In a 1970 interview at the American Film Institute, Alfred Hitchcock drew a sharp distinction between mystery, which he defined as “an intellectual process, as in a whodunit,” and suspense, “essentially an emotional process.” To illustrate, he described a scene in which four guys sit at their weekly poker game, unaware that there is a ticking bomb under the table. But the audience sees the bomb. They have information that the characters lack, and it’s that knowledge that makes the slow, deliberate pace of the game, the interruptions to open another beer or share a joke, so unbearably suspenseful. Our anxiety is fueled not by wondering who planted the bomb, but by our concern for the characters.
Perhaps that’s why local author Hallie Ephron’s latest book, “There Was an Old Woman,” is, like its predecessors, labeled “A Novel of Suspense.” In these simply plotted books, any astute reader sees the figurative bomb under the table. We figure out early on who the bad guys are, then spend the rest of the book worrying about the main characters, who lack the insight that we have so quickly gained.