Dancing Shadows and Firelight*

One of the ways to build tension in a crime novel is through the story’s atmosphere. When a lot of people think of atmosphere, they think of weather or climate, and those certainly do impact the atmosphere of a story. But there are other ways to create an atmosphere of suspense, too.

Sometimes, houses and other places can be atmospheric. They can be abandoned or have a history. For instance, in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the unnamed narrator visits his friend Roderick Usher and Usher’s sister Madeleine. The house is grim and even eerie, which is bad enough. Along with that, though, both Ushers suffer from anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, and that makes the atmosphere that much more suspenseful. When some strange things begin to happen, it’s all even more unsettling, and it ends in tragedy. The atmosphere of this story is an important part of what gives the story its eeriness.

Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn features a bleak Cornwall inn. Twenty-three-year-old Mary Yellen goes to Jamaica Inn to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn after her mother dies. It’s a run-down, creepy place with seemingly no lodgers and only a desolate tavern that attracts anyone at all. That in itself is eerie enough. But there’s also Uncle Joss’ cold and abusive personality. Things are very unpleasant at the inn, and Mary longs to go home. But she toughs it out for her aunt’s sake. Soon, Mary starts to get the feeling that something strange is going on at the inn. She starts to ask questions and look for answers, and that gets her into more danger than she had imagined.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger takes place in Victorian London, about the time of the Whitechapel murders. Ellen and Robert Bunting have retired from domestic service. Because money is hard to come by, they’ve decided to take in a lodger. Ellen, especially, is particular, and doesn’t want just anyone staying in their home. She’s more concerned than usual because there’ve been several murders lately committed by a man who calls himself the Avenger. One day, a man who introduces himself as Mr. Sleuth comes to the Bunting home to ask about the room. He’s got a ‘gentleman’s bearing’ and seems well off. So Ellen offers him the room. Mr. Sleuth keeps unusual hours and is quite eccentric. But he’s quiet and pays well, so the Buntings are satisfied. Then, Ellen starts to suspect that Mr. Sleuth may, in fact, be the Avenger. In this story, foggy weather, the tension over the Avenger killings, and the growing suspicions about Mr. Sleuth add much to the atmosphere, and they build suspense.

Sometimes people and the way they act can build suspense in a story. Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is like that. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their two children, Pete and Kim, have moved from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. They’re hoping to take advantage of lower taxes, good schools, and a nice house. And at first, Stepford seems like a perfect place. Gradually, though, Joanna’s new best friend Bobbie Markowe starts to suspect that something is wrong about the town. At first, Joanna doesn’t take her friend overly seriously. But then, things begin to happen that make Joanna wonder if Bobbie was right. As she gets closer to the truth, there’s more and more danger for her. In this novel, the houses are perfect, the weather is good, and so on. It’s really the people that act in ways that really build up the tension, so it’s psychological as much as it is anything else.

Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin shows how a number of factors (location, people, and so on) can work together to create a tense atmosphere. The story starts when human remains are dug up at Pity Wood Farm, near the town of Rakesdale. Detective Sergeant (DS) Diane Fry and Detective Constable (DC) Ben Cooper of the Derbyshire Police are called in. They and their team, plus forensics teams, start to try to make sense of this unsettling discovery. It seems that Pity Wood Farm was recently purchased by Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin, who bought the property for development, and has no personal connection to it or the area. The police soon eliminate him as a suspect, turning their attention to brothers Raymond and Derek Sutton, who owned the property before Goodwin. As they ask questions, Fry and Cooper soon find that the town of Rakesdale is both unwelcoming and insular. The people are almost as eerie as the physical atmosphere. The farm has fallen into disrepair, so it, too, is eerie. And the set of past secrets and history in the area adds even more to the creepy atmosphere of the story. 

There are a lot of other stories in which the atmosphere plays an important role. Sometimes it’s weather and climate (for instance, Scott Young’s Matthew “Matteesie” Kitologitak novels, which take place in Canada’s Far North). Other times it’s a bleak, desolate place (like the Exmoor setting for Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands). And sometimes it’s a sense of claustrophobia (like that in Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger). Which novels have struck you as really atmospheric?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Witchy Woman.

14 thoughts on “Dancing Shadows and Firelight*

  1. Atmosphere is one of the most difficult things to create, I suspect, and yet when it works it’s so effective! I loved John Dickson Carr’s early Bencolin books – they’re steeped in a mixture of Decadence and Gothic tropes and genuinely made me shiver, from the shadow of the hanging man on the wall opposite in one to the castle built into a cliff that looks like a skull! Plenty of tunnels and alleys and waxworks and drug-and-alcohol induced hallucinations… ooh! 😀


    1. Atmosphere really is tricky, isn’t it, FictionFan? When it’s done well, though, yes, it can turn a book into a masterpiece. And JDC knew how to do it. He knew, too, just how to stop before it all got too over-the-top. You know – just enough to make you shudder. Hake Talbott did a good job with that, too in Rim of the Pit. If you ever read that one, I hope you’ll like it just for the atmosphere…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, that sounds good! And I see that coincidentally there’s a new edition of it due to come out later on this year, so I’ll stick it on my wish list for then. Thanks for the recommendation! 😀


      2. I really do hope you’ll like it, FIctionFan! It’s got a nice mix of the supernatural (or is it?) and more realistic suspense. And it is drippy with atmosphere, in my humble opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you, Neeru, about JDC. He really created some memorable atmospheres, and could really draw the reader in with them. And thanks for mentioning ELW, too. I hadn’t thought of her work when I put this post together, but she certainly did weave together a compelling atmosphere. I think she did in The Wheel Spins, too.


  2. Ohhh, this is a good question. There’s a scene in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Clouds of Witness where Wimsey and Bunter get lost in the fog on the Yorkshire moors. My goodness the atmosphere of oppression from the fog and the fear of dying out there had me on the edge of my seat. The Broken Girls by Simone St. James had one of those institutions in it which feel evil. And I always think Nevada Barr does atmosphere very well, there’re alway one or two scenes in all her books which stand out. (I’ll never forget the snakes in the tent!) And a scene in a book I just read, Murder in the Mill-Race by E.C.R Lorac, where McDonald is in a darkened house waiting for the killer to arrive really creeped me out! Jamaica Inn is of course familiar to me, read the book and been there many times, when the fog comes down on Bodmin Moor you know about it. The Lodger appeals to me so I will look that up.


    1. Oh, Cath, you’ve really mentioned some great examples of books that have a really delicious sense of atmosphere!! Your comment reminded of of Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, where Wimsey and Bunter have a car accident during a winter snowstorm in East Anglia. Lots and lots of atmosphere there! I agree with you, too, about Nevada Barr. Her books build atmosphere in a really skillful way. As for Lorac, I like the work of hers that I’ve read. She has a a sense of place and atmosphere, and I like the wit in her work, too. And The Lodger? I think it’s got a really skillful use of atmosphere. I hope you’ll enjoy it.


  3. Terrific post. I think Jane Harper’s The Dry, all three novels by Gillian Flynn (I wish she’d write more), horror books like The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and Night Film by Marisha Pessl are all atmospheric. Mare of Easttown (a HBO crime drama) is also incredibly atmospheric with its something-is-wrong-with-this-small town setting.


    1. Thank you, OP. I agree that Harper builds atmosphere really effectively. And, oh my goodness, Shirley Jackson did it brilliantly. Everything of hers that I’ve ever read is just so strong on that element. Thanks also for mentioning Pessl; I should check that out. And as far as the something-is-wrong-with-this-small-town atmosphere? It can be so very effective for building atmosphere!

      Liked by 1 person

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