There are people who have a way of exerting influence over others. Either they’ve got a great deal of charisma or a certain strength of personality that makes it hard for others to resist. Sometimes the influence comes from past history, a favor that’s owed, or a hold that one person has over another. Whatever’s behind that influence, it can have significant consequences. Sometimes, the consequences are quite positive (e.g. a mentor who guides someone on a career path). They can also be very dangerous. In real life, we’ve seen those terrible consequences in cases, for instance, of cult leaders. We also see them quite a bit in crime fiction. There are plenty of cases where that sort of Svengali-like influence leads to murder.
There’s an interesting example of this in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death. The Boyntons, an American family, are on a trip through the Middle East. The party consists of Mrs. Boynton, her grown children Lenox, Carol and Raymond, and her teenage daughter, Ginevra “Ginny.” Also with them is Lenox’s wife, Nadine. Sarah King, a newly-fledged doctor, meets the Boyntons in Jerusalem during her own travels through the Middle East and decides to befriend the family, especially Raymond, with whom she’s a bit smitten. Sarah quickly discovers that there’s something very, very wrong about the family. Mrs. Boynton is a mental sadist who exerts a frightening amount of power over the members of her family. Sarah tries to help, only to find that Mrs. Boynton’s influence is too great. When the Boyntons leave Jerusalem, Sarah tries to forget them and plans a trip to Petra. When she and the other people on the tour arrive at Petra, they discover the Boyntons have arrived before them, and Sarah is once again plunged into the Boyntons’ family drama. Then, one afternoon, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what seems to be heart trouble. The investigating officer isn’t convinced that Mrs. Boynton’s death was natural, and asks Hercule Poirot, who’s traveling in the area, to investigate. Poirot finds that Mrs. Boynton was poisoned, and that the motive is directly related to her powerful influence over others.
We also see a clear example of the consequences of powerful influence in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. In that novel, Silas, a very troubled man with an abusive past, falls under the influence of a man he knows as the Teacher. Silas is also a religious fanatic. When the Teacher gives Silas instructions to kill Louvre curator Jacques Saunière, Silas obeys, believing it to be not only what the Teacher wants, but also, what God demands. Harvard Professor Robert Langdon had arranged a meeting with Saunière and had traveled to Paris for that purpose. Instead, he’s summoned to help figure out the meaning of some strange symbols found near Saunière’s body. Langdon and Sophie Neveu, a police cryptographer and Saunière’s granddaughter, work to solve the riddle of the secret messages and clues that Saunière left behind. Along the way, they’re pursued by the French police, who believe that Langdon’s guilty of Saunière’s murder. They’re also pursued by Silas, who thinks that by killing Langdon and Neveu, he’s fulfilling God’s will, and doing what the Teacher wants. In the end, Silas is betrayed by the Teacher, who wants the secrets behind the codes that Langdon and Neveu have unlocked.
In Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point, we meet Leo and Patrick Varela, immigrants from Belize. Patrick Varela is an up-and-coming Miami politican with a real future. Leo is a poet and mental health worker, who’s happily married and expecting his first child. The Varelas’ plans for success are changed forever when an old friend from Belize, Freddy Robinson, re-appears in their lives. Freddy’s now working for some very shady people, and wants Leo to help him with a job he’s been given. Freddy wants Leo to release one of the mental patients on his ward. It seems that this particular patient has some inside information on some illegal practices that Patrick Varela’s poltical staff has been using, and the people Freddy represents want that information. Leo doeson’t want to release the patient for a few reasons. First, it could cost him his job. Second, he has no desire to get his brother in trouble, and this patient’s release could mean the end of Patrick’s political chances as well as a prison term. It doesn’t help matters that Freddy’s an ex-convict with an unsavory record. But Freddy has a hold over the Varela brothers; he knows about a dark secret from the Varelas’ past in Belize. Freddy reminds Leo about this hold, and Leo reluctantly agrees to cooperate with Freddy. His agreement sets in motion a whole chain of dangerous and tragic events.
We also see a frightening amount of influence in Karen Osborn’s The River Road. That’s the story of David and Michael Sanderson and their next-door-neighbor and best friend, Kay Richards. The three grew up together and as they’ve become older, Kay and David have become deeply involved with each other. Michael’s in love with Kay, too, but David has such a strong influence over Kay that she’s not romantically interested in Michael. One night, while the three young people are home on a break from college, they decide to go out on an adventure. Late that night, all three are high on drugs and crossing a bridge not far from their home. David asks Michael to stop their car and when he does, David goes to the edge of the bridge and says he’s going to jump off and swim to the other side. Michael tries to talk his brother out of the stunt, but David refuses, and asks Kay to join him. He tells her to jump, too, and promises that he’ll go first and be waiting for her. Kay is so much under David’s influence that she joins him, planning to jump off with him. At the last miniute, David jumps, but Kay doesn’t, and David drowns. When the young men’s father, Kevin, finds out what happened, he begins to believe that Kay killed David and before Kay knows it, she’s been arrested and is on trial for David’s death. As the trial goes on, and as the characters cope with the death, we see more and more how much David’s influence on both Kay and Michael had to do with the events of that last night.
In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Said Cheese, we meet Aubrey Scotten. Scotten’s a beekeeper who also makes honey. He has a cabin in rural Moose County, “400 miles north of nowhere.” Scotten’s what you might call, “slow,” but certainly not incapable. He’s got a good friend from his Navy days who sometimes visits the area. During one visit, Scotten’s friend asks him to deliver some flowers to a guest in a local hotel. Scotten doesn’t think much of it; after all, he feels he owes his friend, since his friend once saved his life. When the flowers turn out to have a bomb in them, one of the hotel’s chambermaids is killed. Scotten’s heartsick about it, but his friend’s influence forces him to keep his mouth shut. When the bombing occurs, Jim Qwilleran, weekly columnist for the Moose County Something, and Braun’s sleuth, gets curious about what happened, especially since the woman for whom the flowers were intended has disappeared. Qwilleran slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together and eventually discovers that Scotten holds the key to the mystery. It’s not until Qwilleran realizes how much information Scotten has that we see how much influence the killer has had over him.
In Jeffery Deaver’s The Sleeping Doll, Kathryn Dance, an expert interrogator with the California Bureau of Investigation, is assigned to interview Daniel Pell, who’s in prison for murdering all but one member of the Croyton family eight years earlier. The only surviver was the Croyton’s youngest child Theresa, who escaped because she was in bed that night, hidden among her toys. Pell is the leader of a Manson-like cult, and it’s believed that he and his “family” may also be responsible for a recently-unearthed murder. Dance plans to use her knowledge of interrogation and, especially, kinesics to find out whether Pell and his “famiy” committed the newly-dscovered murder, but Pell escapes. Now, more murders begin to occur, and it seems that Pell is on a quest to kill everyone who’s ever gotten in his way – including Dance’s family. This novel shows eerily how one person’s strong influence over others can cause catastrophe.
It can be fascinating, if in a frightening way, to think about how much power one person can have over others. On the other hand, there’s a strong argument that people can make their own decisions, so the belief that someone has that much influence doesn’t hold much weight. What do you think? Do you think the “Svengali factor” makes sense in crime fiction? Or do those plots seem too unrealistic?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Smokey Robinson song.