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- The Cartography of WolvesApril 22, 2021
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Creators of suspense fiction know there is nothing more easily manipulated than time to create tension and increase suspense. Think of all the books you’ve read where a timed detonation is what the hero is running to stop. Or the stories where the cop must unmask the killer before a deadline, lest the killer claim another victim. Writers of thrillers love to set a goal time for their hero and then reveal, to the reader, that the timeline is even shorter. That gets a reader’s heartbeat going, and elevated pulses are what we writers of suspense strive for in our fiction.
Once you start paying attention to time in stories, it’s hard to stop. Mysteries and thrillers aren’t the only types of books to use this device, and movies are chock a block full of playing with time. Listed below are some of my favorite books that play with time to create and increase suspense. The best part? You’ll feel as if you’ve read these books in the blink of an eye.
Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None delivers a house full of people to a remote island along with a killer who wants them dead. But which of them is the murderer? One by one, the guests begin to die. The ferry that promises them safety won’t come until tomorrow. Talk about your deadline-driven premises.
Kellye Garrett, Hollywood Homicide
Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett has broke actress Dayna Anderson trying to save her parent’s home from foreclosure. She decides her best bet is to solve a recent local hit-and-run murder for which a large reward is being offered. While filled with laughs, this book steadily ticks on toward the day the bank will take Dayna’s parents’ home. This makes Dayna’s amateur detecting missteps dangerous not only to her safety, but to her family’s well being.
Ben Winters, The Last Policeman
Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman may have the most dramatic time-driven element of any book I’ve read. In six months, an asteroid will hit and destroy the planet. Detective Hank Palace is tasked with handling a death by hanging. He decides that it isn’t a suicide, of which there are many, given the asteroid news. Moreover, he dedicates himself to solving the murder although the police station and the world are falling apart around him. An amazing look into what drives a person when he, and everyone around him, have only months to live.
Natsuo Kirino, Out
Natsuo Kirino’s Out is not for the faint of heart. A Bento box factory worker murders her deadbeat husband and gets her night shift coworkers to help her conceal the crime. But one badly hidden body bag leads the police toward them. Meanwhile, the criminal underworld is looking to profit from knowledge of the murder. As the police and the yakuza draw nearer, and the women begin fighting with each other, Kirino takes opportunities to slow down scenes. This is another time technique thriller writers employ: let readers settle into terror as you slow down the most agonizing scenes. This book will make you hold your breath; it’s that good.
Laura Lippman, Wilde Lake
Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake finds newly elected state’s attorney Lu Brant prosecuting a controversial murder case. The case recalls painful memories from the past involving her brother and another murder case. Lippman goes back and forth in time and keeps the reader guessing as to the truth. She explores the fallibility of memory, which is one of the bigger tricks involving time. Which memories are true? Is what you know real?
Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
Kate Atkinson’s novel, Life After Life, isn’t a mystery or a thriller but it contains plenty of suspense and to exclude it from a list of books that play with time seems, well, criminal. In Life After Life we meet Ursula Todd, born on a snowy night in 1910 and dead shortly thereafter. Only the same day she is born and lives. The book charts the lives of Ursula: in some she never marries, in some she does. The novel explores what might’ve happened time and again, including a plot to murder Hitler. The reader is on unsteady ground, unable to accept any version as real, but always curious and invested in the characters to want to know what will happen this time.
Gordon McAlpine, The Woman With a Blue Pencil
The Woman With a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine presents the “discovered” manuscript of a Japanese-American author writing a pulpy spy novel in pre-WWII California. If you know your American history, you can see the terrible twists that are about to beset the writer as Pearl Harbor menaces his horizon and Japanese internment camps are on the way. The novel the fictional writer works on undergoes a shift in racial attitudes to mirror American anti-Japanese sentiment. Here suspense comes not from ignorance of what will happen next, but fear based in knowledge of exactly what will happen.