Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I Had a Premonition That He Should Not Go Alone*

After a tragedy occurs, it’s not uncommon for people to say that they “had a feeling something terrible was going to happen.” That happens in real life and in crime fiction. But is it really true? Have you ever had a premonition? If you have, were you right about it? Many people believe that some of us are “tuned in” enough to know when something awful is coming, or when there’s the presence of terrible evil or danger. Others say that those kinds of premonitions don’t really happen, and that people’s feelings of foreboding happen because they are anxious about something happening in their lives or because they are suggestible. Not everyone believes in premonitions, but they can add an interesting dose of suspense to a crime fiction story.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, we meet the Reverend Stephen Lane, a cleric who’s taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel off the Devon coast. One morning, he’s having a conversation with several other hotel guests, including Hercule Poiriot, who’s on a holiday of his own. During the conversation, Lane says quite fervently that he senses the presence of evil all around. No-one really takes him seriously, since he’s got the reputation of being a bit of a fanatic. No-one, that is, except Hercule Poirot, who is usually willing to pay attention to what anyone says. It turns out that Lane is right. One day, Arlena Stuart Marshall, an actress with a reputation for notoriety, is found strangled on a beach not far from the hotel. At first, her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, is the most likely suspect; it was common knowledge at the hotel that Arlena was having an affair with another guest, Patrick Redfern. However, Marshall has a watertight alibi for the time of the murder, so the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. Poirot works with Chief Constable Weston to find out who else among the hotel guests would have wanted to murder Arlena Stuart and why.

In Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, nurse Amy Leatheran is hired to help Louise Leidner, wife of noted archaeologist Eric Leidner. Louise Leidner has joined her husband and his team on a dig a few hours from Baghdad, and at first, all is well. Then, Louise begins to have all sorts of fears and says that she sees faces and hears hands tapping at her window. Amy Leatheran takes on the job of looking after Louise. From the moment she arrives, Nurse Leatheran has a feeling of something being wrong – a sense of foreboding. At first, she only thinks it’s the natural tension that builds when a group of people is cooped up together. But she soon begins to wonder whether there’s something more to it than just that. Then one afternoon, Louise Leidner is murdered. Hercule Poirot, who’s traveling home from Syria, is persuaded to interrupt his trip and investigate the murder. He finds that the murder has its roots in the kind of person Mrs. Leidner was. One interesting element in this novel is Amy Leatheran’s sense of foreboding. In many ways, she’s the “no-nonsense” type who prefers practical solutions to problems. However, there is a side of her that seems “tuned in.”

In Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s The Visitant, we meet Hail Walking Hawk. She is a member of the Pueblo Nation, and the great-aunt of Maggie Walking Hawk Taylor, a U.S. Park Service ranger. Maggie is working with archeologist Williaim “Dusty” Stewart, forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole, and their team as they begin to work on a dig in the Sonora Desert area of New Mexico. When the dig reveals the ancient remains of eight Native American women, the team has to stop the work until a tribal representative joins them to ensure that the remains are handled in a culturally appropriate way. That’s when Hail Walking Hawk joins the group. When she gets a chance to look at the dig, she has a strong sense of the people who died there:

“Something was wrong here. Something that had gone wrong a long time ago.”

Hail turns out to be exactly right. While Stewart, Cole and the team work in the present time to find out what happened to the dead women, another, parallel investigation takes place in the 13th Century world of the Anasazi. Warrior Chief Browser and his deputy and friend Catkin also investigate the murders and in the end, both teams discover the truth behind the deaths.

Lisa Appignanesi’s Sanctuary also features a premonition. In this case, New York cartoon artist Leo Holland has a premonition of disaster when her friend, London investigative journalist Isabel Morgan, doesn’t show up to meet Leo in New York, as she was scheduled to do. On the surface, there’s no reason for panic, since there are any number of innocent reasons why Isabel might not have made the trip. But Leo is certain something is terribly wrong, so she flies to London to try to trace her friend’s footsteps. At the time of her disappearance, Isabel was researching genetically modified plants and animals, and Leo believes that Isabel’s disappearance might be connected with the story she was planning. Leo also knows that Isabel was undergoing psychoanalysis, so when she arrives in London, she pretends to be a new patient, hoping that she can trace her friend. She finds out that Isabel had been visiting several London therapists at the time of her disappearance. Through her own visits to the same analysts, Leo discovers that Isabel was obsessed with finding her lost father, whom everyone had thought was dead. When it turned out that her father was alive, Isabel went in search of him and never returned. In its own way, Leo’s journey turns out to be just as risky as Isabel’s was.

Garrett Quirke, a Dublin pathologist, also has what you might call a premonition in Benjamin Black’s The Silver Swan. His personal life is complicated enough without him getting involved in an unusual investigation. But when Billy Hunt, an old acquaintance from college, contacts him, Quirke has a premonition that he is about do to just that, Hunt leaves a message for Quirke, asking him to call. When Quirke returns the call, he agrees to meet Hunt. At their meeting, Hunt tells Quirke that his wife, Deirdre, has committed suicide. Her naked body was found off the rocks of Dalkey Island. He then asks Quirke to prevent an autopsy, saying that he doesn’t want his wife

“sliced up like…a carcass.”

