Sometimes, the author can convey suspense in just a few words or lines of dialogue. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, Sherlock Holmes has gotten a note from Inspector Stanley Hopkins, asking him to help in the investigation of the murder of Sir Eustace Brackenstall. On the surface, it looks as though Brackenstall’s murder was a case of robbery gone bad. The notorious Randall gang has been at work in the area, and it seems the Brackenstall home may have been their latest target. Neither Hopkins nor Holmes is convinced of this, though, and Holmes and Watson investigate. Here is the terse, yet suspenseful way in which Holmes gets Watson involved:
“The candle in his hand shone upon his eager, stopping face, and told me at a glance that something was amiss.
‘Come, Watson, come!’ he cried. ‘The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!’”
It would be hard to resist a summons like that, and of course, Watson doesn’t. Little wonder this is such a famous line from crime fiction.
At times, it’s physical descriptions that stick in our memories. For instance, although Agatha Christie’s mysteries are perhaps best-known for their plots, she also used descriptions quite effectively. Here is a description of Hercule Poirot, taken from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which he makes his debut:
“He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.”
With that indelible picture of Poirot, we follow him and Hastings as they investigate the poisoning murder of Mrs. Emily Inglethorp. As the novel begins, Hastings is visiting her stepson John Cavendish in the village of Styles St. Mary. When it becomes clear that Mrs. Inglethorp was murdered, Hastings visits Leastways Cottage, where Poirot and some fellow Belgians are living. He asks Poirot to investigate Mrs. Inglethorp’s death and Poirot agrees. Together, they look into the lives and motives of the members of Emily Inglethorp’s family and Poirot discovers who was responsible for her murder.
Sometimes, a passage stays in our minds because it’s particularly funny. In Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, for instance, Lord Peter Wimsey has fallen in love with mystery novelist Harriet Vane. The only problem is, she’s been arrested for the poisoning murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Wimsey resolves to clear her name and solve the crime so that he can marry her. At one point, he seeks the help of an acquaintance who’s a skilled burglar. Wimsey and a friend are on the way to this acquaintance’s home when she asks Wimsey about the man:
“'By the way,' she ventured, interrupting something Wimsey was saying about fugal form, 'this person we are going to say - has he a name?'
'Now you mention it, I believe he has, but he’s never called by it. It’s Rumm.'
'Not very, perhaps, if he – er – gives lessons in lock-picking.'
'I mean, his name’s Rumm.'
'Oh; what is it then?'
'Dash it! I mean, Rumm is his name.'
'Oh! I beg your pardon.'
'But he doesn’t care to use it, now that he is a total abstainer.'
'Then what does one call him?'
'I call him Bill,” said Wimsey…'”
I have to admit, I’m particularly fond of the word plays in that exchange.
Sometimes, just a sentence or two is enough to convey a real sense of humour. For instance, in Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, Australian Federal Police officer Brad Chen is persuaded to return to active duty after the brutal killings of former politician Alec Dennet and editor Lorraine Starck. Dennet and Starck were murdered while they were staying at Uriarra, a writers’ retreat, so they could collaborate on Dennet’s memoirs. Chen, who’s got a complicated personal life, visits the crime scene, where he meets Tanya Jackson, the teenage daughter of Uriarra’s current owner. Tanya begs the investigation team to help her escape, saying that she’s been abused:
“I [Chen] grabbed her [Tanya’s] forearm to unlock her grip on my lapel and, in pushing it to one side, exposed a thick ridge of scar tissue across her wrist. I was collecting death-wish women faster than I’d once collected commendations.”
Sometimes, we remember a phrase or some lines from a story because they are particularly haunting. They capture the essence of a character, or they are especially suspenseful, or they get our attention in some way. For instance, in Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of former Oxford don Felix McClure. The most likely suspect in the murder is McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks; McClure had found out that Brooks was dealing in illegal drugs, and was going to report him. But when Brooks disappears and is later found dead, Morse and Lewis have to re-think their theories. One person who seems to have a connection to both dead men is Eleanor “Ellie” Smith, a prostitute with whom Morse becomes smitten. Her status as a suspect doesn’t change the fact that Morse is very much attracted her, and the feeling is mutual. Towards the end of the novel, Ellie disappears, and in the novel’s last line, we see how she haunts Morse:
“And above all else in Morse’s life there remains the searching out of Ellie Smith, since as a police officer that is his professional duty and, as a man, his necessary purpose.”
There are haunting lines, too, in Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice. In that novel, Harry Bosch investigates the supposed suicide of Calexico “Cal” Moore, a fellow L.A.P.D. officer. The official word is that Moore committed suicide because he’d “gone dirty.” Bosch doesn’t believe Moore’s death was suicide, though, and soon, forensic evidence calls that theory into question. So Bosch looks into the case. He uncovers Moore’s past and makes some important connections between that past, Moore’s death and a Mexican drugs ring. As a part of this investigation, Bosch meets Moore’s widow Sylvia. In her, he recognizes a kindred spirit, and in just two sentences, Connelly conveys much about both of them:
“She held him and pressed herself against him in a way that conveyed her need. He saw her eyes were closed and at that moment Bosch realized she was his reflection in a mirror of hunger and loneliness.”
Later, Bosch reflects his sense of emptiness and on the kind of person he is:
“He had learned to fill that hollowness with work. Sometimes with drink and the jazz saxophone. But never people. He never let anyone in all the way.”
I’ll close this with one of the most haunting lines in modern crime fiction (at least it’s a line that has stayed with me for a very long time). In one sentence – the first line of A Judgement in Stone – Ruth Rendell conveys a world of meaning:
“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
Which phrases or lines have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Eric Clapton song.