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.