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Posts tagged ‘suspense’

Review: ‘Into the Water’ by Paula Hawkins

Into the WaterInto the Water by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a deep place in the river that runs through Beckford where people swim, fish, dive from the high cliff, and lie on the beach and listen to the ubiquitous voice of the water. For many, this place is simply a good swimming hole. For others, especially the women, it’s the “Drowning Pool.” There should be a warning sign at the water’s edge: “Never send to know for whom the water calls; it calls for thee.”

Paula Hawkins’ words are like those massive spiderwebs we run into when we hurry out the front door or run between dead trees in a graveyard, on a foggy night. The spiderwebs startle us, but after looking around nervously, we pull them off our faces and out of our hair and move on.

When the first Beckford woman to drown in the river was found dead in the town’s swimming hole, the news was shocking. As always, when such things (suicides or possible murders) happen, people asked: “why?” The answers were never quite certain or satisfying, so people pulled the spiderweb of shock and sadness out of their hair and moved on.

Then there were more drownings, that place in the drive acquired a whispered name, and in time it became impossible to move on because the voice of the river became harder to ignore and even those who had reason to know “the why” of each death weren’t sure whether they really knew “the why” or were caught in a web of lies, nightmares, premonitions, or the cries of the women’s’ spirits. The strands of the web now had the strength of heavy ropes, perhaps chains, and nobody could move on.

The reader, like any other newcomer to Beckford, is thrown into this twisted dream, and nothing is quite clear because there are so many points of view (a superb idea on Hawkins’ part) and those points of view align with less clarity than the yarn about the blind men trying to describe an elephant based on their impressions of a single leg, tail, or tusk. It’s hard not to ask, “Is everyone in town guilty or are they all simply crazy?”

Hawkins is content to step back from, say, a Stephen King “in your face approach,” and allow the readers and the saner characters time to push through the web of stories that ties the townspeople together. The ending–which some reviewers think was pasted onto the story for want of anything better–was, in fact, pitch perfect. Given what we knew, or thought we knew, it was the only ending that made sense. In fact, it was an epiphany we should have seen coming–but didn’t.

This is a superb thriller, almost an immersion in a drowning pool of dark waters and hidden currents. When we finish the book, we’ll plan to get the story out of our hair in a few days and move on. That probably won’t happen.

View all my reviews

–Malcolm

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Coming December 1: ‘A Woman Misunderstood’

Thomas-Jacob Publishing will release the second novel in Melinda Clayton’s Tennessee Delta Series, A Woman Misunderstood, December 1. The novel follows Blessed Are the Wholly Broken (2013), with another gritty tale about harsh losses, determined survivors, and the tangled webs of dysfunctional people’s lives.

Publisher’s Description: 

Available for pre-order prior to the release date.

Available for pre-order prior to the release date.

On a sweltering July morning in rural Tennessee, fifty-year-old Rebecca Reynolds visits the family farm, where she literally stumbles across the mutilated bodies of her parents and younger sister, a sister who had spent life in a wheelchair after a birth fraught with complications.

Rebecca’s first thought is to call 911. Her second is to find her estranged sister, Lena, who was disowned by the family years before. Her third is to wonder how long it will be before Lena is arrested for the murder of their family.

As the police gather evidence pointing to Lena, the sisters turn to attorney Brian Stone. Convinced of Lena’s innocence, he agrees to take on the case. But in a family ripped apart by dysfunction, is anyone truly innocent?

Clayton is also the author of the four-novel Cedar Hollow series that began with Appalachian Justice (2013).

Those of us at Thomas-Jacob do not review each other’s books because our words would always appear to be a conflict of interest. I’ll bend that rule ever so slightly by saying that I enjoyed reading A Woman Misunderstood.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism, paranormal, and fantasy novels and short stories.

How to destroy the pacing of your story

thrillerNovelists trick us in multiple ways in order to ramp up the suspense of a story. Important facts are concealed, backstories aren’t revealed, and point of view is shifted from one character to another keeping readers outside the head of the person whose thoughts would reveal important clues.

One trick annoys me, probably annoys others, and disrupts the pacing of the story. Let’s call this “hurry up and wait.” Here’s an example:

The Bomb

Joe opened the suitcase. There is was: enough C4 to level the building and a timer with ten seconds left in the countdown. The timer was old, sounded like a plastic clock.

The tick tock, tick tock reminded him of summer evenings at the lake when Dad not only woke him at the crack of dawn, but kept him awake most of the night with a loudly ticking alarm clock. Every time it woke him, he lay there waiting for it to go off in an explosion of bells and sunshine. Before the left the old cabin, he threw that darned clock in the lake, hoping a gator might eat it. He had to smile in spite of the bomb in the suitcase. If Dad were alive and sitting here next to him, he would love the sound of that timer.

When a story is racing toward a critical moment, stopping the action for an absurd reason cheats the reader, for it builds tension where there should already be enough tension to cover the action.  In this example:

  1. No sane person faced with a bomb with just seconds to defuse is going to walk down memory lane in his thoughts. He will run, throw the bomb out a window, or defuse it.
  2. Some novelists don’t pay attention to the time it takes a reader to read a passage. I always note it. In this case, the bomb will explode before Joe finishes his thoughts about the lake and the clock simply because the thought takes more time than he has.

A similar sin, somewhat less grievous, is the insertion of backstory information into a scene where, in reality, there’s no time for it. Now, if you’re a reader or a writer who isn’t concerned with the amount of time thoughts and memories take to occur, this won’t bother you as much as it bothers me. Consider this:

The Highway

Sue lit another cigarette and blew the smoke out the open window of the car. Goodness knows, she was driving fast enough for the wind to draw everything out the window including her soft voice, her hair and the gnats that took over the car while they were parked at a rest stop.

“What are we going to tell our parents when we get there,” she asked.

“If you’ll slow down,” said Jim, “we’ll have more time to come up with an elaborate lie.”

She laughed, looked at him sideways, and punched his shoulder gently.

“I’m eight months pregnant,” she said. “What kind of elaborate lie do you propose.”

Other than how she happened to get pregnant, Sue was forever practical. He preferred jokes and delays and white lies. If he could think of a real whopper, he would resort to that. This road was a highway of lies because it connected their hometown with the beach cottages. Things happened at those cottages. Always had. The road home, lined with saw palmetto and scrub oak and a few longleaf pines, was a fertile ground for fibs, large and small. They literally fell out of the trees. If they’d been fish, they would have jumped into his boat. Sue felt uncomfortable with lies. That’s why she drove down this road faster than the law allowed.

“You’ve been overeating,” he suggested.

Okay, maybe there’s some relevance in the fact Jim uses the road as a time and place for covering up whatever he did at the beach.

  1. Nonetheless, this diversion destroys what was developing as a back-and-forth dialogue of short sentences. The pace one can create with that kind of dialogue gets derailed with the intrusion of a giant paragraph of information.
  2. Plus, I feel like asking the author exactly what Sue is doing while Jim has this multi-sentence thought. Yes, sooner or later such conversations have to end. But not before they’re naturally over.

Pacing can help a writer’s work or destroy it. Sometimes, it’s a matter of personal taste. If you read your stuff aloud, you’ll hear the pacing as surely as you hear the rhythm of a song on the radio. The pace not only needs to feel right, it needs to make logical sense. I think it’s illogical for a man defusing a bomb to think about something else, and I think most people having a conversation would be saying “Jim, Jim, Earth to Jim” before Jim finished his thoughts about the road and the lies he found on it.

Pitch-perfect pacing keeps the thrills in your thriller.

My two cents for a Monday afternoon.

–Malcolm