We have again this year made our pre-Edgars cocktail party—which honors our year’s award winners and nominees as well as the winner of the EQMM Readers Award—virtual. Please join us in recognizing those honored this year and toasting to those lost. We hope to see you next year in person!
Robert Lopresti is the author of Greenfellas and When Women Didn’t Count as well as many award-winning and -nominated short stories. Here he talks about his story from the March/April 2021 issue and a conundrum facing authors and readers.
I am delighted to have “Shanks’s Locked Room” in the March/April issue of my favorite magazine. It marks the eleventh appearance in AHMM of the grouchy crime writer, and that means he stars in one-third of my stories there.
But the situation is a bit more complicated. Some Shanks stories have appeared in other publications. In fact, the story I am working on right now is his twentieth adventure. And by the time you reach a score of stories about the same fellow, things get complicated.
No man is an island entire of itself, as some smarty-pants said a long time ago, and that applies to Shanks. He has accumulated quite a crowd of friends, colleagues, and rivals.
Last year I finally accepted the inevitable and created a character file, listing all the recurring characters and in which stories they appeared. And boy, I wish I had done it sooner.
You see, I have a hobbyhorse when it comes to fiction. Actually, I have a whole stable full, but this one involves character names. It bugs the heck out of me when the main characters in a story or novel are named Don, Dan, Dina, Dave, and Debby. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet, last time I looked, and more than half offer a good supply of names. Why make it harder for the reader to tell the characters apart?
When I write a novel I try to make sure that no important characters share an initial or have read-alike names. (Unless there is a good reason, of course. When Agatha Christie gave two people similar names you knew damn well there was a clue involved somewhere.) Usually I type the alphabet out on separate lines and fill in the blanks with Albert, Bernstein, Connie, etc.
And I’m not the only one who used that technique. Think of Hill Street Blues. When that classic cop show started, the characters above the rank of patrolman were: Belker, Calletano, Davenport, Esterhaus, Furillo, Goldblume, and Hunter. I always wondered what happened to the character whose name began with A.
Let’s get back to my Shanks problem. Remember that?
My “Locked Room” story takes place in an oddly named restaurant, the Crab and Crow, where Shanks is dining with some friends, all of whom have appeared in previous tales. And that is when I discovered that Meghan and Nick McKenzie had shown up in one story and Fiona Makem appeared in another. Meghan McKenzie and Makem! So in the current tale I got everyone on a first-name basis as soon as I could.
My most recent appearance in AHMM,“Shanks Saves The World,” (May/June 2020) started life without Shanks. One element that survived from that early version was a young man named Connor. He is making his third appearance in the masterpiece I am currently creating, Shanks #20, and it is becoming awkward—because Shanks’s wife is Cora. Cora and Connor. How did I let that happen?
All kinds of problems can appear when an author doesn’t keep track of their characters. Arthur Conan Doyle clearly christened his narrator Dr John H. Watson, but in one story the good doc’s wife calls him James.
And names are not the only issue. In Rex Stout’s Over My Dead Body, Nero Wolfe tells an FBI agent he was born in the United States. But fifteen years later in The Black Mountain, he visits his birthplace in Yugoslavia. Stout fans have struggled for half a century to explain this mystery. I am pleased to say they can stop worrying about it, because I have discovered the solution.
If you want to hear my explanation, take me to lunch some time. Maybe at the Crab and Crow?
U.K.-based author Mark Sadler’s upcoming short fiction will appear in the online journal Collateral. Here, he discusses the influences behind his story in our November/December issue, “At the Coal Face.”
In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Death and the Compass”(the ending of which I am about to spoil), Detective Lönnrot investigates a series of murders in an unnamed city. He realizes that there will be a total of four killings and that they will form a rhombus pattern when plotted onto a map. Arriving at the location where he has deduced the final murder will take place, he finds that he has unwittingly delivered himself to the site of his own execution. The murders are part of an intricate revenge scheme, orchestrated by the detective’s arch-nemesis, whose criminal career has been enacted under the splendid moniker–Red Scharlach.
