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?