Most of us like to have at least some control over our lives. We all know that there are things that happen to us that we can’t control, but most of us try to stay in control overall. That’s what can make it so scary when life seems to spin out of control. Sometimes it happens because people try to handle things they really can’t handle. Other times it happens because of outside events (like a natural disaster for example). And other times it happens for other reasons. For whatever the reason, the feeling that things are spinning out of control is suspenseful and scary; that’s one reason for which it can add such an effective layer to a crime fiction novel.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s And Then There None (AKA Ten Little Indians), ten people receive an invitation to stay for a time on Indian Island off the Devon coast. For different reasons each accepts the invitation and they all gather on the island. Oddly enough, their host doesn’t make an appearance but everyone settles in and the evening starts off well enough. Then after dinner, each guest is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. That’s unsettling enough. Then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Then another dies during the night. Now the guests start to get very worried. Then a storm comes up, cutting the island off and making it impossible to leave. As one by one, more guests die, the others feel increasingly out of control of what’s going on. They try to take some measures (e.g. trying to find out who the killer is, locking their doors, not being alone) but it doesn’t seem to do any good and that sense of everything spinning out of control adds a solid layer of suspense to this novel.
Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder introduces us to Howard Van Horn, son of a wealthy manufacturing tycoon. Van Horn’s had some difficulties lately with short “blackouts,” where he has no memory of what happens. But otherwise his life is fairly ordinary. Then one day his world spins completely out of control when he wakes up from one of these episodes with blood on him. Terrified that he might have done something horrible, Van Horn seeks out his college friend Queen and asks for his help in figuring out what happened. Queen agrees and together the two men try to fill in the proverbial blanks. The trail leads to Van Horn’s hometown of Wrightsville where his father, stepmother and uncle still live. While they’re in Wrightsville, Van Horn has another “blackout.” On the same night, his stepmother Sally is killed. Now Van Horn is not only plagued with troubling chunks of missed time, but he could be a murderer. That feeling of life spinning out of control for Van Horn adds a crisp layer of tension to this story as he and Queen try to find out the truth.
In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, life spins completely out of control for Sivert Skorpe, who goes by his nickname Zipp. Zipp’s best friend – his only friend, really – is Andreas Winther. The two young men have known each other most of their lives and do everything together. One afternoon Zipp and Andreas are aimlessly wandering around when they get the idea to find a way to get some extra money. They follow through on their plan – a purse-snatching – and that in itself has some unexpected and later tragic consequences. But that’s only the beginning for these two young men. Something else happens (sorry – no spoilers here) that really upends Zipp’s formerly organised world and now things begin to spin completely out of control for him. The night ends dramatically and Andreas disappears (no, Zipp doesn’t kill him – told you; no spoilers). Andreas’ mother contacts the police when he doesn’t come home and Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre look into what happened. In the meantime, they are also investigating a tragic shooting at a party when some characters let things get out of control. At the same time, Sejer’s personal life begins to feel to him a bit like it’s spinning out of control. He’s in a new relationship with the very free-spirited Sara Struel, who is far more spontaneous than Sejer is and sometimes that’s disconcerting. Fossum thus explores that sense of everything spinning out of control on several levels in this story.
There’s a similar sense of everything getting out of control in Shona MacLean’s A Game of Sorrows. Alexander Seaton is a university teacher in 17th Century Aberdeen. His life is fairly settled and he’s even got his eye on a young woman he wants to marry. Then one night he gets a startling visit. His cousin Sean O’Neill Fitzgarrett has traveled from Ireland on an urgent mission. A local poet has cursed the O’Neills, an ancient and proud Celtic family, and part of the curse has started to come true. What’s worse, there’s been an attempt on Fitzgarrett’s own life. O’Neill family matriarch Maeve O’Neill has sent Fitzgarrett to bring Seaton back to Ireland to find the poet and prove that the rest of the curse can’t come true. That’s the only way, so thinks Maeve O’Neill, to lift the curse. Seaton’s world shifts, if you will, to begin with when he discovers the existence of a cousin he never knew he had. Then when he reluctantly agrees to go to Ireland, he finds that life goes completely out of control for him. He’s in an environment he’s not familiar with, that observes a religion he’s been brought up to believe is wrong, and with people whose culture he doesn’t understand. And then, as he and Fitzgarrett try to get to the truth about the bizarre incidents happening with the family, things get even more upside-down for Seaton. He no longer knows whom to trust, especially given the incendiary politics of the time. We also see this theme of things spinning out of control in the person of Maeve O’Neill. She is the matriarch of a proud and old family who refuses to come to terms with the fact that the world is changing daily. Her reaction to it adds a real layer of suspense to the story.
One of the most suspenseful explorations of what it’s like to feel out of control (in my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do) is Martin Edwards’ short story 24 Hours From Tulsa. That’s the story of a sales representative named Lomas, who’s feeling very much as though his ordered world – the one he’s always known – is spinning out of control. He’s always done his job and lived his life and raised his marriage in a certain way but now the old patterns have been completely disrupted. His children have changed and are growing away from him. His wife has just announced she’s leaving him. And to make matters even more unsettling, the world of Lomas’ work is getting more out of his control too. More and more, his job requires technology and he feels hopeless at understanding it, let alone using it. Even the roads he uses to get to his various clients are changing too as new construction’s being done. Lomas no longer feels that he has any control over his life. So at a rest stop, he takes some drastic action and the buildup to that climax adds a strong layer of tension to the story.
There are a lot of other stories too (Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight come to my mind) that explore the theme of what happens when people feel themselves spinning out of control. It can make for a gripping undercurrent in a good crime story.
ps. Oh, the ‘photo? That’s my new Kindle Fire. Talk about getting out of control… There is no hope for me now is there?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s A Matter of Trust.