The pair spar verbally for a while. Because this story was published in 1942, prior to the James Bond-era, where a villain would happily reel-off the schematics of the death ray they had pointed at Washington, the tenor of the back and forth between the two men leans more toward the intellectual and the theoretical. Lönnrot informs Red Scharlach: “I know of a Greek labyrinth which is a single straight line. Along this line so many philosophers have lost themselves that a mere detective might well do so too.”
He advises his nemesis that, should they meet again in a subsequent incarnation, he would be better off abandoning his four-cornered labyrinth and instead opting for one composed of a single line, where the second murder takes place 8km away from the first, the third 4km away from the second, and so on.
I perhaps had “Death and the Compass” in mind back in 2008, when I wrote the first draft of “At the Coal Face”. The story that can be regarded as an attempt at realizing Lönnrot’s proposed linear labyrinth. As I recall, the original version of the tale was very different to the one that has recently been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. A few weeks after I finished writing it, my computer blew up. There were literal flames and it was rather spectacular. I did not take writing very seriously in those days and made no effort to reproduce what had been lost. However, the idea for the story persisted and I would occasionally think about it, and ponder upon whether it would be worthwhile recreating.
Five years ago, something happened to me that made the themes in “At the Coal Face” seem suddenly more personal and pertinent, in a way that made me want to revisit the tale: I had been working for a small regulatory body that was supposed to operate independently under the stewardship of a larger organization. The manager of this organization began to single out my co-workers and make their lives unbearable, until, one by one, they resigned. After they were gone, their roles were restructured and were filled by workers who were more willing to keep their heads down and come to heel. When it dawned on me that I was next in line to be picked off, I stupidly made a stand, not realizing that the employee grievance procedure had been fabricated in a manner that would circle my complaint back around to my tormentor, who would adjudicate on it. Predictably things did not go well. In fact, they went so badly wrong that I ended up sleeping rough on the streets of London.
Three years later, I transcribed the copious notes that I had made during the months leading up to my unceremonious fall onto the cold and unwelcoming pavements of the English capital. I hoped that, by writing everything down in chronological order, I would reveal some alternative course of action I could have taken that would have resulted in a more favorable outcome. Instead I found myself, for the first time, fully aware of how skillfully I and my co-workers had been manipulated. There was nothing any of us could have done to extricate ourselves from the quicksand. The only way that I could have improved my situation would have been to walk away earlier.
In our day to day existence, the notion that we have choices available to us can make bad situations seem bearable, and open our horizons up to all kinds of tantalizing possibilities, some of which are more plausible than others. Conversely, when we are aware that are freedoms are being curtailed, to what we regard is an unacceptable degree, we can feel trapped, despite the absence of any physical bars or locked doors. As I write this, on the evening of the 31st October 2020, England is poised to enter a stringent, four-week period of lockdown, in the hope of curtailing the spread of COIVD-19 in time for Christmas. Already the rumbles of protest of those opposed to the lockdown, have begun to reverberate across the jumbled virtual landscape of Twitter.
There are occasions where we may have less control over our destinies than we realize; where our actions are guided by cultural forces, by the machinations of social media, by advertising, or by the stratagems of public and private organizations. We may fall into the clutches of an adept salesperson, or into the orbit of malignant individual who means to do us harm. Often this manipulation is so pervasive that, even when we become aware of what is happening, it is not always clear what we need to do in order to free ourselves. “At the Coal Face” finds a man in just such a bind, attempting to extricate himself from a downward-spiraling situation, without fully comprehending the limits of his captivity.
If you have read the story, then you may have noted the obvious tonal influence is John le Carré–a master of the spy genre, whose works are steeped in the vernacular of the espionage community, much of which he coined himself and which (in the peculiar way that life imitates art) has subsequently filtered back into the intelligence services and popular culture. Part of what raises his novels above the other contenders in this crowded genre is that when you strip away spy-craft what you are left with are a series of books that dwell with great poignancy upon the foibles and frailties of human beings.
The other influence is the aforementioned Borges. The rooftop island of magic realism buried at heart of the story is an homage to his vision, albeit one that lacks the weighty, layered symbolism that is characteristic of his work.
