Friday, February 26, 2010


We all get fascinated by ideas, things and sometimes people. Usually, our fasciations are just that – harmless fascination. It’s when a fascination becomes an obsession that people can lose their judgment. When an obsession becomes more important than anything else, it can cause a person to lose all sense of proportion. That can lead to broken relationships and worse. Obsessions can become very dangerous, especially in crime fiction.

Some characters in crime fiction are obsessed with an idea or a cause. That almost fanatical devotion can lead to a person putting the cause ahead of human life. Many novels that feature fanatic terrorists, for example, fall into this category. They aren’t the only ones. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt is the story of Stafford Nye, a low-level diplomat who’s waiting to board a plane in an airport when he’s approached by a strange woman who begs to use his boarding pass and diplomatic passport. She claims that her life is in danger and reluctantly, Nye agrees to help her. Before he knows it, Stafford Nye’s been swept up in an international plot for world domination. There are actually two obsessions that drive this international plot. One, the obsession with power, I’ll return to in a moment. The other – the principles of Nazism – motivates several of the characters in the novel to act as they do.

Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death) also deals with an obsession with an idea. When Hercule Poirot’s dentist, Mr.Morley, is shot one day in his surgery, Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp is called in, because one of Morley’s patients is Alistair Blunt, a powerful banker whose financial support is critical to the delicate balance of political power in the country. It’s believed at first that Blunt may have been the real target of the murder, and in fact, two other attempts on his life are made later in the novel. Japp asks Poirot to help in the investigation, and the two sleuths soon find that Morley’s death is tied up with the death of a mysterious Greek tycoon and the disappearance of a middle-aged English spinster. In the end, it turns out that an obsession with an idea – in this case, the idea of what is right for England – led to the murders. In fact, the killer even admits this obsession, saying that the deaths were regrettable, but necessary.

Sometimes, it’s not an ideal, but a goal that becomes the obsession. For example, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), Poirot is asked to investigate the untimely death of Richard Abernethie, the wealthy patriarch of the Abernethie family. At first, it’s believed that Abernethie died of natural causes. He wasn’t in very good health, so his death isn’t surprising. On the day of the funeral, though, his younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, suggests that he may have been murdered. At first, everyone discounts that idea. Gradudally, though, the members of Abernethie’s family begin to wonder if Cora was right. Not only does she have a habit of blurting out what the family lawyer calls, “awkward statements,” but the next afternoon, she’s brutally murdered. Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney, asks Poirot to help investigate. There’s no lack of suspects, as Abernethie had a large fortune and heirs who were desperate for money. In the end, though, the money isn’t responsible for Abernethie’s death, nor that of his sister. Instead, Abernethie died because someone had a goal that was more important than human life.

The idea that a goal might be more important than an individual human life is a frequent theme in medical thrillers such as Robin Cook’s. In several of his novels, lives are sacrificed in the interest of a medical goal or a business or monetary goal. There are too many of this type of novel for me to mention here, but this type of plot is a clear example of how obsession can lead someone to take real risks with their own and others’ lives.

An obsession with power and revenge is behind the events in Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder, in which Queen investigates some terrifying blackouts his friend, Howard Van Horn, has been having. Van Horn believes that he may have committed some terrible crime during one of them when he wakes up one day covered in blood. In the course of his investigation, Queen and Van Horn travel to Van Horn’s hometown of Wrightsville, a small New England town, where they stay with Van Horn’s father, Diedrich Van Horn, and his much-younger wife, Sally. Also a part of the household is Diedrich’s brother, Wolfert. While they’re at the Van Horn home, Howard has another blackout. That night, Sally is murdered, At first, it seems that Howard Van Horn must be guilty of the murder, although he seemed to have no motive. Queen isn’t sure of that, though, and investigates. He finds that obsessions with power and revenge led to the frightening events in the Van Horns’ lives.

An obsession is also behind a bizarre series of murders in Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead. In that novel, forensic anthropologist David Hunter is visiting Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, also known as The Body Farm. He’s looking to recover from the trauma of a vicious attack, as well as the ending of a relationship. All is well until a badly decomposed body is found in a cabin not far from the research facility. The forensic clues don’t give a consistent picture of what happened to the victim and what’s more confusing, when the investigating team tries to identify the body, there turn out to be all sorts of identification complications. Then, another body is found. Now, it seems that David Hunter and the team at the lab are tracking a serial killer who’s very clever at misdirection. As it turns out, these killings are all related to the killer’s unusual obsessions. Maxine at Petrona has written a very fine review of Whispers of the Dead, which you can read here.

