Friday, January 14, 2011

Nowhere to Run to, Baby*

As I've often mentioned on this blog, suspense is a crucial part of a good crime fiction novel. One way that authors can build that suspense is what I'll call the "boxed in" phenomenon. If you've ever been trapped at an airport or waited on the tarmac for a long time, or if you've ever been snowed in overnight at a hotel, you know what I mean. That feeling of being unable to leave can add quite a lot of tension and suspense to a story. Of course, it's tricky, too; in today's world, with mobile 'phones and wireless Internet, we could ask just how isolated people really are. That said, though, when it's done well, that plot point can be very suspenseful.

Agatha Christie uses it quite effectively in some of her novels. For instance, in
And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), ten people receive invitations to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts the invitation. Everyone is shocked when, after dinner on the first night, each person present is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Shortly after, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night there's another death. It's soon clear that there's a murderer on the island and as, one by one, other deaths occur, the survivors work frantically to stay alive and catch the killer. One thing that adds a lot to the suspense of this novel is that a storm cuts everyone off from the mainland. There's no way to leave the island, and the storm has cut off communication as well. That feeling of being trapped adds an important layer of tension to the story.

There's also that sense of claustrophobia - of being cooped up - in Christie's
Murder in Mesopotamia. In that novel, Nurse Amy Leatheran is hired by noted archaeologist Dr. Eric Leidner to look after his wife Louise. Mrs. Leidner's been suffering from anxiety and Dr. Leidner believes that Nurse Leatheran may be able to ease his wife's fears. All seems well at first, and Amy Leatheran moves into the expedition team's house a few hours from Baghdad. She senses immediately a certain amount of tension among the team members but optimistically puts it down to the very natural conflicts that arise when a group of people are, as she puts it, cooped up together. Then one afternoon, Louise Leidner is murdered by a blow to the head. Hercule Poirot, who's traveling in the area, is persuaded to look into the case, and he begins to ask questions. It's soon apparent that nobody from the outside came into the house or onto the property on the day of the murder, so the only other possibility is that one of the expedition team members committed the murder. As the investigation goes on, the team gets more and more on edge, and that sense of "nowhere to run" adds suspense as Poirot searches for the killer. In the end, he discovers that the whole key the murder is in Mrs. Leidner's personality, and in her past.

In Ellery Queen's
The King is Dead, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are summoned to Bendigo Island, the private property of eccentric munitions tycoon "King" Bendigo. He's been receiving threatening letters, and he wants the Queens to find out who's responsible. With Bendigo on the island are his wife Karla, his brothers Judah and Abel and his staff and factory workers. Although the Queens have come to the island voluntarily, we still get the strong feeling of being "boxed in," as both men some come face-to-face with Bendigo's security team. Nevertheless, they settle in and begin to investigate. Then one night, Bendigo is in his hermetically-sealed private office when he's shot. At first, there seems no way he could have been shot, since no weapon has been found in the office, the door remained sealed and the gun actually used to shoot Bendigo is later proved never to have been in the office. As the Queens search for answers about the letters and the shooting, there's an increasing sense of being isolated. Finally, Queen deduces that the answer to the puzzles lies in the Bendigo brothers' past. He makes a convincing argument about that tie-in and travels to the Bendidgo brothers' hometown of Wrightsville. When he gets there, Queen finds out some unexpected things about their pasts, and gets the clues he needs to solve the mysteries.

In more recent years, mostly because of today's communication technology, it's harder than it was to create a believable "boxed-in" scenario. But several authors have done so. For instance, in Emma Lathen's
Going for the Gold, everyone's gathered for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Among the spectators is John Putnam Thatcher, vice-president for the Sloan Guaranty Bank. Thatcher's there because his bank has the contract for Olympic Village and the surrounding area and he's making sure that all goes smoothly. One afternoon, French ski-jumping star Yves Bisson is shot by a sniper in what looks at first like a terrorist attack. That explanation is soon ruled out and evidence is found that Bisson might have been involved in international counterfeiting. Thatcher's exploring this possibility when a storm hits the area. The snow cuts the town and Olympic village off, makes travel impossible and more or less isolates everyone. That claustrophobia adds a lot of tension to the novel, especially as it frustrates the killer's escape plan.