“At the Coal Face” has emerged into this world and onto the printed page at a crawling pace, punctuated by long snoozes. It has been written, lost in a small electrical fire, rewritten and rewritten again, and again, and again. The story’s final published form reflects a traumatic period in my life, in a manner that renders this incident unrecognizable. I hope that the metamorphosis of my personal woes, into battle of wits between a pair of spies, is as entertaining for you as a reader, as it was therapeutic for me as a writer.
Robert Mangeot’s short fiction is forthcoming in Mystery Weekly, and he blogs at SleuthSayers.org. Here he talks about the role of setting in his story from our current November/December 2020 issue, “On Loan From the Artist.”
Recently, I was driving state routes well beyond the Mid-South main highways. I cruised through pleasant towns of both modest size and postage stamp variety, but now and again, and not for the first time off the beaten path, I would pass through a town where the vibe turned dark and the air simmered with frustration.
You find these towns all over. Something has passed the place by, whether macroeconomic tides or a missed chance at prosperity, or else an original sin. At some point, a good old boy boss type wrangled them this state route money, and all it brought was a scar of blacktop for a business district. Election signs for the current good old boy greet you at the town line. The nicest building is the Church of Christ, or it’s the First Baptist. There’s a junk yard and jockey lot, a tire shop, a utility district prefab office, a crumbling gas station hawking CBD. Driving through is like intruding on a hundred little tragedies connected to that one something.
In this part of the world, that sin could well be injustice. Swaths of America haven’t made peace with their past because, to paraphrase Faulkner, the past is very much their present. For a struggling town’s unkind souls, the place turned them that way. It’s easier to embrace a narrative than admit their sin, no matter that the price for cleansing a worn narrative goes up daily. For the good souls there, to hang around means lost opportunity and—given who you are and what you believe—danger. A better life is that next county over, or it’s that jump onto the interstate and wherever opportunity can knock. For those who can’t leave, the not-so-quiet desperation cycles on.
In every desperate town, there’s a loan shop.
Probably, it’s a converted house. Or it’s a strip mall endcap. Either way, the windows are barred. The entrance is a cage door, and whoever comes and goes is very much on camera. The loans are subprime stuff, second mortgages, payday lending. A lifeline in moderation. Otherwise, debt becomes part of the local trap.
This was the setting dynamic I hoped to capture—to bring attention to—with “On Loan from the Artist,” in the November/December 2020 AHMM. Small town Mid-South, lousy economy, nothing going well except the loan app count. That unhappy town would produce someone steeped of that vibe, integral to it—someone a bit inured to it. Bench is that guy. He runs the loan business for a checked-out owner. “Artist” is about face-of-the-town Bench’s own frustrations bubbling forward.
Human nature can read a higher calling into any line of work: plumber, accountant, Chamber of Commerce flack for a state route postage stamp town. Bench sees his lending job as a valued community servant, that helpful partner toward the next payday. He’s good at relationships, too, if low on ambition. When the economy bites as far as the subprime business, the owner starts bringing a loan shark’s hand to collections. Bench finds a bold streak and pushes back, even grabs for the reins. His problem is that you can’t keep what’s not yours. Unresolved history, self-perceptions, even borrowed courage, whatever is taken or denied builds up costs that must always be repaid.
Which gets back to that withering town with the four lanes and constant seethe. If its future can’t break from its past, then its future is grim: more slow decline and a resentment mill that grinds what could be brighter days and civic energy. Often, my fiction seeks a truth through humor. “Artist” does not. It never could’ve. People like Bench decide early on between roots or greener pastures, and Bench chose to stay. Unhappy place, unhappy story.
Wouter Boonstra is a Dutch writer and editor at the website and magazine Binnenlands Bestuur. Here he shares the story behind his tale, “Anchored,” his first published fiction, which appears in the current September/October issue of AHMM.
In the summer of 1975, two years before I was born, my parents—who are Dutch—were hitchhiking across Canada. One day, an American on summer vacation picked them up. That was Josh Pachter, and the short time my parents spent with him began a friendship that continues to this day.
