I saw Martin Scorsese’s film “The Departed” the other night, and it started me thinking about suspense. The difference between mystery and suspense is a much discussed topic among mystery lovers. The marketing folks who make so many of the decisions in publishing nowadays seem to think that slapping “A Novel of Suspense” on the cover of a mystery—even if it’s part of a longstanding series of police procedurals or private eye novels—will make it sell better. Maybe it does. But I think it would be a mistake to blur the distinction between mystery and suspense.
For me, a mystery is a whodunit. The basic skeleton of the plot is that a crime is committed, one or more people try to find out who did it, how, and why, and those questions are answered in the end. That skeleton is fleshed out by character and clothed in setting, ie place and culture. All of those things keep us reading mystery after mystery: the challenge of the puzzle and the drive to resolve it; empathy and liking or fascination with the characters, especially the protagonist; and interest in all the detail and color that the writer throws into the mix.
Suspense is something else. In suspense, the reader may know all along who the good guys and the bad guys are. The tension lies in uncertainty about what will happen. Will the good guys be okay? Will the plot be foiled in time? Will Jack Bauer save the world—again? Well, yes, Jack Bauer always saves the world in the TV series “24.” But except for that given, anything can happen. I watched the first season of “24” on video after hearing it extolled on DorothyL as an exemplar of suspense. And boy, is it ever suspenseful. I’ve now seen Seasons 2 through 4 on video too and have no intention of watching the current Season 6 on the tube until I’ve had a chance to get the Season 5 DVDs. I don’t see how those who watch when it's first aired can stand not knowing from week to week what will happen next. Many books and shows follow the unwritten rule that certain characters have to be okay, no matter how many harrowing experiences they live through. On “24,” that rule gets broken all the time. You really don’t know whether a good guy will turn out to be a bad guy, whether a familiar character will do something unexpected, when or how your personal favorite will die. The first season was the most excruciating, because the viewer didn’t know till it was over how far the show would go. But talk about cliffhangers! Every time I thought they couldn’t possibly increase the tension, they’d ratchet it up yet another notch. And to say the ending was a shocker is anything but hype. It really was a shocker!
“The Departed” is suspenseful but in a different way. I’ve gone in and out of watching “The Sopranos.” And I saw “The Godfather” about 25 years after everybody else without being sorry I’d waited so long. But this movie blew me away. If they don’t finally give Scorcese his long delayed Oscar for this one, I’ll be severely disappointed. The final 20 minutes (just guessing about the duration) were a jolt—a twisty multiple jolt. But that’s not what drove the movie. It was the journey, not the destination, that kept the audience enthralled. The characters all had moral ambiguities—except Jack Nicholson, who played the evil crime boss in his inimitable style—so the suspense wasn’t focused on reversals and revelations (although there were a few of those). But from scene to scene, I wanted to know what happened next. The movie made me care about the characters, the crisp pace kept the tension up, and the sheer delight of brilliant script, marvelous acting, and expert cinematography made me want this roller coaster ride to keep going.
I don’t know why it’s sometimes easier to talk about suspense with reference to a film or TV show than about a book. Maybe it’s that we can’t control the unfolding of the tale—except at home with our DVD or on-demand TV, where the watching experience is indeed less suspenseful. I don’t even want a book to be too suspenseful most of the time. Either I rush to find out what happened, missing all the joys of the writing along the way, or I find it unbearable and close the book. I don’t peek at the end, though I know some people do. At the movies, nobody can peek.
I can’t say enough about how powerful and yes, enjoyable, in spite of the horrendous subject matter, I found “The Departed.” (By contrast, I found the beautifully acted and filmed “Babel” totally depressing, and I won’t even go to see “Letters from Iwo Jima”—I’m sending my husband, who appreciates a good war movie.) In the theater on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, the whole audience was having a communal cultural experience throughout the movie. There were chuckles as we watched Jack Nicholson—you never forget it’s him, but it doesn’t matter—embody the quintessential villain. When Martin Sheen, near the end—no, better not tell you, it’s a spoiler—but anyhow, when the audience gasped, I believe they were reacting to seeing President Bartlet (“West Wing”)…in the situation on the screen. My husband wasn’t the only one who howled with laughter at some of the Irish one-liners, like when Matt Damon tells his girlfriend he’ll never leave: “I’m Irish: if something’s wrong, I’ll live with it for the rest of my life.” (I just tried to google the exact wording of this, and instead found a whole bunch of comments by people who didn’t like the movie. Oh well.) And yes, Freud really did say, “The Irish are one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever."
So—about suspense. Does suspense in a book differ from suspense in a movie or TV show? How it’s created? How you react to it? What are your favorite novels of suspense? Have you read novels described as suspense that weren’t? Or vice versa? How much suspense do you want in your mysteries? And did you like “The Departed”? (No spoilers, please—if I could control myself, so can you.)