Over the last decade or so I’ve become increasingly interested in suspense fiction. Though “suspense” is an element in most fiction, I mean the sort where it’s the main engine or driver of the work.
Suspense is a crucial factor in, say, detective stories and thrillers, but even those are not exactly what I mean, though there’s some overlap.
At fourteen I was an Agatha Christie addict – and I still admire the skill with which her books are constructed, as well as those written by many others in the genre, or those who have innovated within the genre.
But for some reason, I’m no longer so interested in detective-type “mysteries” where there’s a crime to be solved. What rivets me to the seat – in films as well as books – is something less tidy though equally compelling.
So I’m drawn to a writer like the Belgian Georges Simenon, who has his detective strand in the Maigret series but also wrote many suspense stories from the criminal’s point of view, for instance.
Simenon specialises in the ordinary person driven to desperate measures, whether by their own failings or those of their society – usually both. At his best he seems to me as great as any novelist more usually classed as “high literature”, and as truthfully bleak as any so-called existentialist.
He wrote many, many books – but the standouts I’ve read are The Little Man from Archangel, The Stain on the Snow (also translated as Dirty Snow), The Man who Watched the Trains Go By, and Sunday. His protagonists – whose world is usually closing in on them in a way that makes the reader gasp for air – vary from the almost likeable to the extremely repellent – but I can never put his books down till finished.
This is my core question, because it’s so central to the experience of reading any book – what is it that makes you unable to put a book down?
In Simenon, it’s often the fact that the protagonist has had to go so far over the line of “normal behaviour” that you are driven to see at what point he will or won’t stop. For me it’s also the sparkling clarity of Simenon’s very plain, very sharp prose – only deceptively simple.
Similarly sharp and simple in style is my other suspense favourite, expatriate American Patricia Highsmith, though in her less successful works that style can fall into a kind of flatness and counteract the suspense rather than enhance it. To my mind she’s at her best in some of the “Ripley” series, particularly in the first of them, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and the third, Ripley’s Game.
But even where the forward thrust is not so powerful, nor the characters so memorable, I find myself under a kind of spell with books like The Blunderer or This Sweet Sickness, haunted by the obsession and desperation they depict.
Typically she’ll follow the outcome of one person’s fixation on another – in The Blunderer, a fairly docile man fascinated with another man’s crime; in This Sweet Sickness, a rejected lover creating a fantasy world when he can’t accept a particular woman has married someone else. Psychological states with their own peculiar logic that Highsmith traces to merciless ends. You keep wincing, and yet you keep reading.
Highsmith’s short stories can be excellent too – most unforgettably, the collection entitled Little Tales of Misogyny.
As an aside, Highsmith also published a short volume called Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction that I have found constantly inspirational in sticking at my own fiction writing. It’s not at all, as she makes clear in the preface, a “how-to-do-it handbook”; it’s more a set of observations about her own experience as a writer, including descriptions of how certain of her stories were worked out, the pitfalls of the process, and the most productive and helpful ways she found to organise her writing life.
Through repeatedly reading and hearing from others that British novelist Ruth Rendell was in a similar vein, I have gone on a detour through her work too – again, not the detective fictions (though I did read one), but the one-offs that home in on a maladjusted, paranoid or desperate protagonist. The best of these for me was A Sight for Sore Eyes.
In effect, Rendell is something else again – her plots are more rounded out and resolved, sometimes to the point of being annoying in their accounting for every little detail that was sown along the way – but she knows what her readers want. And her (regional) worlds are “thicker” and more intimately known than the hard surfaces Highsmith gives us.
I find her situations – and their complications – just as powerful as those in Simenon and Highsmith, but Rendell almost always seems to work them out in ways that for some reason disappoint me (bathos, sometimes silliness). The vision is bleak but it’s tempered with something “humane” and goes too close at times to the sentimental.
But I’m open to being convinced on this. And who do you think does this mode best in Australian fiction? What makes suspense for you?