Novelists are often advised to write a killer first line, a hook so powerful it'll drag the reader by the throat into the rest of the book. It's the old adage of making a good first impression, this time in literary form. Here's Stephen King's opinion on the subject: 'An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.' Hard to argue with that! As part of the 'Five' series, in this week's post I'm examining five great opening sentences from novels.
1. The Crow Road - Ian Banks (1992)
'It was the day my grandmother exploded.' Wow, what a kicker first line! Followed by: 'I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.' Not bad for a second line, either!
The rest of the book doesn't disappoint. I have a love/hate relationship with Iain Banks's novels, having loathed 'The Wasp Factory', been ambivalent about 'Stonemouth', and awed by 'The Crow Road'. The latter is the story of Prentice McHoan, who seeks answers about the disappearance of his uncle eight years ago.
The Crow Road is the name of the book Prentice's uncle, Rory, was writing when he vanished, and is also a metaphor for death. Along the way Prentice questions the existence of God and the afterlife, fuelled by sex, drink, and illegal substances. It's a great read!
2. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
'I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.' Well, that's intriguing! Right from the start, we're made aware that 'Middlesex' is a story of intergender life, if the title didn't make it obvious. But why did the protagonist's second birth take place in an emergency room? Jeffrey Eugenides's clever opening salvo makes me keen to discover more....
'Middlesex' is the story of Calliope Stephanides and her strange family secret. Calliope later becomes Cal, the narrator of the novel. He/she is an intersex individual raised as a girl, but who, hormonally speaking, is male. Growing up in 1970s Michigan, Cal/Calliope's story is set against a background detailing the experiences of Greek immigrants in the United States, and the fortunes of Detroit. 'Middlesex' won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book was also shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the International Dublin Literary Award.
3. Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell (1949)
'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.' Regular readers of my blog will already know the high regard in which I hold this novel, ever since its story of dystopian tyranny stunned me when I read it as a teenager. And what a great opening line! Who wouldn't read that last word and think 'huh?'
From the start, Orwell makes us aware we're entering a strange and disturbing world, one that's familiar and at the same time different. A world in which the calendar months haven't changed, but the way we tell time has. We're all conversant with the twenty-four hour clock, yet the way Orwell uses it grabs our attention. By a simple word trick, he sets the scene for life on Airstrip One, formerly Great Britain. A world in which, to quote from the book, 'who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past'. Enter Winston Smith, whose job it is to rewrite the past, despite inwardly rebelling against life in totalitarian Britain.'1984' is a grim read in places, especially the interrogation scenes, but it's deservedly a classic.
4. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath (1963)
'It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.' In one sentence, Plath sets the scene: it's summer, it's 1953, our protagonist is in New York, and we already know she's confused.
'The Bell Jar' is not an easy read, being partly based on Plath's own experiences with mental illness. It's the story of Esther Greenwood, a young woman who wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine. At first, she's delighted, believing she'll finally achieve her dream of becoming a writer. The fast pace of New York only serves to frighten her, though, and she has no idea what to do with her life. The only alternatives appear to be motherhood or a job as a stenographer, neither of which appeal. Gradually, Esther's life slides out of control. She spirals into depression, the bell jar of the book's title being a metaphor for her mental prison.
'The Bell Jar', Sylvia Plath's only novel, was originally published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Plath committed suicide shortly after the book's UK publication.
5. Earthly Powers - Anthony Burgess (1980)
'It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.' So much information wrapped up in one sentence! What strikes me the most is the word 'catamite', a word we seldom hear nowadays, meaning it's immediately attention grabbing. Then there's the fact our protagonist tells us he's eighty-one. Ageism is alive and well in our society; many people write off the elderly as being past sex, but this one clearly isn't. Throw religion into the mix in the shape of the visiting archbishop, and Burgess gives us a masterly opening to his novel.
'Earthly Powers' tells the story of Kenneth Toomey, a novelist who embarks on writing his memoirs. Toomey is also asked by the Archbishop of Malta to help with the canonisation of Carlo Campanati. Campanati uses his guile to rise through the ranks of the Catholic Church; Burgess uses him to illustrate the lust for power and what men will do to attain it. Power, sex and religion - the stage is set for a great read!
Do you have any favourite opening lines from novels?
Leave a comment and let me know!
My second novel, 'Sister, Psychopath', was inspired by a real-life crime. At a writing workshop, our facilitator told us about a murder carried out by a mentally disturbed woman. She fixated on a male colleague, a married man who had a young child. They were never lovers but her obsession with him steadily grew, so much so that she decided to murder his wife and child, believing she could then marry him. She went ahead and killed his family, but her daughter became suspicious and contacted the police. The woman was arrested and convicted, receiving a life sentence.
When I heard this, my curiosity was piqued. How would it feel, I wondered, to be that woman's daughter? To make such a terrible discovery about her mother? The point our facilitator was making was that true crime is often a great source of inspiration for fiction writers. In this instance, it certainly was for me. Out of this premise came the character of Megan Copeland in 'Sister, Psychopath'. I ended up taking the novel down a different path, away from Tilly Copeland's fixation on her boss, exploring instead the relationship between Megan and her sociopathic sister Chloe. However, I'll always be grateful to our workshop leader for sowing the seeds for my second novel.
My experience isn't unusual, of course. Many novels have been influenced by true-life crimes. In this week's blog post I'll continue my 'Five' series by giving some examples.
1. Psycho - Robert Bloch, 1959
Written in 1959 by Robert Bloch, Psycho was inspired by the real-life crime of Ed Gein, arrested in 1957 for the murders of two women in Wisconsin. When police searched his home, they found furniture and clothing made of skin and female body parts. Gein had raided graveyards to make a skin suit that he planned to wear while pretending to be his dead mother. Bloch's novel created the iconic character of motel owner Norman Bates, who murders his mother and takes on her personality. Even if they've not read the book, most people are familiar with the story from the famous Alfred Hitchcock film. Remember the shower scene?!
Here's the synopsis of the novel from Amazon: 'She was a fugitive, lost in a storm. That was when she saw the sign: motel - vacancy. The sign was unlit, the motel dark. She switched off the engine, and sat thinking, alone and frightened. She had nobody. The stolen money wouldn't help her, and Sam couldn't either, because she had taken the wrong turning; she was on a strange road. There was nothing she could do now - she had made her grave and she'd have to lie in it. She froze. Where had that come from? Grave. It was bed, not grave. She shivered in the cold car, surrounded by shadows. Then, without a sound, a dark shape emerged from the blackness and the car door opened. Psycho is not a tale for queasy stomachs or faint hearts. It is filled with horrifying suspense and the climax, instead of being a relief, will hit the reader with bone-shattering force.'
2. The Silence of the Lambs - Thomas Harris, 1988
The exploits of Ed Gein also served as the inspiration for Thomas Harris's 1998 novel The Silence of The Lambs. In the book, Gein morphs into a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, a man who kidnaps overweight women, starves them for a few days and then kills and skins them. Like Psycho, most people know the story even if they've not read the book. Who hasn't seen the film clip of Hannibal Lecter expressing his preference for Chianti to accompany a dish of human liver?!
Here's the Amazon synopsis of the novel: 'An FBI trainee. A psychopath locked up for unspeakable crimes. And a serial killer getting ever closer to his latest victim ... FBI rookie Clarice Starling turns to Dr. Hannibal Lecter, monster cannibal held in a hospital for the criminally insane, for insight into the deadly madman she must find. As Dr. Lecter invites her into the darkest chambers of his mind, he forces her to confront her own childhood demons as the price of understanding, an unspeakable tuition he exacts to teach her how the monster thinks. And time is running out . . .'
3. The Black Dahlia - James Ellroy, 1987
James Ellroy based The Black Dahlia on one of Hollywood’s most infamous unsolved crimes. In 1947, waitress Elizabeth Short’s body was found mutilated and dumped in a car park in Los Angeles. The murder horrified the public; newspapers weighed in by sensationalising the case, nicknaming the victim 'Black Dahlia' because she always wore black clothing. Ellroy's novel explores how the lives of the two detectives who investigate the case, Dwight Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, are destroyed by it. For Blanchard, the case revives memories of his sister Laurie, who vanished and was never found, fuelling his fears about what might have happened to her. Bleichert, however, develops an obsession with Black Dahlia, fancying himself in love and making connections between her troubled life and his own.