Some of the most compelling crime fiction can happen when an obsession is not an idea or a goal, but a person. That’s what happens in P.D. Martin’s Body Count, which features FBI profiler Sophie Anderson, an Australian émigré to the United States. Sophie has a series of psychic visions that allow her to “see into the mind” of the killer, and her specialty is serial killers. In Body Count, she and her FBI team-mates investigate a series of murders of young women. Sophie has “seen” at least one of these murders in her dreams, and uses her visions to try to catch the killer. In the process, she risks her own life. When she does find the killer, we find out that it’s the killer’s obsession with another character in the story that’s led to these killings, and that’s put Sophie in mortal danger.

In some novels, the sleuth is the one who has the obsession. For instance, we could say that Ian Rankin’s John Rebus is obsessed with his nemesis, local gangster Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, who’s eluded Rebus more than once, In fact, this obsession gets him into trouble more than once, when he oversteps official boundaries to try to catch Cafferty. Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole is arguably obsessed with his work. His lack of much of a personal life attests to the fact that his work is the most important thing in Harry’s life. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is obsessed, too. He is fixated on finding out the truth. He also happens to be compulsively neat. While today we might label that particular obsession as disordered behavior, it does give Poirot valuable clues at times. For instance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, and the play Black Coffee, his habit of straightening up and his passion for neatness lead Poirot directly to important clues to the murderer.

Anyone can become fixated on something or someone. It’s when that fixation crosses the border into obsession that judgment is clouded, priorities become unhealthy, even dangerous, and people die. What do you think? Do you think that novels focused on obsessions are too melodramatic? Or do you enjoy this theme?


  1. Melodramatic, No! I wouldn't call any of AC novels melodramatic in fact, I think obsession is a wonderful theme in a novel because it's something you can't reason with. You can stop an obsessed killer, not easily. You bring out wonderful points. How do you read all these novels and remember them?


  2. Ann- You put that so very well! You really can't reason with an obsession. So obsessions can make for fasincating conflicts in novels. The most intelligent and skilled sleuth can be challenged by someone who's obsessed, and what's especially interesting is when the obsessed person doesn't see how obsessed s/he's becoming.

    ...and thanks for the kind words. I don't remember very word I've read - not by a long shot. I often have to go back and look up a passage or a character. I wish I did have that good a memory : ).

  3. I love obsessions in villains, for the reasons that Ann and you state. Obsessive motivations are not so appealing in the sleuths; I like the detective to be a little more balanced. Exceptions made for Poirot, of course.

  4. Bobbi - Poirot always gets away with those obsessions, doesn't he? When the villain is obsessed, I think we get the feeling that anything might happen. So it adds to the suspense, since we don't know what will happen next...

  5. I love novels (and movies) about obsessions. This is the kind of madness that provides the perfect (and natural) motive for a crime. Obsessions lead to kidnappings, murder, stalking, etc. Adds to the creepiness of the villain.

  6. Novels with obsessions are some of the best reads. There are so many directions obsession can lead the killer and the detective trying to solve the crime.

    Enjoyed the video trailer of B-Very Flat.

  7. Patricia - You're right; an obsession really can serve as exactly the right motive for a crime. Obsession causes all of the powerful emotion that leads people stalk, kidnap, kill, etc.. and I agree. A little obsession really does make the victim all the more creepy : ).

    Mason - Thanks : ). I was really happy with the way that trailer came out, too. You never know, when you arrange for one of those things, whether you've expressed yourself well about the novel, but I think the person who did this captured B-Very flat.

    You're right, too; obsession leads people in so many possible directions that it's a fascinating theme for a murder mystery. It can also also allow for a really interesting variety of plot twists.

  8. Lovely post, as ever, Margot. And I enjoyed reading your insight into Whispers of the Dead (thanks so much for your generous comments about my review). Forgive me for mentioning this before, but in Nine Dragons, Harry Bosch's longstanding obsessions drive him to take hasty actions that end in tragedy, and also cause him to completely miss the point of what his case is all about.

