Unknown Enemy*

There are a number of ways to build tension and suspense in a crime novel. And that suspense is an important part of keeping the novel engaging for readers. One of the approaches crime writers sometimes use is to include what you might call an unknown enemy.

I’m not talking here of the evil villain out to take over the world. Rather, I mean situations where a character is targeted by an unknown person. If you think about it, that is an eerie feeling. Most of have a fairly good sense of who might be gunning for us. But what if you had no idea who was targeting you? That anxiety, and the wondering whom to trust, would likely add to your unease.

We see that in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, we are introduced to Jerry Burton and his sister, Joanna. They’ve recently moved to the village of Lymstock, so that Jerry can continue his recovery from a wartime injury. They’ve not been there long when they receive a vicious anonymous letter that suggests they are not siblings, but lovers. Soon, the Burtons learn that they’re not the only victims. Other people in town are also receiving such ‘poison pen’ letters, and it’s got everyone upset. Then, a letter to a local solicitor’s wife leads to a suicide. And then there’s a murder. Miss Marple takes an interest in the case when the local vicar’s wife, who knows her, suggests she might be able to help. Part of the tension of the novel comes from the fact that people don’t know who this unknown enemy is, and why that person might be targeting them.

There’s a similar plot point in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. Amsterdam Inspector Piet Van der Valk is sent to the small town of Zwinderen to help with an unusual problem. Several people in town have received ugly anonymous letters. This is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so one’s local reputation matters a lot. The tension caused by the letters is so high that the result has been two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t made much progress, so it’s hoped that Van der Valk will be able to help. And in the end, he and his wife, Arlette, find out who wrote the letters and why. One important cause of unease in the novel is that the local residents don’t know who their enemy is, if I may put it that way.

In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, we are introduced to London psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. He gets involved in a murder case when the body of a former client, Catherine McBride, is pulled from Grand Union Canal. Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz wants whatever insights O’Loughlin may have about this case, so he persuades a very reluctant O’Loughlin to help out. Then, there’s another murder – one that very much implicates O’Loughlin. Now, Ruiz actively wonders whether his consultant may know more about the case than he’s letting on. What’s more, the leads that O’Loughlin has given Ruiz don’t seem to pan out. Before long, it’s clear that someone has set O’Loughlin up, and is framing him for multiple murders. The problem is, O’Loughlin doesn’t know who would deliberately target him. He’ll have to go back to his own past, and go after a very dangerous killer, if he’s going to clear his name. And part of the suspense as he does so comes from the fact that he doesn’t know who’s after him.

Neither does Merete Lynnggard, who is featured in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). In the novel, Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck is assigned to head up a new police initiative, ‘Department Q.’ This new department will be devoted to cases ‘of special interest’ (i.e. cold cases), and is at least in part designed as a way to demonstrate that the police take all of their investigations seriously. Shortly after Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad take up their duties, they begin to look into the five-year-old disappearance of Lynnggard, who was a promising politician. Everyone thought that she went overboard in a tragic ferry accident. But new evidence suggests that she may still be alive. If so, Mørck and Assad may not have much time to find her. I can say without spoiling the story that part of its tension comes from the fact that Lynnggard didn’t even know who was targeting her.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder, the first of her series featuring research assistant Verity Long. She works for famous crime novelist Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport, who uses old cases as inspiration for her novels. When Long goes house-hunting, she discovers the body of well-known TV presenter Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson. Badly shaken up by the experience, she’s happy on one level to let the police handle the investigation. At the same time, though, she found the body, so like it or not, she is involved. And she’s both curious and skilled as a researcher. So, she starts to ask questions. And it’s not long before she runs into serious danger. More than once in the story, it’s clear that someone is targeting her. And part of the suspense comes from the fact that she doesn’t know her enemy.

There are, of course, a lot of other crime novels in which someone has a secret enemy. That plot point can add suspense, even drama, to a story if it’s done effectively. And it can add to character development.

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by CKY.


Filed under Agatha Raisin, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Lynda Wilcox, Michael Robotham, Nicolas Freeling

16 responses to “Unknown Enemy*

  1. There are certain devices I love and a good anonymous letter especially one purporting to reveal secrets as in The Moving Finger are high up on the list. As you say the unknown attacker is a useful device as it can provide tension as the victim tends to suspect many others and of course they are trying to keep the original content under wraps.

    • Exactly, Cleo. And those anonymous letters are really effective ways to add suspense and to keep the attacker’s identity secret. And the more accurate those sorts of letters are, the more they rattle the nerves. I think Christie did that well in The Moving Finger.

  2. I’m in the middle of the new Peter May at the moment – I’ll Keep You Safe – and several of the characters have been receiving anonymous emails signed ‘well-wisher’. I can’t tell you yet how effective it’s going to be in building tension – I’ll let you know when I review it… 😉

    • Ooh, sounds so intriguing, FictionFan! And in May’s skilled hands, it’s probably done quite effectively, too. I’ll be really interested in what you have to say about the book once you’ve finished it.

  3. I enjoyed The Moving Finger by Christie, and most of the other books are ones I plan to read someday also. Too many good books out there.

  4. Fantastic timing for me, I just mentioned your blog on my FB in a call out to readers of cozy mysteries. Got dozens of fine author and book suggesttions for what to read next. Plus I’m enthralled with Dorothy Sayers’ “Gaudy Night” and am more than halfway with the poison pen letters hitting teachers, adminstrators, and female students alike. I love that she has not provided a body yet. No murder so far. Plenty of tension, suspison, and nasty shocks for the main character, Harriet Vane, (novelist and former Oxford University student) . Thanks for writing such juicy posts on mystery books. Best to you, Deborah

    PS. My FB link incase you want to add something. https://www.facebook.com/deborah.taylorfrench

    • Thank you so much, Deborah, for the kind link. I really appreciate it. And I agree: Gaudy Night is a fabulous book. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I hope you’ll enjoy the whole story. 🙂

  5. Col

    Not too much I’m familiar with from your examples, but I’m hoping to read Mercy – one of these years!

  6. I agree, Margot – this can be really creepy. There is a point in Christie’s Towards Zero where there is a scene from the point of view of the killer – clearly deranged – who is planning the murder. The reader doesn’t know who the killer is or who the victim will be, but I think it is chilling and adds a further element of suspense.

    • I think so, too, Christine, and I’m glad you’ve mentioned it. That aspect – that we don’t know who the killer and victim are – adds to the tension, and I think that shows Christie’s skill.

  7. I shouldn’t be surprised – I was scrolling down, ready to bring up Towards Zero – and Chrissie got there before me! Oh well, we 3 Christie fans have to stick together, so I won’t complain…

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