Chapter Three Suspense

Of the seven major categories of modern fiction, the mystery and suspense forms—especially suspense—provide the writer with the greatest opportunity for financial success. Most hardcover and paperback trade book (Trade books are the kind sold in general bookstores, department and drug stores, etc.) houses publish regular mystery and suspense lists; and a substantial portion of the novels labeled as "general" and "mainstream" fiction are actually suspense novels. The leading best-seller lists often include at least one mystery and almost always two or three suspense titles, though these last may not be clearly labeled as such. The Mystery Guild and the Detective Book Club reprint published novels for their members, providing extra income for established suspense and mystery writers; and the Literary Guild, Book-of-the-Month Club, Doubleday Bargain Book Club, and other large, mailorder discount organizations feature mystery and suspense titles more often than they do those of other genres, paying extremely well for book club rights. And the percentages of mystery and suspense novels sold for motion picture production, while not exceedingly high, are nevertheless substantially above the percentages of film rights sales in other categories.

In addition, while there are some series characters to be found in the science fiction, fantasy, Western, and erotic genres, none of these categories support the quantity and range of series characters that the suspense and mystery genres do. Series novels, like Ian Fleming's James Bond books, in which the same characters and backgrounds are used through several books, are important monetarily and creatively, because the series character allows you to build a regular and faithful audience that would be harder to come by if every story you wrote were unrelated to the last. Category readers pay for escape; if they like a character who appears in two dozen books, the familiarity of background and story helps them "settle into" each successive novel more quickly than they got into the last. Also, by picking up a novel in a series they enjoy, they are taking less of a chance of wasting their reading time on something they cannot finish or, having finished, wish they had not.

Successful mystery series include Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novels—many of which received lengthy runs on the best-seller lists—and Richard S. Prather's Shell Scott books. Prather's agent (Scott Meredith) some years ago got him a million dollar contract with Pocket Books to write several new Shell Scott novels over a period of years; but Prather has earned far more than that from the series, which has been selling steadily since 1950. Successful suspense series include Donald E. Westlake's Parker novels, John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels, Edward S. Aarons' Sam Durell stories, Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm adventures, and Philip Atlee's Joe Gaul espionage capers. Wide reading in both these fields, not only to help you learn the form but also to help you learn the names and careers of established series characters, is essential. (You may also find Who Done It: A Guide to Detective, Mystery and Suspense Fiction by Ordean A. Hagen (R. R. Bowker) helpful for its list of mystery and suspense characters.)

This book separates mysteries and suspense novels into two separate categories, as the differences between them are few but fundamental. First of all, in the mystery the villain is always unknown until the end: a major purpose of the narrative is to deduce, by degrees, the identity of the murderer or thief. The unveiling of the villain is the whole dramatic focus, forms the entire climax, and comes near the very end of the novel. In a suspense novel, however, the villain is often identified at the outset—at least to the reader if not to the lead character, though most often to both—and the story interest comes from the reader's anticipation of various disasters befalling the protagonist.

Donald E. Westlake's excellent suspense novel, Slay-ground (published under the pseudonym Richard

Stark), is a good example of this point. In chapter one the professional thief who is the protagonist, Parker, robs an armored car, survives the wreck of a getaway car, and flees with a suitcase of money into an amusement park which is closed for the winter. Unobserved by anyone except two mafia types and the crooked policemen they are paying off, his predicament would, at first, seem only slightly serious. Parker soon discovers that the park is ringed by a moat and an unscalable fence, and that he can leave only as he entered, through the main gate. That route is blocked by the mafia and the crooked cops who intend to enter the park after sundown, locate Parker, kill him, and take the stolen money. The bulk of the novel concerns the manhunt, Parker's skillful evasions, and the use of the amusement park rides and shows as deadly traps for the mafia interlopers. The villains are all known. The excitement comes from three main questions: (1) Will they find Parker? (2) Will they kill Parker? (3) Will Parker get away with the money?

In those rare suspense novels where the villain's identity is withheld from the reader, the revelation, when it comes, is secondary to the resolution of the hero's predicament: once the reader has found who, he is mostly interested in how to stop him. A good example is my own Chase. The story concerns a Medal-of-Honor-winning Vietnam veteran who shuns the media spotlight and public acclaim; he was an unwilling participant in a never-discovered My-Lai-type massacre and is fighting a battle with his own guilt, aware that this war crime more than offsets the bravery, under other circumstances, which earned him the Medal. In chapter one, he comes upon a killer, in the lover's lane overlooking his hometown, who has stabbed one boy to death and is menacing a young girl. He grapples with the killer, frightens him off, saves the girl and finds himself front-page news again, against his will. Not only does this exposure put him under more emotional stress, but it quickly tips off the lover's lane killer as to the identity of the man who stopped him from killing the girl. The disgruntled psychotic sets out to murder the hero for interfering. This time, partly because he doesn't want the notoriety of police protection, and partly because he isn't altogether believed when he tells of the threats against his life, the hero decides to find the killer where the police have failed. Either he locates his man, or he becomes front-page news again—this time as the psycho's victim. The madman's identity is withheld from the reader, but not for the purpose of mystery. When the hero finally learns who the unseen adversary is, the revelation is less of interest to the reader than what will follow it: the dangerous and suspenseful confrontation between protagonist and antagonist.

Mystery and suspense differ in another important manner. A mystery novel usually opens with a single, major crime and, more often than not, contains no other murders. The hero sets out to solve this dirty work and takes two hundred pages of sleuthing to do it. If other murders do occur, they come about by surprise, with little or no build-up to titillate the reader; these secondary murders, then, become additional twists in the plot, complicating the protagonist's job. By contrast, the suspense novel withholds its major violent incident until the end. More often than not, the villains' intended crime is never pulled off, for the lead character manages to foil his antagonists. In short, the mystery is characterized by the word "solve," while the suspense novel could be summed up in the word "anticipate." This means that the most dramatic narratives, full of the most hair-raising escapes and encounters, will be more likely found in suspense than in mystery where the worst has happened at the outset.

Those are the differences between the mystery and suspense forms. While the mystery is, fundamentally, a rather exhausted vein and is closed in by a number of strictures which we will mention in the next chapter, creatively speaking the suspense novel offers a wider latitude for serious work than any other genre, primarily because it requires only the five basic elements of category fiction and no other special considerations or limits. Science fiction, while wildly imaginative and capable of encompassing the most important themes, generally demands that substantial wordage be given to the carefully considered development of an exotic background and to explanations of the science on which the story is based. Gothics require a certain kind of theme and a relatively rigid plot formula. The Western, by its nature a bastard offspring of the historical novel and thereby limited in scope, also requires a certain type of plot and action and characterization that restricts the author's freedom. Erotic novels demand a quantity and quality of sex scenes around which the main story is built. In suspense, however, no peculiar strictures exist, no plot or thematic or background or character considerations that apply only to it and no other genre. This makes for a vigorous category and explains why some of the cleanest, sparest prose has always been turned out by professional "thriller" writers. Now, for the remainder of this chapter, we will be concerned solely with suspense.

You should look at the negative first and learn, at the outset, what to avoid as a suspense writer. Several things which will mark your work as less than professional in the eyes of the modern suspense editor are:

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