’s own social class. There’s a similar contrast in Suffer the Little Children, in which Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello investigate an assault on Dr. Dr. Gustavo Pedrolli and his wife, Bianca Marconi by the Caribinieri. It turns out that this couple might have adopted their toddler son Alfredo illegally, so Brunetti also uncovers a baby-trafficking ring. As he gathers information on those involved, he also finds out how different the lives of immigrants from Eastern Europe are from the life he leads. These contrasts add suspense to the stories and keep the reader interested.
Contrasting personalities can also add lots of interest to a crime fiction story. For instance, in Elizabeth George’s A Great Deliverance, we meet Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley, an aristocrat with an upper-class background. Partnered with him is Sergeant Barbara Havers, a volatile but smart and shrewd member of the working class. In this, the beginning of the series featuring these two sleuths, their personality contrast is an important element as they are assigned to investigate the axe murder of farmer William Teys. His daughter Roberta was found near the body, and has actually confessed to the crime. However, Father Hart, the Tey’s parish priest, doesn’t believe she’s guilty. Since he was on the scene on the day of the murder, the local police send him to Scotland Yard to tell his story. Lynley and Havers find out that Roberta wasn’t the only one who had a reason to kill her father, and as they uncover the truth, they also find out some unsavory history about the town.
There’s also an interesting personality contrast between Reginald Hill’s Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel and DI Peter Pascoe. Dalziel is loud, drinks heavily, has few of what you’d call social graces, and is fond of sarcasm. Pascoe, while certainly not retiring and shy, is more reserved and much less abrasive. The interplay between these two very different personalities adds to the suspense of the Dalziel/Pascoe novels, especially when the two of them disagree.
There are other kinds of contrasts, too, in crime fiction. People’s perceptions of the victim, differences in what witnesses remember, and other contrasts can add “spice” to a story and give clues to the truth behind a mystery. They add suspense and interest, and keep readers’ attention. What do you think? If you’re a crime fiction fan, what contrasts do you see in your favorite crime fiction? If you’re a crime fiction author, how do you use contrast?