Here's the synopsis from Amazon: 'A neo-noir crime novel from the legendary crime novelist James Ellroy. Los Angeles, 15th January 1947: a beautiful young woman walked into the night and met her horrific destiny. Five days later, her tortured body was found drained of blood and cut in half. The newspapers called her 'The Black Dahlia'. Two cops are caught up in the investigation and embark on a hellish journey that takes them to the core of the dead girl's twisted life...'
4. We Need to Talk about Kevin - Lionel Shriver, 2003
Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel We Need To Talk About Kevin was inspired by the 1999 shootings in Colombine, USA. The Colorado town is where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered twelve fellow students and a teacher at their high school. Shriver references the killings in her novel by making the Kevin of the title commit mass murder in a similar way. The book is structured in the form of letters from Eva Khatchadourian to her estranged husband Franklin Plaskett, in which she charts her cold relationship with their son Kevin. Her maternal indifference and occasional violence towards the boy may, she fears, have contributed to his sociopathic tendencies. In the book, Shriver examines the age-old question of nature versus nurture to determine why Kevin acts the way he does. Lacking normal emotions and the capacity for love, he is contemptuous and manipulative, reserving special hatred for his mother. He's certainly a hard character to like, let alone love.
Here's the synopsis from Amazon: 'Eva never really wanted to be a mother; certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher who tried to befriend him. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood and Kevin's horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her absent husband, Franklyn. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.'
5. Room - Emma Donoghue, 2010
Emma Donoghue wrote her acclaimed novel, Room, in 2010 after the Josef Fritzl case became news world-wide. In 2008, Elisabeth Fritzl, 42, told police she had been held captive by her father for twenty-four years in makeshift accommodation below the family home in Austria. Fritzl had raped her throughout that time and as a result she had given birth to seven children by him. Among them was five-year-old Felix, the inspiration for Donoghue’s Jack, held captive along with his mother in Room.
To me, Room is an incredible book. Emma Donoghue took a brave step in narrating its events from the perspective of a five-year-old boy and her gamble largely pays off. In places, it doesn't quite work - Jack sometimes acts with a maturity beyond such a young child's capabilities, but I still consider Room an excellent read. Had I written it, I'd have told the story from Ma's point of view, as I suspect many authors would have done. I admire Donoghue, therefore, for not taking the obvious route when writing the book. Her way is powerful because of course, Jack doesn't understand his situation, enhancing the suspense for the reader as the truth about Room is revealed. His childish perception also acts as a tool to inject humour into the narrative. It's gripping stuff! Here's the synopsis from Amazon:
'Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Jack lives with his Ma in Room. Room has a single locked door and a skylight, and it measures ten feet by ten feet. Jack loves watching TV but he knows that nothing he sees on the screen is truly real - only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits there is a world outside. Devastating yet uplifting, Room by Emma Donoghue is a luminous portrait of a boundless maternal love. It has sold more than two million copies, was a number one bestseller and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange prizes. Few books have reached modern classic status so swiftly.'
Bonus - a sixth book! This one's a true crime story...
Whilst it's not a novel but a true crime story, I wanted to include Death in Disguise: The Amazing True Story of the Chelsea Murders, by Gary Powell. I thought it would be interesting to add at least one real-life crime book to this blog post. Here's the synopsis from Amazon:
Victorian Chelsea was a thriving commercial and residential development, known for its grand houses and pleasant garden squares. Violent crime was unheard of in this leafy suburb. The double murder of an elderly man of God and his faithful housekeeper in two ferocious, bloody attacks in May of 1870 therefore shook the residents of Chelsea to the core. This volume examines this extraordinary case, one which could have leapt straight from the pen of Agatha Christie herself: the solving of the case relied on the discovery of a packing box dripping with blood, and the capture of a mysterious French nephew. This volume, compiled by a former detective, looks at the facts: no direct evidence to place the suspect at either of the crime scenes; no weapon recovered; no motive substantiated. It lets you, the reader, decide: would you, on the evidence presented, have sent the same man to the gallows?
Sounds fascinating! If you're interested, here's the link to Gary's book on Amazon or you can click the image. Isn't that a fantastic cover, by the way?
Let's hear from you!
What novels based on real-life crimes have you enjoyed? Leave me a comment and let me know!
I'm a huge admirer of Stephen King. I love his work, but I'm also in awe of his prolific output. Many of his novels are over 700 pages in length and he's written so damn many of them - fifty-eight, to be exact! He's also penned over two hundred short stories and five non-fiction books. OK, so he embarked on his writing career decades ago, but even so the sheer volume of his output is impressive. In this week's blog post, I'll examine five other prolific authors.
1. Dame Agatha Christie
Dame Agatha Christie was an English crime novelist, short story writer and playwright. She wrote sixty-nine novels and nineteen plays, published over a fifty-six year period, and she also authored romantic fiction under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Her murder mystery play, The Mousetrap, holds the record for being the world's longest-running theatre production; in 1971 she was made a Dame of the British Empire for her enormous contribution to literature.
Besides being prolific, Dame Agatha is the most published novelist in history, and her estimated sales are in the region of three billion (!) books. I read all her detective stories during my teens, being swept away by the sleuthing skills of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, as well as Christie's fascinating plots. Her novels have been translated into over one hundred languages. 'And Then There Were None' is her best-selling title, having sold over 100 million copies to date, making it one of the most popular books of all time. Wow!
2. Dame Barbara Cartland
Another Dame of the British Empire! Barbara Cartland wrote 723 novels, which have been translated into thirty-six languages, and she holds the world record for the most novels published in a single year - twenty-three. Twenty-three?! Did she ever sleep? Admittedly her books tend to be short, but even so...
She wrote romantic fiction primarily but also plays and music. Her book sales reportedly top 750 million copies, although some sources have put the figure at over two billion. Two billion?! Even if the first figure is more accurate, that's a lot of book sales - I can only aspire to such numbers!
Barbara Cartland's books are tame by today's standard, featuring virginal heroines and little, if any, sexual imagery. Her later novels were historical romances, which made it easier to cast virgins as the protagonists. During her later years, she became a self-proclaimed expert on romance although her views were considered hopelessly outdated by many. I well remember her many television appearances in which she'd expound her views on various issues, including gentlemanly conduct and how to keep the romance in relationships. She was a very memorable character, usually appearing bedecked in jewels, wearing flouncy pink dresses and clutching a fluffy white dog. They don't make them like that anymore!
3. Nora Roberts
The only one of my chosen novelists still alive, Nora Roberts also writes romance novels and to date has published two hundred and nine. She concentrates on one book at a time, which makes her prolific output even more remarkable. She writes for eight hours a day, every day, without fail, even when on holiday. (I'm starting to doubt whether the authors I've chosen are human!)
In the nineties, her publishers decided they couldn't keep pace with her output and asked her to consider adopting a pseudonym so they could publish more of her work each year. She decided to use her new pen name to switch tack and begin writing romantic suspense fiction, under the name of J D Robb. As J D Robb, Roberts has also published a series of science fiction novels set in the mid-twenty-first century, featuring a New York City detective. Whilst these novels are police procedural ones as well as science fiction, J D Robb has maintained the romantic element by focusing on the relationship between Detective Eve Dallas and her husband. Since 1999, every one of Nora Roberts's books has been a New York Times bestseller, and she was the first novelist to be admitted to the Romance Writers of America's Hall of Fame. An amazing woman!
4. John Creasey
John Creasey was an English crime and science fiction writer with six hundred novels to his credit, using twenty-eight pseudonyms. Six hundred?! I need to up my game, and quickly...
Many of his characters, such as The Honourable Richard Rollison (The Toff) and Commander George Gideon of Scotland Yard, continued through a series. Besides crime and science fiction, he also wrote Western novels and romances, using his various pen names.
