Atmosphere : unspoken unease and menace
At Sophie’s prompting, I’ve recently been reading a new (to me) crime writer, Barbara Cleverly (a writer who only just missed the cut for 12 days of Christmas). Cleverly’s first 4 books are set in India in the 1920s, after the horrors of the First World War (which haunts many of her characters) but while the British Empire still rules.
What stayed with me, apart from her genius for plotting, was the atmosphere she created for her pre-independence India — an underlying feeling of unease, even menace.
Cleverly’s British Raj is like a thin and very fragile glass lid on a huge cauldron of broth. Readers can see through the lid to the liquid below. Not quite boiling yet, but with the occasional large bubble forcing its way through the shimmering and (apparently) serene surface. As readers, we sense that it wouldn’t take very much to crack through that flimsy lid from below.
Or from above.
Without giving away too many spoilers, I can say that some of the threats to the Raj’s fragile control come from its own members — who may be venal, or vengeful, or just outright villains. Maintaining British control requires machinations that Machiavelli would have admired.
How does Cleverly create her atmosphere of unease and menace?
Can we writers learn from her or borrow her tools?
Creating atmosphere : between the lines
On our Sparkle editing courses Sophie and I emphasise the need to leave spaces between the words for the reader’s imagination to fill in. We have learnt, over the years, that readers are usually with us as we write, or even ahead of us. They don’t want every last nuance of the story to be spelt out for them, nor patronising big bold arrows saying “Hint here, reader; don’t miss it”. Readers want to discover their own “aha!” moments.
So it is with Cleverly’s Indian atmosphere.
Present-day readers know that the British Raj did not last in India, that Mahatma Gandhi and others opposed British rule and, eventually, ended it. So it needs only the subtlest hint for readers to smile and say: “Yes, I can clearly see what’s coming. But the characters — blind to the signs that seem obvious to me — are too steeped in the might of the British Empire to realise it.”
Cleverly’s hints are subtle. And all essential to the twists of the unfolding plot. For example, her British characters glory in eating shepherd’s pie and jam roly-poly. Yes, they eat curry too, but it’s those incongruous nursery dishes that stick in the reader’s mind. The British maintain a clear apartheid between themselves and the locals, all the time. So the Sikh police sergeant (who is much more astute than his British boss) is not allowed to wait in the empty office but must remain outside until summoned. More chillingly, no Indian man is allowed to set eyes on the naked dead body of a white woman lest he be inflamed by the sight. And almost none of the British characters can tell one Indian from another, because they “do not register brown faces with any interest or accuracy.”
The two worlds are determinedly separate, but rubbing menacingly against one another like tectonic plates. Readers feel the friction, even though the Indian characters put up with it without protest. Readers sense, however, that protests will come soon enough.
Creating atmosphere : via description
To be honest, creating atmosphere via description is a real challenge. It can be difficult to include passages of description without upsetting the pace or balance of the story. Quite a few of Cleverly’s reviewers think she gets it wrong by being too wordy. She certainly relishes her detailed and vivid descriptions of Indian landscape and society. So did I.
I have to admit that I skipped her descriptions if they intruded when, as a reader, I was desperate to know “what’s going to happen next?”
Perhaps there’s a lesson for the rest of us writers there?
Creating atmosphere: via the outsider
Cleverly’s detective hero, Joe Sandilands, is a London policeman, on loan to the Raj. So he sees things with an outsider’s eye for discordant detail and, since we’re sitting behind his shoulder, we see the oddities too. Sandilands, the interloper, can create a more confiding relationship with the Sikh police sergeant than anyone else would dare. And he can pick up mutterings about the unrest below the serene surface of the Raj. But he can also be used, by insiders, even manipulated, simply because he is an outsider and is unlikely to be around for long.
The outsider is a tool that’s readily available to other writers. Our outsider doesn’t have to be the main character, just a character whose point of view the reader can share. He or she can notice casual detail in passing while we, the imaginative readers, pick up the atmosphere in the subtext or the plot hints that we suspect will become important, later on.
In fact, I didn’t warm to Sandilands as a hero. For me, as a reader, he’s too cerebral. What’s more, he seems cerebral even when he’s in deadly peril. I thought that made him a pretty cold fish and, to be honest, not a convincingly rounded character. But — and this is the clincher, to my mind — I kept on reading my first Cleverly (Ragtime in Simla) and I bought more of the series, in spite of my doubts about the hero and some of the writing. Why?
I was sold on brilliant plots and how I felt as I read.
That atmosphere of India and dying Empire stayed with me even after I’d finished each book. I was there. And I wanted more of it.
It shows (I think) that atmosphere can be key. Most authors would happily settle for that degree of connection with a reader. Wouldn’t we?