Thursday, February 3, 2011

Atmospheric Pressure ;-)

An excellent post from Bernadette at Reactions to Reading has got me thinking about how important atmosphere is in building suspense in a good crime fiction novel. Of course, a murder can take place just about anywhere, but some atmospheres just seem to lend themselves to murder mysteries. Here are a few that really seem to ratchet up the tension.


Theatres, especially (but not necessarily) old ones, seem to almost breathe suspense. It makes sense, too. The tension of getting ready to perform, the disparate personalities in the cast and “theatre politics” make for a very effective set of motives for murder. And the buildings themselves lend to the atmosphere, too. There are all sorts of places where a murderer can hide; there are sometimes darkened corridors, abandoned stage sets and other places that can seem eerie; and buildings have history. That, too lends to the story. No wonder the theatre is such an effective backdrop to a murder mystery (yes – pun intended ;-) ).

That’s one reason that many of Ngaio Marsh’s novels are set in the theatre atmosphere. For example, in Enter a Murderer, the Unicorn Theatre is planning a production of The Rat and the Beaver. Arthur Surbonadier is outraged when the leading role he’d thought would go to him goes instead to Felix Gardener. Just before the show begins, a drunken Surbonadier bursts in on Gardener and threatens him. But, when a prop gun turns out to be quite real, it’s Surbonadier who’s shot on stage. Sir Roderick Alleyn is attending the performance and gets involved in the murder investigation.

Simon Brett’s Charles Paris series also focuses on the suspense-charged atmosphere of the theatre. In Murder in the Title, for instance, Paris, who’s down his luck and drinking far too much, gets the part of a corpse in a new murder play at Rugland Spa’s Regent Theatre. The Regent has come down in the world, and it’s hoped that some new plays will bring it back. When accidents start to happen as the cast is getting ready for the play’s opening, Paris gets curious about what’s going on. Then, there’s an apparent suicide. Paris begins to investigate and discovers that someone’s been sabotaging the theatre company’s attempts to revive the Regent’s fortunes.


Even delightful tropical island paradises can provide suspenseful atmospheres for crime. Even if it isn’t literally true, there’s a sense of being isolated that adds to the tension and the level of suspicion.

For example, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) takes place, for the most part, on Indian Island off the Devon coast. Ten people accept invitations for a stay there, and they duly arrive and get settled in. On the first evening, they’re each accused of having caused at least one death. Then, one of the people on the island is poisoned. Then another death occurs. Soon, it’s clear that there’s a murderer among the group, and the survivors have to figure out who the killer is and stay alive themselves. To make matters worse, the island is cut off by a storm, so that there is no way to leave.

The island atmosphere is also quite effective in Ann Cleeves’ Blue Lightning. Detective Jimmy Perez brings his fiancĂ©e Fran Hunter to Fair Isle, where his family lives. It’s a rather insular place to begin with, and there’s tension as Fran tries to fit in and get along. Then, the body of Angela Moore is found in the Fair Isle bird observatory. The island is more or less cut off from the outside world by a series of autumn storms, so Jimmy and Fran can’t really count on outside assistance as they begin to investigate the murderer. Then, there’s another death. In this novel, it’s as much the insular nature of the island community as it is the weather that raises the tension and suspense.

Abandoned Mines and Buildings

When a building or a mine is abandoned, there’s sometimes an eerie sense of the place being haunted by the past. Even when the novel doesn’t have any of the paranormal about it, an abandoned place can be unsettling. Along with that uncomfortable feeling of the past clinging to a place, abandoned buildings and mines are dangerous. So there’s also a sense of foreboding.

For instance, in Martin Edwards’ The Arsenic Labyrinth, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the ten-year-old disappearance of Emma Bestwick. Acting on a tip given to a local newspaper star, the team searches for the body in the Arsenic Labyrinth, an abandoned arsenic mine near the Lake District village of Coniston. Emma Bestwick’s body is indeed found – along with a set of other, older remains. As Scarlett and her team search for answers, there’s another death. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett ties together the three deaths and unearths some very nasty secrets.

In Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders, retired Florida judge Sylvia Thorn joins her mother and her mother’s travel group for a sightseeing and gambling trip to Laughlin, Nevada. The trip turns deadly when the body of an unidentified man is found in the bathtub in one of the group’s hotel rooms. Then, the body of one of the group members is found in an abandoned gold mine. As Thorn tries to keep the rest of the group safe, she begins to investigate the two deaths and retraces her travelling companion’s last movements; this leads her back to the gold mine, and the eerie and dangerous atmosphere of the gold mine plays a major role in the suspense of this story.

