How does author Liam O'Flaherty create the effect of suspense in The Sniper?
When the subject of a story is a sniper, a profession to which suspense is integral given the nature of the individual trained to lie motionless for hours at a time until a suitable target appears and to then kill that target, sometimes at considerable distance and at considerable risk to him- or herself, the injection of additional suspense is not particularly difficult. When the "action" takes place in a claustrophobic urban setting in the midst of a civil war, then the development of suspense is even more natural. Such is the case with Liam O'Flaherty's short story The Sniper. O'Flaherty's narrative is inherently suspenseful. The story begins with a brief description of Dublin, Ireland during the period known as "The Troubles," the enduring and bloody conflict between those fighting for independence from the British Crown and a unified Irish State, and those seeking to remain a part of the United Kingdom. At its more basic level, it would evolve into a straightforward war between Irish Catholics and Protestants, the latter identifying more with England than with the country's majority Catholic population. In short, it was (and remains) an extremely tense situation that easily lends itself to dramatic renderings.
O'Flaherty does, however, build tension as his story progresses. The titular sniper is described as young but experienced at the art of war. In the story's second paragraph, the author describes his protagonist as possessed of eyes that "had the cold gleam of the fanatic. They were deep and thoughtful, the eyes of a man who is used to looking at death." The sniper is perched on the roof of a building, seeking targets to shoot with his rifle. Again, the scene is inherently dramatic, and the tension builds only gradually because the story begins with such an elevated level of suspense. The introduction of an enemy armored car, a menacing sight to a soldier armed only with a rifle and a revolver, represents a new level of suspense, but this threat is quickly eliminated. The suspense really begins to build, though, when the sniper, exhausted and tired, decides to light a match so that he can smoke. The flash from his match draws fire from an enemy marksman on an opposing roof, causing the tension to elevate. More so than with the armored car, the enemy sniper represents a more visceral threat to the protagonist because this new entrant into the action represents the very danger to himself that he has posed to others. It is now when O'Flaherty begins to heighten the suspense, as evident in the following passage, which follows the sniper's realization that he has been shot by his counterpart on the other roof:
"The sniper lay still for a long time nursing his wounded arm and planning escape. Morning must not find him wounded on the roof. The enemy on the opposite roof covered his escape. He must kill that enemy and he could not use his rifle. He had only a revolver to do it."
The reader now senses that the scale of the threat to the titular sniper has grown exponentially. Unlike the many times the sniper has been able to silently and efficiently kill enemy combatants (and informers) from the safety of his hiding place, the appearance of an equally menacing counterpart has escalated the already high tensions considerably. The suspense continues to build when the sniper, having outwitted his opponent, decides to approach the corpse and see if it was somebody he knew. This nonessential action poses yet another serious threat to the protagonist of the story, but one that is readily dispensed, as described in this passage:
"The sniper darted across the street. A machine gun tore up the ground around him with a hail of bullets, but he escaped. He threw himself face downward beside the corpse. The machine gun stopped."
O'Flaherty has elevated the tension in his narrative until it reaches its dramatic and painful conclusion. The climactic ending, with the sniper gazing into the face of his dead brother, whom he has killed, lends The Sniper a poignancy that the reader would not have anticipated, and the unrelenting suspense in this story is quickly deflated as the futility of the whole enterprise becomes all too apparent.