Some people have the ability to manipulate others not through bullying, bribery or threats but through some sort of magnetism. Those who fall under their spells are eager to please those with that kind of what you might call charisma. That sort of pull is fascinating psychologically. What draws us to people like that and what keeps us from, if you will, pulling away? It’s also interesting from a crime-fictional standpoint. Such people are often at the heart of crime fiction. Sometimes they’re victims, and sometimes they’re responsible for a crime even if they don’t themselves directly commit that crime.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poirot is traveling through the Middle East when he is persuaded to break his journey and investigate a murder. Louise Leidner, wife of noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, has been bludgeoned to death in her own bedroom. There seems to be no way that the murderer could have got in or out without being noticed, but somehow it happened. So Poirot begins to look into the victim’s background and those of the other people staying at the excavation team’s house. What he finds is that Louise Leidner had exactly that ability to profoundly affect people and get them to do what she wanted, whether or not they wanted to (and several didn’t). In fact, here’s what Amy Leatheran, from whose viewpoint the story is told, has to say:
“You couldn’t help admiring her and wanting to do things for her.”
Nearly everyone at the house is in a way under that spell and just about everyone had a reason to want to kill the victim, too. In the end, Poirot finds that Louise Leidner’s magnetism had everything to do with her murder.
In Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, Homicide detective Steve Carella and his partner Frank Bush are assigned to the case when a colleague Mike Reardon is killed on his way to the precinct. When Reardon’s partner David Foster is murdered on the way home from the precinct late one night, it begins to look as though someone had a grudge against these two cops. So Carella and Bush begin to look through Reardon and Foster’s cases to see who’d have enough of a grudge (and the right opportunity) to kill the cops. Then there’s another cop murder and this time the victim is a cop who never worked a case with either Reardon or Foster. Now it begins to look as though these murders are the work of a fanatic cop-hater. The major break in the case comes when the last cop to be murdered leaves enough forensic evidence to link his murder to the killer. That evidence leads Carella and the team to the murderer. As it turns out, that ability to manipulate – that magnetism – is a very strong part of the reason that all three cops were killed.
Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man is the story of retired academic Harry Steadman, a passionate archaeologist who moves up to the Yorkshire Dales with his wife Emma to focus full-time on excavating Roman ruins in the area. One Sunday his body is found in a farmer’s field, and DCI Alan Banks and his team are called to the scene. At first, there seems to be no motive for his murder. He was a highly respected archaeologist, well-regarded by former university colleagues and students, and with a happy marriage. But little by little, Banks begins to suspect that Steadman’s death may be related to events from ten years earlier. So he looks more deeply into the lives of those connected with those events. Then there’s a disappearance and another death. Now the case looks even more complicated – until Banks looks at it the right way round. In the end, he learns that both Steadman’s murder and the other murder have everything to do with that kind of manipulation and magnetism that makes people do things they never otherwise would.
We also see that kind of manipulation in Megan Abbott’s Die a Little. Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King isn’t exactly happy about her brother Bill’s choice of wife. Alice Steele King is a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant with a dubious past and a way of manipulating situations to her advantage without seeming to do so. At first Lora puts all of her discomfort down to jealousy since her beloved brother now has little time for her. But soon she begins to wonder about Alice. Certain aspects of her life story don’t seem to add up and Lora begins to worry for Bill. At the same time though, she feels Alice’s magnetism and can’t seem to avoid doing things for her and with her. When Lora meets press agent Mike Standish, one of Alice’s “old friends,” she finds Standish has the same kind of ability to manipulate people. Even though Standish isn’t the sort of person Lora’s ever been attracted to before, she begins to date him. Then there’s a murder. Now Lora finds herself deeply involved in the lives of the very people who might have been behind the killing. It’s an interesting look at the question of what counts as doing the right thing and at manipulation.
And then there’s Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes), which introduces us to Copenhagen Homicide detective Carl Mørck and his assistant Hafez al-Assad. The two make up Department Q, which is devoted to investigating cases “of special interest.” One of them is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. Everyone thinks she drowned after a tragic fall from a ferry. But then little facts begin to surface that suggest she may still be alive. So Mørck and Assad begin to go back over the last days and weeks of Lynggaard’s life before the ferry trip. Bit by bit, they put the pieces of the puzzle together and learn what really happened to her. In the end, they find that what happened to Merete Lynggaard has a lot to do with manipulation and the ability to get others to do what one wants.
In Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red, television journalist Rebecca Thorne has to face the very real possibility that she’s being manipulated. She’s at a crossroads in her personal and professional life and eager for the story that will establish her career. One night, her brother tells her of just such a story. Connor Bligh has been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and her son Sam. At the time, everyone assumed his guilt and all of the evidence seemed to point that way. But Thorne learns that there is possible evidence that Bligh is innocent. If he is, and if he’s been wrongly imprisoned, this could be the story she’s been wanting. So Thorne begins to look more deeply into the matter. As she does, she gets very close to the story – perhaps too close. Is she being manipulated by the police, the press and others who believe Bligh is guilty? Or is she being manipulated by Bligh and those who believe he’s innocent? It’s a fascinating look at how that kind of manipulation can work.
And that’s the thing about being able to manipulate people and situations. Some people are so good at it that we don’t realise they’re doing it. Sometimes they may not even be aware of it themselves. But manipulation is a powerful force.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s Anything For Your Love.