In 1962, Creasey won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) for 'Gideon's Fire', written under his pseudonym J. J. Marric. In 1969 he received the MWA's greatest honour, the Grand Master Award. In the UK, Creasey founded The Crime Writers Association (CWA), which awards the New Blood Dagger each year for a first book by an unpublished writer. Another recipient of a UK honour, he was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for his services during World War Two.
5. Isaac Asimov
The last of our prolific wordsmiths, Isaac Asimov, was a science fiction writer, although he also wrote scientific non-fiction, being a professor of biochemistry at Boston University. He either wrote or edited over five hundred books as well as an estimated ninety thousand letters. Like the other authors I've mentioned, Asimov's works have been extensively translated into other languages.
Asimov received several awards for his writing, as well as fourteen honorary doctorate degrees. His short story 'Nightfall', written in 1941, was voted by The Science Fiction Writers of America as the best one ever written in its genre and he was made a Grand Master of the SFWA in 1987. His most interesting accolade may well be the fact that in 2009 a crater on Mars was named after him - I love that!
Unusual facts about Asimov? He claimed in the third volume of his autobiography to love small, enclosed spaces, citing his childhood desire to own a subway magazine stand, in which he'd ensconce himself and listen to the rumble of the trains as he read. Each to their own...
Phew! I feel exhausted...
I'm sure you're probably as dumbstruck as I am at the literary output of the authors I've mentioned! I feel tired just thinking about writing six hundred books - although, given my late start as a novelist, it's unlikely I'll achieve one hundred titles, let alone six times that number. Speaking of which, I'd better stop blogging and get back to writing - I'll catch up with you again in my next post. Until then...
Anyone who knows me will testify how passionate I am about foreign travel. I've been fortunate enough to have done lots of globe-trotting in my life, with more trips planned; it makes sense, therefore, that a keen reader like me should enjoy novels based around travel. In this week's post, I examine as part of my 'Five' series some well-known books classed as travel fiction or memoirs. Commencing take-off....
1. The Beach - Alex Garland
Written in 1996 by British author Alex Garland, 'The Beach' tells the story of Richard, who, when the novel opens, is staying in the notorious Khao San Road area of Bangkok (I've spent many a happy hour exploring Khao San's peculiarities - I love the place!)
Richard becomes fascinated by what he hears about a remote beach situated in the Gulf of Thailand, described as stunningly beautiful and inaccessible to tourists. Daffy Duck, the Scotsman who tells him about this tropical Garden of Eden, leaves him a map disclosing its location before committing suicide. Intrigued, Richard hooks up with a French couple, Etienne and Francois, and the trio set off to find the beach. Once there, they discover a secretive community living alongside Thai cannabis growers. Events, of course, soon take a sinister turn - I won't say more as I don't wish to give plot spoilers, but at times 'The Beach' has distinct overtones of William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'. The body count grows amid the backdrop of the annual Tet Festival. Will Richard survive the experience?
2. On The Road - Jack Kerouac
Written in 1951 but not published until 1957, 'On The Road' is a novel by Jack Kerouac, based on his travels across America. The story epitomises the post-war Beat and counter-culture movements, being heavily based around spiritual quests and the rejection of materialism, and laced with copious amounts of jazz music, sex and psychedelic drugs. Kerouac emerges in the book as the narrator, Sal Paradise, who embarks on a road trip with his friend Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady, another major figure of the Beat movement.) Saddened by his recent divorce, Sal is eager to accompany the free-spirited Dean and discover what life on the road can offer him. They criss-cross the country from coast to coast, hitting San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Denver and Detroit. As someone who has long held an ambition to drive across the USA, this fascinates me!
A weird fact about 'On The Road' - the first draft was typed on a continuous 120-feet long scroll of tracing paper sheets, cut to size and taped together. The novel was transcribed from Kerouac's notebooks and typed without margins or paragraph breaks, taking him just three weeks (wow, that's fast!) to complete. I can only assume he couldn't afford proper paper on which to type! The scroll still exists and was bought by the owner of the Indianapolis Colts for $2.43 million in 2001.
3. Eat, Pray, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert
'Eat, Pray, Love' was written in 2006 by American author Elizabeth Gilbert and tells the story of her travels following her divorce and unsuccessful rebound relationship. The book is split into three sections, each corresponding with a different location in Gilbert's travels. First she spent four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life, which is the 'eat' section of the narrative. As a foodie and Italophile, I love this part! Next came three months in India, where Gilbert explores her spirituality ('pray'). Finally she travelled to Bali, where she fell in love with a Brazilian businessman ('love'), whom she subsequently married.
The book has attracted mixed reviews, with many being critical of Gilbert's alleged self-absorption. Others, like Oprah Winfrey, have loved the memoir (Oprah devoted two episodes of her show to it) and the 2010 film version has also proved very popular. Gilbert has also written another memoir ('Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage') as a sequel to 'Eat, Pray, Love', as well as short stories, essays and novels.
4. Around The World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne
Ah, the classic Jules Verne novel, beloved since its publication in 1873! The book tells the story of Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout as they attempt to win a £20,000 bet as to whether the pair can circumnavigate the globe in eighty days. The traveller in me thrills at the challenge - perhaps I should give it a go sometime!
Fogg and Passepartout travel by rail and steamer, journeying first to Egypt, then to India, Hong Kong, Japan and the USA before crossing the Atlantic back to London. Despite what you see on the book cover, they never set foot in a balloon - the idea is brought up in one of the chapters but dismissed as being too risky. The image of a balloon has become synonymous with the book, however, thanks to the 1956 film adaptation.
Many people have since circumnavigated the world in eighty days or less, including British actor and fellow travel-holic Michael Palin, who made the trip in seventy-nine days as part of a very entertaining 1989 TV travel documentary.
5. Backpack - Emily Barr
This novel brings back memories! I came across it in a hostel in the beach resort of Mui Ne in southern Vietnam, and read it in one go whilst stretched out on a lounger next to the sea. Happy days! Here's the back blurb:
It's New Year's Day and the year isn't kicking off well for Tansy: her mother's dead, she's a cocaine addict and her boyfriend has just left her. A trip around the world seems like the only option except that she's not interested in seeing the world, just escaping from it, and the last people she wants to hang out with are backpackers. Like a lot of travellers on the Lonely-Planet-led Asian Grand Tour, Tansy is intensely irritating at first. Always on the look out for the "real" Vietnam--the one in which she can walk around "like a model, fanning myself gently, strolling into ancient temples and learning about inner peace"--she is opinionated, narrow-minded and remarkably naive (for a supposed media luvvy). Once she has shrugged off her addiction to lines of coke, skinny lattes and Nicole Fahri jumpers, she becomes more appealing. So by the time she's fallen for Max, a fellow traveller, she'll have won you over and you'll be just as worried as she is about the serial killer who appears to be on her trail...
Let's hear from you!
Wow, this post has made me want to pack my rucksack! Have you read any of the books I've mentioned? Any other travel-based books that you love? Leave a comment and let me know!
I'm delighted to welcome novelist Daryl Rothman to my blog! Daryl has written this guest post, The Ties That Bind: Five Traits Shared by Great Suspense Novels. Over to you, Daryl!
You just can't put it down...
Have you ever experienced that with a book? Most people have, if they’re lucky. Of course, I’ve lost myself so thoroughly in a great novel that I’ve run late for important engagements, snuck in reading time at work, and read entire days away. And it’s glorious. But have you ever stopped and considered what kinds of books most commonly ensnare you in this manner? Any great book can do so, but for many people, suspenseful, psychological thrillers comprise the most usual suspects. The brilliant, beautiful psychotherapist whom we learn will kill her husband; the murder of a 12-year-old girl which evokes haunting memories for an Irish detective; the fiendish plans and eventual execution of murder and attempts at moral justification in mid-19th-century Russia; a brilliant but profoundly troubled computer hacker who finds herself in the crosshairs of espionage and murder in high-society Sweden; a fledgling FBI agent tasked with culling secrets from an imprisoned murderer before another serial killer strikes again. What are the common traits that keep us on the edge of our seats (or upright in our beds, biting our nails as we compulsively, helplessly turn page after scintillating page)? Why can’t we put these books down?
