Thursday, May 13, 2010

What are you so afraid of?

Many of us have what might seem like irrational fears, whether it’s claustrophobia, acrophobia or some other phobia. Those deep-seated fears can have their roots in a terrifying experience (that’s why, for instance, some people have a real fear of water if, for instance, they’ve ever come close to drowning). Other times, there’s less of a clear-cut reason for a phobia. Whatever their source, phobias are an integral part of human nature. In fact, there are mental health specialists whose primary expertise is in helping clients manage or conquer their phobias. Phobias are an interesting part of crime fiction, too, whether it’s the sleuth or another character who’s affected. They can add suspense, interesting character components and interesting plot points, too.

One of Agatha Christie’s short stories, The Gipsy, which appears in The Golden Ball and Other Stories, deals with phobias. Dickie Carpenter has an irrational fear of gipsies, and one day, he tells his friend, Macfarlane, the reason for it. It seems that Carpenter had childhood dreams where a gipsy appeared, and they frightened him. Since then, he’s had a few encounters with a gipsy, and each time, he gets a warning. For instance, he’s chasing a puppy that’s run off when he sees a gipsy who warns him not to go in a certain direction. He takes off in that direction, anyway, and nearly drowns when a bridge he’s crossing gives way and he falls in a river. Then, Carpenter’s about to have an operation; just before it, one of the nurses, who seems to Carpenter exactly like a gipsy, warns him against the operation. He doesn’t take heed, and ends up dying on the table. Macfarlane hears of his friend’s death and can’t resist finding out more about the mysterious woman who warned Carpenter. What he finds out is quite surprising. In the course of learning the truth behind what happened to Carpenter, Macfarlane also learns something he never knew about himself.

In Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, we meet another phobic, Miss Emily Brewster. Miss Brewster is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, off the Devon coast. Also staying at the hotel are Arlena Stuart Marshall, a beautiful and notorious actress, her husband, Kenneth and her step-daughter, Linda. The other guests include recently-married Patrick and Christine Redfern, retired soldier Colonel Barry, businessman Horace Blatt, American tourists Carrie and Odell Gardener, the Reverend Stephen Lane, and the great Hercule Poirot. Miss Brewster, who’s quite athletic, suffers from acrophobia. At the beginning of the novel, when several of the guests are sitting outdoors, enjoying the sun, Miss Brewster mentions that her fear of heights is the reason she can’t stand climbing up and down the ladder that leads from the hotel to one of the local coves. One day, Arlena Marshall is found strangled on that very cove. At first, her husband seems a logical suspect. Shortly after their arrival, Arlena took up with Patrick Redfern and they’ve been having a rather obvious affair. But Kenneth Marshall has an alibi for the time of the murder, and the police can’t make a case against him. Poirot looks into the case and finds out that Arlena’s death was not a case of sudden jealousy; it was carefully planned. One of the important clues Poirot gets comes from Miss Brewster’s acrophobia; she’s got genuine symptoms, and Poirot uses those to put the lie to another character’s made-up story of also being afraid of heights. That simple lie gives Poirot important information he needs to find out who killed Arlena Marshall.

Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts introduces us to Paula Paris, a famous and popular gossip columnist. Paris is agoraphobic, so she gets all of her information through telephone calls and visits. Queen meets her because he’s investigating the poisoning deaths of famous actors John Royle and Blythe Stuart. Years earlier, the two had been romantically involved, but their relationship ended bitterly. When Hollywood studio magnate Jacques Butcher decides to make a film about their lives, Royle and Stuart are at first against the idea. However, they’re also desperate for money, so they agree. Unexpectedly, the couple falls in love again and, on impulse, decide to marry. The ceremony takes place on an airstrip, and then the couple, together with Royle’s son, Ty and Stuart’s daughter, Bonnie, take off for their honeymoon. By the end of the flight, the newlyweds are dead. Their children suspect each other at first, but it turns out that the murder was committed by someone else entirely. Queen, whom Butcher persuaded to write the script for the film, sets out to find out who killed Stuart and Royle. As he looks into the case, he finds that someone had been sending mysterious packages containing playing cards to both victims, and since then, to Bonnie Stuart. Queen becomes convinced that the key to the murders lies in the couple’s past, so he visits Paula Paris, who knows everything about everyone in Hollywood. Before he knows it, Queen’s become infatuated with her, and she provides him with information that helps him solve the case. In his turn, Queen helps Paris conquer her fear of leaving her home. In fact, Paris appears in several other short stories that feature Queen.

In Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool, we find out that one of the “regular” characters in his Lake District series, Marc Amos, has a phobia. Amos is the live-in partner of DCI Hannah Scarlett, one of Edwards’ sleuths. Amos was attacked by a dog during his childhood, so he’s got a phobia about dogs. This fear comes back to haunt him in this novel, in which Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind investigate the drowning death of Bethany Friend. Six years earlier, Bethany drowned in eighteen inches of water in the Lake District’s Serpent Pool. Scarlett was never convinced that her death was a suicide, so she re-opens the case. As it turns out, Bethany’s death is connected to Kind’s research on 19th Century writer Thomas de Quincey, and to Scarlett’s own personal life.

