Alfred Hitchcock, the great suspense master, said, “It’s not the murder, you know. It’s the waiting for the murder.”
Imagine that being a constant in life. Well, isn’t it? We lock our doors. We don’t walk down dark streets in bad neighborhoods. We buy guns against anticipated intruders. We drive on the right side of the road. Suspense is a component of our lives, even in our social makeup — will I get the letter from him today? That takes me back to my high school days when my boyfriend went off to college. He said he would write to me. Will he invite me to homecoming? Is he finding another girl on campus cuter than me? Skip ahead to the writing life: will I get accepted or rejected?
In novels, mystery and suspense are the Castor and Pollux of the heavenly twin constellation, and as easy to spot. It looks like its namesake, Gemini. Geminis, for all their good qualities, it is said they can make one ill-at-ease with their duality and inability to keep secrets. End of astrology analogy and on to waiting for the murder.
Writers like me don’t know exactly when the murder will come, but that it will. Likewise, readers are suspended in the story — waiting, anxious, anticipating, thinking “the suspense is killing me.” Readers tell me they impatiently page through a book until they get to the murder, then go back and catch up, to see my techniques. Is that cheating? No, they just could not wait any longer.
There are several ways a writer creates suspense. The building blocks are characters and setting. In The Devil Laughed, I start with series characters who were developed in The End Game and The Last Temptation. With each succeeding sequel, they grow. Their heretofore hidden complexities of personality emerge. Just as no human has a static nature, so should no novel character in today’s literature. In the past, characters like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple had their traits set in stone. Not in today’s cozies. Like traditional mysteries, they, too, seem to be influenced by noir characters of times past. We have a lot to thank Raymond Chandler for.
The actions and attitudes of the people in the story create the most suspense. We must care about them, even what happens to the vilest, because if we don’t care about their roles, if they are unreal, the story goes flat. If we don’t care, there is no suspense and little interest in whodunit.
In my Moriah Dru mystery series, Dru is a highly trained ex-policewoman, now the owner of Child Trace. She’s a child finder, a dangerous occupation. Richard Lake, her lover, is a police detective with the Atlanta Police Department. Portia Devon is a juvenile judge who gives Dru more work than she can handle. The plots are seen through Dru’s first person perspective. While she’s authoritative in her work, her internals show us a different side. She’s jealous of Lake’s attraction for other women and carries a lot of guilt over her mother’s plight in a nursing home. I take care not to burden the story with too much angst and guilt. My novels are mysteries, not psychological studies.
Reviewers have called my star characters well-developed and some of the secondary players quirky. Reviewers have also commented favorably on my settings. Dru and Lake are Atlantans, but Dru’s cases take her to places like Palm Springs (The Last Temptation) and Wilmington, N. C. wine country (The Devil Laughed). I’ve been to these places and have soaked up the ambience and did my best to translate that to the page.
Settings have changed over the eras, from Edgar Allen Poe to Dennis Lehane. As Alfred Hitchcock wrote: “One of the ways in which the suspense drama must change is in its setting. The Orient Express, for example, has had its day as a scene for spy melodrama. I think the same may be said of narrow stairways in high towers, subways and the like…” Wherever the location took Hitchcock, he shot to maximize anxiety and fear, compassion and shame.
When in a nostalgic mood, we watch old movies and read Ngaio Marsh, for instance, but writers today cannot, and should not, try to duplicate their settings. Writers must put our modern characters in the brave new world of high-energy action — on the streets of our scary cities verily on the cutting edge of life. It’s imperative that we condition our characters to suspect their neighbors, expect the worst and, yes, wait for it.
But we writers must take care to not overdo it. Some authors maintain suspense at a fever pitch, with no let up. Whew. How exhausting. We’ve all read those books. If there are no peaks and valleys in fiction, as there is in real life, we don’t get a respite. It takes the lull in the valley to appreciate the peak of suspense. Like we humans don’t live on the razor’s edge all the time, neither should our characters. Give ‘em a rest and let them regroup. Live to murder another day.
With Moriah Dru, I put myself in her skin and feel how I would react given the situations she finds herself in. Yeah, she shoots to kill, and yeah she feels bad afterward. She has Richard Lake to go into battle with her, and she has him to comfort her when she’s morose. Like the real me who avoids conflict at the anticipation of it, so does Dru, but it is the nature of her job to rescue and rescue work calls for troubled people. Troubled people do murderous things –for which we wait.
As a writer, I care about every character I write into my plots, even the eventual villains. I want my readers to care and feel their motivations, I don’t write flat out thrillers where the bad guy is known from the start. It’s hard to make him a sympathetic character or anticipate his next murder. We need mysteries and suspense fiction to make our little worries and anxieties smaller in comparison. So I’ve made it my job as a writer to make readers wait for the murder.
Retired journalist Gerrie Ferris Finger won the St. Martin’s Minotaur/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery novel for THE END GAME. It was the first in the Moriah Dru/Richard Lake series. The second, THE LAST TEMPTATION, was released by Five Star Gale in August, 2012. The third in the series, THE DEVIL LAUGHED is her new release (Aug. 21). After spending twenty years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a reporter, editor, and columnist, she moved to coastal Georgia with her husband, Alan, and standard poodle, Bogey.
In this the third in the Moriah Dru/Richard Lake mystery series, Dru, owner of Child Trace, and Lake, an Atlanta police lieutenant, have been invited to Lake Lanier in the mountains of North Georgia for the scorcher of a 4th of July holiday. There, Dru discovers the stern of a boat protruding from a deep water cove. Extreme drought had uncovered the sailboat Scuppernong, missing nearly four years.
Two couples – Johnny and Candice Browne and Laurant and Janet Cocineau – had been partying on the boat in a year when the lake was full pool. Johnny’s body was discovered with his head bashed in near the marina, but the sailboat and the other three disappeared that night without leaving a trace or a clue.
Raising the sailboat yields no bodies but a cadaver dog alerts. However, investigators find no bodies and theories continue to run rampant. Popular among them is that adulterers Candice and Laurant also killed Janet then skipped to Rio, a country they visited together. The cadaver dog is alerts to a body in the lake. It’s not one of the boaters, but a woman from Yarrow, the small mountain town on the lake. It brings that tight community-heretofore not suspected-under suspicion. The investigation also takes Dru to Cape Fear wine country, the region the boaters called home.
In a reverse of her child finder role, Dru is hired to find Candice by twelve-year-old Evangeline, a precocious girl who has unshakeable faith that her mother is alive.