Quirke agrees to see what he can do, but he is uneasy about it, since he had never before been asked to prevent an autopsy. It turns out that Quirke’s sense of foreboding is on target; when he begins the post-mortem examination on Deirdre Hunt, he finds a small puncture wound on her arm. Now Quirke suspects that there’s more to Deirdre Hunt’s death than suicide, and he begins to investigate. Although the coroner rules her death as accidental, Quirke believes that Deirdre Hunt was poisoned. Quirke’s search for the truth about the victim leads him to a beauty parlor called The Silver Swan, in which Deirdre had a business interest. It also leads him to an Indian faith healer and, oddly enough, to his own estranged daughter Phoebe, who’s dangerously mixed up in the case.

A series of little details and nuances may have triggered Quirke’s premonition about this case. He’s a trained pathologist, and has dealt with grieving families before. So it’s possible that his sense of foreboding comes from those clues. That also may be true of Ispettore Vianello’s premonition in Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief. In that novel, Vianello is concerned about his Zia (aunt) Anita. She’s been taking money from the family business and he has a sense of foreboding about it. She hasn’t yet done anything drastic, but he’s worried. So he asks Commissario Guido Brunetti to help him get to the bottom of the mystery. Sure enough, Vianello’s premonition is proved right when he and Brunetti find that Zia Anita has been giving money to a charlatan named Stefano Gorini. As they look into Gorini’s background, they find that he’s been guilty of several crimes, including practicing medicine without a license. Vianello’s sense that “something is just wrong,” might be a product of being unconsciously aware of little details that signal a problem.

Whether a premonition comes from that unconscious awareness of detail or something else, it can add an interesting dose of tension to a crime fiction story. Which ones have you enjoyed that feature premonitions?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glenn Frey's Smuggler's Blues.


  1. Here you go again, introducing intriguing authors I haven't read yet. You may be the one person most responsible for making my TBR list grow.

    As for premonitions, I like to read about characters who have them. But in real life, mine are usually unfounded.

    However, I did recently have a dream about my son that was scary enough to make me call him. Although there was nothing seriously wrong, he was having an extremely stressful week. Is it possible to get stressed out vibes from your grown-up kid who lives three states away? I wonder.


  2. Patricia - I think it is definitely possible to have that kind of connection to your child. I know I do to my daughter. I honestly think that caring parents really do have that kind of bond with their children.

    I can't say I've had a lot of premonitions, myself. A couple of times I've had dreams, and later events from my dreams have really happened, but that's only occurred rarely. Like you, though, I like premonitions if they're done believably and well-written. If not, they can be awfully contrived.

    And about your TBR list? You're welcome ;-) ;-). Why should your TBR list be any shorter than mine is?? *Evil laugh*

  3. I haven't really read anything new lately so I' don't know any books with this sort of premonition things but you cite great examples.

    I'm so behind in my reading schedule. Currently I'm reading a Deborah Crombie novel but I want to be reading my Val McDermid book.

    Oh, and I should go post another chapter of my novel online. Ugh, I need to get more scheduled!

    Great post, as usual.

  4. I can't think of any books right off that involve the characters having premonitions. However, I do believe in them so it would stand to reason they would work great in mysteries too. I guess my premonitions are that little voice I hear inside my head sometimes. Over the years I've come to realize if I don't listen to that 'voice' something bad usually happens.

    Another great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Clarissa - Thank you :-). I know exactly what you mean about keeping up with reading. You have no idea how many books I would love to be reading.... But please, please, keep posting those chapters. I want to know what happens next.

    And I agree Deborah Crombie and Val McDermid are great choices :-).

    Mason - Thank you :-)! I know exactly what you mean about that little voice, too. It's generally worth listening to, isn't it? I've always found that not listening to my own little voice gets me in trouble. premonitions are a part of real life, so you're right; there's no reason they shouldn't pop up in crime fiction, too.

  6. I often have premonitions of doom- 30% of the time, it is just a load of nonsense, but the rest of the time, it turns out that the person is going through a period of stress, even if not of the kind I had a premonition about. Maybe I am just adept at picking up signs? So now, whenever I have a bad dream about someone, I call them the next morning- weeks later, they often tell me it was eerie how I called at a time when they most needed to talk.

    And like Patricia's, my Mt. TBR keeps growing because of you.

  7. Rayna - That is so interesting that you so often have a sense of when someone you know is going through troubles. Some people argue that it's possible to be just very open and "tuned in" to others, so that one is aware of when there is trouble (or trouble to come). I don't have any kind of hard data about that, but I do know you are not the only one who has those experiences. How fascinating!

    And about Mt. TBR? I am simply being egalitarian and making sure that everyone has the opportunity to have at least as long a list as I have. I think it is important to consider others ;-) ;-).

  8. The author I most associate with premonitions leading to crimes is Thomas H. Cook. He does not write a series, but standalones. All of them seem to feature premonitions very heavily.

  9. Maxine - Thanks for mentioning Cook. I've not read a lot of his work, but you're spot on about the use of premonitions in it. Cook's a very interesting writer, too, I think. In what I've read, he really blends the "literary" with crime fiction.