Sometimes, it’s the sleuth or other protagonist who’s got a phobia. For instance, Isaac Asimov’s sleuth, Elijah “Lije” Baley is agoraphobic. In the futuristic New York in which Baley lives, residents live in large, underground caves, so it’s no surprise that Baley doesn’t like open spaces very much. In the series that features Baley, “Earthmen” are humans who’ve remained on the planet. “Spacers” are those who’ve traveled to or lived on other planets. The two groups are at odds, to say the least. So, in Caves of Steel, when Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton, a prominent Spacer, is killed, influential Spacers believe that an Earthman may be responsible. Police Commissioner Julius Enderby assigns Baley to investigate Sarton’s death, but because of the Spacers’ suspicions, he also assigns Baley a partner – R. Daneel Olivaw, a positronic robot. Now, not only is Baley forced to fight his agoraphobia – to solve a Spacer’s murder, no less - but also, he’s got to work with a robot, and Baley has an even deeper dislike of positronic robots than he does of Spacers. The alternative, though, is a possible flare-up of serious violence between Spacers and Earthmen, and the police have every reason not to want that outcome. So Baley and Olivaw set to work on the case, and in the process, Baley confronts his own demons.

Dan Brown’s sleuth, Robert Langdon, is claustrophobic. When he was seven, he fell down a well, and is still affected by the experience. As an adult, Langdon is a Harvard professor who specializes in symbology. So he’s called in to help solve mysteries that involve symbols and cryptology. In Angels and Demons and in The Lost Symbol, Langdon has bouts with his fear, and becomes uneasy when he has to enter small rooms, basements, and so on. Still, his fear doesn’t debilitate him too much.

In Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down, we meet Mix Cellini, an eccentric young man with a host of obsessions and fears, including a fear of the number 13. Ironically enough, that’s the number of steps to the flat he takes in the home of Gwendolyn Chawcer, who, in her way, is just as mentally unstable. She grew up with a tyrant father who sabotaged her chances at marriage and a life on her own, so that she could stay at home and look after him. Neither Cellini nor Chawcer like each other, but they do form a business relationship when he moves into the flat. Bit by bit, Cellini loses the hold he had on reality as he lets his obsessions get the better of him. One of them is his obsession with beautiful model Merissa Nash, whom he meets in the course of his work as a repairer of exercise equipment. Another is his obsession with the life of Dr. Richard Christie, a famous serial killer. Cellini’s life gradually comes to resemble that of Christie in an eerie way, and with tragic results.

Also claustrophobic is Leo Varela, one of the protagonists in Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point. Leo and his brother, Patrick, grew up in Belize. Later, they move to the Miami area, where both marry. Patrick becomes a successful local politician on the point of real political fame. Leo is a poet who works on the mental health ward of a local hospital. All’s well until one day, an old friend from Belize, Freddy Robinson, shows up at the hospital where Leo works. Freddy’s been in and out of trouble since the boys’ teen years, and in fact, recently got out of jail on drugs charges. Now, he asks Leo to free one of the patients on the floor. It seems this patient has information on some shady campaign practices that some of Patrick Varela’s political staffers are using, and the people Freddy represents want that information. At first, Leo refuses. In the first place, he has no real affection for Freddy, who’s always been trouble. Besides, what Freddy is asking would lead to Leo losing his job or worse. Also, Leo doesn’t want his brother’s career sabotaged. Then, Freddy reminds Leo of his and Patrick’s involvement in a terrible incident back in Belize when they were younger. Freddy threatens to reveal what he knows unless Leo co-operates. Leo reluctantly agrees, and then he and Patrick try desperately to figure out how to stop Freddy. Before they know it, the brothers are on opposite sides, so to speak, so that Leo now faces danger from what seems like all fronts. At one point in the novel, he also has to confront his claustrophobia after he’s been abducted. In the end, the dark secret the Varela brothers have been keeping has tragic consequences for both of them.

Phobias are very human weaknesses, you might say, so it’s logical that they occur in crime fiction, too. They can add suspense, plot twists and other depth to a story. Which novels featuring phobias have you enjoyed?


  1. Oh, yes. Phobias are so powerful because they are irrational. You can't control them, not without supreme effort.

    Richard Lockridge wrote a mystery in which a librarian used an ordinary tabby to put the screws to a thief with ailurophobia (fear of cats). It was one of the Sergeant Sharpiro books, but I don't remember which one.

  2. Daring Novelist - You are so right about phobias; you really cannot control your reaction to a phobia, so they can be very useful, as your example shows. After I read your comment, I was thinking and thinking about which Shapiro novel that might have been, but it's been a lo--o-o-ng time for me. You've got my interest piqued now; I'm going to try to find out which title that is...

  3. Very interesting post! I cannot think offhand of any novels involving phobias, but I can see where an author can use a victim's phobia to create a gruesome murder.

  4. Book Mole - Thank you : ). You're right, too; using a phobia against a victim can be really suspenseful - even gruesome. I think it also adds to the suspense, because the reader knows the victim has a particular phobia, and knows what's coming, so to speak.

  5. Phobias are a wonderful device to enrich a character. It also can give the poor creature a massive hurdle to overcome, which is also a win. Internal struggles can, sometimes, be far more intriguing (to me) than outward struggles. Give me someone who has to walk along the edge of a cliff to escape danger over a high speed car chase any day.

  6. Elspeth - I just love your analogy! It often is much more interesting to see how a character copes with something like a phobia than it is to see how fast cars can drive. Phobias also, in my opinion, make for very interesting backstory on characters. How did the character come to have a phobia? Do we know? Those things can be fascinating.

  7. As for which Nathan Shapiro book it was, all I know is that it wasn't one of the first three - which were my favorites. (They were all "protagonist in jeopardy" stories, with Shapiro schlepping dejectedly in the background, pulling off miracles and _sure_ it was all a mistake.)

    It was one of the four or five that came after, where it was overtly his series.

  8. Daring Novelist - Thanks : ). That helps. I'll see what more I can find out.

  9. Most every person on earth has fears so your charaters should have one two. I like coming up with weird and wacky ones sometime.


  10. Clarissa - No doubt about it. It really helps readers identify with characters when those characters have fears, just like everyone else. And weird and wacky? Why not?