The Geometry of Suspense
By Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 22, 2019
Even if you hated math, you’ll love these crime fiction lessons in geometry.
Why was writing The Murder List like doing math? Because it’s all about understanding the properties of a triangle. One of the basic shapes of in geometry, right? And one of the basic shapes of conflict.
Three points on a triangle. Or three points of view. And in a twisty triangle thriller, it all depends on which person is at the apex and which characters are connected at the opposite points. Put the point of the triangle at the bottom—and the structure is unsteady, unstable, dangerous. Put the apex at the top, and the structure is on solid ground.
Until the author tips it again. And again.
Twist the triangle a different way, and the apex changes. The focus changes. And the other two opposing points are now the support system. Or are in league. Or, maybe, are conspiring. Against the third point? Or against each other?
And that’s the secret of the triangle. Its power. Its puzzle. Because it all depends on how you look at it.
In The Murder List, Rachel North is the first point on the triangle. She’s more attractive now, and wiser, and the oldest in her class at Harvard Law. She’ll always tell you the complete truth as she knows it. But, as one enthusiastic reviewer says, she’s… in a situation.
Her situation—precarious—is a result of the other two points on her personal and professional triangle.
One acute angle away is her faithful and devoted—she thinks—husband, the brilliant and experienced Jack Kirkland. A roaring and relentless lion of the defense bar.
Opposite them both, occupying the third point, the powerful and obsessed prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Martha Gardner. Rachel’s employer.
Looking at the triangle with Rachel as the apex? She wins. With a superbly wonderful husband on one side, and on the other, the best guide into the machinations and manipulations of the legal system any ambitious law student could ever desire.
But look at the triangle’s bottom line—the line connecting husband Jack and employer Martha. Rachel knows they hate each other. Problem. But what if Jack and Martha are in it together?
Turn the triangle and put prosecutor Martha at the apex—and that makes the bottom line connect Jack and Rachel. Husband and wife. A solid twosome battle for individual justice against the power and resources of the state.
But turn it again, and put Jack at the apex. Now he’s faced with a Rachel-Martha connection. What do they want from each other? What do they need? And what will they do—in or out of the courtroom—to get it? Is there a powerful sisterhood at work against Jack’s possibly old-fashioned expectations? Has Rachel—maybe—switched sides?
Rachel. Jack. Martha. Who will come out on top? As always in these tippable unpredictable three-pointed stories, it’s a game of cat and mouse—and cat. But which one is which? Who’s next on the Murder List?
And once you see that shape of a story, you see how gorgeously it’s used in crime fiction. The essence of conflict, the essence of surprises, the essence of possibilities.
Even if you hated math, you’ll love these crime fiction lessons in geometry.
The classic and groundbreaking legal thriller—and Scott Turow creates the perfect triangular shape. The gorgeous Carolyn Polhemus has tempted our hero (and her fellow lawyer) Rusty Sabich into a passionate one-weekend stand. After which the happily married Sabich goes back into his normal legal life.
Not. So. Fast.
When the gorgeous Carolyn is found murdered, all the evidence points to Rusty. In a non-stop excursion through the behind-the-scenes machinations of the legal system, this murder trial careens into an inevitable guilty verdict for the hapless Rusty. Is he guilty? Well….we gotta think so.
But another triangle comes to light, and then another. And as the triangles tip and turn, the ending changes the shape of the game so much it knocked the wind out of me. One reviewer called it “inventive.” I say—that’s not the half of it. Every moment of every writing day, I wish I could write a book as perfectly surprising as this one.
Talk about a conflict. I call this movie a drama, and my husband calls it a comedy.
But in George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (written by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon), Katharine Hepburn is the defense attorney facing off against prosecutor-husband Spencer Tracy. The case they’re arguing is whether poor Doris Attinger should be convicted of attempted murder for shooting her Lothario husband in the shoulder. In the courtroom audience, we see the third point of poor Doris’s triangle: Beryl, the sultry and exotic other woman.
Tracy and Hepburn, as Amanda and Adam, (often in monogrammed bathrobes), argue about whether the being a victim of domestic violence gives a woman the right to retaliate, or whether the law offers no excuse for shooting someone. When Adam slaps Amada on the rear—“You meant that!” she accuses—that opens the door for another triangle.
