Hiding Tension in Plain Sight
Here’s a good trick for anyone interested in writing in the mystery or thriller genre:
The act of murder (usually) requires a strong blast of emotion. The typical motives include hatred, jealousy, greed, misdirected love, anger, etc. (And herein, we are discounting the busted clockwork of the psychopath’s mind. I dislike mysteries in which the killer kills because it’s Tuesday, or because his Hummel figurines are talking to him).
When you’re setting up the murder in a mystery story, and when your protagonist is trying to solve the mystery (we’re talking Act I and Act II here), one of the best ways to obfuscate the blast of emotion is to hide it in a field of emotions.
Lee Child is a master of setting his mysteries in American towns that already are awash in some sort of social or political upheaval. That fuzzy background of roiling emotion perfectly hides the antagonist’s motivation.
Both Robert Crais and T. Jefferson Parker have made ample use of California’s organized crime and proximity to the narcografficanteviolence on the Mexican border, using the turmoil and violence to obscure their A stories.
It’s a classic example of the needle and the haystack, only writ large. If you want to hide high crimes, camouflage them in a world of crimes.
Reader participation: Want to offer examples of writers who brilliantly hide their plots amid social minefields? Please post a comment.