Our theme this month is holidays, but since we all write stories of intrigue and suspense, this begs the question—what role do holidays play, or shouldn’t play, in telling a mystery or thriller?
I find them handy because they orient the reader with a host of backgrounds and impressions. Mention any holiday and the pictures instantly come to mind: the weather, the traffic, the decorations, the family issues at stake.
My first published novel, Trace Evidence, took place just before Thanksgiving. I needed it to be cold enough in Cleveland, Ohio for the rivers to be icy but not necessarily frozen solid. Plus my character, recently divorced with a daughter in the surly teenage years, had to wonder how she might best approach the family-oriented holiday. Or for another take on the holiday you could try Broken, by Karin Slaughter.
Fourth of July: It can be sweaty and sun-beating-down hot (and if you live near me, there’s a raging thunderstorm every afternoon). School is out and the kids want to see fireworks. The corn is getting high, co-workers are on vacation, and there will be flag decorations in public areas. See Lemon Meringue Pie Murder, by Joanne Fluke.
New Year’s Eve: Most people, except perhaps the twenty-somethings, are a little burnt on holidays altogether, but will try to rally for one night of heavy drinking combined with icy roads. They might also be thinking about resolutions, pondering what has gone wrong—and who might be to blame for it. See Name Withheld, by J.A. Jance.
Easter/Passover: Spring has sprung and the flowers are pushing up from the earth, even if it’s through a dusting of snow. I don’t know of too many stories set around Easter. Perhaps it seems a bit sacrilegious, or that besides chocolate bunnies and Manischewitz, the holiday doesn’t give you a lot to work with. Check out The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penny.
Labor Day and/or Yom Kippur: It’s fall and the leaves are turning, the kids are going back to school. Yom Kippur means a full day of fasting, which might make some of your characters a little hangry. I set Trail of Blood on Labor Day weekend because Cleveland has an air show every year, and that gave me a dramatic background for the discovery of a body. Plus, my character’s daughter–a young teen in Trace Evidence–was leaving for college. Major angst. See Running on Empty, by Sandra Balzo, or Day of Atonement by Faye Kellerman.
Halloween! The favorite of thriller writers everywhere. You need an ominous atmosphere, and for once the world cooperates with you. The dark comes quickly at night, trees are bare and scratchy, and our normal instincts cannot be trusted. Is that a body, or only a decoration? Are mysterious noises emanating from your neighbor’s basement, or is your imagination getting the best of you? On the other hand, Halloween is about the most baggage-free holiday there is. You can dress up, or not, let your kids put decorations in your yard which would otherwise precipitate a visit from Children’s Services, or not, binge on candy, or not. There are no rules, therefore no stress, and without stress you can’t write much of a thriller…unless, of course, that body over there isn’t a decoration. Read Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. (This one isa rule.)
Christmas/Hannukkah: The mother of all holidays. Set a scene, especially at a mall or some other public area, during December and everyone will know what that means. The weather (at least in the north) is cold, unpredictable and uncooperative. There is shopping, baking, cleaning, partying and visiting required to panic-inducing degrees. On top of all that it’s the time of year we’re supposed to be particularly friendly and loving and merry. No wonder somebody ends up dead. See Tied up in Tinsel, by Ngaio Marsh.
What about you? Have you read a novel that made great use of a holiday, with all its joys and stresses?
What a great list of novels to check out! Thinking about stories centering on holidays, I have to admit that right now both my husband (!) and I are enjoying all of the Hallmark Christmas movies. There was even a front page story in the WALL STREET JOURNAL a week ago about how popular they are and how businessmen are watching them in hotel rooms on the road as a way to simply relax on a grueling trip. Now, thanks, Lisa, for a great post.
What wonderful examples of how to use holidays in thrillers, Lisa! I've never done it, but you're inspiring me. Gonna go scratch my noggin'!
I've mentioned holidays in passing, usually to set the time of year, but have never actually used one as a vehicle to further the plot. Regardless, this is a great round up of holiday thrillers! (Rather reminded me of WHITE CHRISTMAS and HOLIDAY INN, but instead of Bing Crosby and company singing about the different seasons, you're highlighting them with murders!
I have never used a holiday as part of my stories, but you've set me to thinking. Great post.
I have a list of holiday movies, but not one for books. Thanks for the suggestions and I'll try to find one with a Christmas theme!