Sunday, June 13, 2010

How Does That Make You Feel?

I had an interesting comment exchange with Jan Morrison about the psychology of crime. Very often, it’s the psychological aspect of crime that can be the most interesting part of a crime fiction novel. Of course, the forensic evidence and other physical evidence are important in an investigation, and well-written police procedurals share those details, too. But very often, we also want to know why a crime – especially a murder – is committed. What goes on in the minds of those who kill, even if the crime is fairly straightforward (if there is such a thing as a straightforward crime). Maybe that’s part of the reason for which psychologists and psychiatrists figure the way they do in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t a psychologist himself, but he is very much interested in the psychology of crime. In fact, he’s more interested in psychology than he is in physical evidence such as cigarette ends, footprints and the like. To Poirot, understanding the psychology of a crime leads inevitably to the killer. In fact, in Appointment With Death, Poirot works with Dr. Theodore Gerard, a specialist in mental health. In that novel, Poirot investigates the death of Mrs. Boynton, a tyrannical matriarch who’s kept her family cowed for years. She’s described in the novel as a mental sadist. When the Boynton family makes a trip through the Middle East, the other members of the family realize more than ever how unhealthy their situation is, and they become increasingly desperate. Then, one afternoon, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what seems at first to be heart trouble. Soon enough, though, it’s established that she was poisoned. Colonel Carbury, who’s investigating the case, asks Poirot, who’s traveling in the area, to look into the matter. It’s then that Gerard tells Poirot of his impressions of the family, his opinions about Mrs. Boynton’s psychology, and his concerns for the youngest Boynton, seventeen-year-old Ginevra “Ginny” Boynton. She’s already showed signs of mental illness, and Gerard is concerned for her sanity. Gerard doesn’t really solve the case, but he does provide some valuable psychological background that helps Poirot.

Sometimes, a psychologist or psychiatrist is the sleuth in crime fiction. That’s the case in Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series. Delaware started his career as a child psychologist and remains particularly interested in children. In When the Bough Breaks, Delaware has more or less retired as a child psychologist because he’s been burned out by a particularly horrendous case of serial child molestation. He’s convinced to come out of retirement by his friend, homicide detective Milo Sturgis. Sturgis is leading the investigation of the brutal murders of Dr. Morton Handler and his lover and former patient, Elaine Gutierrez. Both were murdered in Handler’s apartment. The only possible witness to the crime is seven-year-old Melody Quinn, who lives with her mother in the same apartment building. Melody’s a troubled child whose mother keeps her on heavy doses of medication for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) so she won’t cause trouble in school. Delaware finds out that Melody Quinn’s doctor, a renowned pediatrician, has prescribed inappropriately high doses of medication. So Delaware has to contend with a drugged child, an apathetic mother, and a well-respected pediatrician who’s very likely a drug pusher as he tries to break through Melody’s wall of silence. As the series goes on, Delaware focuses more on forensic psychology, and uses his particular skills with and interest in child psychology to help solve cases.

Keith Ablow’s Frank Clevenger is a forensic psychiatrist who lives and works in the Boston area. Clevenger has to battle several personal demons, including alcohol, drugs, and indiscriminant sex, but he’s also a brilliant psychiatrist. In Clevenger’s first outing, Denial, for instance, he’s called in to determine whether a murder confession made by a homeless man who calls himself General Westmoreland can be used as evidence. “Westmoreland” was found at the scene of a brutal killing, and has told police that he’s the killer, and at first, it seems that this will be an easy case for Clevenger. He soon discovers, though, that this case will be more involved than he thought. It turns out that Clevenger knows the victim, a nurse named Sarah Johnston. Then, the supposed murderer kills himself. When the murders continue, Clevenger and the police know that there’s more to this case than a crazed homeless man.

Joe O’Loughlin is a clinical psychologist, and one of Michael Robotham’s sleuths. He’s got keen insights and a mind for detail, so he’s very often able to put the pieces of a particularly complicated puzzle together. He doesn’t wrestle with the number of personal demons that characters such as Frank Clevenger do, but he’s got his own issues. For instance, he’s facing Parkinson’s disease. He and his wife, Juliana, have their share of tension and problems, too. O’Loughlin frequently works with Detective Vincent Ruiz. In fact, in Lost, it’s O’Laughlin who helps Ruiz with an especially troublesome case. Ruiz wakes up in hospital with a badly wounded leg and no memory of what’s happened to him. It turns out that he was fished out of the Thames on a night when he was investigating the disappearance of seven-year-old Mickey Carlyle. With help from O’Laughlin, Ruiz gradually begins to remember the case and the investigation. He and O’Loughlin, each in their ways, find out the truth behind Mickey Carlyle’s disappearance.

In Robotham’s Shatter, we see an example of some of the personal danger that can face psychologists and psychiatrists who deal with truly troubled individuals. In that novel, O’Loughlin’s approached by Darcy Wheeler, whose mother Christine has just committed suicide. O’Loughlin is particularly upset by this death, because he was called out to try to talk Christine Wheeler out of committing suicide, but was unsuccessful. Darcy doesn’t think her mother committed suicide, and O’Loughlin himself isn’t sure how someone would have been able to manipulate another person into committing suicide. He’s also not sure what kind of motive might lead a person to push another person to that point. So he asks Detective Vincent Ruiz to help him look into the case. As O’Loughlin gets closer and closer to the truth about Christine Wheeler’s death, his own life, and those of his wife and daughter, become at risk.