As an adult, I worked for some time as a freelance journalist, and in 2018 Josh invited me to write a short story for Amsterdam Noir, an anthology he was editing.He liked the idea of including a story by a journalist not known for writing fiction.
There were two conditions: the story had to be set in an Amsterdam neighborhood, and it had to be dark. I reckoned that any dark story that was going to occur in my neighborhood would have to involve a crime.
A decade ago, a jeweler was killed during a robbery not far from where I live. Later, a talented young comedian was killed by a speeding car at the crossroads around the corner from my apartment. More recently, a kebab-store employee was stabbed to death in the main street of my neighborhood. All these events really happened, but they were too random to write a story around.
As a journalist and sociologist, I mostly wrote about the Dutch educational system and local politics. If something wasn’t right, if there was a question about a politician’s integrity, I got called in to cover the story.
Two years ago, Binnenlands Bestuur—the website and magazine I wrote for—hired me as an editor, so I’m no longer a freelancer. I still write about the integrity of local politicians and about public servants, though, and you could say that I have quite a good view of the world outside the city where I was born and live: Amsterdam. I loved the idea of writing a story set in my own neighborhood, because I know it so well.
I had written some poetry when I was younger; quite recently I even made it to the final round of a local poetry slam, but fiction is a whole different ball game—especially crime fiction.
My main character, I decided, had to be someone from out of town. A troubled man who needed to keep a low profile.
My family and I often go to Terschelling, one of the North Sea islands off the northern coast of The Netherlands. That would be the perfect home for my main character, a bearded islander, a brandy drinker, a man troubled by, say, his relationship with his father.
Could he be a sailor?
And if he were to become a murderer, what would be an appropriate weapon for him to use?
Could a sailor from the islands actually wind up living in Amsterdam? He would have to work at or near a harbor, in some old-fashioned profession. I decided to make him a blacksmith, specializing in anchors.
The Terschelling harbor is different from the way I describe it. I’ve combined it with the harbor of Oudeschild on Texel, another North Sea island. Almost every place I describe in Amsterdam, though, is real—as is the homeless man who sings, “I like to move it, move it.” (The actual homeless guy, whose name is Robbie, was recently discovered in Amsterdam’s Erasmus Park. He was badly injured and had probably been assaulted. Latest news is he’s still in the hospital. Sometimes things get very real.)
Because I was busy with other projects, by the time I finished “Anchored,” it was too late for it to appear in Amsterdam Noir. But Josh offered to translate it into English and send it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I’m delighted and grateful that Linda Landrigan chose to include it in the magazine.
With crime stories, it’s all about the framing: how the author—or the narrator—selects what goes into the story, and what gets left out, and how the sleuth reframes the story to get at the truth of the situation.
In Steven Gore’s procedural “Inflection,” detectives must look beyond carefully laid out clues when a rare books dealer is found dead from an apparent mugging. A passion for truffles is the link between two competing narratives when a politician’s young mistress disappears in “Fruiting Bodies” by Jane Pendjiky. Set during WWII, a stranger’s story resonates for a boy enamored with true crime pulps in “Old Echoes” by Michael Nethercott. Equadoran P.I. Wilson Salinas is inspired by a missing person flier to track down the real story in “Buscando Túpac” by Tom Larsen. After a writeup in the papers, the price of fame is high for a local hero in Dave Zeltserman’s “Past Due.” A librarian revisits the stories behind miscellaneous artifacts prior to a fateful renovation in “Storage” by Dan Crawford. A cabby proves the perfect sounding board for a St. Louis riverboat gambler cum unofficial private eye in Christopher Latragna’s “Call It Sad, Call It Funny.” And a review of old case notes draws a retired divorce lawyer into a murder case in “Who Killed What’s Her Name?” by Sharon Jarvis.
Meanwhile, commercial crime in ancient Babylon threatens plans for a caravan in Richard Freeborn’s “Family Harmony,” while a shipping company’s secrets are dinner conversation fodder in “You Said This Was Business” by Bob Tippee. A hermit on an island retreat off the coast of Ireland seeks to preserve his artist father’s legacy in “Limited Edition” by John Paul Davies, while an artisan in Amsterdam becomes unmoored in “Anchored” by Wouter Boonstra. A hitman’s latest job leads to a new vocation in “The Beauty of Sunsets” by Jim Sallis. And for Kasper, a London-based P.I., a homeless woman seems an unlikely murder victim in “Mrs. White Hart” by Elliot F. Sweeney.
