Death’s Herald – A Literary Technique

Today we’ll be focusing on a writing technique for mysteries and thrillers. This one I discovered within the last few days while reading Sherlock Holmes, and then I found it in Treasure Island, a book I read a while back. I’m calling it Death’s Herald, and it is a powerful tool in building suspense, tension, and all those other wet-your-pants qualities found in fantastic mysteries.

I’m going to call your attention to one of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Adventure V: The Five Orange Pips. This adventure, one of the few failures of the sleuth, has many hidden gems inside, however the one that stands out most to me is Death’s Herald. John Openshaw’s uncle was the first to receive the five orange pips and his death shortly followed. Next came Openshaw’s father. Immediately we all anticipate his encroaching death. Suspension builds. Then we are completely enveloped in tension when we see that Openshaw himself received the five orange pips and three fatal letters. Those pips are Openshaw’s Death’s Herald. As soon as they show up on the scene, we know something bad is going to happen. Now imagine how devastated we would be if someone like Sherlock received those pips.

The next example of Death’s Herald is in Adventure VIII: The Adventure of the Speckled Band. In this story Death’s Herald is a low whistling that Julia Stoner said she had been hearing the past few nights. In those nights she was murdered. Then suddenly, Helen Stoner finds that she herself is hearing that low whistle, and she knows immediately that death is coming. That is why she comes to Sherlock Holmes, and that is why we keep reading.

Death’s Herald puts a time limit on the mystery. The detective only has so long before after the Herald is heard to solve the mystery and avert the announced crisis. They have to be quick before the murderers come.

Obviously, Death’s Herald is only powerful if it has been seen once before. Thus a murder or crime of some sort has to occur prior to the beginning of the book, and the Herald had to have announced it. But someone still alive knew what that Herald was, and when that person or someone he or she knows hears it, they know that person is in grave danger. The readers know he’s in danger. Suspense is built.

Death’s Herald can be anything. A stained dress found in a closet. A black spot on a piece of paper. But whatever it is, it has to have a reason or a cause. In Adventure V the five orange pips were chosen to be simply a signal. In Adventure VIII the whistle *spoiler* was the sound chosen to train the snake to kill, much as whistling is a signal for a dog to come. *end spoiler* The reason for it may be anything. A message to others. A signature. A warning. Maybe it’s just something that’s just required to preform the crime.

Here’s an example:

All Roger saw was his screaming Dad. Screaming and running into the woods. He was in hysterics. Roger didn’t know what it meant. But before he disappeared into the forest he caught a glance of his front. He had a big red circle painted on his chest.

Roger opened his eyes. It was five years after. Just another dream. His Dad had been found killed in the woods after he ran away with the big red circle. The case was closed. No one knew what killed him. But Roger’s memories still were seared, even five years after. And they were coming out in his dreams.

Roger stood up from his bed and yawned. He waddled over to the mirror while stroking back his hair.

Then on his chest he saw a big painted red circle.

Do you get it? Do you see why it is such a powerful technique? The red circle is perhaps a warning that death is coming soon upon that person. It’s a target symbol. At this point, Roger would find his local private investigator and his sidekick.

I hope you’ll take this method seriously and use it. Good luck!


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