We get a similar sense of isolation and the claustrophobia that can bring in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's
My Soul to Take. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdótti has been hired by Jónas Júlíusson, the new owner of a posh spa and resort. Jónas has hired Thóra to act for him in a lawsuit he's filing against the former owners of the land where the spa is located. He claims that the area is haunted, and the owners never informed him about it. Thóra doesn't believe in ghosts, but she does want the fee, and the all-expenses paid trip to the spa. Within a very short time of Thóra's arrival at the spa, Birna Hálldorsdóttir, who's also staying at the spa, is found murdered on the beach near the resort. When Jónas is suspected of the crime, Thóra is faced not only with her original commission, but also with defending her client against a charge of murder. What's interesting about this novel is that the characters aren't isolated in the classic sense (i.e. a storm that traps everyone, cutoff of power, etc.). And yet, with the murder investigation going on, the air of suspicion, the possibility that there might be another murder and the creeping question of whether or not the place is haunted, we do get a sense of isolation.

Ann Cleeves creates a sense of isolation in
Blue Lightning. Detective Jimmy Perez plans a visit to his family's home in Fair Isle to introduce his family to his fiancée Fran Hunter. Everyone knows it'll be a little awkward, since outsiders to Fair Isle are not trusted. But then, the body of Angela Moore is found in the Fair Isle bird observatory. The tension rises and tempers flare as Jimmy begins to ask questions. Autumn storms have come, and Fair Isle is basically cut off from the outside world, so Jimmy and Fran are more or less on their own as they investigate Angela's murder. Then, there's another death. Now, with no way off the island, the two sleuths have to contend with not only the murder investigation but also the claustrophobia that the storm brings.

And then there's Alex Scarrow's
Afterlight, in which Scarrow follows the lives of a community of people who've survived a global oil crash and the end of the kind of lives most of us take for granted. This rather isolated community, led by Jenny Sutherland, has managed to create a life on an oil rig off the coast of Norfolk. Since there is no communication as we commonly think of it, the group is cut off from any other survivors of the crash, but all's well until they decide to rescue Valerie Latoc, who was discovered badly wounded in a nearby abandoned town. Including Latoc proves to have serious consequences for the group on the oil rig, as he slowly begins to play members off against one another. It's an eerie look at what happens to a group of people when they are really cut off.

There are a lot of other examples of this "no-where to run" plot point. I've only had the space to mention a few. Which have you enjoyed?

: The title of this post is a line from Martha Reeves and the Vandellas' Nowhere to Run.


  1. This is a fascinating topic, Margot. And as always you have surveyed it concisely and really well. Another example of this type of book is P.D. James' The Skull Beneath the Skin.

  2. Martin - Why, thank you :-). That's really awfully kind of you. And thanks for the note about The Skull Beneath the Skin. Although James is best known for her Adam Dalgliesh novels, I like her Cordelia Gray character; thanks for the reminder of her - an excellent example of the point I'm making here.

  3. Peter James does an excellent job of conveying a sense of isolation in Dead Simple, first of his Roy Grace series, in which the hunt is on for a man buried alive in a coffin. I'm reading it now and it's bite your nails tense.

  4. John - Oooh, sounds really eerie and just exactly the kind of thing I mean. I must try that series. It sounds extremely suspenseful.

    Kerri - Thank you :-). I appreciate the kind words very much.

  5. A wonderful post. Even though I can't think of a title (again), I do understand about the feeling of being trapped or isolated with all the snow we've had here in Georgia. Think I'll wait until all the snow is gone before I start reading anything that deals with isolation. LOl Always enjoy your take on crime fiction.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Thank you :-)! That really is kind of you. You know, I was thinking about all the snow you folks have had lately, and the bad weather further up north, too. It can be awfully isolating and give a person the feeling of being trapped. Hope you're still able to get around OK.. . I think that sense of claustrophobia can really add an interesting dimension to a crime novel.

  7. Margot - another great post! Agatha Christie was so good at creating "boxed-in" situations. One of my favorites is "The Mousetrap" - may be a good one for Mason to read at the moment ;-)

    While P.D. James' Adam Dalgliesh novels do not actually contain such situations, I think James is a master at using settings which are such that it is clear that the crime is an inside job - a psychiatric clinic, a laboratory, a museum, homes for the disabled or convalescents etc. so you do get a vague sense of claustrophobia.

