Stay Alive ‘Til This Horror Show is Past*

It’s never easy to face adversity, whether it’s a power outage, a terrible weather situation, or something else. It’s even more complicated when people face adversity in groups. On the one hand, working together can sometimes solve a problem, or at least make it better. On the other hand, adversity can bring out all sorts of tension and anxiety, and that can spell disaster. But that context – a group of people facing real danger – can be a suspenseful background to a crime novel.

For example, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None begins as ten people arrive at Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They’ve all accepted invitations to spend time at a house on the island, but when they arrive, they find their host hasn’t yet made an appearance. Still, they settle in. That night after dinner, each one is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Shortly afterwards, one of the guests dies of poisoning. Later that night, there’s another death. Before long, it’s clear that someone has lured everyone to the island, and is planning to kill all of them. Now, the survivors have to work out who that person is, and try to stay alive. To make matters worse, a storm knocks out the power, which adds to the tension and difficulty. One major source of suspense is that no-one knows which of the people on the island is the killer – it could be any of them.

John D. MacDonald’s Murder in the Wind takes place as Hurricane Hilda moves from the Caribbean to the Florida coast. Thousands of people are trying to outrun the storm; the novel follows six carloads of them. They’re making their way north out of Tampa when the bridge over the Waccasassa River goes out. Unable to travel, they take shelter in an abandoned house, hoping to wait out the storm. It’s a situation fraught with tension and fear, and it doesn’t help matters that this is a disparate group of people who come together unexpectedly. Some of the suspense in the novel comes from the fact that this group has been put under pressure to survive the storm.

In Swati Kaushal’s Drop Dead, Rakesh ‘Rak’ Mehta, President and CEO of Indigo Books India, Ltd., goes with his senior staff for a retreat at the exclusive Lotus Resort in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. He’s planned several activities and meetings for the group, but things don’t work out as planned. On the second morning, Mehta’s body is found in a ravine not far from the resort. It looks as though he died from a tragic fall from a cable car, and the police are called in. Superintendent of Police Niki Marwah and her team come in from Shimla to investigate. They soon find that this is likely a case of murder, and that more than one of Mehta’s staff members might have had a reason to want him dead. And there’s no love lost among the staff members, either. That comes to the fore when Sahni, Activities Manager at the resort, creates an activity to keep the senior staff occupied. He designs an orienteering competition in which the staff members, in groups of four, must find their way out of a woods. As you can imagine, the event isn’t exactly a success, and we see how stress and anxiety make an already-tense situation even more so.

Jock Serong’s Preservation is the story of what happened to the crew of the Sydney Cove, originally bound for Sydney Harbour. The ship wrecked near what is now Tasmania, and seventeen crew members set off to try to make it to Sydney. Only three survived the trip: William Clark (supercargo of the ship); his manservant; and Mr. Figge (a tea merchant who was a passenger). When the three arrive at Sydney, they are in dire need of food and medical attention. As they begin to recover, Lieutenant Joshua Grayling investigates what happened to the ship and what happened to the crew during their journey to Sydney. As the story goes on, we see how the group members responded to the severe challenges they faced, and how the tension impacted them.

 And then there’s Jane Harper’s Force of Nature. The Melbourne-based accounting firm of BaileyTennants decides to send its staff on a three-day team-building exercise in the Giralang Ranges. The men’s team returns ahead of schedule, but the women’s team is late. When that team does return, each one is injured. And one of the team members, Alice Russell, is missing. No-one claims to know where she is or what happened to her, so federal agents Aaron Falk and Carmen Cooper join the search team and investigate the disappearance. For them, this case has an added importance. The missing woman was an informant in a case of possible money laundering at the firm, and it could be that someone found out about that. There are other possibilities, too, not the least of which is that Alice Russell was the victim of a tragic accident.

There are lots of possible outcomes when people have to face a dangerous situation. Whether they work together or not, there’s a lot of tension and suspense. So it’s not surprising that we see this context in crime fiction. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Stay Alive.

6 thoughts on “Stay Alive ‘Til This Horror Show is Past*

  1. I’m reminded of a book I read a year or so ago – The Leonardo Gulag by Kevin Doherty, where a group of talented artists are transported to a remote gulag to forge DaVinci works, in Stalin’s Russia. Shared hardship and incarceration forges alliances and friendships to survive even the journey there, let alone their time in camp and through escape.
    I’ve not heard of the MacDonald book you’ve mentioned. It does sound interesting.


    1. Oh, yes, Col, I remember your fine review of that book. And that’s exactly the sort of premise I had in mind with this post. Such a really interesting perspective on the gulags, and some really interesting-sounding characters. I’m glad you reminded me of it, because I would like to read it at one point. As for the MacDonald, I think you’d like it. Lots of tension and suspense, and an interesting premise…


  2. For a minute, I thought Margot, you were talking about what’s happening in India right now!

    I love this trope but I feel it is now overused and hardly anybody can deliver it with the panache that Dame Christie did. That said, all the examples you have given sound great and are going on my wishlist.


    1. My heart is sick for India, Neeru. What’s going on is so awful…

      At any rate, it does take skill to do this trope well, there’s no doubt about that. It’s very easy for this to become melodramatic if it’s not done effectively. I agree, too, that Christie did it quite well. I hope that, if you get to them, you’ll enjoy the other books, too.


  3. I just finished “Force of Nature!” Great book. Loved the interesting group dynamics in the story.


    1. Harper really does a great job with interpersonal dynamics, doesn’t she, Elizabeth?! And I really like the way she builds suspense, both that way (psychologically) and with her depiction of nature and the setting.


What's your view?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s