Saturday, August 28, 2010

Contrasts...

One of the most important elements in a well-written crime fiction novel is the buildup of tension. A crime fiction novel without tension quickly falls flat, and readers stop caring about what’s going to happen next. There are lots of ways in which authors create tension in a story; one of them is using contrasts. Contrasts get and keep the reader’s attention, and they can also be effective ways to provide clues and “red herrings.”

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?

13 comments:

  1. Contrasts definitely make a story more interesting -- the Lynley/Havers relationships is one of my favorites in crime fiction.

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  2. Karen - Isn't that a fascinating study in contrasts? Especially in the first few novels where Lynley and Havers are learning to work together, it's really engaging.

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  3. Oh, I love your examples of contrast. They are so important. I try to have as many contrasts in my novels as possible - whether in character or plot. You site great examples. I can't think of any today.

    CD

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  4. Peter Robinson uses the perception technique effectively in Bad Boy as he contrasts what Alan Banks and others think about his daughter Tracy and the reality of her situation.

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  5. Clarissa - Why, thank you : ) And I agree; contrasts add such a lot to a plot, don't they? They can really keep a story moving.



    John - Thanks for reminding me of the terrific Peter Robinson and Alan Banks. Those novels have all sorts of contrast, and that's a great example of one.

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  6. I think the contrast of what happens in these novels and what happens in my pretty sedate and mundane life keeps me reading crime fiction in general. Through the novels I can explore scenarios that I hope would never happen to me. Thanks for your lovely summaries too Margot. I think I must re-read Colin Dexter too - if I ever finish Agatha Christie!

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  7. Kerrie - Thank you for the kind words :). I hadn't thought about the contrast between the reader's life and what's in a novel, but you make a very solid point. Crime fiction does have that appeal, doesn't it? We get to be involved in all sorts of dangerous adventures, and that helps us step away from our daily lives. I like that idea very much : ). And I think one could spend a lifetime reading and studying what Agatha Christie wrote and learning from it. Or maybe that's just me...

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  8. Contrast of good and evil in a story are important. Sometimes the villain doesn't see what they are doing as evil, they see it as righting a wrong so to them it is good. Enjoyed your examples.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  9. Mason - Thank you : ). I hadn't thought of that when I wrote this post, but you make an excellent point! The contrast between what the killer is thinking and what everyone else may think is important. The murderer may think s/he is ridding the world of someone who's evil, but everyone else may see the murder as something quite different.

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  10. Another great post, Margot. I don't think I have read a single mystery story which doesn't have some kind of contrasts- without the conflict that contrasts can bring, I guess mysteries would not get written.
    But when I think contrasts, the image that comes to me is of Miss Marple in her pink wool, calling herself Nemesis.

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  11. Rayna - Why, thank you : ). You have a well-taken point, too, about contrasts. Mysteries need those contrasts, the story would be so much less. And I had to laugh out loud at your reminder of Miss Marple! Yes, that is a great contrast, isn't it? Her outward appearance of being a harmless elderly woman focused on her garden is quite different from what really goes on inside, isn't it?

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  12. Enjoyed this blog post. Also like Mason's comment--I love it when the evil characters in a story tell others that they're really on the side of good. Contrast of perception and reality.

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  13. Jamie - Thank you : ). And I agree; Mason is spot on in pointing out the contrast between what the villain says or thinks and what really happens. That difference between, as you say, perception and reality adds a lot to a story.

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