Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It Was Then I Felt the Stranger Kick Me Right Between the Eyes*

How well do we really know the people in our lives? Of course, everyone has private thoughts and most people don’t reveal everything about themselves, even to their closest friends and those they love. But most of the time, we do get to know the people in our lives fairly well. Or do we? That’s one of the big questions that a lot of crime fiction addresses. One reason it’s such a popular theme in crime fiction is that it’s also a suspenseful question. It can add a real layer of suspense and tension to a novel as a character slowly becomes aware that a friend or loved one is not at all what she or he seems to be. That disbelief, even denial, followed by shock and then sometimes fear often keeps readers turning pages. Another reason this theme appears in a lot of crime fiction is that it reflects real life. It can be painful, shocking or worse to discover that how little one really knows a friend or loved one.

Of course, as with anything else in crime fiction, there’s a balance to be achieved. One on hand, there is a lot of “suspense value” in having a character learn that she or he doesn’t really know a trusted friend or family member. On the other, if that theme isn’t well-written, it can stretch the limits of credibility too far. So it takes a deft touch to do that well.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, Hercule Poirot retires to the village of King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows – or at least, that’s his plan. Then, the village is rocked by the stabbing death of retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. Ackroyd’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton, is the most likely suspect; he was known to be desperate for money, and he’d quarreled with his stepfather about his finances. To matters worse, immediately after the murder, Paton disappears with no explanation. Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd does not believe that he’s guilty, though, and begs Poirot to clear his name. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the matter. Poirot discovers in the end that Ackroyd was especially vulnerable because he thought he knew his killer well. He was wrong.

In Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, Poirot interrupts a journey back to London from the Middle East to investigate the murder of Louise Leidner. She is the wife of noted archeologist Eric Leidner, and has joined her husband and his dig team at an excavation site a few hours from Baghdad. One afternoon, she’s killed by a blow to the head while she’s in her room. No stranger has been seen entering or leaving the grounds of the expedition house, and it’s soon established that it would have been nearly impossible for a stranger to sneak in and remain hidden. That’s when it becomes clear that the murderer must be a member of the expedition team. This revelation is especially shocking to the dig team, because some members of the team have been working together and been friends for quite some time. As it turns out, the people on the dig team really thought they knew the killer – and did not.

Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me also takes up this theme of not really knowing someone, even after quite a long time. Everyone in the West Texas town of Central City thinks of deputy sheriff Lou Ford as a nice, competent, hardworking lawman, even if he is a little dull. Then, Joyce Lakeland, a prostitute, is brutally beaten. While that crime is being investigated, there’s a murder. Slowly, it becomes very clear that something is terribly wrong with Ford, and that he is not the person everyone has always thought he was. Ford himself knows this, and refers to it as “the sickness.” The slow awareness of what is really going on in Central City is an important part of this story.

There’s a chilling example of this theme in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Photographer Johanna Eberhart and her attorney husband Walter and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, they are warmly accepted in their new home. The children are settling in, Walter is happy in his new job, and Johanna makes some new friends, including Bobbie Markowe, who’s relatively new to Stepford herself. Gradually, though, both Johanna and Bobbie begin to suspect that something is very, very wrong with Stepford. As they both start to look into what’s going on the town, they begin to be aware that they don’t really know people that they thought they knew. That creeping fear adds a lot of suspense to this novel, especially once we discover what is really happening in Stepford.

In Colin Dexter’s The Remorseful Day, Morse and Lewis are assigned to re-open the two-year-old murder of nurse Yvonne Harrison. When she was first murdered, everyone thought it was a case of a burglary gone very wrong. But the police were never able to convict anyone. Now, the police get a tip that Harry Rapp, who’s just been released from jail after serving time for burglary, may have been responsible. Although Morse seems unusually reluctant to investigate, Lewis begins to work on the case right away. Soon, Lewis believes that he’s discovered the reason for Morse’s lack of interest in the case, and it shocks him. When he makes this discovery, he believes that the man he’s known and worked with for years is not the person he seemed to be. As it turns out, things are not as they seem, and Morse ends up providing valuable help to Lewis and together, they find out who really killed Yvonne Harrison. In a fascinating sub-plot, Lewis also discovers that someone else he has known is not the person he’d always thought.

Deborah Crombie’s Gemma James discovers that her friend Hazel Cavendish may not be the person she’s always imagined in Now May You Weep. Gemma’s been living with Hazel and her husband, and has become close friends with Hazel. Then, Hazel invites Gemma for a cookery week-end at the Innesfree Guest House in the Scottish Highlands. Gemma accepts and the two women head north for what’s supposed to be a holiday. Gemma soon becomes aware of how little she really knew about Hazel when Donald Brodie, Hazel’s former lover, is shot. Hazel is the most likely suspect, and is arrested for the crime, but she says she is innocent. Gemma wants to believe her, but she finds out all sorts of things about Hazel’s past that she hadn’t known. Still, she decides to stay loyal to her friend, and asks Duncan Kincaid to join her and help find out who really killed Brodie, so Hazel’s name can be cleared. The tension rises in this novel as pieces of Hazel’s past, and that of her family, are uncovered and we find out how that past is related to Brodie’s death.

In Patricia Stoltey’s The Prairie Grass Murders, Florida judge Sylvia Thorn returns to her home in Illinois when her brother Willie Grisseljon finds a dead man on the family’s former property and is accused of killing him. Sylvia travels to Illinois to get her brother out of jail and clear his name, and it’s not long before the two of them are able to show that Willie is innocent. But unbeknownst to both of them, they’ve stumbled onto a case of hidden secrets. Each in a slightly different way, Sylvia and Willie investigate the murder, and soon find themselves caught up in a very dangerous situation. Bit by bit, they uncover what’s been going on, and to Sylvia’s dismay, she finds out that someone she’s known since her years in Illinois is not the person she thought she knew. This slowly-growing awareness adds a real layer of interest to the novel.