I am a bit leery of authoritative, definitive lists—the greatest beauty of great books, after all, is that they belong to the reader, gifted by talented scribes, suffused with memorable characters and compelling details, plots and stories, but belonging to each reader nonetheless, to see, feel and absorb as only she can. So any list detailing traits of great books is inevitably incomplete. But after considering my own favorites and other perspectives, I have compiled here a list of 5 traits I believe many great suspense novels share, and offered examples for each.
1. Front-row seats
Great suspense novels confer upon readers the ultimate of vantage points. Often, though not always, this manifests via dramatic irony, wherein the reader is privy to something important that a main character(s) is not. In "The Silent Wife", we come to know—and are directly advised that the protagonist does not know—that she will commit murder. Top authors are not coy with their readers (despite the plot twists we’ll discuss a bit further down)—they display complete trust in us, bestowing ringside seats to the show. In Dostoevsky’s classic "Crime and Punishment", we again learn early of nefarious plans and so the suspense resides not in discovering Raskolnikov’s murderous contemplations, but in whether and when he shall indeed execute them, and what the ramifications will be. Foreshadowing, when properly presented, lurks in this dark realm as well, gilding our gaudy seats with golden touches of spine-tingling hints and anticipation.
2. Clockwork universe
In most good books, and most assuredly in great suspense novels, the clock is ticking. Sometimes literally: 24 hours until the bomb explodes… one week before the mob returns for their money… 60 minutes (naturally) before the sands pass through the hourglass in the witch’s castle. Even if it is not stated so explicitly, there is almost always a race against time in one way or another—some decision or action which must be made or taken within SOME limited time frame in order to achieve or avoid a pretty significant result. Many of the best thrillers have a trigger action, that act or decision which, whether intentional or otherwise, sets the gears of the story’s plot in motion.
Whilst not a novel, the recently concluded and highly-acclaimed drama "Breaking Bad" offered a perfect example of a trigger mechanism: when Walter White makes the decision to cook and sell meth, he triggers a series of dramatic, violent, often bizarre but in the end seemingly inevitable events. This article does a great job elaborating, and is a worthy primer on many of the principles of the clockwork universe in fiction. But back to the suspense novels, and the matter of ticking time: "The Silence of the Lambs" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" both mine the murky depths of serial killers, and the reader gets and feels the urgency. The protagonists must find the killer before he claims his next victim. A literary clockwork universe also is tinged with notions of destiny and fate—tension is heightened as the reader is imbued with the realization that the protagonists are not only on a collision course with the antagonists, but that the odds seem somehow preordained against them.
3. Unbelievably (yet made believable) high stakes
We must not only care about the protagonists, but also about what they care about. A protagonist may be richly developed, beautifully-textured and wholly relatable… yet if all she cares about is whether the prolonged winter has adversely affected her spring garden, this is probably insufficient to compel the reader to keep turning pages. Ah, but if the prolonged winter has adversely affected her spring garden, in which she was growing a hybrid plant whose seeds contained the cure to a worldwide pandemic, suddenly the stakes have soared higher. In “Lambs” and “Dragon Tattoo” the stakes are pretty darn clear—stopping a serial killer is about as intense as it gets—but even taut tales of murder are often suffused with additional, more nuanced stakes.
"In the Woods" is the story of an Irish detective also on the trail of a killer, but the pursuit stirs embers of a long-repressed trauma directly connected to the crimes he’s investigating. Throw in an intense and ultimately ill-fated romance with his partner, and the stakes for Detective Ryan are not only high, but layered and complex: can he cope with the awakening memories which begin to plague him anew?... can he and Det. Maddox navigate the murky waters of their smoldering relationship while remaining focused enough to solve the deepening mystery? But it’s more than just really high stakes—the higher they are, the more intense or even fantastical—the greater the burden on the author to make them seem plausible. This is accomplished not merely by creating stakes which resonate with a reader’s notions of possibility—for so often we read to escape the constraints of reality and limited possibility—but by creating a world wherein it seems possible—even inevitable—for the characters.
4. Twists and yet more twists
A great thriller has twists—usually lots of them. But if we are to distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary works of suspense, it again comes down to execution (sometimes literally). J But the great ones don’t steep their manuscript full of twists merely for the sake of it, or for (almost always) fleeting shock value alone. The best twists knock us on our backsides but we gladly bolt back up, smiling: thank you sir, may I have another? They knock our socks off and we revel in the surprise yet perhaps even gently chide ourselves for not seeing it coming but also loving that we didn’t. Fowles’ "The Magus" is replete with dizzying, imaginative twists, yet when taken in composite they thread together in the tapestry of the psychological playground (god games) the author has presented. I’ve had the privilege of guest posting for speculative fiction author and owner of the highly-acclaimed "Helping Writers Become Authors" website K M Weiland, who wrote a fantastic post on how to write killer plot twists. Note her exhortation early on: poorly executed twists are not only ineffective but can be counterproductive and even insulting. The great ones get it right.
5. When all's said and done, CHARACTER
This is so obvious as to become all-too-often-neglected. There is a tendency when pondering literary genres to become so fixated upon the various traits and devices that define each. To wit, this post. Here we are dissecting common threads which weave through great suspense novels. And this is good and well for a discussion of what we love to read and why, but a danger lurks for the scribe who loses herself in these considerations. An obsession with assuring one has included all requisite components and devices can result in a work that is gimmicky and trite. Look at me, I’m a suspense novel—did you see all those great twists? Eh? Eh? Meh. The great thrillers unveil these components seamlessly, seemingly effortlessly (I say seemingly because great writing is hard work) and takes us for the ride of a lifetime. But even for those which have nailed every other great element, if they fail to deliver memorable characters, the work will ultimately ring hollow, fall flat. Strong characterization is incumbent upon any great story, even more so, I’d argue, in great thrillers, for even though conventional wisdom may suggest successful orchestration of all other suspense elements perhaps minimizes the requirement of epic characters, the opposite is in fact true: terrific plotting, harrowing danger, cliffhanger twists all harbor the potential to outshine the characters themselves. But the best suspense novelists understand their work will be all the more riveting, resonate more enduringly, if all the components complement, rather than compete with one another, and strong characters are an essential ingredient. What do you think of first when I mention "Silence of the Lambs"? A haunting psychological expose on the twisted minds of serial killers and the inner-workings of the FBI? Maybe. But more likely you think of him, the wonderfully puerile Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Or her, the sublimely vulnerable but fiercely courageous Agent Starling. Characters. They are the living vessel through which all the other elements find voice.
Lists and resources
When these and the myriad additional traits of great suspense novels come together, it is something to behold. Symphonic. Scintillating. Evoking and provoking. More than anything, one hell of a read.
Here are some great lists of terrific suspense novels:
What do you think? What are some of your favorite suspense novels and what were the traits that grabbed you the most? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
Thank you, Daryl!
I'd like to thank Daryl Rothman for this terrific blog post. Daryl is a father, author, early childhood leader and public speaker. He received his BA from the University of Illinois, MSW from Washington University and is a licensed clinical social worker. His website features his blog, short stories, publications, guest interviews, and news about his novels. He has guest-blogged for K M Weiland, CS Lakin, Joanna Penn, Firepole Marketing and published flash fiction for The Hoot and flash fiction for Kal Ba Publishing. Daryl may be found on Twitter, Linked In and Google+. From early in life he harbored three aspirations: become a father, become a writer, and become a ballplayer for his hometown Cardinals. He is blessed to have achieved the first, is happily continuing his journey regarding the second and he will neither confirm nor deny holding out hope for the third.
For my fourth novel, 'The Second Captive', I adopted a two-part structure, together with a prologue and epilogue. Not particularly unusual, but it got me thinking. Just how weird and wacky can a novelist get with the way he/she constructs a novel? And are there any examples I could share with my blog readers? It turns out there are plenty. Here are five examples of novels that take a different approach to the classic chapter-by-chapter structure.
1. 'Dolores Claiborne' - Stephen King
'Dolores Claiborne' is a 1992 thriller by Stephen King, narrated by Dolores herself. The novel is unusual in that there are no chapters or other section breaks. Instead, the book is a single continuous piece of prose that reads like a monologue. It sounds strange, but it works. Here's a summary of the plot.
