Thursday, September 23, 2010

She's Come Undone*

A very interesting post by crime fiction author and blogger Martin Edwards got me thinking about crime fiction characters who seem to unravel and come apart at the proverbial seams. One of the characters he mentions, for instance, is Eunice Parchman in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgment in Stone. There are many others, too. That disintegration of a character makes sense in the crime fiction context. Sometimes self-destruction is the cause of a crime. Sometimes it happens to a person who’s committed a crime, even in self-defense. And sometimes, it happens to the victim of a crime (crime, after all, is traumatic). Even sleuths can disintegrate; investigating crime takes a heavy toll on a person, and it’s easy to see how it can become too much. Characters who come “unglued” can add a very effective layer of suspense and interest to a novel, too.

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.

20 comments:

  1. Interesting to watch the disintegration of a character in an novel. Happens so often in life.

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  2. I love my characters - even the detectives - to be dark at times - hence my love of writing this genre.
    Great post Margot

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  3. Patti - You're right; people do disintegrate in real life. It's sad, but it does happen. And it can be fascinating in books.


    Hemmie - Thank you :-). It can really be interesting to explore the dark, "unglued" side of a character, can't it? And you're right; crime fiction is a great genre for that kind of exploration...

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  4. I really liked the example of Five Little Pigs because it's the thing that touched me the most - the state of Caroline Crale. We eventually find out why she gave up but the panic made us panic and upped the tension.

    I understand it when the suspects start to unravel but I also like it when my MCs do as well. In the next two chapters you're about to read in The Sholes Key, you'll see my MC start to unravel. Well, I hope it comes across that way, if not, let me know.

    Oh, will you be willing to come post next Wednesday or Thursday. Thursday is my Reading People post so if you have something on Body Language or Reading People, that would be great. If not, anything is fine. My blog is not really set in stone.

    If next week is too soon, then the Wed or Thurs following.

    Let me know.

    CD

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  5. Clarissa - You're right about Caroline Crale in Five Little Pigs. Her panic pulls the reader in, and that keeps interest. And even when we find out why she "lets go," it's still absorbing.

    Folks, Clarissa's novel, The Sholes Key is a very engaging novel. I've been enjoying it very much! You can check it out free right here.

    Next Thursday (30 September) sounds great for guest blogging, and thank you for the invitation :-). I'll send you a post in the next few days. I'm flattered you've invited me :-).

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  6. Here's another angle: Kenneth Cameron's second Denton novel, which I'm reading right now, features a disintegrating character who keeps sending Denton (an author) fan mail -- the disintegration (so far anyway) takes place in letters.

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  7. Great! I'll be eagerly awaiting it.

    CD

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  8. Karen - Oh, thank you! That is a really creative angle on this whole theme of disintegration. I'll be really eager to hear what you think of the novel. It reminds me of a short story called Problems Solved, by Bill Pronzini and Barry Malzberg. In that story, we see the disintegration through the letters that an advice columnist writes to an increasingly disturbed person...

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  9. Characters that unravel while you watch (so to speak) are intriguing. As a reader you sometimes try to guess what will happen next how their last move will cause a ripple effect in the story. Very interesting post.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  10. Mason - Thanks :-). You're so right! When a character unravels, that can affect just about everybody else in a novel. So it is really interesting to see how that disintegration changes the outcome of the story and the other people's lives. That's a well-taken point.

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  11. Now that is an interesting premise, and Caroline is the perfect example. That is one interesting character.

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  12. Rayna - Isn't Caroline Crale a fascinating person? And one thing I really like about this novel is that we learn about her bit by bit through the viewpoints of others.

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  13. Great post, Margot! This is exactly one of the things I like about a book, when someone who has seemed "together" on the surface in fact is falling apart - and as you so well point out, crime fiction is an ideal setting for examples! I think Ann Cleeves does this very well in the two Vera Stanhope books I've read so far - The Crow Trap and Telling Tales. She portrays small local communities in each case, in which one knows that at least one person has "lost it". Another novel in which this same theme was well done, but in a different way, is Blue Heaven by C J Box.

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  14. Maxine - Why, thank you :-). And I agree with you that seeing what happens when a character falls apart is fascinating. It's especially affecting, I think, if it's done in a way that isn't melodramatic.

    Thanks for mentioning both Cleeves and Box. I agree with you that The Crow Trap is a terrific example; folks, do check it out if you haven't. Here is Maxine's terrific review of the novel. And it's also interesting that you mention C.J. Box, who I think does this sort of thing well. He certainly did in Three Weeks to Say Goodbye.

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  15. Apart from the Rendell story we both love, I agree that Megan´s Bury Me Deep is a wonderful example of a person coming unglued (a phrase that always appeals to my imagination). Her book is one of the very rare stories about true crime that has kept me on the edge of the chair. I *knew* what must happen; still I bit my nails, wanting to shout to that poor woman to get away.

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  16. Dorte - That is precisely how I felt! I kept wanting to jump into the book and run after her and make her see reason. You know someone's talented when that person can draw you into a book like that. And I agree; I like that phrase very much, too; I wish I'd thought of it originally ;-).

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  17. Needless to say, I really appreciated this great post!

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  18. Martin - Thanks, Martin :-). And thanks for the inspiration for it. Your own post was quite thought-provoking and interesting.

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  19. Coincidentally I had taken Five Little Pigs away to read, and rediscovered why Agatha Christie is such a great crime fiction writer. I got to know all the characters in the book in great depth.
    I feel like I want to run into the Martin Edwards series and tell Hannah to dump Marc, but I suppose that is how a talented author keeps you buying the books. ;o)

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  20. Norman - That is interesting how you choose Five Little Pigs. That is a fantastic character study, and what I like is that each of the characters is so distinct. And I agree about Hannah. She needs to shed Marc and then she and Dnaiel need to get on with it. Are you listening, Hannah and Daniel??? Yes, indeed, the mark of a talented author is when you snap up the next book in the series to see what happens...

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