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