As I’ve often mentioned, one of the things that makes crime fiction especially appealing is the buildup of suspense in a well-written story. There are lots of ways that authors use to add to the suspense; one of the more subtle, but very effective ways to do this is buildup of a sense of desperation, especially in a character who’s not outspoken or aggressive. It may be from that tradition in crime fiction that we get the old saying, “It’s always the quiet ones.” Of course, as we all know, all sorts of people can become desperate, and even commit murder. But it can add an interesting layer of tension to a story when we follow what happens to an otherwise quiet, unobtrusive person who’s pushed to the limit.
We see this in a few of Agatha Christie’s novels. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, Hercule Poirot moves to the village of King’s Abbott, where his plan is to retire to grow vegetable marrows. His plans change abruptly when retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night. The prime suspect in the murder is Ackroyd’s adopted son, Carptain Ralph Paton. It doesn’t help Paton’s case that, just after the murder, he disappears. Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, is sure that he’s not guilty and asks Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and soon discovers that most of the members of Ackroyd’s household were in financial difficulties, and Ackroyd’s fortune was a large one, so there are several suspects. As time goes by and the case remains unsolved, everyone is on edge, in particular the parlourmaid, Ursula Bourne. As the novel moves on, we see this quiet, capable woman get more and more upset and desperate, and that adds to the suspense, especially as we find out that there’s more to her than meets the eye. In the end, Poirot discovers who the murderer is, and we also find out the truth about Ursula Bourne.
In Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, Poirot investigates the shooting death of Grace Springer, who’s the games mistress at an exclusive girls’ school, Meadowbank. Meadowbank is the pride and joy of headmistress Honoria Bulstrode, so she’s eager to have the murder solved as soon as possible. It turns out that Springer’s death may be tied in with international espionage and a cache of missing jewels, so the police and Special Services are involved in the case. While they’re investigating, a kidnapping and another murder occur. It’s then that Julia Upjohn, a student at the school, puts some of the pieces of the puzzle together and realizes what might be going on. She visits Poirot and tells him what she knows, and he agrees to look into the case. After Poirot untangles the various threads of the case, we find out that someone at the school has been quietly desperate about what’s been going on. That desperation pushes that person too far, and that sub-plot adds a real layer of suspense and interest to the novel.
We find a similar kind of suspense in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. In that novel, mystery writer Harriet Vane receives a request from an old friend to attend the upcoming Gaudy Dinner and celebration at her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford. Harriet reluctantly agrees and goes to Shrewsbury. She’s welcomed warmly, and enjoys the events more than she thought she would. After the celebration is over, Harriet returns home. A few months later, Harriet receives a letter from the Dean, asking her help. There’ve been some acts of vandalism and other disturbing events at the school, and the Dean doesn’t want the police involved. Harriet agrees to investigate, and returns to the school under the pretense of doing research for a book. The trouble at the school escalates, and Harriet herself is attacked. In the end, and with help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet finds that the person behind the violence is exactly that kind of quiet, unobtrusive person one wouldn’t have suspected, but who has felt pushed beyond limits.
There are some fascinating quietly-desperate characters in Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest. That’s the story of married couple Eleanor and Kevin, and Kevin’s large, traditional Irish Catholic family that’s dominated by Kevin’s mother, known only as Mam. As the novel opens, Kevin’s sister Bridget “Bridey”, has just returned to the family home after spending the last ten years in a convent. Bridey’s return is stressful to the family because Mam was determined that her daughter would remain a nun, and depends on this vision of her. Also returning to the family home are Kevin’s sister Dee Dee and her fiancé James. Matters are complicated by the fact that Dee Dee was originally married to (and then divorced from) Terence, whom Mam still considers to be Dee Dee’s husband. Terence still spends quite a lot of time at the family home, and when Dee Dee and James arrive, this makes for a real conflict. All of this family conflict and stress take a real toll on the whole family. As the novel moves on, we see the family stress and desperation increase, and this adds to the tension of the story. In the end, one of the family members, who’s never been particularly outspoken or “difficult,” gets pushed beyond the limit and takes a desperate measure. It’s a really interesting study of how an otherwise so-called quiet person can get pushed too far.
In Donna Leon’s About Face, we meet Franca Marinello. She is a friend of Contessa Falier, mother-in-law of Commissario Guido Brunetti, and Brunetti and his wife Paola meet her one night at a dinner party hosted by the Faliers. She doesn’t have much to say about herself, and throughout the novel, she remains an enigmatic person. Still, her love of Cicero and Virgil appeal to Brunetti, and he finds her intriguing. In the meantime, Brunetti is involved in investigating the murder of a trucking company owner who may have been mixed up in the illegal transport of toxic waste. One day, Franca Marinello pays Brunetti a visit, asking his help because she feels her husband’s business records may have been sabotaged. Brunetti slowly finds that her request is tied up with the murder investigation he’s been conducting. As the novel moves on, we see the effect of this investigation on Franca Marinello, and this buildup of tension adds to the overall suspense as Brunetti gets to the bottom of both cases.
There’s another example of this kind of quiet desperation in Leon’s subsequent novel, A Question of Belief. In that novel, Brunetti investigates the activities of Stefano Gorini, who’s got a very shady reputation. Among other scams, he’s apparently been giving medical treatment without a license. When it turns out that Ispettore Vianello’s Zia (Aunt) Anita has been giving money to this charlatan, Vianello asks Brunetti to help him find out what’s going on. The detectives trace Gorini’s to the residence of Signorina Elvira Montini, who claims to have no knowledge of Gorini’s activities. Signorina Montini herself is a hard-working lab technician with a superior reputation, so there is no reason to connect her with any wrongdoing. As the novel goes on, though, we get more and more evidence of the toll the investigation is taking on her, and we see how this quiet, hard-working woman becomes, as the saying goes, unglued. That subplot adds a important layer of suspense to this novel.
One of the most chilling examples of a quietly desperate character is the character of housekeeper Eunice Parchman in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. That’s the story of the upper-class, well-educated Coverdale family and their housekeeper, Eunice Parchman. One Valentine’s Day, their peaceful lives are tragically shattered when four members of the Coverdale family are killed. In fact, the very first sentence of this novel tells the haunting story:
“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
In this novel, we know right from the beginning who the murderer is. The real suspense comes as we find out, bit by bit, what led up to the murders. There’s a real tension in the novel that comes as we see this quiet housekeeper with a terrible secret become more and more desperate.
There are, of course, lots of other examples of quietly desperate characters in crime fiction. Who are your favorites?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Time.