Most readers want at least some suspense in their crime fiction. And of course, authors have all sorts of ways of building suspense. One of them is what I’ll call the narrow escape. Narrow escapes can keep the reader guessing (especially if it’s not clear that the character will escape). They can also serve as story arcs (if, say, a character is injured and in a future novel, is recovering). Narrow escapes also can move a plot from one scene to the next. They have to be done carefully, though, or they become contrived. When they fall out naturally from the plot, though, and they’re used effectively, narrow escapes can add to a story.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches introduces Miss Violet Hunter, who is looking for a position as a governess. She is approached by Jephro Rucastle, who wants to hire her to look after his six-year-old son. She’s not sure if she should accept the job, so she goes to Sherlock Holmes to ask his advice. He counsels her to decline, which she does at first. But then, Rucastle adds to his offer, so that the salary is irresistible. Holmes then tells Miss Hunter that if she has need of him, all she has to do is contact him. It’s not long before that’s exactly what she does. It turns out that Rucastle had more than one hidden motive, and that Violet Hunter is in grave danger. She writes to Holmes, and he and Watson go to the Rucastle home just in time to save Miss Hunter’s life.
In Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, Anne Bedingfield has recently lost her beloved father. She hasn’t much money, and no real reason to remain in London. And she has no interest in a traditional ‘lady’s job’ such as telephone operator or secretary. Adventure is more her style, and adventure is exactly what she gets when she impulsively books passage on the Kilmorden Castle, which is due to sail for Cape Town. During the trip, she gets drawn into a case of international intrigue, stolen jewels, and murder. There’s danger for her, too. At one point, after the ship lands at Cape Town, Anne is taken prisoner and kept in an attic. It’s very dangerous for her, because the people who’ve targeted her know that she poses a threat to them. She knows that if she stays where she is, she’s likely to be killed. She manages an escape, though, and flees just in time.
Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark is, in part, the story of Gerda Klein and her daughter Ilse. They escaped from East Germany in the early 1980’s, during the height of the Cold War. That escape was fraught with danger, as you can imagine. For one thing, the Kleins knew that anything they said to anyone might be reported to the Stasi, the dreaded East German police. So everything had to be done secretly, in whispers, and only with absolutely trustworthy people. For another, the journey to the West posed physical dangers, too, especially considering that Ilse was a child at the time. Just in time, though, the Kleins left the country and ended up in the small town of Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. Now, Ilse is a secondary school teacher, and has settled into life in her adopted country. She gets drawn into more than she could have imagined when one of her prize pupils, Serena Freeman, starts skipping school and not doing her work. In an attempt to help Serena, Ilse and her mother find out that there’s much more to the girl’s story than they thought…
Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men features an interesting narrow escape that has an unexpected consequence. A successful civil engineer named Mr. Molofelo also happens to own an ostrich farm. One day some poachers go after his ostriches. Mr. Molofelo has a narrow escape from them and is able to save the farm. The whole incident leaves him shaken, though, and re-evaluating everything. That reflection leads him to seek atonement for something that happened when he was a student. At the time, he lived with a family named Tsolamosese, who treated him as though he were one of their own, as the saying goes. He stole a radio from them, and now regrets it. He’s also deeply sorry for the way he treated his then-girlfriend Tebogo Bathopi. Now he wants to make amends, so he goes to Mma Precious Ramotswe, hoping she will help him find the two women. Eventually she agrees. It’s interesting to see how a narrow escape can spur a person to action after it’s over.
There’s also Blair Denholm’s Sold, which is the story of Gary ‘Gazza’ Braswell. As the novel begins, he works for an upmarket car dealership on New South Wales’ Gold Coast. When he borrows money from an illegal bookmaker, Duncan ‘Jocko’ Mackenzie, he gets into deep trouble, as he’s not going to be able to pay it back promptly. Gazza’s under no illusion as to what will happen to him if he doesn’t get money quickly He has a narrow escape, though, when a wealthy Russian businessman named Ivan Romashkin buys some cars from him, giving him enough to pay back his debt. But that’s only the start of Gazza’s troubles. This novel features more than one ‘nick of time’ situation as Gazza tries to deal with Mackenzie, Romashkin, and the police, who soon have their own reasons to take an interest in him…
Narrow escapes can add tension, plot twists, and character development to a story. But, if not handled well, they can also be contrived and distracting. What do you think? Do narrow escapes add to or take away from a story for you (or neither)? If you’re an author, do you use narrow escapes to move your story along?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.