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The Suspense Novel - Jessica Mann

Reproduced here by kind permission and © Jessica Mann

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WHEN THE EDITOR OF THIS VOLUME ASKED ME to write about suspense fiction, we both knew what he meant; but I can only define it by negatives. Suspense novels are not necessarily, though they may be, detective novels. That is, they are not stories whose main purpose is to answer the question "Who did it?" or "How did he do it?" Dorothy L. Sayers wrote that "The detective story does not, and by hypothesis, never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement. Though it deals with the most desperate effects of rage, jealousy and revenge it rarely touches upon the heights and depths of human passion. It presents us only with the fait accompli, and looks upon death and mutilation with a dispassionate eye." The writer of a suspense novel casts his dispassionate eye as much upon the passion, as upon the deed it produced. He refuses to accept the limitation upon his power to cause cathartic emotion, and while he may not always manage it, hopes to give his reader something more than a pleasantly intellectual stimulation. Yet this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred. Many modern writers of novels whose plots can be expressed purely as detective stories hope to touch the heights and depths of human passion as well. Many of P. D. James's books are examples of this.

Suspense novels are not, though they may be, thrillers. That is, they need not recount a succession of dramatic events, nor need they conform to Stanley Ellin's distinction between mysteries and thrillers, when he pointed out that in the mystery the crime takes place at the beginning, whereas in the thriller, if there is a crime at all, it is more likely to take place at the end. Yet many a dramatically exciting book could be described as a suspense novel or as a thriller. Stanley Ellin's own; or Anthony Price; or Eric Ambler's books, which he calls thrillers himself; his own definition for the thriller is "An extension of the fairy tale; it is melodrama so embellished as to create the illusion that the story being told, however unlikely, could be true." Not all thrillers are "suspense novels", then; but many suspense novels are thrillers.

Suspense novels are not, though they may be, mysteries; for often the reader learns very early in the story who did what, and how, and even why, so that the tension results from the manner in which an expected conclusion is achieved. Francis Iles, who first pointed out in 1930 that the detective story was likely to become a puzzle of character, rather than a puzzle of time, place, motive and opportunity, wrote an early example of this type of book is Malice Aforethought (1931), whose first paragraph tells us that Dr Bickleigh will murder his wife.
Suspense novels are not even necessarily about crime, whether committed or contemplated, though it is true that most include some form of law-breaking or misdeed. But the English Celia Fremlin, for instance, or the American Ursula Curtiss, frequently write about menaces that are undefined, and unrealized.

How then can we distinguish "suspense novels" from any other fiction? For there can be few novels of any kind that are successful if not suspenseful, whether the uncertainty to be resolved is "Will the boy get the girl?" or "Will he end up President?" I think the difference resides in the intention of the author and the expectation of the reader. The suspense novelist's aim is to engage both the intellectual curiosity provoked by a detective story, and the emotional involvement achieved by a novel. The additional pleasure of the actual story, the procession of events each consequential upon the last, is ' something that "novels" do not always share with good suspense fiction. For ! novels can be read without the reader particularly caring what happens next, I and the novelist and critic Arnold Bennett thought that "what holds you in a fine novel is not the story, but the originality and interestingness of the

author's mind and vision, which reveal themselves in every page". In fact, Bennett believed that few books improved as they proceeded; most became progressively more boring. He was contrasting novels with adventure stories, in which it was the story, and what happened at the end, that was interesting, and not the author's mind and vision. If these words were true when they were written in 1927, they are not true now. In Eric Ambler's words: "Few thrillers depend now for their interest on mere narrative. What holds you in a good thriller is what holds you in any other good novel, the originality and interestingness of the author's mind and vision. Not to read through any novel once you have started it is proof that it has failed with you."
Arnold Bennett's comments were made at a time when critics drew a distinction between a novel and a "tale". The tale was about events and appealed only to the intellect, as though it were a crossword puzzle or a word game. To enjoy such books was regarded by literary pundits as deplorable if not actually vicious. The novel concentrated on psychological and social reality, and its object was to touch the emotions and enlighten the imagination. If such a distinction did really exist, the contemporary suspense novelist is determined to destroy it.

When Wilkie Collins wrote what T. S. Eliot, with hindsight, called the first, longest and best detective story, The Moonstone (1868), he did not suppose himself to be writing something that differed in kind from his own earlier work, or from the books of his contemporaries. The classification and sub-division into categories has come much later, and it is a pastime of critics, not writers. Modern writers of what we loosely call suspense novels probably seldom consciously differentiate their work either from mystery fiction, or from mainstream fiction, except in trying to achieve the vivacity, verisimilitude and enthrallment that Wilkie Collins was aiming for in 1868. It is the publisher, not the writer, who decrees that Patricia Highsmith's work is called "suspense fiction" in the United States, and treated as, simply, fiction, in France. It is the publisher and literary editor who decide that novels with crime as their theme shall be published and reviewed in crime lists, unless they are by Graham Greene.