There are plenty of other novels, too, where a character discovers that a friend or loved one is very different from what he or she seemed to be. As always, space only allows me to mention a few. Which ones have you enjoyed?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Stranger.


  1. Once again I am humming the song...thankfully I like your musical taste :)

    As for people not being what they seem I can't go past the book I just finished, Linwood Barclay's NEVER LOOK AWAY. In it the main character, a chap called David Harwood, slowly discovers that his wife of 5 years has been hiding a veritable swag of secrets. I really like the way David's reaction to all of it is depicted - he's completely disbelieving to start with and comes up with all sorts of bizarre explanations for the circumstances he finds himself in because all of those are, to him, much more plausible than that his wife was hiding things. It feels like a very natural way to react because everyone likes to think themselves capable of spotting that kind of deception in people they love.

    Thanks for the reminder of The Stepford Wives too, a really great book.

  2. Bernadette - Thanks for the compliment about my musical taste; in my mind, you can't go wrong with Billy Joel :-).

    And your description of Never Look Away is exactly the kind of thing I'm thinking of. I confess, I haven't read it yet (although I have added it to my TBR list (so thank you for that!!! - hmph ;-)). It's interesting that you describe David's reaction as you do. I think it's 100% authentic that a husband (or wife, come to that) would start with disbelief, then think of anything - anything at all - rather than the possibility that a spouse has been deceitful. You're right that most of us would not want to face the fact that we didn't realise a loved one could deceive us.

    I agree about The Stepford Wives, too. It is a classic suspenseful novel. Folks, if you haven't read it, do check it out.

  3. Wow, great subject. I was talking with my husband today about my poison post and he told me I know too many ways to kill someone. I laughed and told him I could never kill anyone, I didn't have it in me but I think about all the killings in the world and most in N. America happen between family members and people who have known each other for the longest time. Sad.

    But, I still would never kill anyone.


  4. Clarissa - Thanks :-) I can't imagine ever killing anyone, either, which is odd, because I'm busy killing people right now in my WIP. But in real life? No. And yet, as you say, most people are killed by someone they know and often love. That's both odd and bitterly ironic, isn't it?

  5. Another great topic and equally great post, Margot.
    The example that springs to mind immediately is the older daughter in law in Pocketfull of Rye hiding a secret nobody even suspected.

    And Clarissa, I can't imagine you killing anyone. More than anything else, if you intended killing someone you would not flaunt the knowledge ;-)

  6. Great post, and I agree with Bernadette that Never Look Away (which I, too, have recently finished) is a great example of this. There is another very good example in the book I finished most recently, Gone by Mo Hayder, but I shall say no more.
    It is a good many years since I read Agatha Christie, but from my memory, her characters did not have much psychological depth, so when one of them turned out to be the murderer for previously secret reasons at the end, although one had the sense of a puzzle well-put-together (usually), one did not get the "kick in the guts" factor that for example one feels when reading The Stepford Wives, one of your great examples.
    One of my many cliche-hates in crime fiction is the alternating chapters where we experience the "mind of the killer" in italic font, said killer invariably being a repressed, mother-dominated male living in a basement and pulling wings off flies etc. At the end, the "great revelation" is which of the characters in the book this person turns out to be. That is not very much fun. But a talented author being able to provide an intriguing yet involving mystery along the secret life lines, is very satisfying. And of course this is extremely well done in your own two books, Publish or Perish and B Very Flat.

  7. Rayna - Thank you :-). And of course, you're right about A Pocketful of Rye. No-one knows the real truth about Jennifer Fortescu at first, and it's interesting how her secret plays a role in the story.

    And I couldn't see Clarissa killing anyone, either!

    Maxine - You are very, very kind *blush* :-). And I had to laugh when I read your description of the "typical" cliche plots where there's a serial killer who turns out to be one of the other characters. Those plots really aren't that interesting, and they certainly don't get, in my opinion, at the kind of character exploration you mention. It's when we see a little psychological depth in characters that those revelations can be even more searing. That's what I liked about The Stepford Wives, too.

    I'm glad you mentioned Never Look Away; I've got to read that one soon! Folks, Maxine's excellent review of Never Look Away is here.

    And you're responsible for adding Gone to my TBR list, just so you know... ;-).

  8. It's a movie not a book but Shadow of a Doubt, directed by Hitchcock is about an uncle who turns out to be less than what a niece might hope for. Brilliant with Joseph Cotton.

  9. Patti - Oh, you've reminded me of one of my favourite Hitchcock movies!!! It is, indeed, brilliant. It's creepy, it's enthralling, it's....Hitchcock. Folks, if you haven't seen this one, I recommend it.

  10. Another great post, Margot which raises a endlessly fascinating question. I think almost everyone believes they know their family inside out (especially spouses). I also think almost everyone is wrong. Think about it; if your actions or thoughts can surprise yourself, why would you not think that someone else's actions or feelings would be unexpected?

  11. Elspeth - Thank you:-). And you put that so well, too! People can, indeed, surprise themselves. I know that I have. So why shouldn't it be the case that spouses and loved ones surprise us, too. And what I always think about is how eager we are to believe we know someone through and through. Why is that so very important to us? I haven't really decided what the answer to that question is, but it's fascinating to me...