Dolores Claiborne is being interrogated by the police, under suspicion of murdering her wealthy employer, an elderly woman named Vera Donovan whom she has looked after for years. The two women had a difficult yet close relationship. Dolores is adamant that she is innocent; however, she does confess to killing her husband, Joe St. George, almost thirty years before, after finding out that he sexually molested their fourteen-year-old daughter. Dolores's confession develops into the story of her life, her troubled marriage, and her relationship with her employer. Along the way we also get glimpses into the personal lives of the police officers interrogating her, disclosed through Dolores's commentary, which demonstrates an astute grasp of human nature.
2. 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' - John Fowles
'The French Lieutenant's Woman', written by John Fowles in 1969, is a historical fiction novel. It's unusual in that the narrator intervenes throughout the novel and later becomes a character in it. Furthermore, he offers three different ways for the narrative to end. (No plot spoilers, I promise!) After the first ending, the narrator appears as a character sharing a railway compartment with the male protagonist. He tosses a coin to determine the order in which he will portray the other two possible endings, emphasising their equal plausibility. Here's a summary of the plot.
Sarah Woodruff, the 'Woman' of the title, also known as 'Tragedy', lives in Lyme Regis as a disgraced woman, supposedly abandoned by a French ship's officer named Varguennes who has returned to France and married. She spends a lot of time on The Cobb, a stone jetty where she stares out at the sea, thus increasing her mysterious reputation. One day, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman, his fiancée, see Sarah walking along the cliffside. Ernestina tells Charles something of Sarah's story, and he becomes curious about her. He has several more encounters with Sarah, and ends up falling in love with her. Returning from a journey to Ernestina's father, Charles has the choice of either returning to Ernestina or visiting Sarah. It's at this point that the first possible ending kicks in, triggering the appearance of the narrator in Charles's railway carriage and the other endings. Intriguing!
3. 'Slaughterhouse Five' - Kurt Vonnegut
The novel boasting the unwieldy title of 'Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death' was written in 1969 by Kurt Vonnegut. It's a satirical novel that's partly autobiographical, being based on Vonnegut's World War Two experiences, particularly the fire-bombing of Dresden. Its structure is unusual in that the story is told in a non-linear order and events become clear through various flashbacks (or time travel experiences) involving the narrator. He describes the stories of Billy Pilgrim, who believes himself to have been in an alien zoo and to experience time travel. Here's a summary of the plot.
Billy Pilgrim is a disoriented, fatalistic, and ill-trained American soldier who refuses to fight in the Second World War. He is captured by the Germans and transported to Dresden where he and his fellow prisoners are housed in a disused slaughterhouse in Dresden. Their building is known as "Schlachthof-fünf" ("Slaughterhouse Five"). During the fire-bombing, the prisoners of war and their German guards hide in a cellar, causing them to be among the few survivors. After the war ends, Billy suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and is put into psychiatric care.
Once released, he marries a woman called Valencia Merble, and they have two children: a son, Robert, and a daughter named Barbara. Years later, on Barbara's wedding night, Billy is captured by an alien space ship and taken to a far-off planet, where he meets a porn star. She and Billy fall in love and have a child together. He is then sent back to Earth to relive past or future moments of his life. In 1968, Billy and a co-pilot are the only survivors of a plane crash. Whilst recovering, he shares a hospital room with a Harvard history professor. Billy talks about the bombing of Dresden, with the professor claiming it was justified. After Barbara takes him home, he sneaks out and drives to New York City. That evening he wanders around Times Square, visiting a bookstore featuring pornography, which brings back memories of his former love. Later, he guests on a radio show where he talks about his time-travels, culminating in being kicked out of the studio. He returns to his hotel room, falls asleep and time-travels back to 1945 Dresden, where the book ends.
4. 'Pale Fire' - Vladimir Nabokov
This novel, written in 1962, is unusual in that it's presented as a 999-line poem entitled "Pale Fire" by the fictional John Shade, with a foreword and lengthy commentary by an academic colleague of the poet, Charles Kinbote. Together these elements form a narrative in which both authors are central characters. The reader can chose to read 'Pale Fire' in the normal linear fashion, or by jumping between Kinbote's notes and Shade's poem. The interaction between Kinbote and Shade takes place in the fictitious town of New Wye, Appalachia, where they live close to each other. Kinbote writes his commentary in a tourist cabin in the equally fictitious western town of Cedarn, Utana.
Canto 1 of Shade's poem includes his early encounters with death and what he believes to be the supernatural. Canto 2 centres on his family and the apparent suicide of his daughter, Hazel. Number 3 focuses on Shade's search for knowledge about an afterlife, whilst 4 offers details regarding his daily life and his poetry, through which he attempts to understand the universe.
Kinbote acquires the manuscript, overseeing the poem's publication, telling readers that it lacks only line 1,000. In his role as co-narrator, he tells three stories, one being his own, especially his friendship with Shade. Kinbote's second story deals with King Charles II, "The Beloved," the deposed king of Zembla, claiming he inspired Shade to write the poem by recounting King Charles's escape to him. The final story is that of Gradus, an assassin dispatched by the new rulers of Zembla to kill the exiled King Charles. In the last note Kinbote makes, to the missing line 1000, he tells how Gradus killed Shade by mistake.
Isn't that all weird and wonderful?
5. 'The Unfortunates' - B S Johnson
B.S. Johnson's 1969 experimental novel 'The Unfortunates' consists of 27 unbound chapters in a box. The first and last chapters are specified but the other 25 can be read in any order. These range in length from a single paragraph to twelve pages.
The author explained this unusual structure by saying it was a better way of conveying the mind’s randomness than the imposed order of a bound book. Here's a summary of the plot.
A sports writer is sent to Nottingham on an assignment, only to find himself confronted by ghosts from his past. As he attempts to report an association football match, memories of his friend, a tragic victim of cancer, haunt his mind.
Let's hear from you!
As I mentioned above, this post is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unusually structured novels. What ones have you read that go beyond the norm in terms of structure? Perhaps you're a novelist yourself who's written a book that's a bit different. Leave me a comment and let me know!
As part of my 'Five' series, today's blog post examines some of the devious ways fictional murderers endeavour to conceal their crimes. Warning - by its nature, this post contains plot spoilers. If you're OK with that, then read on...
1. Apparent lack of motive
One way to escape detection as a murderer is to have no apparent motive. A great example is portrayed in Patricia Highsmith's 1950 thriller 'Strangers on a Train'.
Architect Guy Haines is in love and wants to marry. There's just one catch - he already has a wife. What's more, she's unfaithful. On a train journey, Guy meet Charles Bruno, a psychopath keen to kill his father. They get chatting and Bruno proposes an ingenious solution to their issues - an exchange of murders. Bruno will kill Guy's errant wife if Guy returns the favour and murders Bruno's father.
Bruno is convinced this will work because neither of them will have a motive for the murder they commit, meaning that the police will have no reason to suspect either of them. Guy's mistake is that he doesn't take Bruno seriously. However, Bruno kills Guy's wife while Guy is away in Mexico, and then informs Guy of his crime. Although shocked, Guy hesitates to turn Bruno in to the police. The longer he remains silent, though, the more he implicates himself. In the coming months, Bruno makes increasing demands to pressurise Guy into fulfilling his part of the bargain. After Bruno starts writing anonymous letters to Guy's friends and colleagues, the pressure becomes too great, and Guy murders Bruno's father.
What an ingenious idea! Of course, Bruno's plan begins to unravel once a private detective establishes a connection between Bruno and Guy - but otherwise it might have worked...
2. An unshakeable alibi
Many novels exploit the idea of an unbreakable alibi, one firmly placing the culprit elsewhere when the murder was committed. An obvious way to do this is to make the time of death appear different from what it really was. Even skilled medical examiners can’t always pinpoint the time of death exactly, after all. Let's look at Agatha Christie’s 'Evil Under the Sun' (1982).
