Agatha Christie’s novels often feature this kind of mental manipulation. For instance, in The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic note warning him that a crime will soon take place. Sure enough, a murder takes place on the day and in the place that the note specifies. At first, the husband of the victim is suspected but soon enough, he’s cleared. The police aren’t able to catch the killer, and then Poirot receives another note, taunting him and announcing another murder. That murder occurs, too, and it now appears that a serial killer is at work. Poirot and Captain Hastings work with the police to find out who is behind this bizarre series of murders. Throughout the story, the killer tries to mentally manipulate Poirot and the police and for a time, succeeds. Then, Poirot comes to an important conclusion that helps him understand who the killer really is.
There’s also psychological manipulation in Christie’s A Murder is Announced. In that novel, a local newspaper carries a notice that a murder will take place at Little Paddocks in Chipping Cleghorn. Letitia Blacklock, who owns Little Paddocks, decides not to alter any of her plans just because of this notice, and proceeds with a house party she had planned. On the appointed day and time, the guests are surprised when a strange man bursts in on them, demanding that they “stick ‘em up.” The guests don’t take the man seriously, but then, shots are fired into the room, and the man dies. Now, Inspector Craddock investigates the death. At first, it seems that this might have been an accident, but it turns out that the murder was deliberate. Inspector Craddock works with Miss Marple, who helps uncover how much mental manipulation there’s been. It turns out that the murderer has been playing “mind games” with nearly everyone.
Perhaps Christie’s most chilling example of mind games is in And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). Ten people are invited to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They accept, each for different reasons, and are soon settled into the hotel. After dinner on that first night, everyone is shocked when each guest is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests is poisoned. Later that night, another guest suddenly dies. Before long, it’s clear that there’s a murderer on the island. One by one, the other guests begin to die and as the novel goes on, we see how the killer is able to manipulate the survivors.
In Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder, we meet Howard Van Horn, son of wealthy tycoon Diedrich Van Horn. He’s been suffering from recurring blackouts lately and is concerned about them. His concern turns to terror one day when he wakes up from one of his blackouts covered in blood. Convinced that he’s committed a terrible crime, Van Horn visits his old college friend Elllery Queen to ask for Queen’s help. Queen agrees and begins to search for clues to what has happened to his friend. That search leads to Van Horn’s home in of Wrightsville, a small New England town. Queen and Van Horn visit Wrightsville and stay at the Van Horn home, where Queen meets the rest of the family. While they are there, Van Horn suffers another frightening blackout. What’s worse, Van Horn’s young stepmother Sally Van Horn is found strangled. Howard is accused of the crime, but Queen believes his friend is innocent. He begins to look for clues and before the crime is solved, we see how both Queen and Van Horn are manipulated by the real killer.
In Nicci French’s Beneath the Skin, a killer psychologically manipulates three very different women during a hot West London summer. Zoe Haratounian, Jennifer Hintlesham and Nadia Blake are of different backgrounds, on different paths in life and with different personalities. Yet each of them begins to receive strange love letters that also contain threats. The letters get progressively more threatening, and the women slowly stop being annoyed and angry about the letters and begin to be frightened by them. What’s worse is that even after asking for and getting protection from the police, the women are not safe. Things are moved around or removed from their homes. Then, the stalker begins to destroy the women’s faith in their relationships and their ability to trust anyone. This stalker seems to be able to psychologically manipulate even strong women. One of them, though, is not as easy to manipulate as the stalker thinks, and decides to investigate, since it’s clear that the police will not be able to help.
Michael Robotham’s Shatter also deals with mind games and psychological manipulation. Psychiatrist Joe O’Loughlin is called to the scene of a possible suicide when Christine Wheeler is found on a bridge, about to jump. He is unsuccessful at talking her out of killing herself, which is difficult enough for him. But then, Christine Wheeler’s daughter Darcy visits O’Loughlin. She tells him that she is convinced her mother was coerced in committing suicide. O’Loughlin doesn’t see how a person could be manipulated in that way, but he agrees to look into the matter. With help from his friend Inspector Vincent Ruiz, O’Loughlin soon finds himself up against a vicious serial killer who is an expert at playing mind games with his victims. As O’Loughlin and Ruiz get closer to the truth about the killer, more victims die. In the end, O’Loughlin’s own family is threatened, and we see even more starkly how this particular killer has been able to psychologically manipulate people.
Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool also involves mind games. In that novel, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. As she and the team learn more about Bethany’s life, they also become aware that her death could be related to two more recent deaths: George Saffell, a rare-book collector, and Stuart Wagg, a successful attorney. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett learns that the killer has been able to psychologically manipulate all of the victims.
Of course, psychological manipulation and mind games can work both ways. There are plenty of novels where the “good guy” also plays mind games with the criminal. One very funny example is Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip. Chaz Perrone thinks he has it all. He’s developed a way to make even polluted water seem “clean” when it is tested. This is very helpful to agribusiness tycoon Red Hammernut, who wants to be sure that his business is not prevented from dumping toxic waste. When Chaz’ wife Joey finds out what he’s up to, he becomes worried that she will tell the authorities. So he arranges for a cruise of the Everglades, telling Joey that it’s an anniversary gift. While they’re on the cruise, Chaz throws Joey overboard. She doesn’t die, though. Instead, she is rescued by Mike Stranahan, a former investigator for Florida’s Attorney General. Together, Joey and Mike plot revenge. They play mind games with Chaz, convincing him that someone saw him throw his wife overboard. That belief unnerves Chaz so much that soon, he runs the real risk of being caught by the authorities. What’s more, Red Hammernut begins to worry that he can no longer depend on Chaz Perrone. In the end, that psychological manipulation plays an important role in the novel.
Mind games and psychological manipulation can add a great deal of suspense to a novel. Of course, there is also the risk of a story getting either a little too unbelievable or melodramatic. Still, when it’s done well, this plot device can make a story quite absorbing. Which novels have you enjoyed that feature mind games?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon's Mind Games.