Brooding landscapes are often a staple of the suspense novel. In some cases, the shadowy, mysterious house at the center of a country estate is a key character. Perhaps it is haunted by the ghost of a sophisticated, beautiful, deceased first wife. Rebecca, by the late Daphne Du Maurier, is a modern classic. Most suspense novels use scene to set a foreboding mood.
In John Banville’s Snow (Handover Square Press, 2020), his first mystery novel written without a pen name, the setting is bleak rather than menacing. A violent, desecrating murder takes place in a country manor house in Ireland, but the house itself is given short shrift. Gritty, hard-nosed reality faces Chief Inspector St. John Strafford, who stays in the smokey, cramped Sheaf of Barley pub while investigating the murder. Against the backdrop of blinding snow, the setting is far from romantic, yet mood-setting and compelling.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018) now in its 126th week on the national New York Times bestseller list, is an unusual blockbuster, in that it is the debut novel of a 70-plus-year old scientist. Far from any country estate, Crawdads is set in the marshes off the coast of North Carolina, where the protagonist Kya grows up in a dilapidated shack, mostly on her own. “Miles of blade-grass so tough it grew in salt water, interrupted only by trees so bent they wore the shape of the wind. Oak forests bunched around the other side of the shack and sheltered the closest lagoon, its surface so rich in life it churned. Salt air and gull-song drifted through the trees from the sea.” Throughout the novel, the landscapes are so visceral, one can literally smell the air and feel the spray of the nearby Atlantic.
One of my long-time favorite novels is Rebecca (Harper, 1938). The mood is set long before the plot of the novel starts to unfold. In the opening lines, the unnamed heroine states, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers. The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive.” Despite outdated social mores, the plot and language have otherwise aged well. The senses come alive, from the sweet scent of lilacs and roses to the musty smell of old books, from bright crimson rhododendrons to the gentle sound of a little stream tumbling through the Happy Valley.
Unlike her previous novels featuring the Dublin Murder Squad, Tana French’s latest, The Searcher (Penguin Random House, 2020) is set in the countryside. The protagonist is a retired Chicago police officer, who seeks solitude, serenity, and peace in a remote Irish village. Local secrets, a missing youth, and the challenge of fitting in loom large in this suspense novel. Setting also plays a significant role. When Cal feels that telltale prickling in the back of his neck, developed by years of training in the Chicago PD, “he walked the perimeter (of the house), under a million savage stars and a howler’s moon, fields laid out white all around him and owls yelping…”
Two contemporary page-turner thrillers feature remote, inaccessible locations, where forces of nature trap the participants and murder wreaks havoc. In Lucy Foley’s The Guest List (HarperCollins, 2020), the meticulously planned wedding of an editor and a television star takes place on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. All access is cut off due to stormy weather: the sea is wild, the lights go out, the guests who venture out are in danger of sinking into the bog that surrounds the inn. And then there is a murder.
A corporate retreat in a rustic ski lodge high in the French Alps sets the stage for Ruth Ware’s One by One (Simon & Schuster, 2020). Expert skiing and company restructuring are foiled by an avalanche, trapping the participants at the chalet without access to communications. An already present deficit of trust among the leadership is compounded as the guests start to disappear, one by one.
Fiction can be a welcome distraction from politics and pandemic, and the suspense novel can be a satisfying escape.
John Banville’s New Murder Mystery Starts Like a Game of Clue by William Boyd. The New York Times Book Review, Oct. 5, 2020
The Long Tail of ‘Where the Crawdads’ Sing by Alexandra Alter. The New York Times Book Review, Dec. 21, 2019
Sex, jealousy and gender: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca 80 years on by Olivia Laing. The Guardian, Feb. 23, 2018