In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for example, Carla Lemarchant asks Hercule Poirot to solve the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale’s wife Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted for the crime, and there was plenty of evidence against her, too. She had motive; Crale had said he was going to leave her for another woman. The poison used in the murder was found in her possession, and she’d been heard threatening Crale. Carla, though, is convinced her mother was innocent and wants her name cleared. Poirot agrees to take the case and interviews the people who were involved in the murder and its investigation. He also gets written accounts of the crime from all five people who were there at the time of the murder. Those accounts show how Caroline Crale falls apart in the days before and right after the crime. We see her stress building, we see her desperation when a friend asks her what’s wrong and she says, “Everything.” We also see her seem to give up during the trial and after being jailed. What happens to Caroline Crale adds a tense undercurrent to the novel.
In The ABC Murders, Poirot and Captain Hastings work with the police to solve a group of murders that seem to be the work of a serial killer. The only things the murders seem to have in common are a series of cryptic warnings sent to Poirot before each killing, and an ABC railway guide found near each body. The story is told from two points of view: that of Hastings and that of Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust, a mild-mannered and eccentric representative for a stocking manufacturing company. As the events of the novel unfold, Cust becomes more and more unsettled and agitated. As we follow the story from his perspective, it’s clear that he is unraveling, and his increasing instability adds suspense to the story.
We also see a character slowly come apart in Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down. That’s the story of Mix Cellini, an exercise-equipment repairman. As the story begins, Celilni moves into a flat in a house owned by Gwendolyn Chawcer. She’s an elderly spinster who lived for so long under the control of her tyrannical father that she was never able to create her own life. She and Cellini don’t much like one another, but they do establish a business relationship. It’s not long before Cellini’s already-somewhat fragile hold on stability begins to weaken. He becomes obsessed with a beautiful model, Merissa Nash, whom he meets in the course of his work. He’s determined to have her and his obsession slowly takes over his life. So does his fascination with a notorious killer, Dr. Richard Christie. As Cellini becomes more and more fixated on Christie’s life, his own life comes apart and he begins to disintegrate as a person. In the end, Cellini’s life becomes more and more like that of Christie’s, with equally terrible consequences.
In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, we meet twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies, a brilliant violinist. He’s been a musical prodigy for most of his life and is now renowned as a musical artist. Then one night, Davies’ world begins to come apart when he is suddenly unable to play. The incident terrifies him and he begins the process of psychoanalysis to find out why it happened. The process of psychoanalysis leads Davies to the long-ago death of his baby sister Sonia and a very complex web of family secrets. As if that isn’t enough, his mother, Eugenie Davies, is struck and killed in an apparent hit-and-run incident. When Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers are assigned to the case, they begin to suspect that Eugenie Davies’ death may be related to the Davies family’s past, and to Gideon’s own struggle to put his life back together. Parts of the novel are told from Gideon’s perspective, so we see how the loss of his musical ability unravels his sense of who he is.
There’s a fascinating study of a character coming undone in Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice. Mostly for political reasons, Harry Bosch is assigned the task of closing eight cases left “opened” by another detective, Lucius Porter. Porter has taken a stress-related leave, and Bosch’s supervisor Harvey Pounds wants Porter’s cases solved as soon as possible. He also has an ulterior motive: to keep Bosch from getting involved in the shooting death of Calexico “Cal” Moore, whose body is found on Christmas night. The official report on Moore’s death is that it was a suicide, but Bosch is not convinced. As he looks through Porter’s cases, Bosch sees that one of them may very well be connected with Moore’s death, so against orders, he looks into the Moore case, too. In the process, Bosch finds that Lucius Porter probably knows more about both cases than it seems on the surface. But as he tries to get background information from Porter, Bosch finds that Porter has unraveled. He was too heavy a drinker to begin with, and as the story goes on, Porter comes more and more unglued. Throughout the novel, we see, bit by bit, how and why he falls apart, and in the end, his instability results in more tragedy.
In Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the ten-year-old murder of landscaper Warren Howe. Howe’s wife Tina was the original suspect in the killing, but she had an alibi and the police weren’t able to pursue the case. Now, anonymous notes suggest that Tina really was guilty, so the team investigates. As they look into Warren Howe’s life, they find that more than one person had a reason to kill him. He was unpleasant, abusive and arrogant, and was frequently unfaithful to his wife. The team also gets to know the members of Howe’s family, including his daughter, Kirsty, who was sixteen at the time of her father’s death. Kirsty’s managed to have a relatively stable life despite her father. And she’s worked very hard to get past his murder and move on. But when Scarlett and her team begin looking into the case, they also uncover several secrets that change everything for Kristy. As her world begins to unravel, so does Kristy, and her falling apart adds a layer of interest, tension and urgency to the novel.
There’s a chilling example of a character coming undone in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep. In that novel, Dr. Everett Seeley is forced to flee to Mexico when his cocaine habit leads to the loss of his license to practice medicine. He leaves his wife Marion behind in Phoenix, believing she is safer and better off there. Seeley does what he can to take care of her, too; he arranges for her to have a clerical job at the posh, private Werden Clinic and sets her up in a comfortable apartment. All’s well at first. Then, Marion is befriended by Louise Mercer, a clinic nurse who, together with her room-mate Ginny Hoyt, lives a decadent lifestyle. Marion is grateful for their friendship as she’s rather lonely. Soon, though, she is also drawn into their lives of parties, drugs, and men. She also gets deeply involved with businessman Joe Lanigan, one of Louise and Ginny’s “friends.” The more caught up Marion is in this world, the more her own life unravels. The end result is tragedy for everyone.
When a character disintegrates, readers watch almost as you might watch a roadside accident. That unraveling is often tragic, but it’s also fascinating and can add a gripping level of suspense to a novel. What’s your view? Which novels have you enjoyed that feature this kind of unraveling?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Guess Who.