The literal door. Living next door to Adam and Amanda is the lusty and love-struck Kip Lurie, who woos the vulnerable Amada with a love song he wrote just for her. (Which is completely not fair, because that song was written by Cole Porter, and how is anyone supposed to resist that?)
So—the triangulated Adam-Amanda-Kip battle the triangulated Doris-Warren-Beryl (Judy Holliday—Tom Ewell—Jean Hagen) and in the end—well, even the movie studio says it’s a comedy. I still disagree. Though the movie came out in 1949, it’s an incredibly thought-provoking and still-timely legal thriller.
The femme fatale Phyllis Dietrich wants to buy an accident insurance policy on her husband. Then she wants her husband to have that accident.
Poor Walter Huff. That sad-sack insurance agent should have walked right out of that Los Angeles house.
On page 2, we hear the clarion call of noir as schnook Walter assesses the situation.
But all of a sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair. “Do you handle accident insurance?”
We are yelling at James M. Cain’s pages, right? Saying Walter, run away! But as he says “…under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know.”
Run! we say. Triangle! But of course he doesn’t, and then the whole thing becomes his idea. At least he thinks so.
This essential noir novel—just 115 pages in the paperback—was based on an actual triangle trial in the 1920s, a media-frenzy scandal where the provocative flapper Ruth Snyder conspired with corset salesman Henry Gray to kill her husband Albert—after she took out three double indemnity insurance policies on poor Albert. They botched it so badly that Damon Runyon called it “the dumbbell murder,” and it has the dubious distinction of being the first time there was a double electrocution at Sing Sing. And just as dubious, photos of it exist—because a reporter put a camera into his pants leg and sneaked it into the execution.
Can one point of a triangle be someone who’s dead? If it’s the second Mrs. DeWinter’s triangle, of course it can. Daphne du Maurier knew her triangles and sets this one up with the skill of a mathematician. Are the points of the triangle the creepy housekeeper-of-secrets Mrs. Danvers, brooding Maxim DeWinter, and his new wife who serves as our narrator? Or is it Maxim, our narrator, and Rebecca? It all depends on who wants what, and how far they’ll go to connect the dots.
The Last Mrs. Parrish, The Wife Between Us, and The Wife
Recent and wonderful, these three brilliant and infinitely clever takes on modern marriage (and all it might encompass and engender) are each unique, each a page-turner, and each turns on a triangle. Or two. Who loves who and how far will they go to get what they want? Liv Constantine, Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen, and Alafair Burke have the triangle structure nailed. I devoured all three of these. A triangle of triangles.
The Bellamy Trial
Never heard of it? You will soon, as a new edition of this riveting twenties classic come s out next October. In 1926, Frances Noyes Hart wrote which might be the very first legal thriller—and it’s a triangle based on a real-life triangle.
In 1922, the crime of the century was a particularly scandalous murder case in Somerset, New Jersey. In what became known as the Hall-Mills murders, an Episcopal minister and an attractive member of his church choir—each of whom were married to others—were found shot dead under a crab apple tree, their bodies suggestively positioned in death, and torn-up love letters placed beneath their corpses.
The press attention was relentless—Damon Runyon covered it, as did Mary Roberts Rinehart. Reportedly, only the Lindbergh case booted Hall-Mills from the headlines.
Frances Noyes Hart, daughter of a newspaperman, took the bones of the scandal and with a wry and witty style echoing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, wove her own mystery about east coast infidelity and notoriety, calling it The Bellamy Trial.
A true legal thriller, almost every bit of it takes place in the courtroom. But the triangle structure—on every level—is firmly in place.
I know, I left out A Witness for the Prosecution. And Fatal Attraction. But The Murder List has its roots in all-of-the-above, I’m delighted to say. I have no outline when I write, and every time I realized another way the triangle could turn, and how that might change the geometry, it surprised even me. And when I figured out the ending of The Murder List—which point of the triangle was up?—I was by myself in my study, and I stood and cheered.
About The Murder List
Law student Rachel North is the ultimate reliable narrator—she will tell you, without hesitation, what she knows to be true. She’s smart, she’s a hard worker, she does the right thing. She’s successfully married to a faithful and devoted husband, a lion of Boston’s defense bar. And her internship with the powerful District Attorney’s office is her ticket to a successful future.
Problem is—she’s wrong.
Rachel. Jack. Martha. Who is next on The Murder List?
And in this cat and mouse game—the battle for justice becomes a battle for survival.
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