Friday, March 19, 2010

...And You'll Have To Deal With Pressure*

All of us face stresses and pressures in our lives. For some of us, the pressure is job-related. We may dislike our jobs, or be out of work, or our jobs may involve work that’s naturally stress-inducing (for instance, firefighters and police officers frequently face severe job-related stress). For others, the stress is more personal (for instance, family dynamics, health, financial or other pressures). Most of us find ways to manage our stress, so that it becomes no worse than “background noise” to our lives. Yet, stress takes its toll. We especially see the effects of stress during and, often, immediately after, a traumatic event. Since little is more traumatic and stress-inducing than murder, it’s not surprising at all that pressure and stress are an important part of well-written crime fiction. After all, it’s not realistic to believe that something like a murder would occur, and not put pressure on the police, the victim’s family and anyone else closely involved in the investigation. In a well-written crime fiction novel, pressure provides a layer of both interest and suspense, and it can sometimes even provide a motive for murder.

We see a clear example of stress and pressure taking its toll in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel, ten people travel to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. When they get there, they realize that they’ve all been lured there. After dinner on the first evening, each of them is accused of being responsible for at least one death. Then, one of them suddenly dies of a poisoned drink. When others of them begin to die, it becomes clear that a murderer has trapped them on the island. There’s a very effective use of pressure and stress in this novel as we see the people on the island coping with a rising storm, the pressure of finding food as supplies run low, and of course, the stress of knowing that one of them is a murderer – and not knowing which one it is.

There’s also an interesting use of pressure in Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). That’s the story of the murder of Madame Giselle, a French moneylender, who’s killed by a poisoned thorn while she’s en route from Paris to England. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and he and Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp investigate the murder. It’s soon clear that the murderer has to have been on the same flight, so all of Madame Giselle’s fellow passengers come under at least some suspicion. What’s interesting about this novel is the different kinds of pressure each passenger faces, and the way that each of the passengers reacts to that pressure. Jane Grey, a hairstylist, is pressured to become almost a curiosity once her clients find out she’s been mixed up in a murder case. She’s pestered to tell her story again and again until she almost can’t stand it. She reacts by demanding (and getting) a raise because of all of the attention (and customers!) she’s drawing to her boss’ shop. Dentist Norman Gale is under the opposite kind of pressure. Most of his patients abandon him when they find out he was on the same flight as Madame Giselle. So he faces serious financial pressure, and decides to cope with it by leaving England for Canada. Lady Cecily Horbury copes with the pressure of being suspected of murder (and of having been in debt to Madame Giselle) by using cocaine. The pressure of suspicion provides a very interesting backdrop to the murder investigation, and adds to the level of suspense.

There are several kinds of pressure woven through Sam Hilliard’s The Last Track. Mike Brody, a former Special Forces operative who’s now an extreme adventure tour guide, gets involved in the disappearance of fourteen-year-old Sean Jackson when Jackson runs away from a dude ranch. Jackson has gone on the run because he witnessed a murder, and is trying to escape from the killer. Detective Lisbeth McCarthy asks Brody to help find Jackson before he’s hurt and before the killer finds him. In this novel, Brody faces the pressure of trying to find Jackson as well as the pressure of the media attention on the case. He also faces the pressure of the natural forces that could spell disaster for Jackson. Finally, there’s the fact that Jackson is an asthmatic. So he and Brody both face the fact that his asthma could kill him before Brody gets to him. Those pressures add much to the suspense of the novel, and keep the reader engaged.

Sometimes, it’s political pressure that adds to the suspense in crime fiction. For instance, in Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Kennedy Center, Senator Ken Ewald is making a bid for the presidency of the United States. He’s got a very good chance at winning the nomination, too, until the night that Andrea Feldman, an Ewald staffer, is shot during a glittering fund-raiser. Feldman was having an affair with Ewald’s son, Paul, so Paul is immediately suspected of the crime. There’s also the fact that the gun used in the shooting belongs to Ewald himself, so he, too, comes in for his share of suspicion. Ewald asks his friend and family attorney, MacKenzie “Mac” Smith to help clear the Ewald name if he can. Smith reluctantly agrees, and soon finds that there’s intense political pressure on Smith to solve the murder as quickly and as quietly as he can, so that Ewald doesn’t lose his chance at the presidency. In a way, that hampers the investigation, since there are questions about the Ewalds that high-level staffers don’t want Smith to ask. That pressure provides an interesting and realistic backdrop to the murder.

There’s also a lot of political pressure in Mark Richard Zubro’s Another Dead Teenager, in which Chicago police detectives Paul Turner and Buck Fenwick investigate the brutal killings of two wealthy young teenagers, Jay Goldstein and Frank Douglas. Both are sons of wealthy and well-known Chicago sports heroes, and were well-liked and talented athletes, so there seems no reason for their deaths. As Turner and Fenwick get involved in the case, they are put under heavy departmental and media pressure to make an arrest and get a conviction as soon as possible. They’re also under pressure to respect the beloved families from which the boys came. Those pressures complicate their jobs and also add a believable and gripping level of tension to the novel.

That pressure to get a quick conviction is also an important part of Martha Grimes’ The Winds of Change. In that story, Inspector Richard Jury investigates the shooting death of a five-year-old girl. As if the murder of a child didn’t put enough pressure on Jury, it seems that this murder is connected to the death of a woman whose body was found on the property of wealthy Declan Scott. Scott’s daughter, Flora, disappeared three years before, and it’s believed that her disappearance and the two deaths may be connected to each other and to a local pedophilia ring. The pressure of investigating crimes against children is both authentic and interest-building, and moves the story along.