Arlena Marshall, a famous and beautiful actress, is strangled while she, her husband Kenneth and her stepdaughter Linda are at the Jolly Roger seaside hotel. At first, it appears that no-one staying at the resort could have been responsible, but in fact the murderers have manipulated time so it provides a solid alibi for them. Until Hercule Poirot steps in to investigate...
How did they do this? Easy. One of Arlena's murderers set Linda's watch 20 minutes forward. Then she asked Linda to check the time, thus giving the guilty pair an alibi for the supposed time of the murder. Later, the same person adjusted the watch back. Simple yet clever, don't you think?
3. Death by natural causes
If you're a fictional character about to commit murder, what better way to conceal your crime than making it appear a natural death? No murder investigation, a quick burial... it has its advantages.
One of the best-known examples is Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (1902). When Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead on the wild moorland near his home, the cause of death is pronounced a heart attack. The elderly man suffered from a weak heart and blame is placed on a family curse after the footprints of a giant hound are reportedly near the body. According to legend, a spectral hound from hell patrols the moors, ready to bring death to the men of the Baskerville family following an ancestral pact with the Devil. Can Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson protect Sir Charles's heir from meeting a similar fate?
Sir Charles's death is, of course, no accident, but murder made to look like a heart attack. Sir Charles was known to be frightened by the curse, elderly and with heart problems, something his killer used to his advantage. The murderer reckoned without Sherlock Holmes's legendary powers of deduction, though! The plot is contrived, sure, but the descriptions of the bleak moors are so incredibly atmospheric and the narrative so creepy that somehow the reader overlooks the unlikelihood of the novel's events.
4. Making murder appear an accident
Following on from the above, another popular fictional murder method involves faking an accident. I recently read Peter Høeg’s 'Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow' (1993), which demonstrates this kind of murder.
In the novel, a young boy, Isaiah Christiansen, falls to his death from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment building where he lives. Isaiah had captivated the heart of the normally rude and surly Greenlander Smilla Jasperson; he seemed the only person capable of penetrating the hard exterior she presents to the world. Distressed by his death, Smilla is drawn to the scene of the accident. When she gets there, she finds clues in the snow that lead her to believe that the boy’s death was not accidental. Thanks to her Greenland upbringing, Smilla is an expert in all matters snow and ice-related, knowledge that she brings to bear as she begins to ask questions. Before long, Smilla discovers that some dangerous people are determined to hide the truth. Her search for answers leads her back to her homeland, where she uncovers the connection between Isaiah’s death and some long-hidden secrets.
5. Making murder look like suicide
A notable example of this murder method occurs in the 2013 novel by Robert Galbraith, 'The Cuckoo's Calling'. (Robert Galbraith is the pen name of J K Rowling, famous for the Harry Potter series of novels). In the book, Cormoran Strike, a private investigator with more than a few issues of his own, is hired by John Bristow, the adopted brother of famous supermodel Lula Landry, otherwise known as 'Cuckoo'. Lula's death is the result of falling five stories from the balcony of her Mayfair apartment building and has already been ruled a suicide. John Bristow, however, suspects otherwise.
Strike is initially reluctant to take on the case, having read extensive media coverage of it. At first he's unwilling to reopen such a thoroughly investigated case. As he talks to those close to Lulu, including her security guard, personal driver, uncle, friends and designer, doubts emerge in his mind. Gradually Strike comes to realise that the circumstances of her death are more ambiguous than he imagined. Who wanted her dead, and did her personal fortune of ten million dollars provide a motive?
What fictional murder methods appeal most to you?
What kind of dastardly demises do you prefer in the novels you read? Do you like ones that are simple and perhaps more realistic, such as faking an accident or suicide, or do more complex killings float your boat? Perhaps something along the lines of the classic 'locked room' sub-genre of crime fiction, in which the murder seems impossible and has usually resulted from a contrived yet ingenious set of circumstances. Leave a comment and let me know!
My readers already know I like to throw a psychopath or two into the mix when I write my novels. It's interesting that most of the respondents to a character competition that I ran said that, if chosen, they want to be cast as one of the bad guys! I think this taps into 'the shadows of the mind' theme of my own books, the dark side of our nature that many people harbour yet keep firmly in check. We're normally decent, law-abiding citizens, but we love to read about psychopaths, those dark, twisted individuals who transcend all boundaries to live life on their terms. Why else would crime, horror and thriller fiction be so popular?
In this post, I've taken five of the most famous fictional psychopaths, and examined what makes them so memorable.
1. Patrick Bateman - American Psycho
American Psycho is a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, telling the story of Patrick Bateman, a wealthy Manhattan businessman and serial killer. The novel is narrated in the first person by Bateman, who charts his life for us, murders included. He frequents nightclubs with his colleagues, snorting cocaine and swapping fashion advice, whilst all the time engaged to marry socialite Evelyn Richards and dealing with his fractured family relationships.
After killing Paul Owen, one of his colleagues, Bateman takes over his victim's apartment, using it as a venue to conduct more murders. All the while, his grip over his urges lessens as the level of his sadism increases. Bateman indulges in rape, torture and mutilation, with a spot of cannibalism and necrophilia thrown in for good measure.
To make matters more bizarre, he talks about the murders to his colleagues, who refuse to take him seriously, and then he begins experiencing hallucinations. The book examines whether Bateman is the victim of some psychotic delusion about being a serial killer, or whether what he’s describing in this stream-of-consciousness novel has really happened.
Well, it's pretty clear Patrick Bateman displays many classic psychopathic characteristics! Shallow and largely concerned with material gain and superficial matters, he treats everything as a commodity, people included. Placing such distance between himself and his behaviour enables Bateman to excuse his actions, even ones as gross as cannibalism. Hence his remark after dining on a woman's flesh: ‘I just remind myself that this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing.’
Women are definitely objectified throughout the novel, being reduced to the level of the ultimate consumable – meat. Relationships mean nothing to Bateman. His friends all appear alike to him, to the extent that he often confuses one for another. His love life is equally meaningless. Engaged to the shallow Evelyn Richards, their relationship is characterised by mutual loathing, and it is made clear they only stay together for social reasons.
So why does Patrick Bateman kill? In true psychopathic style, he murders many of his victims because they make him feel inadequate, usually by having better taste than he does. This is a man to whom fashion, style, and social approval mean everything. As a serial killer, he slaughters indiscriminately, with no preferred type of victim and no consistent method of killing. Men, women, animals, even a child – nothing and nobody is off-limits for this man. Definitely one of the most chilling psychopaths we’ll be examining today!
I believe Patrick Bateman fascinates us so much because he taps into the unease many people feel about unchecked consumerism, typified by the obsession with celebrities, gossip and fashion. Is this where our love of such things will lead, to individuals so shallow and twisted that they murder indiscriminately, in a society that appears uncaring about their crimes? Food for thought...
2. Hannibal Lecter - The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs, written by Thomas Harris, is the sequel to his novel Red Dragon. Both novels feature the cannibalistic serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter. Who, having read the book, will ever eat fava beans again without this man invading their thoughts?! Here's a summary of the plot.
Jack Crawford, head of the FBI’s psychological profiling division, asks Clarice Starling, a young trainee, to present a questionnaire to the highly intelligent forensic psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is serving nine consecutive life sentences for a series of brutal murders. Crawford's real intention, however, is to obtain Lecter's assistance in the hunt for a serial killer nicknamed ‘Buffalo Bill’, who skins his female victims after killing them. Lecter and Starling engage in a twisted game of traded information, in which he offers her cryptic clues about Buffalo Bill in return for details from her difficult childhood.
Lecter's psychological make-up is explored in greater detail in Thomas’s other books, which reveal he was traumatised as a child by witnessing the murder and cannibalism of his younger sister. Thomas portrays Lecter as a cultured and sophisticated man, enjoying refined tastes in music and art, having served on the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra's board of directors. He is well educated, highly offended by bad manners in others, and speaks several languages. Not the type of character that immediately springs to mind when we think of serial killers, which helps to explain why he's so compelling. The man's an interesting juxtaposition of a violent serial killer along with a model of politeness and refinement, in stark contrast to the uncontrolled madness we often associate with sequential murderers. Although let's not forget the cannibalism - that's hardly refined behaviour!