In our Booked & Printed column, Laurel Flores Fantauzzo steps outside of the box to look at some recent crime-related podcasts that are worth a listen. And an endearing character returns in Our Mystery Classic, Johnston McCulley’s “Thubway Tham and the Hoodoo Roll,” in which the lucky pickpocket evades a police setup. The story is introduced by master storyteller Josh Pachter.
It is with great sadness that AHMM notes the passing this past week of Angela Zeman. To me, Angela was Mystery Royalty: glamorous and generous, she added sparkle to our annual parties. She was also a good friend to me.
Angela’s first published short story, “The Witch and the Fishmonger’s Wife,” appeared in AHMM in 1993; she would publish five stories with us featuring Mrs. Risk, and then an acclaimed novel, “The Witch and the Borscht Pearl,” in 2001. More recently, she inaugurated a series of historical mysteries in 2013 with “The First Tale of Roxanne,” set in ancient Rome. That story is distinguished by the sensitive characterization of a woman under duress – you almost don’t notice the deft plotting that moves it right along. After reading it, I knew I wanted more of Roxanne. “The Second Tale of Roxanne” appeared just a few months ago in our September / October 2019 issue, and we are now in the process of recording it for our podcast.
Our hearts go out to Angela’s family and friends.—Linda Landrigan
Retired librarian Robert Lopresti is the author of When Women Didn’t Count, Greenfellas, and several short-story collections featuring private eye Leopold Longshanks (aka “Shanks”). His work appears in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016 and in the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2016 anthology. He also blogs at SleuthSayers and Little Big Crimes. Here he talks about his story “Shanks Saves the World” from the current May/June 2020 issue of AHMM.
I am a librarian, so when I moved to the city where I now live, it was natural that one of my first expeditions was to the public library. And I got quite a shock.
Oh, it was (and is) a terrific, busy, well-stocked library. But there was something I was not expecting.
The fiction section was one big collection, A-Z by author. There was no separate place for mysteries, science fiction, or other genres. Hammett, Heinlein, and Hemingway were all cheek by jowl, as the saying goes. To search for your favorite genre you would have to hunt for labels on the sides of the books.
All very egalitarian, I guess, but not what I was used to. In bookstores and most libraries, they divide the books into categories to make the browser’s life easier. And in specialized mystery bookstores (may their tribe increase) you usually find lots of subgenres: Cozy, Espionage, Hardboiled, Sherlock Holmes, Thriller, and so on.
Which I find pretty helpful. But—and I’m finally approaching my point—those categories aren’t always rigid.
Take John Le Carre’s novels about master spy, George Smiley. Obviously they belong on the Espionage shelf, correct? But in A Murder of Quality, Smiley solves a killing at a boarding school, without a spy in sight. Clearly he is acting as an Amateur Sleuth there.
And how about Rex Stout’s The Black Mountain? It gets shelved as a Private Eye novel, but his P.I.s are gallivanting through the mountains of Eastern Europe. Doesn’t that make it a Thriller?
Dick Francis’s books usually feature a hero battling a known bad guy, which I would categorize as a Suspense novel. I wonder how many of his fans noticed that Hot Money is a whodunit in which the suspects are all members of an extended wealthy family. Sounds like a Cozy to me!
All this has been on my mind because the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine features “Shanks Saves The World.” This is my tenth appearance in those sacred pages with this particular hero. Leopold Longshanks is a mystery writer who only wants to work on his novels but is reluctantly forced by fate (which is to say, me) to solve crimes. In other words: he is an Amateur Sleuth.
However, in this new story, Shanks is trying to raise funds to restore a Depression-era theatre in his city. To collect a big donation from a wealthy ex-music promoter, he has to track down some musicians the man feels he ripped off.
