I take a
detective fiction class at Johns Hopkins for Old People (hereafter: “J-Hop”), most
every year, and it’s been a consistently good class, due in no small part to
the instructor, Melinda Kramer, a personable doctor of English from Purdue. My
main complaint over the years is that Melinda expects us Old People to do too
much reading. But this year Dr. Kramer has chosen her reading list from among top
mystery novellas—supposedly books of around 200 pages or fewer that you can
read in an afternoon. I happily signed up for this fall.
Our first short
novel is The Girl in the Green Raincoat, a Tess Monaghan Novel, originally
published: January 18, 2011, author: Laura Lippman, a well-regarded
Maryland writer and fellow member of my Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Mystery Writers
of America. (Haven’t seen her at any of the local meetings yet.)
writes in an afterword of sorts, “. . . of course . . . the book . . . owes
much to Rear Window . . .” referring to the popular Alfred Hitchcock film of
the same name. While I love Hitchcock’s films, being a writer, I thought I’d
look at how Green Raincoat compares to Hitch’s source, the short story, “It Had
to Be Murder,” by pulp fictionist, Cornell Woolrich.
similarities (and differences) between Lippman’s novel and Woolrich’s story.
Woolrich, a sad (to the point of tragic), and prolific writer from the first
half of the twentieth century, is often called “a master of pure suspense.” I
admit, sometimes he’s a bit corny, as in his novel The Phantom Lady, in which
chapter one is titled, “The Hundred and Fiftieth Day before the Execution,”
chapter three is “The Hundred and Forty-Ninth Day before the Execution,” chapter
six “The Ninetieth Day before the Execution,” chapter 19, “The Fifth Day before
the Execution,” etc. Corny, but effective. I decided to compare “suspense” in
the two works.
says “Suspense is a state of mental uncertainty, anxiety, of being undecided,
or of being doubtful. In a dramatic work, suspense is the anticipation of the
outcome of a plot or of the solution to an uncertainty, puzzle, or mystery.” In
my words, suspense is anxiety about uncertainty. In The Girl in the Green
Raincoat, the reader tries to figure out what Don Epstein is doing in his
world, over there across the park. But our information is limited to what Tess
and her helpers can find out. This builds suspense and increases our engagement
in the book and particularly in the story of Epstein and his wives. Epstein’s
story of dead wives and girlfriends is certainly enough to make us suspicious
of him. Ms. Lippman increases our suspicion and turns the suspense and danger
screws by confining our point of view to what Tess knows, and by confining Tess
to bed with preeclampsia. The reader gets a sense of claustrophobia, and of being
a prisoner, and a prisoner in a cage that confines, but does not protect.
Hitchcock’s Rear Window
is perhaps “iconic” from before that word became so overused. For that reason, one
must read “It Had to Be Murder” carefully to be sure that the details you comprehend
about the plot and the characters are actually in the text. Much of the Rear Window
story exists only in the movie. For example, in the short story, the reader only
knows that the protagonist, Jeffries, is laid up for some reason and can’t move
about or fend for himself. We don’t find out until the last line of dialog on
the last page that it’s a cast on his leg that immobilizes Jeffries.
this reader didn’t care how or why Jeffries was laid up. It’s very sharply
done, but the author has everyone trying to figure out what exactly Thorwald is
doing, not the backstory of Jeffries. As with Epstein in Green Raincoat, we
know that Thorwald is acting suspicious and we desire to know what is going on,
yet Woolrich, (who published “It Had to
Be Murder” in Dime Detective under his pen name “William Irish,”) has limited our
information by confining our point of view to what a confined man, Jeffries,
can find out. This builds suspense and deepens our engagement in the story of
I think Ms.
Lippman turns up the suspense and tension in the last few chapters as she uses
a Hitchcock-like technique—cross-cutting points of view, moving quickly from
scene to scene, and from character to character until Tess Monaghan’s winterized
sun porch is broached. As Dr. Kramer notes, Tess’s “role as observer and crime
solver is turned on its head when the suspected murderer appears at the
bedside, breaking through the observer’s protective ‘fourth wall,’ so to speak,
and bringing the near certainty of death directly to the trapped detective. In
addition to being an ironic twist on the locked room, a staple of mysteries,
this is a marvelous example of ‘the biter bitten’ – being treated in the same
way one has treated another, usually badly.” The twist doubles the suspense,
and the fun.
makes good use of the attractions and dangers of voyeurism and manipulates the
reader by making him part of the entire voyeuristic enterprise. Then as in Green
Raincoat, he turns the tables:
was somewhere inside the house here with me. And I couldn’t move, I couldn’t
get up out of this chair.”
discovered, trapped, and threatened by Thorwald. Though Woolrich is a master of
suspense, his craft relating the action is shaky here. He describes Thorwald
taking his shot, then trying to escape, but for me the picture Woolrich is
painting is hard to follow in this last scene.
Woolrich’s tale was preceded by H.G. Wells’ short story, “Through a Window,” the
setting of which is that of a man, convalescing from an unspecified injury, which
prevents him from using his legs, who spends his waking hours looking out of a
large window with a view of a nearby river. And by no small coincidence the
next book up in our detective fiction class at J-Hop is Josephine Tey’s The
Daughter of Time, about a detective with a broken leg . . .