3 - Annie Wilkes - Misery
Misery is one of Stephen King’s horror novels. The narrative focuses on Paul Sheldon, a writer who pens mass-market appeal romances featuring the heroine Misery Chastain. Sheldon is rescued from a car crash by former nurse Annie Wilkes, who takes him to her home and cares for him, assuring him she’s his number one fan. When she discovers, however, that he’s killed off Misery at the end of his latest book, she becomes enraged, forcing him to write a new novel modifying the story.
Sheldon discovers an old scrapbook of Annie’s, and learns from the newspaper clippings inside that she is a serial killer, who has murdered her own father, her college roommate, and several patients at the hospitals where she worked. Wilkes ends up holding Sheldon captive, treating him brutally. In one memorable chapter, she chops off one of his feet with an axe when he attempts to escape, then cauterises the wound with a blowtorch. Sounds like the actions of a psychopath to me!
Annie Wilkes masks her warped nature behind an initially engaging front. The novel portrays her as paranoid, and suggests she may also have bipolar disorder, hidden behind her cheery facade. In the novel, she clearly suffers from depression as well as issues with self-harm, over-eating and an obsession with romance novels. In the way she holds sway over Sheldon, she displays all the characteristics of the ultimate control freak, desperate to wield power over her latest victim. In meeting Annie Wilkes, Paul Sheldon encounters misery of the greatest depth, before finally reclaiming his life and his writing at the end of the novel. It's a good job not all authors require such an impetus to discover their muse!
Why does Annie Wilkes hold such enduring appeal? It may be partly because we're unused to the notion of female serial killers, especially ones who outwardly appear as homely and ordinary as she does. The contrast between this dumpy, dowdy, middle-aged woman, a former nurse, and her horrific crimes, is enormous.
4. Tom Ripley - The Talented Mr Ripley
The Talented Mr. Ripley is one of Patricia Highsmith’s novels, written in 1955, and her first one to introduce the character of Tom Ripley, who appears in four other books by her. Ripley is a young confidence trickster living in New York, who is asked by a local shipping magnate to persuade his son, Dickie Greenleaf, to return from Italy to join the family business.
Once in Italy, Tom becomes almost obsessed with Dickie and his wealthy lifestyle, which eventually grates on the man, as well as annoying his girlfriend Marge. Sensing that he is about to be cut loose by his new friends, Ripley murders Dickie and assumes his identity, living off his victim's trust fund. He manages to evade the suspicions of Dickie’s friends and father, as well as the Italian police, with everyone believing Dickie must have committed suicide.
Tom's machinations end in a curious mix of triumph and paranoia, as he inherits Dickie’s fortune via a will he forged, but our charming psychopath is left with the uncertainty of never knowing if and when he’ll eventually get found out. In subsequent novels, Ripley involves himself in several more murders, often coming close to being caught or killed, but always escaping detection.
Highsmith introduces some background material that may partly explain Ripley’s psychology. Orphaned at age five, he was raised by his aunt, a cold, stingy woman who mocked him, leading him to attempt to run away as a teenager. Highsmith's portrayal of Ripley is as a suave, agreeable and utterly amoral con artist, capable of great charm.
In many ways, he resembles our friend Hannibal Lecter. Like Lecter, Ripley enjoys the finer things in life, spending time painting or studying languages. Also, like the good psychiatrist, he comes across as polite and cultured, disliking people who lack such qualities. He's also devoid of conscience, admitting in a later novel that guilt has never troubled him, although he claims to detest murder unless it is necessary.
Ripley's character engages us, drawing the reader into the metafictional con that he perpetuates on us. This is a man who's cultured, charming and quick thinking, living the good life as he cheats and murders his way around Europe. A lifestyle that pulls us into the novel with its seductive appeal - no wonder both the book and its film version have proved so popular!
5. Cathy Trask - East of Eden
An amazingly powerful book that, for me, recovered quickly from its sluggish beginning to become enthralling. Based on pre- and post-lapsarian themes, the novel follows the relationship between Adam and Cathy Trask as Steinbeck's parallel to the Biblical Adam and Eve, along with the tension between their sons, Caleb and Aron.
The novel seems to be primarily about love, as well as examining the effects of its absence. Cathy Trask, who we're concentrating on here, is unable to love anyone, even herself, and her coldness destroys her husband and her son Aron. Cathy, later known as Kate, bears many of the hallmarks of a psychopath. A twisted character, this, one capable of recommending that her husband toss their new-born twins into a well.
Some critics have commented that her character lacks credibility, but I'd guess this reflects more the social attitudes towards women at the time of the book's publication. She's amoral and psychopathic, something that may well have offended 1950s sensibilities about women's roles. She is, after all, no domestic goddess or even a good wife or mother. With respect to the Biblical themes of good and evil, Steinbeck moves beyond representing Cathy as Eve, tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden; Cathy is the serpent as well as Eve. He emphasises this by portraying Cathy in snake-like terms; for example, when she swallows, her tongue flicks around her lips.
In the book, Steinbeck describes Cathy as having a malformed soul, being cold and, in true psychopathic style, incapable of caring for anyone. Her misdeeds start with false accusations of rape and proceed to her setting fire to her family's home, killing both her parents. After being rescued by Adam when badly injured and subsequently marrying him, she gives birth to twin boys, before shooting her husband in the shoulder to escape the monotony of motherhood and married life. She ends up working as a prostitute in a local brothel, renaming herself Kate, eventually inheriting the business after murdering the owner.
Steinbeck portrays Cathy as a delicate blonde whose beauty fools most of the people she encounters, her true nature being evident in her eyes, which he describes as cold and emotionless. Samuel Hamilton, a minor character in the novel, says that “the eyes of Cathy had no message, no communication… they were not human eyes”.
Why does Cathy Trask entrance the reader so much? There's the fact that, like Annie Wilkes, she offers the novelty value of being a female psychopath. She's ordinary, too, although not to the same drab extent as Annie Wilkes. No, she's more the kind of psychopath we’re likely to meet in real life, rather than being an out-and-out con artist like Tom Ripley or a rarefied socialite like Patrick Bateman. Neither is she driven by the same dark forces that urge Hannibal Lecter to kill. Instead, she's a woman who goes about her daily life as we all do, but unlike the rest of us, she kills whoever stands in her way, having been born soulless, evil from birth.
Who's your favourite fictional psychopath?
In this blog post, I've only been able to examine a tiny proportion of the vast array of fictional psychopaths that novelists have brought us throughout the years. Google 'famous fictional psychopaths' and you'll get over a million results!
I chose these five characters because they cover both male and female, young and old, rich and poor, ones created through circumstance (Hannibal Lecter) and those born evil, such as Cathy Trask.
What sociopathic characters have been memorable for you? Perhaps Jack Torrance from Stephen King's The Shining? Frederick Clegg from John Fowles's The Collector? Or is Amy Dunne from Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl more your style? Leave a comment and let me know!
Warning - plot spoilers!
Warning - by its nature, this blog post contains plot spoilers! It's impossible for me to reveal how these five novelists created their fictional murders without giving away essential elements of the plot. If you're OK with that, then read on...
An incredible (and edible!) murder weapon
As part of my 'Five' series, in today's post I'll examine five unusual fictional murder methods. Crime writers often endeavour to come up with ever more creative ways to murder their characters, despite the fact that more orthodox methods such as guns and knives tend to be more convincing. Most people have heard of 'death by icicle' in both books and movies, and I'll share an example later.
One of the most famous murder methods employed by fictional writers is the one used by Roald Dahl in his short story 'Lamb to the Slaughter'. The story tells of a wife who, after learning that her husband plans to leave her, decides to kill him. She bludgeons him with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the meat and serves it to the police officers who investigate her husband's death. Ingenious, huh? What a great way to dispose of a murder weapon! And yet another twist on the theme of death by ice.
'Lamb to the Slaughter' is a wonderful short story, but novels are more my thing. So let's examine five examples in which the authors have given their characters ingenious methods for carrying out their murderous intentions. We'll start with P.M. Carlson's 'Murder in the Dog Days'.