But whether or not they assent to such categorization of their work, authors of what we have come to call suspense fiction do share an interest in the dangerous limits of human experience, endurance, excess, and perhaps above all, in the extent of human duplicity. As Julian Symons says, "If you want to show the violence that lives behind the bland faces most of us present to the world, what better vehicle can you have than the crime novel?"
Most of Julian Symons' own crime novels have had detective plots, but all have revealed an individual, sardonic eye focussed on the emptiness as well as the violence behind his characters' bland faces. He strips them naked; and this is another feature of the best suspense novels. Their characters are shown as fully rounded people, their motives revealed not simply for their crimes, but for their whole lives. There are critics who resent what they see as amateur attempts at psychological understanding. "It cannot improve a genre to drain out its essence, fill the void with second-hand soul searching and arty verbal tricks, and pretend that the result is at once the classic article
and something loftier", complains Jacques Barzun, the historian and coauthor of A Catalogue of Crime; there has been an abandonment of science and reason. For enthusiasts the injection of realism, and of psychological understanding, has been one of the enriching features of the modern crime and suspense novel, even though it means that there is now a pervasive pessimism about suspense fiction that is very different from the cheerful conclusion implicit in the traditional crime story, that everything can somehow, eventually, be put right. Right, that is, by the standards of an ordered society whose members accept its values.

The well known authors in "the golden age" of crime fiction, between the two world wars, had no doubt that it was desirable for society's rules to be observed, and this conservatism is implicit in all they wrote. The best contemporary suspense writers give a completely different impression. Neither law nor law-enforcers are necessarily admirable, and a general disobedience of laws and regulations seems to be common among both criminals and authority; indeed, those in authority are frequently criminals, without any value judgement being made of their behaviour. In crime stories, the police are often corrupt; in spy stories, there is no perceptible moral distinction to be drawn between the behaviour of the "good guys" and the bad ones. Even the psychological, domestic dramas are often now about anarchy, about people who seem to be part of society while inhabiting the psyches of outlaws. A writer like Simenon at least uses the framework of conventional society - Maigret is a policeman, after all. But Maigret, like his author, refrains from judging others. For Patricia Highsmith, the anarchist is presented without even the channel of Maigret's worldly viewpoint. She explores not so much guilt, as lack of guilt. This is particularly evident in the

four books she has written about Tom Ripley, a free spirit untrammelled by any altruistic scruples. Commentators often describe him as a psychopath, that is, a person suffering from mental illness. But the fascination of Ripley both to his creator and to his readers, is that he is not mad, unless it is mad to be totally self centred. Tom Ripley 's own good is his only good.
Highsmith believes that only criminals are free; but also that we are all criminals, to a greater or lesser extent. It is much more common though, for criminals in suspense novels to be demonstrably deranged. Those of Ruth Rendell, for example, have their peculiarities traced in approved psychological style, to childhood experiences and deprivations, and often their misdeeds are sparked off when a precarious equilibrium is accidentally destroyed. In A Demon in My View (1976), Arthur Johnson has learnt to control his murderous urges by strangling a dressmaker's dummy, and only when the dummy is burnt as the guy on a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire, is he unable to resist human necks. Ruth Rendell casts a coldly observant eye on the life of contemporary middle class England. Half her books are detective stories with a recurring pair of policemen, the others novels in which the development of the characters is as interesting as the crimes; and the causes of the crimes in society and in the individual are of as much concern as their detection. Julian Symons spoke of the violence behind the bland face. In Ruth Rendell's books, the bland faces mask obsession and neurosis.

Suspense novels often have an undertone of unease, of nebulous threats. This is perhaps especially common in those about domestic life, by such writers as Ruth Rendell herself, or Celia Fremlin. The effect of such atmospheric writing can be powerful, though it is easy for books of this kind to be little more than what Jacques Barzun called a mongrel form, "stories of anxiety which cater for the contemporary wish to feel vaguely disturbed". But at its best this atmosphere of menace immensely enhances a story, as can be seen in the novels of Margaret Millar, most of whose books are set in California, in particularly well realized surroundings.
The late P. M. Hubbard was a writer regarded by many critics as supreme in conveying threats through atmosphere. His books are often as much love stones as murder stories, and the suspense lies in the development of the personal relationships against a subtly drawn background that is at once beautiful and sinister. But it is easy to fail in the attempt to write a novel in which the fear is everpresent but undefined. Too many books are nothing but lists of vague fears and frustrated passions, and the term "suspense novel" falls into disrepute when it is used for them. In such stories, the action centres on someone (usually a female character) the reader can imagine being, with whose fears he {or usually she) can identify. Other writers aim to "give the reader fear" as Geoffrey Household once said, but it is fear for another, for a hunted hero quite unlike most readers. Household's heroes, like those in another kind of suspense novel by Dick Francis, are loners driven by peculiar and personal obsessions.

I have mentioned few, of many possible examples of suspense novelists. But the varieties of suspenseful fiction are endless, and almost all the writers mentioned in this volume could plausibly have been included in the category.

© Jessica Mann originally published in HRF Keating's Whodunit
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