Atmosphere is an intangible but crucial component of crime fiction: it sets the stage for the plot and the characters, and it also elevates these aspects of the book. Pinpointing exactly what atmosphere is and what role it plays isn’t easy, but PW put the question to several authors of upcoming mysteries and thrillers, who gamely offered their thoughts.
S.A. Cosby calls atmosphere “the cement that holds the bricks of the foundation together in my stories.” In his latest crime thriller, Razorblade Tears (Flatiron, July), two fathers, ex-cons with not much else in common, set out together to avenge the murders of their gay sons. Cosby draws readers into the story through “tactile descriptions about temperature or specific scents,” he says, “arresting or soothing visuals, and visceral descriptions of sound.”
Rachel Howzell Hall set her latest thriller, These Toxic Things (Thomas & Mercer, Sept.), in crowded Los Angeles. “In a city of four million, you’d think that there are no quiet, empty spaces,” she says. “But there are plenty, and that’s where I stow away this city’s sins.” Hall creates atmosphere through “observation,” centering her story on a dead woman’s possessions and who may or may not be interested in them.
Amanda Jayatissa also uses a city, San Francisco, as the background for her debut psychological thriller, My Sweet Girl (Berkley, Sept.). But the “claustrophobic and suffocating” atmosphere, she says, stems from how her protagonist, Paloma, experiences life as a person of color in the U.S., and “the pressure to conform to living in a foreign environment while often feeling inadequate.” Parts of the book flash back to Paloma’s childhood in Sri Lanka, and the uneasy mood of those sections “pays homage to Sri Lankan folklore and the ghost stories I’d whisper as a child.”
Ragnar Jónasson, author of the Dark Iceland series, considers ambiance “one of the most important building blocks of a novel,” and contends that it “needs to be created rather than written.” In the standalone The Girl Who Died (Minotaur, May), Una moves to a remote Icelandic village for a new start. But the people who live there, too, are distant, and as winter sets in, Una realizes she’s more alone than ever. PW’s review said Jónasson “effectively uses the isolated setting to create a claustrophobic atmosphere.”
Zoje Stage’s suspense novel Getaway (Mulholland, Aug.) features three young women who decide to hike the Grand Canyon in the wake of a trauma in order to recover and reconnect with nature, only to find more than they expect in the wilds of Arizona. It “becomes hostile territory,” Stage says, “almost an inescapable fortress where, truly, no one can hear them scream.” That encompassing combination of “setting and mood,” Stage says, are the keys to the book’s ambiance.
P.J. Vernon describes atmosphere as “the barbed wire” intended to make his second novel, Bath Haus (Doubleday, June), feel “inescapable.” When Oliver, in a seemingly perfect marriage to Nathan, visits a gay bathhouse and follows another man into a private room, the violent fallout threatens to change the couple’s lives irrevocably. Through that tension, Vernon aims to build “a relentless sense of menace,” he says—one that readers need to push through in order to see how matters resolve.