One of the most frightening experiences one can have is being stalked. The vulnerability one feels is bad enough, as is the sense of violation of privacy. If you add to that the threat of danger, it’s no wonder that people who’ve had that experience have found it so traumatic. What’s worse is that unless the stalker actually threatens or commits harm, the police can’t do much to keep away a stalker who is determined to frighten his or her victim. Stalking is a sad and scary reality for people in real life, and the tension it brings makes it also a very suspenseful plot point for crime fiction. That said though, it’s also been done frequently – sometimes quite deftly and sometimes…not. If the “stalker” plot point is to succeed, it’s got to be done carefully, thoughtfully, and not (necessarily) in connection with a serial-killer motif.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, wealthy and beautiful Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is on a honeymoon cruise of the Nile with her new husband Simon. The trip is supposed to be a luxurious celebration but it’s marred for Linnet because she feels she and Simon are being stalked. Before he met Linnet, Simon was engaged to Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline “Jackie” de Bellefort. Since the marriage, Jackie has followed the Doyles everywhere they’ve gone. She doesn’t threaten either Linnet or Simon, but her presence makes Linnet feel vulnerable. Normally a calm and authoritative person used to being in charge of her own life, Linnet feels frightened. But she really can’t do much about it because there’ve been no threats or physical attacks. Her nerves frayed, Linnet approaches Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, and asks him to intervene and make Jackie stop her stalking. Poirot agrees to speak with Jackie, although he says he can’t force her to stop. His intervention doesn’t save Linnet though; she’s shot on the second night of the cruise. Jackie is the most logical suspect, but it’s soon proven that she couldn’t have been the killer. So Poirot and fellow passenger Colonel Race have to look elsewhere for the murderer.
DI Alan Banks has to deal with a different sort of stalker in Peter Robinson’s Gallows View. Banks and his family have recently moved from London to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale, where they hope things will be less hectic. But the move turns out to be anything but peaceful for Banks when a peeper starts to make life frightening and miserable for the women of Eastvale. At first, several members of the police force, including Banks’ second-in-command Sergeant Jim Hatchley, don’t think that the voyeur is a very serious matter. But Banks becomes convinced that the peeping might escalate into something worse, so he keeps the investigation going. At the same time, Banks and his team have to contend with a series of house-breakings and the murder of one of Eastvale’s residents. In the end, we see how all of these crimes are related. One of the themes that runs through this novel – and is actually a source of interesting debate in it – is how scary it really is to feel that one’s being watched. Robinson makes it clear that for the women of Eastvale, the voyeurism is a horrible violation of their privacy.
We see another kind of stalking in Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip. In that novel, we meet Charles “Chaz” Perrone, a barely-qualified marine biologist who has discovered a way to alter the results of water testing to make it look as though the water being tested is not polluted. That discovery will prove very helpful to Samuel Johnson “Red” Hammernut, owner of the successful agribusiness Hammernut Farms. Hammernut’s company has been dumping toxic waste into the Florida Everglades and he has no intention of stopping. But there’ve been questions about his business practices and lots of government “red tape.” Hammernut wants “proof” that his company is obeying the laws about toxic waste dumping so he makes a “business arrangement” with Chaz Perrone that will give Perrone an easy income and keep the government from interfering with Hammernut. The only hitch in the plans is that Perrone’s wife Joey suspects what’s going on. Perrone needs to stop her from getting in the way of his scheme so he surprises her with what he says is an anniversary present – a cruise. During the cruise, Chaz Perrone pushes his wife overboard, convinced she’ll drown. What he doesn’t remember though is that she is a world-class competitive swimmer. Joey Perrone survives and is rescued by former cop Mick Stranahan. Joey wants to know exactly why her husband tried to kill her and besides, she wants revenge. So she and Stranahan hatch a scheme to stalk Chaz and make him think someone saw what happened on the cruise. They put their plan into action in all sorts of little and not-so-little ways and before long, Chaz is convinced that he’s the target of a blackmailer who’ll continue to stalk him until he pays up.
We see the darker side of stalking in P.D. Martin’s Body Count. Sophie Anderson has recently moved from her native Australia to the U.S. and now works as a profiler in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. Her job there is to “get into the heads” of serial killers to track and find them as quickly as possible. What she’s never admitted to herself, let alone confided to anyone else, is that she is helped in her job by psychic visions that often come to her in dreams. In those visions she sees and feels what the killer sees and feels. Her skills are put to the test when she and her team investigate several murders committed by a killer nicknamed “The D.C. Slasher.” Anderson and her team are starting to put together a profile of the killer and getting clues when her friend and colleague Samantha “Sam” White is abducted. That adds a real sense of urgency to the investigation and that urgency is only increased when it becomes clear that Anderson herself is being stalked. The worst thing is that the stalker is apparently someone Anderson knows. Now she has to do her best to find the killer – and White – before she or White become victims.
Nicci French’s Beneath the Skin is another eerie portrait of stalking. One hot summer, Zoe Haratounian, Jennifer Hintlesham and Nadia Blake, three very different sorts of women, all begin to be stalked. It starts with love letters that become increasingly threatening. Bit by bit, the women begin to lose their self-confidence and sense of trust in the world. The police do their best to offer protection but the women are still not safe. Objects in their homes are removed or moved around, and the stalker seems able to psychologically manipulate these women to sap their strength. One of them though chooses not to be a victim and decides to find out for herself who the stalker is and why the stalker has chosen those particular women as targets. This decision leads to a proverbial game of nerves between the stalker and the would-be victim.
And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, in which a stalker seems bent on harassing several residents of Insula, a Roman-style building in Melbourne. First, there’s ugly graffiti. Then one by one the residents begin to receive threatening letters from someone who seems to know personal things about them. The police ask questions but there’s not much they can do since no-one knows who the stalker is. One of Insula’s residents is Corinna Chapman, who owns a bakery in the building. When she finds out what’s been going on, she’s upset about it for the sake of her neighbours and friends. One night, she and her lover Daniel Cohen are returning from volunteering with the Soup Run, a mobile soup kitchen for Melbourne’s street people. They go into the building only to find a particularly gruesome-looking message. Chapmen tells Cohen what’s been going on and he offers to help her find out who’s responsible for stalking and frightening Insula’s residents. This plot thread adds a very real tension to the story.
Being stalked is frightening, even if the stalker never hurts the victim physically. And in crime fiction, the theme of stalking can add a very authentic level of suspense to a story when it’s well-done and not stereotypical or melodramatic.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Sleepwalker.