There’s also a real sense of eeriness in the abandoned buildings that feature in Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House. In that novel, Superintendent Duncan Kincaid is called to the scene of a warehouse fire when a woman’s body is found in the debris left by the fire. As Kincaid and his team investigate, they discover that the dead woman could be one of four women who have recently gone missing. With help from his lover and former partner Gemma James, Kincaid finds out what has happened to each of the women, and who the dead woman was. During the course of their investigation, there’s another fire. And another. Each of the fires takes place in a different abandoned building, and part of the suspense of this novel comes as firefighter Rose Kearny and her team investigate the scenes of these fires. Kearny discovers a thread that connects the fires, and this information helps Kincaid and James to solve the mystery of the fires.

There are several other excellent atmospheres, too, that lend themselves beautifully to crime fiction. For instance, there’s the university campus, the museum and the hospital. Which atmospheres do you like best for mysteries? If you’re a writer, how do you weave atmosphere into your stories?


  1. Thanks for the kind words Margot and yes I do think some settings lend themselves to storytelling of the mysterious kind more than others. Islands are a great example as you say, in addition to your suggestions I would also add S J Bolton's first book Sacrifice which took place on an island off Scotland like the Cleeves book you mention. Very atmospheric. I also liked a Carolyn Hart book I read last year called Dead Man's Island which took place on a private island in South Carolina that was in the line of sight for a hurricane. I guess it's the captive/locked nature of an island that has been drawing the reader in since Robinson Crusoe

  2. Bernadette - Oh, you're quite welcome - it was a great post. You could very well be right about the atmosphere of the island. It is the "locked" sense you get on an island that really does draw the reader in (and thanks for mentioning Kidnapped - it does embody this kind of story). I'm also quite glad you mentioned Sacrifice. Bolton's second,Awakening, is a terrific book and I have been meaning to read Sacrifice. I will have to do that now (she says while not thinking of that mountainous TBR looming above ;-) ). And yes, of course I remember your excellent review of Dead Man's Island. Once again, the feeling of being really can add to the story.

  3. Caves? Oh, I love the mystery by Stephen Booth - One Last Breath. A majority of the novel took place in a cave. It added suspense, eerie, spookiness and for me (the scariest) claustrophobia.

    I also love the book by Agatha Christie (I can't remember the name) that took place on an island and a woman was murdered in a cove area while sunning on the beach.


  4. Clarissa - Caves are definitely eerie, spooky places. Not only are they dark and closed-in, but there are all sorts of critters that live in caves. Many of them are harmless, but in a good mystery novel, they can add to the suspense, that's for sure.

    Are you perhaps thinking of Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun? That's the novel where beautiful and notorious Arlena Stuart Marshall is strangled on the beach at Pixie's Cove near the Jolly Roger Hotel, where she is staying. Pixie's Cave is right near where the victim's body is found, and it figures in the mystery.

  5. I loved the Breaker (recommened by you), because the background just lent itself to the story.

  6. Rayna - Oh, thank you for reminding me of that one :-). I agree; that deserted-beach atmosphere does, indeed, lend itself beautifully to the novel.

  7. I know exactly what you mean about certain settings just seeming to scream out for a mystery; the lonely log cabin, the luxury cruise, the circus...

    I've often thought about writing a plot taking place in a theatre; I certainly am familiar with the characters!

  8. Elspeth - You know, I thought of you when I wrote that part of this post. I honestly bet you'd have a lot of fun, and create a wonderful mystery, if you used your theatre background. I hope you do at some point...

    And thanks for the reminder of that delicious lonely cabin - another terrific atmosphere...

  9. Another intriguing post. No book titles come to mind (as usual) but I must say reading mysteries has caused me to be a little leery of certain places - walks in the woods, deserted roads, theaters, merry-go-rounds, even mall bathrooms. You just never know where a corpse is going to turn up.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - Thank you :-). Yes, if nothing else, reading crime fiction does teach one to be careful about certain places. I hadn't thought about malls when I wrote this post, but now that you mention it, I can see how that mall atmosphere certainly could lend itself to a murder mystery. Hmmm.... :-)...

  11. Great post, Margot. There is a good cave, and subsequent atmosphere, in the second Simon Beckett novel, the one set in the remote Scottish island: Written in Bone (after quick internet search to refresh memory!).

    Mountains and climbing can also provide suspense - the story of a tragic climb in the Scottish mountains is one of the better aspects of Val McDermid's Trick of the Dark, and C J Box does something similar well in Savage Run, where three people have to cross the titular ravine while a gunman may have them in his sights....

  12. Maxine - Thank you :-). And thanks for reminding me of Written in Bone. You're right about the cave adding to the atmosphere in that one.

    I think you're also quite right about mountains and climbing. As well as the fine examples you mention, Tony Hillerman does a similar thing quite well in several of his novels - The Blessing Way is one of them where that's used quite effectively. There's definitely an atmosphere in a mountain climb that lends itself well to building the suspense - plenty of physical danger as well as the isolation.