1 - 'Murder in the Dog Days' - P.M. Carlson
'Murder in the Dog Days' by P. M. Carlson (1990) is a great example of what's known as 'the locked room mystery'. In a story of this genre, a crime, usually murder, is committed in circumstances that appear inexplicable. As the name suggests, a locked room is involved, one in which the murderer apparently could neither have entered nor left. Here's a brief plot synopsis of Carlson's novel.
On a sweltering summer day, (the temperature is highly significant) reporter Olivia Kerr and her husband Jerry invite Olivia's colleague Dale Colby to the beach. At the last minute, Dale decides to remain behind, and his dead body is discovered later on in his locked office. Already an ill man, Dale dies as a result of heatstroke when the temperature of his study reaches an intolerable level. His killer contrives the murder by manipulating the heat in the office via a thermostat, raising it during the day and then readjusting it before the body is discovered. As the office door is bolted on the inside, the crime scene appears to be a perfect locked room murder.
2 - 'Busman's Honeymoon' - Dorothy Sayers
'Busman's Honeymoon' (1937) is one of Dorothy Sayers's novels involving Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey is on honeymoon with his new wife, Harriet, at Talboys, an old farmhouse that Wimsey has bought for her. On the morning after their arrival, they discover the former owner, Noakes, dead in the cellar with head injuries. The house was locked and bolted when the newly-weds arrived, and medical evidence seems to rule out an accident, so it appears he was attacked in the house and died later, having somehow locked up after his attacker. Another locked room - or, for the pedantic, locked house - murder!
By all acounts, Noakes was a thoroughly dislikeable man, and as the police investigation continues, a number of people emerge as suspects. The killer turns out to be Crutchley, a local garage mechanic who also worked as Noakes's gardener. He planned to marry Noakes's niece and get his hands on the money she would inherit in her uncle's will. The ingenious method Crutchley used involved setting a booby trap with a weighted plant pot on a chain, triggered by Noakes opening the radio cabinet after locking up for the night.
3 - 'The Religious Body' - Catherine Aird
An interesting concept - convents aren't normally places one associates with violent murder. In 'The Religious Body', published in 1966, Inspector C.D Sloan has the task of solving the death of Sister Anne, who has been murdered, stashed in a broom closet, and then thrown down a flight of stairs into the cellar. A most unholy happening! But how was Sister Anne killed? There is no apparent murder weapon to explain the blunt force trauma wounds inflicted before her tumble down the cellar steps.
The answer is intriguing and, as the saying goes, hidden in plain sight. Catherine Aird's fictional murderer kills Sister Anne by delivering the fatal blows with one of the newel posts of a staircase. This unusual weapon is rendered more deadly by the heavy wooden ball atop its shaft. After the murder, the post is returned to its original position, to remain right under Inspector Sloan's nose as he investigates the death.
4 - 'A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away' - Christopher Brookmyre
Christopher Brookmyre introduces not one but two ingenious murder methods in his novel 'A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away' (2001). As a student, the novel's character Simon Darcourt swaps dreams with his friend Ray Ash about the two of them becoming future rock stars. Fifteen years later, older and soured by life, they're struggling with the disappointments that have come their way. Whilst Ray seeks refuge from his parental responsibilities in online games, Simon chooses a much darker coping mechanism. For him, relief comes through serial killing, mass slaughter and professional assassination.
Simon's first murder in the novel is with a mercury-laden icicle, which melts away before the body is discovered. This fictional murder device, sometimes transmuted into an ice bullet, has been used many times, starting with Anna Katharine Green's novel 'Initials Only' (1911), in which a young woman is killed by an icicle shot from a pistol.
Simon's second murder is that of a drug dealer. Darcourt mixes a lethal amount of heroin into a takeaway curry and knocks on the man's door, claiming the food is a pre-paid order from that address. Too greedy to resist, the dealer dies, makes it appear as though his death was from the drugs he supplied. A great example of an unhealthy appetite!
5 - 'Matricide at St Martha's' - Ruth Dudley Edwards
Perhaps the most contrived murder we'll examine today occurs in Ruth Dudley Edwards's 1995 novel 'Matricide at St Martha's'. St. Martha’s College, Cambridge, has been operating on a shoestring for decades, before being left a huge sum of money in a former student's will. The result? Large-scale infighting amongst the various college factions. Before long, one of these, the Virgins, led by Dame Maud Theodosia Buckbarrow, is taking the lead, its members believing the money should be spent on scholarships. Then Dame Maud is murdered...
So how is this dastardly deed accomplished? Well, our victim climbs a ladder in the college library, the ladder being one of those that slide across the front of the bookcases via grooves in the wall. Normally, there are brakes at the end to stop the motion; however, in this case, the murderer has removed them. Following Dame Maud's own vigorous push to the ladder, she hurtles to her death as it gathers speed, eventually catapulting its hapless occupant from the library window.
Give me some more examples!
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post! I'd be delighted to hear from you. Can you add any more examples to this catalogue of dastardly deaths? Have you read any novels where the murder method has struck you as unusually clever? Or maybe one that has made you throw the book aside and shout 'No way, Jose! That would never happen!' Leave a comment and let me know!
'I don't waste time with novels...'
'I don't read novels,' someone once told me, his tone dismissive. 'I don't waste time with bullshit. Know what I mean?' My response? I chose not to reply, but to deflect the conversation. Had I answered his question, I'd have done so with an emphatic negative. Apart from the comment being provocative, making it to a lifelong bookworm like me was pointless. No, I don't know what he meant about novels being bullshit. Never have, never will. I suspect anyone reading this blog is likely to side with Team Maggie on this one!
It's not that I don't understand why people don't read fiction. I do, despite my lifelong love of books. You see, I'm someone who doesn't care much for music. This often attracts gasps of horror from music aficionados, who refuse to believe me. 'You must enjoy music!' they tell me. 'Music is life!' For them, perhaps, but not for me. Each to their own, as the saying goes. Music doesn't feature in my existence and that's my choice. The difference between my fiction-loathing friend and me is that I'm not dismissive about what I don't enjoy. To dub all music bullshit would be ridiculous; it's a huge source of pleasure for many.
I suspect that's what grated about my friend's comment. Fair enough if he doesn't enjoy fiction. But to brand all novels as bullshit strikes me as plain daft. Of course, some people pride themselves on a philistinic approach towards cultural matters, and that's their right. For me, however, fiction, especially in the form of novels, has enriched my life beyond measure. Let's examine five ways in which great novels enhance our lives.
1. They're a great means of entertainment and relaxation
2. Reading keeps our brains sharp, increases our cognitive skills and boost our vocabulary
A study published in 2013 showed that fiction enhances connectivity within the brain, especially in the area of language. Makes sense, doesn't it? As we read, we're studying sentence construction and spelling without being conscious we're doing so.
3. Books can educate us
An example is 'Sophie's World' by Jostein Gaarder. Clothed in the story of fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen lies a wonderful history of philosophical thinking, which teaches as it entertains. As mentioned above, I've also read Gaardner's novel 'The Castle in the Pyrenees', another educational read. This book focuses on a debate between a Christian and an atheist, examining issues such as the origin of the universe and life after death. All wrapped up in an intriguing story about the consequences of a hit-and-run accident in Norway. Education without the classroom!
4. Novels provide both social and political commentary
5. Novels, especially the classics, add beauty to life
Lovers of Thomas Hardy's books thrill to his lyrical descriptions of the Dorset countryside. Fans of Charles Dickens marvel at his skill in creating characters, such as Wackford Squeers and the Artful Dodger. In adding beauty to our lives, books also contribute to our cultural heritage. Imagine a world without literature. For me, if not my fiction-hating friend, Earth would be a planet lacking the wonder that novels provide. Events such as the destruction of books under China's Qin Dynasty or the Nazi book burnings are akin to sacrilege for me. Works of cultural significance trampled under the boots of repressive regimes - it's no coincidence that the need to control and a hatred of the arts often walk hand in hand. Literature, when allowed to flourish, makes an invaluable contribution to our lives. As does music, for those who love it!
Let's hear from you!
What novels have you found educational? Do you agree that books enrich our lives and add beauty to them? Are there any roles books fulfil that I've not covered? Leave a comment and let me know!
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