P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson often gets into danger. Of course that, you might say, comes with the territory. Anderson is an FBI profiler. Australian-born, Anderson lives and works in Los Angeles. She’s a qualified psychologist whose particular skill is “getting into the minds” of killers. She’s especially motivated in her profession because of the abduction and murder of her brother when she was a child. Now, she helps the FBI track down and stop murderers with help from a special gift she has. Sophie has psychic visions that allow her to see what the killer sees. So she’s often able to help find even elusive murderers. In Body Count, for instance, she gets into danger herself as she searches for a killer who’s abducted and murdered a young girl. Then, another body is found, and this time, Sophie uses dreams in which she sees what the killer sees to track the murderer down. The closer she gets to the killer, the more danger Sophie brings to herself as the killer begins to track her.

And then there’s Sir Bartholomew “Tollie” Strange, a renowned expert on mental illness and nervous disorders. In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), he’s hosting a house party at his Yorkshire home. Suddenly, he dies of what turns out to be poisoning. Hercule Poirot connects this death to an earlier death that occurred at a cocktail party he attended. As he’s searching through Strange’s diary and learns more about his patients, he finds a clue that begins to point him in the killer’s direction. As it turns out, Strange’s death is, indeed, related to the earlier death. Once Poirot figures out the reason for the first death, he’s able to solve the crimes.

Psychologists and psychiatrists give us valuable insights into the way the human mind works. So it’s no wonder they feature in crime fiction as much as they do. What do you think? Do you enjoy that sort of “psychological” crime fiction? Which novels have you especially liked?


  1. As usual no book comes to mind, but 'psychological' crime fiction can be a great read. As you said, they can put you in the killer's mind (so to speak) for a different outlook on the story. Very thought provoking post and several new 'to me' books I need to check into. Thanks.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - Thanks for the kind remark. You've got a well-taken point, too. In novels that feature psychologists and psychiatrists, we get to see how the criminal thinks, and that's fascinating. We also get a different perspective on criminal investigation: a perspective I think helps in understanding what pushes people to commit crimes. That can be a fascinating complement to the technical details of police investigation.

  3. Psychological crime is my favorite to read. I especially love Val McDermid's Tony Hill series. I love learning more about the human mind every time I read.


  4. Clarissa - I'm glad you brought up Tony Hill. He's another fine example of the psychologist/psychiatrist whose insights help to solve cases. Some of McDermid's work is excellent, and that psychological angle certainly adds to the suspense, doesn't it?

  5. Margot this is quite an interesting question. I think crime fiction owes much to both psycilogy and psychiatry.

  6. Margot some years ago after my retirement I read a very interesting book The Criminal Mind, a writer's guide to forensic psychology by Katherine Ramsland Ph.D. Some of it would have been useful dealing with patients and colleagues. I discovered that a word I thought I had invented "hypochondriasis" was an actual condition, and not just something that affected malingerers at work. ;o)

  7. Jose Ignacio - I agree with you; as we have learned more about the way the human mind works, we have learned more about how and why people commit crimes. So the genre has changed, too. I think it is an interesting parallel development.

    Norman - I've heard of that book, but hadn't read it. It does, indeed, sound very useful. I should probably try to get my hands on it for background information for writing. I wonder how many terms I think I've invented would be there? ; ).

  8. You've written about my favourite part of mysteries - the why. Yes, the who and and the how are interesting (of course) and vital but that why...

    Why would anyone consider murder to be the best option? How does that person logic it out in their head? What made them start down the road? Is it just the one victim, or do they discover that one murder leads to more? Is it true that murder gets easier over time?

    Ah...the why. Love it!

  9. Elspeth - Oh, so do I! It's the psychological questions of the kind of person who would commit murder, and the kind of person who would commit more than one murder that can make crime fiction fascinating.

    You raise an interesting question, too: Does murder get easier over time? Agatha Christie's Poirot thinks so. He often says that murder is a habit. And I think there really is something in some people's psychological makeup that allows them to take more than one life. Not being a psychiatrist or psychologist myself, I can't explain it well, but it seems to be there.

  10. I think of Ruth Rendell when I think of psychological mysteries...but I don't think hers had an actual psychologist in them.

  11. Elizabeth - Ruth Rendell certainly specializes in psychological mysteris, doesn't she? I don't think she features a sleuth psychologist, either, but it's a natural match : ).

  12. Ruth Rendell is a very fine example. I read a good, Swedish debut the other day where the main character was a psychotherapist. Very convincing, but then one of the writers *is* a psychotherapist.

  13. Dorte - That makes such a difference, doesn't it, when the author is familiar with the sleuth's profession? I've read several books where the author has the same profession as the sleuth, and it can add a real dose of realism. Folks, Dorte's fine review of Jeg Ser Dig(I See You) is here.