  8. Margot, interesting topic. Another example of this type of 'boxed in' phenomenon is Johan Theorin's The Darkest Room.

  9. Book Mole - Thank you :-). And I agree with you that Christie did create some compelling "boxed-in" scenarios. The Mousetrapis a great example and I'll bet Mason would particularly appreciate it right now, too ;-).

    You've got a solid point about P.D. James and her settings. She's quite talented at placing her murders in those sorts of closed-in settings, so that it's clear the killing is "an inside job." I think that adds to the suspense as the characters gradually come to suspect each other.

    José Ignacio - Thank you :-). And thanks for bring up The Darkest Room. You're quite right that that feeling being "boxed in" is an important element in that story - it's a fine example of what I mean.

  10. Constantly amazed at how you come up with the topics, and even more amazing, the examples.
    Be gone for a month but I will be checking in on you even if I don't comment. Take care.

  11. Patti - How kind of you :-). Thanks for the nice words. Enjoy your blog-break and I'll "see" you when you get back :-).

  12. Agreed, a great post as usual, Margot. Authors often have to jump through hoops to invent scenarios where laptop batteries run out, there is no mobile phone reception, etc! A couple of books I've recently read along these lines include Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indridason (blizzard on a glacier) and the C J Box novels where those darn canyons play havoc with your cell signal ;-) The biscuit was taken for me, though, by Sophie Hannah in The Other Half Lives which had a combination of someone's battery in their car key running out so they could not escape, someone (a police officer) leaving a mobile phone in the car...and various other similar artificies! (Does not seem to harm sales, though.)


  13. I've spent my morning planning the novels in my various 2011 challenges. I'm actually excited to do Dorte's challenge because it's forcing me to step out of my normal reading selection and try new authors.

    One of the books I've chosen for Europe is by authors I haven't read before. The book is called: The Locked Room by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. I think the locked room mystery is one of my favorites. Not quite "nowhere to run" but in a way, yes.


  14. It is true that mobile phones have spoiled a lot for crime writers, but around our cottage there are spots where you can´t trust your connection. I know because once a lawyer called me while we were on our way to the cottage. He had to call three times before I got his message :D

    I think it is possible to create those situations, however, because somehow we don´t expect to end up in an encounter with a killer so sometimes when we hear those steps behind us in the dark, we want to call the police - but we are afraid it is just a cat and everybody will laugh at us. So our fear of making fools of ourselves may be important when we want to create those scenes.

  15. Maxine - Thanks so much :-). You're right that it's really hard to come up with a really believable scenario of being isolated. It can work in certain environments like C.J. Box's as you mentioned. Tony Hillerman was able to do that reasonably well, too, since he wrote about an environment where there simply aren't many mobile 'phones and where, as you say, canyons and other land factors make it harder to get signals. It's hard, though, and you've got a well-taken point that it can be really contrived when the author tries too hard. You're right, though; believable or not, that scenario sells.....

    Clarissa - Oh, I think you'll really like Sjöwall and Whalöö. Their Martin Beck series is one of the really well-written police-procedural series, I think, so I'm glad you've chosen to explore them. And it's interesting that "nowhere-to-run" scenarios are really similar to "locked-room" mysteries. Both are hard to put together in a believable way, but both can really add to the tension when they're done well.

    Dorte - You know, you really do have a point! Nobody wants to be thought of as a fool, so it's quite believable that a character would ignore those ominous footsteps, crackling leaves or something because of not wanting to appear frightened of a cat or squirrel or something. Now that makes sense to me...

    Interesting point, too, you make about the unreliability of mobile signals. There are several spots as you drive from where I live in Southern California to the Grand Canyon where there simply is no reliable signal. For people who live in that area, isolation's believable. It's quite tricky, though, I think.

  16. Fantastic post. One of the first stories I ever read was the Mousetrap, which I still consider the best boxed in story I read.
    There were also a whole bunch of Enid Blyton books where snow was used to create a boxed room.

    Mobile phones have made boxed rooms difficult, but there are still places on highways between point A and point Z where you are completely cut off. And of course (at least in India), where there wereterror attacks, mobile telephony used to be cut off so terrorists couldn't mis-use it. Even now, texting is still the first thing to go when terrorists attack.