Which means that while Shanks is not working for a paycheck, he definitely has a financial motive this time.
And now let us go the guidelines for the Shamus Awards, which are presented each year by the Private Eye Writers of America:
Eligible works must feature as a main character a person PAID for investigative work but NOT employed for that work by a unit of government. These include traditionally licensed private investigators; lawyers and reporters who do their own investigations; and others who function as hired private agents. These do NOT include law enforcement officers, other government employees or amateur, uncompensated sleuths.
And so it seems that in this one case, since Shanks is hoping to be compensated, he has slipped over into the (unlicensed) Private Eye category. Not that I have cleared a space on my mantel for a Shamus Award, but I do think it’s interesting.
And only after I started writing this piece did I recognize another connection. In April, the Mysterious Press published The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe, edited by Josh Pachter, a collection of parodies, pastiches, and homages featuring Rex Stout’s great characters.
The last story in the book is by me, a crime story which looks at the inhabitants of Mr. Wolfe’s famous brownstone from the viewpoint of grumpy neighbors.
Which means that in the same month that I published a Private Eye story starring my Amateur Sleuth, I also slipped an Amateur Sleuth story into a book about Private Eyes. And so the great circle of life is maintained, I guess.
Come to think of it, maybe my public library is actually onto something.
Getting trapped is a primal fear, and our modern world offers no reprieve. Daily we’re caught in traffic jams, shut up in elevators, chained to a desk, and for some, nabbed by the police. Nor are we free of psychological traps: abusive relationships, obsessions and compulsions, and cycles of revenge. Fiction is one way to work through your fears, and this issue of AHMM offers some thrilling stories of entrapment and escape—our means of ensnaring you in our pages.
In our cover story by Joslyn Chase, a young woman must leave her Yorkshire home to work at her uncle’s Whitechapel pub, “The Wolf and Lamb,” during the terror wrought by Jack the Ripper. Joseph Walker describes the desperate journey of a woman escaping an abusive marriage in “Etta at the End of the World.” Three characters revisit the heady days of college—and the jealousies that festered for thirty-five years—in Elizabeth Zelvin’s “Reunion.” A private jet on the way to a corporate retreat is the setting for Ken Brosky’s locked-room story, “Airless Confinement.” In 1920s New York City, a shoeshine gets caught up in another man’s betting scheme in “Probable Cause” by John G. Wimer.
Meanwhile, real estate and revenge motivate the characters of Sarah Weinman’s “Limited Liability,” and Janice Law’s prim widow takes justice into her own hands years after the death of her husband in “The Client.” Bob Tippee’s executive draws on his own character failings for drastic ends in “A Bias for Action,” while Officer Grant Tripp’s brother falls under suspicion for a string of robberies in Eve Fisher’s “Brother’s Keeper.” And the perpipatetic Buck and Wiley return in Parker Littlewood’s “Buck Solves the Case,” while two girls find the body of a drowned bank robber in Michael Bracken’s “Sleepy River.”
This issue also offers whodunits featuring distinctive PIs. Jeff Cohen’s Samuel Hoenig finds that his experience of being on the autism spectrum gives him an edge in parsing the cryptic statements of a young man awaiting trial for murder in “The Question of the Befuddled Judge.” Mark Thielman’s handsome PI—known as the Spud Stud for his side work as a special assistant in potato promotion—solves the murder of a natural foods store manager in “The Case of the Cereal Killer.” The mystery writer Shanks is called to locate old associates of a wealthy music producer on the eve of his death in Rob Lopresti’s “Shanks Saves the World.”
Finally, we are delighted to introduce a new feature, knowing that our readers often take a keen interest in the realities behind the fiction: former police detective Lee Lofland will offer in each issue insights into the working lives and daily realities of those involved in law enforcement.
William Burton McCormick is a five-time Derringer Award finalist and a Hawthornden Fellow. He is the author of the novel Lenin’s Harem and short fiction appearing in a variety of outlets. Here he talks about suspense in his cover story from our current March/April 2020 issue, “Night Train for Berlin.”
My Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine story “Night Train for Berlin” is a thriller set on a train bound for Berlin on the eve of World War II. In style it owes much to Alan Furst, the late, great Philip Kerr, and most of all Alistair MacLean. I’ve always had a love of European thrillers set during or just before that war. I read The Guns of Navarone and its sequel Force Ten from Navarone when I was eleven years old, absorbing every word. Those novels became templates for my embryonic writing as a preteen, and though my literary palette has expanded considerably, they still hold sway over me today. I may stray into other genres and styles, but when I get too far off the path, I always return to MacLean’s lean, muscular prose and his tales of determined men facing great dangers and making impossible choices.
That said, we’re not going to talk much about MacLean (or Kerr or Furst) today. Their influence is obvious to anyone perusing my story. Instead, I will illustrate three suspense techniques within the story made for different purposes and effect. To make my points universal (and not spoil “Night Train” for those who haven’t read it) I will cite examples from very well-known sources that have nothing to do with Alistair MacLean or the Second World War: the novel Jaws, and the film adaptions of From Russia with Love and Psycho.
So, kick back with a cup of joe, and safely self-isolate as I warble on about suspense.
1. The Suspense of Uncertainty
Look at the technique used in Peter Benchley’s’ Jaws, one of the most suspenseful books ever written. Benchley, in a short initial passage, depicts a shark swimming. The shark is large and hungry. Little more is revealed. The scene is third person omniscient point of view. Only the reader knows of the shark. At this point there are no other characters. Then a break. Not a chapter break, but a scene break. Has any time passed? Are we at a different location? We are not told. The new passage shows swimmers playing in the beach’s water. They are having a good time, like you or I might on any seashore. It triggers our collective memories. We’ve all done this.
Is that shark from the previous passage stalking these people? Is it about to attack? Is it even here? Unlike the swimming characters, the readers know a hungry predator exists somewhere, that a threat could be present. But unlike Benchley, playing us like a violin, we don’t know the outcome. We squirm waiting for something to happen. Some chapters it does, sometimes it doesn’t, so each scene brings new doubts. Uncertainty is the key. If Benchley had told us the shark was right under someone’s foot, mouth agape, there would be momentary excitement on the page. Potential violence. Gore. But it would also end the tension.
But this is worse. Much worse. Uncertainty extends the anxiety. We fear the shark is here, about to bite. Yet, we don’t know, and we are absolutely helpless to warn the swimmers.
Get out. Get out of the water, you say to them as you turn the page. But they can’t hear you. Not in time.
In “Night Train for Berlin”, our main character is Eduard Möller, a German-born communist being taken from his home in the Soviet Union back to Berlin to face execution by the Nazis for treason. He is supposed to be exchanged for another prisoner, an exiled Russian aristocrat named Polzin that the NKVD (the forerunners of the KGB and creators of the Gulag) want to get their hands on. But Polzin has disappeared, killing his Gestapo guard and hiding himself among the passengers on the train. The Gestapo and the NKVD, in an uncomfortable alliance, search the train for Polzin, dragging poor Möller along as they investigate.
The key to suspense early in this story is uncertainty. Consider the number of questions posed at the outset, each generating a degree of tension:
- Is Polzin still on the train? If so, where? Which identity is he hiding under?
- Does Polzin have accomplices?
- What will the communist Möller do when they find Polzin? Side with his ideological enemy (an aristocrat) or the evil men who will execute him (The Gestapo)?
- How long can the uneasy alliance between the Gestapo and NKVD last? What will happen if it breaks?
- How can Möller possibly survive?
You’ll have to read the story to answer those questions, (just like how you’ll have to read Jaws to find out where that shark is) but for now, moving on . . .
