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.