How do you know who you can trust? It’s a question I’ve come to realize is at the heart of so many thrillers and novels of suspense. Setting up the early parts of a novel by establishing a character’s long-lasting or intimate relationship to another character and then finding ways to quickly undermine that trust is one of the most effective ways to set a story in motion, create questions, and offer opportunities to lead readers on an unpredictable journey.
The 1981 Ian McEwan novella, The Comfort of Strangers, is easily one of the most unsettling, disturbing books I’ve read. I reread it every so often (though never before traveling!) and even though I know what’s going to happen, the charged atmosphere, the fraught relationship between the protagonists, Mary and Colin, and the help of a seemingly kind stranger leave me with an uneasy feeling of not knowing who to trust—both in the book and in my own life. Which is exactly the point of the story, hinted at by the irony of the title. Do we really know the people we think we’re close to? Can you trust an offer of help from a stranger?
Mary and Colin are on an extended holiday in a city that could be Venice (though it is never directly named) when they meet a charming, helpful stranger called Robert. When they lose their way trying to find dinner late one evening, Robert aids them in their search and brings them into his confidence by sharing a shocking story from his childhood. When he coincidentally (or not) finds them again the next day, realizing they were lost enough to never have made it back to their hotel, he guides them to his home where he introduces them to his wife, Caroline. There, things slowly get more and more bizarre and menacing.
While I won’t give you the full synopsis of the book—it’s short enough you can read it in a couple of hours—here are three things you can learn about writing from reading even just the first two chapters of The Comfort of Strangers.
1. Establishing Trust. From page one, McEwan guides readers into understanding the relationship between Mary and Colin. “They woke, so it seemed to them, simultaneously, and lay still on their separate beds. For reasons they could no longer define clearly, Colin and Mary were not on speaking terms.” The simultaneous waking in the same room indicates an intimacy and familiarity, but the separate bed and “reasons they could no longer clearly define” lead one to believe they’ve been together long enough to become somewhat disenchanted with their relationship. The next couple of chapters build on this, showing the ups and downs of traveling in an unknown city with a romantic partner—bickering over where to eat contrasted with endearment brought on by an inside joke or shared experience.
2. Creating Atmosphere. Simultaneously with establishing trust, McEwan sets the stage for putting the characters (and readers) in a place where they’re comfortable enough to forget to bring a map when they go out, but unfamiliar enough to get lost when daylight fades. Beautiful enough to feel deceptively safe with its “major and minor churches, its museums and palaces, all treasure-packed,” but with enough shadows, dark corners, and “twisting alleyways” to become ominous in the right company. The opening sentence to the book reads, “Each afternoon, when the whole city beyond the dark green shutters of their hotel windows began to stir, Colin and Mary were woken by the methodical chipping of steel tools against the iron barges which moored by the hotel café pontoon.” The phrase “each afternoon” indicates the couple has been in the same place for at least a few days, long enough for there to be the start of a recognizable routine. “Hotel café pontoon” lets us know they’re not waking in their own beds, but in a city near to the water, with floating restaurants. A town meant to be explored and enjoyed by tourists.
3. A Perfect Stranger. When Colin and Mary go out later than normal to find dinner, they quickly get lost. Confused and hungry (the perfect awful combination), a man comes to their rescue:
She pointed at a doorway several yards ahead and, as if summoned, a squat figure stepped out of the dark into a pool of street light and stood blocking their path.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Colin joked and Mary laughed.
The man laughed too and extended his hand. ‘Are you tourists?’ he asked in self-consciously precise English and, beaming, answered himself. “Yes, of course you are.”
The juxtapositions in this short exchange set up the uncertainty we’re supposed to feel through much of the rest of the book. The man comes unexpectedly out of a shadow but to diffuse the tension (and fear) Colin makes a joke, which makes the man laugh. The extension of the man’s hand though, could read either way: It could be a friendly gesture as if offering a handshake, or it could be more ominous—is he reaching for them because they’re easy targets? Readers are left to guess but will continually look back on this opening salvo and wonder, What could have been done differently? to change the outcome of the book and the fate of Colin and Mary.