2. Proximity, Certainty and Suspense
Paradoxically, knowing exactly where the threat is can also generate tremendous suspense. The film From Russia With Love features the most suspenseful extended sequence in any Bond picture. For one of the few times in the Bond franchise, we the audience are wise to a threat Bond isn’t. That threat is assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw), who has boarded the Orient Express to kill Bond (Sean Connery) and steal a decoding device in his possession. Grant murders Bond’s MI6 contact, Captain Nash, and takes Nash’s place. Bond, thinking Grant is Nash, makes plans with the assassin, dines with him, then—oh, oh—takes him into his cabin. A killer we’ve seen dispatching people for the first hour of the movie is right before us, about to strike. Unlike the shark in Jaws, there is no uncertainty; we see him creeping up to his target. Powerless to warn James, we watch for clues that Bond has caught onto Grant. Yet, we are constantly thwarted. Even when James catches Grant drugging Bond’s Russian lady friend, the assassin has a viable excuse. The tension builds until it ends in one of the greatest fights on a train ever filmed. But the twenty-seven minutes of perfectly executed suspense before the fight are even better. The combat is the release.
Without going into detail, I will say that in “Night Train,” Möller identifies Polzin before the NKVD or Gestapo does. Moved by their mutual humanity, rather than political differences, Möller decides not to reveal Polzin to his hunters. Möller also deduces whether or not Polzin has accomplices. With those strands of tension released, a newer, stronger one emerges. Möller now has effectively become a surrogate for the reader, aware of Polzin’s predicament, able to describe it for us, but because of his own situation, unable to intervene. Like the audience watching Red Grant move in on Bond, Möller is powerless to do anything as the NKVD and the Gestapo, by their own terrible methods, get closer to getting their man.
Then Möller has an eleventh-hour idea that may save them all (but that would be telling . . .)
3. Suspense as a Tool of Characterization and Reader Empathy
Suspense can be a useful tool for generating empathy with characters we might normally dislike or even feel repugnance towards. In Psycho, Hitchcock uses this technique with the character of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) directly after the infamous shower scene. Up to this point in the film, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has been our protagonist. But poor Marion (spoilers if you’ve been self-isolating in a room since 1960) has just been butchered by Norman’s “Mother.” After the killing, we see dutiful son Norman clean up the crime scene for his maniac ma and place Marion’s body in the trunk of her car. He pushes the car into a bog behind the Bates Motel. Then a suspenseful (and amazing) thing happens. Halfway into sinking under the bog water, the car stops submerging, the white roof and hood still clearly visible in the night. And to our shock, we, the audience, are nervous about this. The car’s refusal to sink creates an unexpected tension. Will the murder be discovered? Will Norman be caught? What will Norman do now if the Ford refuses to submerge? Then, we feel palpable relief when the car suddenly starts to sink again, and after discharging a few air bubbles, drops below the water out of sight. Hitchcock has done something brilliant here. He’s managed to switch protagonists (no easy feat) and our emotions have gone along with it. We may intellectually want Norman and Mother to get caught, but emotionally and narratively we are now involved in “their” plight and coverup. We are attached to a character we never thought we would be by this deft act of suspense. And Hitchcock cements this emotional involvement throughout the rest of the second act as people coming looking for Marion: first a detective, and then her sister and boyfriend. Norman lies to them all, and we are in on his lies, gripped by the tension, picking up on every mistake, wondering, as Norman does, if the newcomers noticed his flubs, and if these intruders will bother his mad old mother in the Gothic house on the hill. Norman is now our central character. After that sinking car, we are emotionally locked into the plight of a man we believe (at this point) to be an accomplice to our original protagonist’s murder.
And it sets up the shocking revelations of the third act brilliantly.
In my story, I use suspense to make the characters of Möller and Polzin more sympathetic. It was always going to be difficult to have my audience emotionally engage with both of them. Depending on readers’ knowledge of history and where they rest in the political spectrum, they may find either a communist or an aristocrat a very unattractive character. To address this, I use suspense, as Hitchcock did, to create an emotional connection. Both Möller and Polzin are placed in jeopardy and fighting brutal regimes for survival. This by its nature is humanizing and sympathetic and builds reader empathy. It doesn’t hurt that their opponents are the pitiless NKVD and the insidious Gestapo, but that alone wouldn’t be quite enough. Möller’s decision to not reveal the identity of Polzin, his political opposite, is redemptive (if redemption is even necessary) and it completes a modest character arc. At the denouncement, that decision is repaid. Indeed, I feel it gives a nice moral underpinning to the tale. At least, I hope it does.