Some of my fondness memories as a little girl were the times I spent watching mystery movies with my Mom. It seemed that so many of those early black and white movies had an element of fog in them. I clearly remember the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films where Holmes and Watson walk through the fog as the opening credits role. And fog was used throughout those films to create suspense.
Fog Adds a Sinister Element
Now, I do know fog was utilized in many low budget mystery movies as a way to cut costs. Start the fog machine and there was no need for elaborate sets. But aside from saving money, you must admit fog does add a sinister element to any movie.
The use of fog in both books and movies makes the plot a little darker. In the fog characters find themselves in dangerous situations where evil can hide in a fog encased street and murderers can effectively escape from capture.
Today’s mysteries tend not to use fog. They use other elements like snow storms and extreme heat. For example, Diane Mott Davidson’s sleuth Goldy Schultz is often hampered by snow storms in Aspen Meadows where her crimes take place. One of Carol Higgins Clark’s books Iced also takes place in Aspen where the heavy snow makes it tough to catch the killer. And Joanna Pence’s book Red Hot Murder takes place in the dessert where there is no definitely no fog.
But I still like fog. Fog is a weather element that has a unique way of building suspense. Check out the following description from Arthur Conan Doyle.
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Every minute that white woolly plain which covered one-half of the moor was drifting closer and closer to the house. Already the first thin wisps of it were curling across the golden square of the lighted window. The farther wall of the orchard was already invisible, and the trees were standing out of a swirl of white vapour. As we watched it the fog-wreaths came crawling round both corners of the house and rolled slowly into one dense bank, on which the upper floor and the roof floated like a strange ship upon a shadowy sea.
This first description sets the scene before the appearance of the hound. You’ll see what I mean as you read the next description of the hound racing through the fog towards Holmes and Watson.
There was a thin, crisp, continuous patter from somewhere in the heart of that crawling bank. The cloud was within fifty yards of where we lay, and we glared at it, all three, uncertain what horror was about to break from the heart of it. …I sprang to my feet, my inert hand grasping my pistol, my mind paralyzed by the dreadful shape which had sprung out upon us from the shadows of the fog. ..Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.
Can you visualize it? Can you see the wall of fog and then the face of the horrible hound becoming visible? We know what’s going to happen but the fog builds an intensity that makes it even more suspenseful.
Here’s another example of the use of fog. Sam Spade’s partner Miles Archer is killed in the second chapter which is entitled “Death in the Fog.” The title starts us imaging the visual of what is about to happen. While Hammett’s descriptions are short they adequately set the scene. This is the description of Spade’s room just before the call about his partner’s murder.
The Maltese Falcon
“Cold steamy air blew through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning.”
You can feel the air and hear the fog horn as you read this description. Then we get a single sentence when Spade arrives at the murder scene.
San Francisco’s night-fog, thin, clammy, and penetrant, blurred the street.
This one sentence sets the entire scene. We already know from the chapter title what happened and we know it’s murder.
Here is one more fog reference, this time from Agatha Christie.
The Pale Horse
Father Gorman walked back through the gathering twilight. There would be fog tonight, it was growing denser rapidly. He paused for a moment frowning. Such a fantastic story…How much of it was born of delirium and high fever?
This particular reference to dense fog not only describes the weather but the state of Father Gorman’s mind as he reflects on the confession he just heard from a dying woman. In the next fog reference, Father Gorman is moments away from his own death and an eyewitness describes the last sighting of the priest.
The fog was coming on and there weren’t many people about. I’d gone to the door to look at the weather; thinking to myself the fog was coming up fast. The weather forecast had said it would…A little way behind him (Father Gorman) there was another man…What with the fog coming up. I lost sight of them both almost at once.
We have lost sight of Father Gorman in the fog, but we know what is going to happen. We know what the fog is going to hide from us.
Do you have a favorite fog reference? Somehow events occurring in fog seem so much more suspenseful. Maybe fog is old fashioned and not the most popular weather element at the moment, but you know—I miss the fog in mysteries.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Dorset Press, 1988; Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Vintage Books, August 1992; The Pale Horse,(1961) Agatha Christie, Harper Version