Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Paranoia Strikes Deep*

Fear is a very normal human response, and often, it’s healthy and adaptive. It’s wise, for instance, to teach children to be wary of those they don’t know. That’s just being prudent. Sometimes, though, fear takes on a life of its own and becomes paranoia. Paranoia can be very unhealthy, and can lead to irrational behavior or worse. In real life, paranoia isn’t productive and can have serious consequences. In crime fiction, though, it can be fascinating when it’s well-integrated into a story. Paranoia can add to the suspense of a story in a few ways. One is when it’s the result of a murder.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels deal with the paranoia that can result from a murder. Perhaps the most striking example of this is And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel, ten people are invited to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. Each of them gets a different sort of invitation, and each eventually accepts. When they arrive at their destination, the guests settle in, somewhat surprised that their host is not there to greet them. On the first night, the guests are shocked when each is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. At first, it seems that someone’s been playing a cruel joke. Later, though, one of the guests is killed by a poisoned cocktail. Then, another guest is found dead the next morning. Now, it seems clear that there’s a murderer on the island, and as the other guests begin to die, the survivors come to realize that one of them is a killer. As the novel continues, the guests’ paranoia increases and becomes almost palpable. That paranoia adds much to the suspense and tension in the novel.

We also see paranoia playing a role (although it’s a different kind of role) in Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), in which Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of beloved clergyman Stephen Babbington. Babbington and his wife attend a cocktail party at the home of Sir Charles Cartwright, a famous actor; Poirot is also in attendance. When Babbington suddenly dies, everyone thinks it’s either a sudden illness or even suicide; no-one can imagine a reason for which Babbington should be murdered. Then, another, similar death occurs at another house-party; Sir Bartholomew Strange, a noted specialist in nervous disorders, has been killed. It’s now clear that Babbington’s death was murder, and Poirot sees the two cases as connected. As it turns out, they are related. The killer has committed both crimes because of paranoia.

Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor also shows how strong a force paranoia can be. Dr. Calvin Doohan, who’s working for the World Health Organization (WHO) is drawn into helping the local San Francisco Department of Public Health when several people suddenly die of what seems like a particularly virulent strain of influenza. As more people die, it seems more and more as though this is an epidemic, so the Centers for Disease Control sends in a team to help stop the spread of disease. Meanwhile, Doohan slowly becomes convinced that this outbreak has been deliberately spread, and he begins to investigate the cases more closely to find out how and why the epidemic was started. The closer he gets to the truth, the more Doohan realizes that he really can’t trust anyone involved, so we see paranoia operating on that level. We also see it on a larger level as those fighting the outbreak have to deal with the resulting media frenzy and public outcry for answers. In this novel, paranoia plays an important role in adding to the suspense.

Although it’s not the major theme of the novel, we also see how paranoia plays a role in the suspense of Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. Mason and Gates Hunt had an unpleasant childhood with an abusive father who abandoned the family. Mason works hard, takes advantage of opportunities he gets, and makes it to law school. Gates, who’s got a lot of natural athletic ability, seems to squander every opportunity he gets, and as the story opens, he’s living on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments, money he gets from his mother, and tired promises to reform. One afternoon, Gates has an argument with Wayne Thompson, a rival for his girlfriend. Later that night, Gates and Mason are on their way home from Gates’ girlfriend’s home when they meet up again with Thompson. Gates and Thompson rekindle their argument, and before anyone realizes what’s happened, Gates shoots his rival. Almost immediately, guilt and paranoia begin to set in, and the brothers flee the scene of the murder. As soon as he can, Mason gets rid of the gun and other evidence that could connect his brother to the crime, but for a time, his fear absorbs him. Gradually, the police stop looking for Thompson’s killer, since they have no real leads, and for the Hunt brothers, life moves on. Years later, Mason has become a successful attorney; Gates has become a petty drug dealer who’s wasted his life. One day, Gates is arrested for drug trafficking and asks his brother’s help in getting out of jail. We see paranoia here, too, as Gates first wheedles and then blusters as he’s being arrested. Later, as he begs Mason to help him, it’s clear again how very much afraid Gates is, and how vulnerable he feels. Then, Gates Hunt finds what he thinks is a way out of jail and it’s his brother’s turn to feel fear; Gates accuses Mason of Wayne Thompson’s shooting, and promises to testify against his brother in exchange for a release. With his world falling apart around him, Mason Hunt is now in a bitter fight with his brother as well as a fight for his own freedom.

Paranoia plays a very interesting role in Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers, in which Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee, both of the Navajo Tribal Police, work together to solve two parallel mysteries. One is a set of three unexplained deaths, seemingly connected only by the victims’ connection to the Yellow Horse clinic, which practices Western and traditional medicine. The other is an attempt on Chee’s life. At first, the locals believe the deaths are the work of skinwalkers, or Navajo witches who can take the form of animals. Deep-seated fear of this witchcraft makes it very hard for Leaphorn to get any useful information from anyone. Leaphorn soon realizes that Jim Chee’s connection to Navajo spiritual traditions (Chee is studying to be a yata'ali, or Navajo healer) may be helpful in investigating the case. So the two begin to work together. In the end, they’re able to penetrate the paranoia about witchcraft, and find out the real reasons for the murders and the reason that Chee was targeted.

There’s a very interesting look at paranoia in the form of phobias in Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down, the story of Mix Cellini. Cellini is a neurotic young man with a set of fears and superstitions, including a fear of the number 13. Cellini rents a flat in the home of Gwendolyn Chawcer, who lived for so long under the control of her tyrannical father that she was never able to establish a life of her own. Now, she’s a very eccentric, elderly spinster who has no more liking for Cellini than he does for her. Chawcer’s home is ramshackle and dilapidated, and Cellini regrets ever moving in. Bit by bit, Cellini’s phobias and superstitions get the better of him, and he loses the slight hold he had on reality. His condition is only worsened by his obsession for Nerissa Nash, a beautiful model he meets in the course of his work as an exercise equipment repairman. Cellini also becomes obsessed with a famous serial killer, Dr. Richard Christie, and as Cellini’s mental state becomes more and more unstable, his life gradually begins to resemble that of Christie, with tragic results. This novel gives a stark picture of what happens when paranoia, phobia and obsessions take over.

