Stress and serious problems are difficult for any of us. So we develop coping mechanisms to help us get through those difficulties. Some of those coping mechanisms can be very healthy and productive; others are not. One coping mechanism that’s often used (but just as often, not productive) is denial. Denial may not be exactly the most helpful and productive strategy, but it’s fairly easy to see how appealing it is. If we deny we have a problem at all, then we don’t have to solve it. If we deny that something terrible is happening, we don’t have to face it. Denial’s pretty pervasive, so it’s no surprise that we also see a lot of it in crime fiction. In fact, sometimes, that denial leads to crime.
That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the strangling murder of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker on the day of a fête. Marlene has been chosen to play “the victim” in a Murder Hunt organized by Christie’s fictional detective novelist Ariadne Oliver as a kind of scavenger hunt. Oliver has the feeling, though, that something’s not quite right about the Murder Hunt, or the inhabitants of Nasse House, where the fête is being held. So she asks Hercule Poirot to come to Nasse House and investigate, and he agrees. When Marlene is strangled, Poirot and Inspector Bland search among the witnesses to see who would have a motive to kill what seems like a perfectly harmless girl. Then, Hattie Stubbs, whose husband, Sir George Stubbs, owns Nasse House, disappears. It’s soon clear that those events are related, and it turns out that one person has been in denial for a long time about the killer. In fact, that person tells Poirot that it’s all another character’s fault. In the end, though, facts have to be faced, and Poirot is able to find out who killed Marlene Tucker.
In Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we meet successful Harley Street doctor John Christow. Christow is a brilliant doctor, but he’s in denial about his personal life. He’s not willing to admit that his wife, Gerda, might not share his opinions. He’s not willing to admit that others may not feel as he does, and he’s not willing to admit that he’s in love with Henrietta Savernake, a well-known sculptor who’s also Christow’s mistress. Finally, he’s not willing to admit, at least at first, that he still has feelings for his first true love, Veronica Cray, a famous actress. One week-end, Christow and his wife are invited to the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Throughout the first part of the novel, we can feel the tension rising as Christow sets out for an enjoyable visit, while he’s not even aware of his wife’s misery, nor of the negative feelings some other guests of the Angkatells have. Then, on Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot just before lunch. Hercule Poirot, who’s been invited for lunch, arrives at the Angkatells just in time to find the body. In fact, he thinks the scene has been staged for his “benefit.” Soon enough, it’s clear that Christow is dead, and Poirot and Inspector Grange work together to find out who shot John Christow. There’s an argument here that it’s in part Christow’s denial of the realities of his life that’s caused his murder.
A Dark-Adapted Eye, the first novel that Ruth Rendell wrote under the name of Barbara Vine, is a poignant story of how denial can create dysfunction in a family. That’s the story of the respectable middle-class Longley family, as narrated by Faith Longley Severn. The family has always been proud, and there’s never even been gossip about the Longleys. Beneath that surface, though, are some ugly secrets. Years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard, Faith’s aunt, was hung for murder. The story was swept under the proverbial carpet, and the whole family denied the realities that led to the murder. Then, investigative journalist Daniel Stewart approaches Faith, telling her that he is planning to write a book about the hanging of Vera Hilliard. As Faith begins to communicate with Daniel Stewart, she also comes to terms with her family’s history, and finally begins to move past the denial that has kept her family’s secrets for a long time.
Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest is also a story that focuses a great deal on denial. Kevin and Patrick are brothers, members of a large Irish Catholic family. They’ve each married non-Catholics, and we learn the story of this family mostly from the point of view of Eleanor, Kevin’s wife. The family is headed by its redoubtable matriarch, whom we know only as Mam. Mam lives in denial about her entire family, but that denial wreaks havoc on the family. As the novel begins, Mam’s daughter, Bridget “Bridey”, Kevin and Patrick’s sister, is returning to the family home after ten years in a convent. Mam had chosen her daughter’s convent, and assumes that Bridey will return there after “a visit.” The truth is, though, that the convent lost a great deal of money, and released Bridey because it could no longer afford to have her stay there. Mam’s not willing to admit this, and it’s interesting to hear her discuss Bridey’s future. And then there’s another daughter, DeeDee. DeeDee had married Terence, but later divorced him. Now, she has a new fiancé, James. When DeeDee and James come to visit the family home, it’s still clear that Mam regards Terence as DeeDee’s “real” husband, and is sure that DeeDee will “come to her senses.” Mam’s also in denial about her other daughter, Veronica, who keeps house for her. The tension builds quickly once the family members arrive, and it’s fascinating to watch the various members come face to face with Mam’s denial. Then one night, the family members are gathered at Mam’s house when an argument starts. Matters come to a head when James and Terence have a particularly bitter exchange and storm off. Later, everyone hears some odd thumps and rushes up the stairs. All of a sudden, DeeDee tumbles down the stairs to her death. Once again we see denial as, one after another, all of the family members claim that it must have been an accident. Only James believes that his fiancée was murdered. It’s not until the murderer actually confesses that anyone in the family is really able to admit that DeeDee’s death was not an accident.
Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine has a very interesting example of denial. Wealthy Carey Lawson dies, leaving most of her fortune, and her lovely home, to her nephew, Mallory Lawson, and his wife, Kate, provided they employ her former companion, Benny Frayle. The Lawsons agree and are soon settled in. Then, the Lawson’s financial advisor, Dennis Brinkley, is found dead underneath one of the ancient torture devices he collected. Benny, who was friends with Dennis Brinkley, is sure he was murdered, and tries to get the Causton CID to investigate, but Inspector Barnaby believes it was an accident. It’s not until later that it’s clear Brinkley was murdered. As Barnaby and Sergeant Troy investigate, they (and the reader) learn more about the Lawson family. One of the suspects is the Lawson’s daughter, Polly. Polly is the apple of her father’s eye, so to speak, and he’s in denial about some real problems Polly’s facing with drink and money. In fact, Mallory’s unwillingness to face the troubles in his family almost leads to real disaster. That sub-plot adds a very engaging layer of interest to this novel.
James W. Fuerst’s Huge introduces us to his sleuth, twelve-year old Eugene “Huge” Smalls. Huge is unusually intelligent, but has had problems in school for a very long time. He has trouble making and keeping friends, he doesn’t respect authority and he gets into more than his share of fights. In fact, he’s even attacked a teacher. His one real interest is crime fiction. He’s a fan of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and other crime fiction authors, and wants his own detective agency. One day, he gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who’s defaced the sign for the nursing home where she lives. As Huge interviews suspects and gets clues, he also learns some interesting lessons about himself. One of them is that he blames his problems on several other characters in the novel, and isn’t willing to take any responsibility for his behavior. As the novel moves on, Huge uses the clues he finds and is able to discover who defaced the sign. In the process, he also comes face to face with himself.
None of us likes to admit to having problems, so it’s no surprise that denial is so attractive. Which novels have you enjoyed that feature the consequences of denial?