Sometimes, pressure is actually a motive for murder. For instance, in C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, Jack McGuane and his wife, Melissa, are put under pressure that few parents ever face when they learn that Garrett Moreland, the biological father of their adopted daughter, Angelina, wants to assert his parental rights. McGuane is suspicious of Moreland’s motives, and decides to do everything he can to block Moreland’s efforts. To do this, McGuane goes up against not only Moreland, who is no mean opponent, but also, Moreland’s powerful father, who’s a judge. In this novel, there’s not only the unimaginable pressure and stress of trying to keep a child one’s adopted, but there’s also the pressure that the Morelands put on the McGuanes to give up their fight. That pressure is a central force in the novel, and keeps the pace strong. It also leads McGuate to do things he never thought he would do.

Pressure figures in the motives of several characters in my own Joel Williams series, too. In Publish or Perish, graduate student Nick Merrill is murdered shortly after he begins observing in the classroom of Joel Williams, a former police detective turned professor of criminal law. When Williams finds out about Merrill’s death, he gets interested and begins to investigate. He soon finds out that several people could have wanted Merril dead. He was involved with two women, who’d found out about each other. It also turns out that Merrill’s thesis advisor had stolen his software idea. Also, Merrill had just won a prestigious research fellowship over a rival who was willing to do just about anything to win. The academic pressure that many of the characters feel plays an important role in this novel. In B-Very Flat, Serena Brinkman, a gifted violinist, dies suddenly on the night of an important musical competition. Williams gets involved when Serena’s partner, who’s one of Williams’ advisees, becomes convinced that Serena was murdered, and asks for Williams’ help to prove it. There are several suspects, too. One is Serena’s musical rival, who’s under intense family pressure to be the best. Another is a fellow student, who’s under pressure to keep an important secret. A third is Serena’s cousin, Troy Brinkman, who has his own pressures. As Williams and the local police look into Serena’s life and relationships, they find that pressure plays an important role in the motive for Serena’s death.

Pressure is such a critical factor in a murder investigation that it’s only natural that we read about it in crime fiction. Which are your favorite novels that focus on stress and pressure?

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Pressure. I'd thought of a line from David Bowie/Freddie Mercury's Under Pressure, but anyone who knows me would have to know I'd probably choose Billy Joel ; ).


  1. Pressure - of whatever sort - is essential to crime fiction. The higher the degree, the harder it is for me to put the book down!

    For me, one of the most driving types of pressure is time, whether a rush to prevent a crime or a hurry to solve it before XXX day/time because of [political, physical, etc.] pressures.

    I like it best when I feel the pot is about to boil over...

  2. Deadly Letters GTA - You make a very well-taken point. If there's no pressure, then there's no real sense of urgency.

    You're right, too, about the "ticking clock." The pressure to solve the crime by a certain time to prevent more murders or keep the crime out of the press adds a layer of suspense to a novel. It's also realistic; there really is often a great deal of pressure to solve a crime quickly.

    When novels feature a level of pressure, this can add to the pace, the level of interest and suspense, and the reader's engagement. It's realistic, too. For instance, if a character is unpleasant, it makes sense that the other characters might feel about to "snap."

  3. Stress *definitely* wears on us! I've been feeling it lately, too.

    In general, I love police procedurals where the cops get stressed out because the clock is ticking and the number of victims is rising.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth - You're right; pressure and stress are a part of our lives, and they can certainly take their toll. I like the "cops under pressure" scenario, too. Not only does it add to the suspense and pace of the novel, but also, it's realistic. I'm not in law enforcement, but I would guess that there's a lot of pressure on the police to solve a case as soon as they can, especially if the victim was prominent, a child, or if there are multiple victims.

  5. I think we all face stress and pressure from so any different directions it's only natural to read about it in mysteries. That's just another aspect that makes them seem so real.

  6. Hopefully we are better at dealing with pressure in real life, but so many crime writers have made us believe that murder is a natural reaction when you are under strong pressure. I don´t believe it is true that anyone can kill, but in the frame of the story I ´buy it´ whenever the writer does her job properly - and it often leads to excellent plots.

  7. Mason - You make a solid point. The fact is, pressure and stress is a part of all our lives, so it makes sense that it's also a part of crime fiction, doesn't it?

    Dorte - It's interesting, isn't it, that crime fiction writers very often use stress and pressure as triggers for murder. As you say, in real life, I have trouble accepting that, although I know it happens. There are always stories, for instance, of what's called "road rage." But it does take a well-written plot and a skilled author to get me to believe it in a story.

  8. I too like the "pressure cooker" effect. This often happens in novels (and films) when the media come into play, and with it politicians of various stripes, putting pressure on for quick solutions, without perhaps bothering too much about getting the correct criminal. I've just read a book called The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell that covers this theme. The one I am reading now, excellent so far, Rupture by Simon Lelic, is about pressure being put on a policewoman from on high not to write her report of an incident in a certain way but in another way. She also suffers from another pressure, outrageous institutionalised sexism. It will be interesting to see how she copes with this double pressure....

  9. Maxine - That "pressure cooker" theme is a really effective one, isn't it? I almost mentioned the Mankell book, but I haven't read it. I probably will, though, as it seems to be a very good read. I've also heard that Rupture was good, and just from the few words you've mentioned here, it certainly sounds compelling. I think that police officers are often under a huge amount of pressure to get a conviction - any conviction - and to make the brass and local politicians look good. It must make their jobs tremendously difficult (as if the job itself wasn't difficult enough).