We also see the consequences of paranoia in Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, in which Alexander Seaton, a disgraced candidate for the ministry, solves the murder of Patrick Davidson, apprentice to the apothecary, Edward Arbuthnott. Seaton’s friend, Charles Thom, is accused of the murder and imprisoned, and Seaton agrees to clear his friend’s name. Davidson was in love with the apothecary’s daughter, Marion, and Seaton suspects that she may know something about his death. However, before he can find out what, if anything, she knew, Marion dies. At first, the death is put down to suicide, but soon, it’s clear that she was poisoned. When rumors start to spread that Marion dabbled in witchcraft, her body is taken from her home and publicly burned. There are hysterical calls for a witch-hunt, and pandemonium is only narrowly averted. The burning of Marion Arbuthnott’s body is a sobering example of the excesses of paranoia.

I’ve only touched (as usual) on a few examples of the way crime fiction makes use of paranoia; there are many others. Which are your favorites?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buffalo Springfield's For What it's Worth.


  1. Very interesting post. I'd add to your list of examples, Cornell Woolrich - e.g. Phantom Lady.

  2. Martin - Thank you : ). I have to agree with your fine suggestion, too; a solid example of the point I'm making, for which I thank you.

  3. Margot I just found your blog and I already found it quite enjoyable!!! This was a very interesting post and the list of examples was really nice! I unfortunately can't read many crime fiction novels now that my hubby works overnights... I get so creeped out!! I know it's silly but I can't sleep if I read them!

  4. Hello, Jen - Welcome! And thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed what you read. It's not silly at all, I don't think, to find it hard to sleep if one reads crime fiction. Some crime fiction is really eerie, and even when it isn't, it often deals with the darker side of human nature. Sometimes, you just have to pick your times to read : ).

  5. Oh, I'd say my favorites are the ones, like "And Then There Were None" where all the suspects stick together to prevent one of them from committing more murders! Several Christies are like that, I think.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. ELizabeth - I love those, too! You're right; Christie did use that strategy more than once. There's a dose of that in Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance. The suspects keep a wary eye on each other, in their way, and there's a lot of ill will. It's interesting dynamics...

  7. Great post, I've got a Christie collection to curl up with that I haven't already read, so I'll be looking for the paranoia now :-)

  8. Charmaine - Thanks : ). The paranoia's there; it's not always blatantly obvious as it is in And Then There Were None, but it's often there...

  9. Christie was the master at using fear. James Hadley Chase was good too, although he had a very different style from Christie.

    Another great post, I look forward to your posts everyday!

  10. I enjoyed Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers. That's a great example. Enjoyed your post. I always find it entertaining and informative.

    Thoughts in Progress

  11. Book Mole - Thank you - how kind of you : ). I agree completely about Agatha Christie's skill at using fear as a plot point. And it's done in such subtle ways that you almost don't see it coming, so to speak, until it's right there. I admit to being less familiar with Chase, but what I have read, I've liked. As you say, it's quite different from Christie, but he had talent.

    Mason - Thank you : ). I'm glad you enjoyed Skinwalkers. I have to say that Hillerman is a favorite of minie, so I'm biased. Still, I thought it was quite a good one, and used people's fear of witchcraft quite effectively.

  12. I should think anyone would tend to get a touch paranoid if they're stranded in the same locale as a murderer who seems to have an agenda of stacking up as many bodies as possible! Christie was a master at making her characters in AND THEN THERE WERE NONE not as sweet as they would appear at first glance. Every one of them harbored a nasty secret and when you know YOU have a secret it makes it fair easier to think that everyone surrounding you is hiding something too.

    After all, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean there really isn't someone following you.

  13. Elspeth - You're so right; it's only natural to feel paranoid if one's stranded with a murderer! Especially if one doesn't know whom the murderer is. You make an interesting point, too, that guilt (knowing one has a nasty secret) adds to paranoia. Interesting psychological phenomenon.

    I love that phrase at the end of your comment, too! : )

  14. There are some good paranoia movies I've enjoyed, eg DOA and Body Heat. I am not sure which I enjoyed more, the originals or the remakes.

    It's a very clever thing for an author to do, to make events seem normal to the reader, yet in fact they are being filtered through a paranoid lens. I think Barbara Vine is particularly good at this.

  15. Maxine - I know exactly what you mean about well-made "paranoia" movies : ). I liked both DOA and Body Heat; both are really well-done.

    And you're right about Barbara Vine, too, in my opinion.

  16. I think that many authors, of private detective mysteries in particular, use paranoia or perceived paranoia to initiate their detectives' cases. I'm sorry for being general with this comment, but I recollect many detectives from Poirot and Holmes to Milhone and Spenser meeting their clients because "the police say that they can't help me..." or "the police say that no crime has been committed."

    Whenever I encounter paranoia in crime fiction, I'm always cognizant of the old pun that "just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not out to get you."

  17. Bob - I've always liked that old joke, too : ). And you're right; there are many, many crime fiction stories where paranoia figures into the plot. As a matter of fact, that made this post rather hard to write in a coherent way. There were just so many examples that it was hard to focus myself.

    Interesting point, too, that you bring up about private detectives. Perhaps more than other kinds of novels, they deal with characters who are at their wits' end, so paranoia is a pretty natural aspect of those stories.