    I think there must be an obsessional element in all crimes? I think this because I suppose anyone who commits a serious crime (killing someone, for example) must be seeing the world with a warped perspective. You must have to be in a particular state of altered reality to be able to kill someone, whether you are a hired killer or subject to some crime of passion. I don't know, probably I am writing rubbish, but it does seem that murder is a fundamentally weird and bizarre act.

  9. Maxine - I don't think you're writing rubbish at all! There's research and a long tradition in crime fiction that supports the fact that most of us do not cross the line, so to speak, and kill. We may feel greed, anger, jealousy, fear, love, lust, or whatever, just as a killer does. But something stops us from taking that final, fatal step and killing. It's quite possible that murderers occupy a different reality from people who don't murder, so it's quite possible that obsession is a big part of that reality. I agree - murder is fundamentally bizarre. I wonder what that says about people who write fiction that centers on it.... ; )

    ...and it was my great pleasure to mention your fine review of Whispers of the Dead. I learn so much from all of your reviews that I'm very happy to share them : ). It was very kind of you to send your copy to me so that I could savor it, too. Folks, especially if you like your mysteries with a solid dose of well-researched forensics, do try Simon Beckett.

    Thanks, too, for reminding of me of Nine Dragons. It's a terrific example of the way a sleuth can go completely wrong because of an obsession. Maddening as it is, it does make Bosch more human in an odd sort of way.

  10. A truly intriguing topic, this one. Although the depraved obsessions of some serial killers can become formulaic, and even tedious, I agree that, skilfully handled, a portrayal of obsessive behaviour can make for an absolutely fascinating crime story. Many of my favourite examples involve an obsessive quest for revenge. And Then There Were None also has a culprit with a fascinating obsession.

  11. Martin - I agree with you completely. Sometimes, the serial-killer-with-a-sick-fantasy/obsession plot can be tiresome. When it's done well, though, an obsession can make for an engrossing plot. As you say, it depends on how the author handles the topic. There are some terrific novels out there that feature revenge as the obsession and when it's done well, it can be absolutely compelling.

    Thanks for mentioning And Then There Were None. It really is a beautiful example of an unusual and intriguing obsession, and what's also interesting about it is how we find out what that obsession is. Folks, if you haven't read this one, I recommend it highly. Christie used to say it was her favorite of her books. I can see why.

  12. The problem with reading your posts Margot is that you mention so many enticing stories that I end up with a huge TBR list. Thanks for the mention of 'One Two Buckle My Shoe' any book where a dentist is shot has got to be worth reading.
    Unseen by Mari Jungstedt, and The Reunion by Simone van der Vlugt are both examples of obsession with something that happened during the perpetrators' schooldays creating havoc in the present day.
    The sick obsessed serial killer plot with a nice twist is beautifully done by Hakan Nesser in Woman With Birthmark. In Hakan Nesser sometimes the obsession is justified by past events.

  13. Agreed with your examples, Norman - and in particular with the last one. Woman with Birthmark is so focused and bare that it shocks even more on the obsessional front, I think.
    (I also agree that Margot's posts are not good for the health of one's reading list! Good they are not like the NHS and have penalty charges for the length of the queue.)

  14. Norman - I had to laugh when I read your comment and Maxine's; both your excellent blogs are dangerous for my TBR list, too! So you can just consider this sweet revenge ; ). I think you'd like One, Two.... The plot reads almost like an historical mystery, although of course, it wasn't written that way. I've heard that Unseen was good, so there you are; another for my TBR list *sigh*. I already have Woman With Birthmark on the pile. I've heard from more than one source that it's excellent, so I'm going to have get to that one soon.

    Maxine - OK *hands up in mock surrender* I will rad Woman With Birthmark I've been wanting to, anyway, so it now moves up on my list.

    Do they really have penalty charges for long queues with the NHS? I can think of several contexts here in the States where charging for a long queue would be a good thing. There might actually be better service...

  15. The penalty charges are to the hospital with the queue. Unfortunately, this means that the hospital resorts to all kinds of tricks to keep its waiting list low, so you have to be very wily (as a patient) to overcome this. The stories I could tell you.....;-)

  16. Maxine - Thanks for the explanation. I'm sure you could tell me lots of stories, too! I can just imagine.... The whole question of what to do about medical care is one of the most fascinating sociopolitical and ethical questions there is, and as I'm sure you know, we are wrestling with it in the U.S. I'm thankful that I'm not charged with finding the real solution, as wiser minds than mine haven't been able to resolve it...