Even a fast-paced, adrenaline-laced thriller needs some break in the action. Otherwise, it’s hard to keep up with the story’s pace, and the reader doesn’t get a chance to really be drawn in. On the other hand, those lulls in a story have to be done carefully. Otherwise, they can make for unnecessary ‘padding,’ and can even pull the reader out of the story. It’s why well-written crime stories have both solid story action and quieter moments.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot has decided to retire to the village of Kings Abbot. His retirement is short-lived, though. Retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed to death, and his niece Flora Ackroyd asks Poirot to investigate. She’s eager to clear the name of her fiancé, Captain Ralph Paton, who’s suspected of the crime. The story is narrated by Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to Poirot, and who served as Ackroyd’s doctor. There are moments of tension and action in the story, but there are also quieter moments. One evening, for instance, Sheppard and his sister Caroline host a mah-jongg game. It’s a quiet, peaceful enough pastime, and it offers a break in the action. Christie also uses that time to give the reader some helpful information, so it’s not just a scene where a group of people are sitting doing something and chatting. It doesn’t drag the story down.
H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case is the prequel to his series featuring Mumbai detective Inspector Ganesh Ghote. In this novel, he’s asked to travel to Mahableshwar to look into the suicide of Iris Dawkins. Her husband, Robert, is an old friend of Ghote’s boss, so Ghote’s asked to give the case priority. At first, it’s not even a police investigation so much as it is finding out Iris’ reasons for taking her own life. Not long after he arrives, though, Ghote starts to get the feeling that there’s something more to this case than suicide, so he starts asking questions. There is certainly action in the story, as Ghote gathers information and slowly zeroes in on the killer (for there is one in this novel). But there are also quieter moments. These breaks in the action give the reader a chance to follow Ghote’s thinking as he makes certain decisions about the case. They also allow the reader to see Ghote’s relationship with his beloved wife, Protima, who’s expecting their first child. There’s also a look at that part of India at that time, which would possibly be harder to share if the story had no breaks in the action.
In Mark Rogers’ Koreatown, we are introduced to Wes Norgaard, who works at Warsaw Wash, a Los Angeles car wash near the area called Koreatown. He has a habit of going to a local karaoke bar after work, and one evening, he’s doing just that when trouble strikes. A man is shot just after walking into the bar, and Norgaard is in the middle of the action. The bar’s owner, Mrs. Tam, later explains to Norgaard that the dead man was going to marry a young woman named Soo-Jin, and that’s why he was killed. It turns out that her family has been in a feud with another family for generations, and each male who marries a member of her family is murdered before any children can be born. Then, Mrs. Tam offers Norgaard fifteen thousand dollars if he marries Soo-Jin. The idea is that, since he’s not Korean, he probably won’t be killed. Norgaard wants to help, and besides, he needs the money. So he agrees, and he and Soo-Jin plan to marry. It turns out, though, that the family’s enemy has no intention of stopping the bloodshed, even those Norgaard is not Korean. Things begin to get very dangerous for both Norgaard and Soo-Jin, so they end up in hiding. Now, Norgaard will have to think of a plan to stop the killing and save his own life and Soo-Jin’s. It’s an action-packed book, with gunfire, attacks, threats, and scares. But there are also quiet moments that Rogers uses for character development. For example, there are scenes in which Norgaard is getting to know Soo-Jin (and vice versa). They sometimes a little awkward, sometimes almost funny, but they’re not full of tension and action. Instead, they let the reader get to know these characters.
Scott Young’s Murder in a Cold Climate begins as RCMP police officer Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak is waiting in the airport in Inunivk for a flight to Edmonton and then Ottawa. He gets a call from his boss, though, that changes his plans. Three men and the Cessna plane they were in have gone missing. No matter what the reason for it, the men could be in danger or worse if they’re not found, and the Cessna’s owner wants his property. Matteesie boards his flight after agreeing to see what he can do. Not long after everyone’s aboard, a gunman bursts in and shoots one of the passengers, a Native activist called Morton Cavendish. Mateesie knew the man, and he’s a witness, so he gets involved in that crime, even more so when it turns out that it may be tied to the missing Cessna and the three men on board. The story starts with action, and there are suspenseful moments and real danger as it goes on. The pace is brisk. But at the same time, there are quieter moments that allow the reader to get a sense of life in the Far North. We follow as Matteesie visits people, has meals, prepares for travel in the intense cold and snow, and so on. Those parts of the story build a context for the action.
And then there’s Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. This one starts with one of crime fiction’s most memorable lines: ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ Right away, there’s action. This draws the reader into the story. But the story begins before the murders happen. Well-to-do, educated George and Jacqueline Coverdale are looking for a housekeeper. Jacqueline hires Eunice without finding out much about her, and Eunice takes the job. Then, we slowly learn about Eunice’s secret, and how determined she is to keep that secret. The tension builds until the tragic climax of the story, and there is action here and there throughout it. But there are also quieter moments. In this case, Rendell uses those moments to foreshadow and to build suspense. On the surface, they’re scenes of, for instance, Jacqueline asking Eunice to do one thing or another, or George’s daughter Melinda going to visit friends. But all of it serves to add to the story.
And that’s the thing about those quieter moments. They give readers a break in the action, but at the same time, they have their own place, and can be used to move the story along. In the best crime novels, they serve the story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s Turn Down the World Tonight.
6 thoughts on “Take a Quiet Moment*”
Some very good examples there, Margot – although I do like a bit of pace in my murder mysteries, I also need that balance of the quieter moments or else the whole experience of reading can be just too frantic! 😀
Thanks, KBR. And you put that really well, I think. If a story doesn’t have those quiet moments, the pace is so frantic that it’s hard to keep up – it’s too exhausting! What’s more, I don’t think one gets to know the characters as well.
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I read A Judgement in Stone a long time ago, and I have forgotten much of it, except for how it begins. I want to read it again.
The novel by Scott Young sounds very good, very full of action and tension. It would be good for my Canadian challenge.
In my opinion, Tracy, A Judgement in Stone is always worth a re-read. I hope you’ll get the chance to pay it another visit. And Murder in a Cold Climate really does have a strong sense of place and local culture. If you can get a copy, I recommend it. Sadly, Young only wrote two books about Matteesie before his passing. The other one’s called The Shaman’s Knife.
The book I’m reading at the moment is Blind Descent by Nevada Barr. It’s a cave rescue story set in New Mexico and pretty much non-stop action with poor Anna Pigeon being claustrophobic into the mix. Every so often they stop to eat and sleep though, Anna gets a chance to think things through and it’s such a relief! The reader needs these breaks as much as the characters.
I do like Barr’s Anna Pigeon novels, Cath, so I’m glad you’re having the chance to read that one. I agree completely that Anna needs breaks between all of the things that happen to her. As it is, those stories are fast-paced and suspenseful. I think it’d be a bit too much without any breaks. As you say, the reader needs breaks and so do the characters!