There’s often a lot of pressure on people to ‘measure up’ and fulfill others’ expectations. Sometimes that pressure puts a great deal of stress on a person; if you’ve ever felt yourself struggling to live up to what you thought you ‘ought to’ be, you know exactly what I mean. We all find ways to balance being responsible to others with being true to ourselves but it’s not always easy. Of course anything that challenging is also a really interesting source of tension and conflict, so it’s not surprising that we see that issue come up a lot in crime fiction.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot travels to the small village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman who cleaned houses in the village. The most likely suspect (in fact, he’s already been arrested and convicted) is her lodger James Bentley. But he claims he’s innocent and Superintendent Spence, who investigated the case originally, is inclined to agree. While Poirot is there he meets Deirdre Henderson, who lives with her mother and stepfather. It turns out that Mrs. McGinty was killed because she’d found out something one of the residents wants to keep secret, so all of the members of Deirdre Henderson’s family come under suspicion. As we learn about that family, we learn that Deirdre is a very unhappy person. One of the reasons is that both her mother and her father have expectations for her that she can’t meet. Her mother wanted her to be beautiful, graceful and ‘a good catch,’ and she isn’t. Her stepfather wants her to be perfectly efficient at running the household and let’s face it; no-one can do that. Deirdre has a great deal of resentment in part because of the way she’s treated and that plus the family dysfunction add an interesting layer of tension to the story.
Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers is the story of the murder of Wendy Hanniford. Her father Cale engages former cop Matthew Scudder to look into what happened and find out why Wendy was killed. The question of ‘whodunit’ seems to be answered unequivocally. Her room-mate Richard Vanderpoel was seen going down the street with her blood on his clothes and he can’t really account for what happened. When he commits suicide a few days later it seems that the case is finished. But Scudder continues to look into the matter to find out what led to the killing. He finds that first of all, the case is not as clear-cut as it seems. Second, he finds that part of the reason for Richard Vanderpoel’s behaviour – and really, the reason he ended up moving in with Wendy in the first place – has to do with the pressure put on him by his family to live up to expectations. That’s not the reason for the murder, but it is an important part of Vanderpoel’s personality.
Ted Jasper feels a similar kind of pressure in Margaret Millar’s Mermaid. He is the only son of Hilton and Frieda Jasper and he feels a great deal of pressure to be successful in the way that his father is. But Ted is rather at loose ends, and not sure what his path in life will be. That in itself makes for a conflict within the family but it’s hardly the only one. Hilton Jasper’s much-younger sister Cleo lives with the family and attends an exclusive special school. Her presence causes conflict too because of the attention her older brother lavishes on her. Then one day Cleo disappears. Hilton hires attorney Tom Aragon to find the young woman and Aragon starts to ask questions. One thing he finds is that Ted may have something to do with the reason Cleo left. That becomes even more possible after Ted himself leaves. As Aragon pieces together the days and weeks before Cleo disappeared he finds out the extent of the dysfunction in this family. He also finds out what really happened to Cleo and Ted Jasper. While the high pressure of expectations is not exactly the reason for the events in this novel, it does play an important role in the Jasper family dynamics.
We also see the pressure of family expectations in Donna Malane’s Surrender. Missing person’s expert Diane Rowe finds out from her cop ex-husband Sean Callum about the murder of James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson. Rowe has a special interest in this murder because she believes that Wilson murdered her younger sister Niki a year earlier. Then she finds out that Wilson confessed the murder – even bragged about it. It turns out that he was hired to kill Niki and Rowe wants to find out who his employer was. So she looks more deeply into her sister’s life to find out who would have wanted her dead. As she does, Rowe finds out some surprising truths about Niki, who was an exotic dancer with a ‘side business’ in all sorts of ‘customer service.’ Rowe and her sister hadn’t been very close lately because Rowe kept trying to get Niki to straighten her life out and make changes. As she learns about Niki’s life, Rowe learns that Niki looked up to her and felt a great deal of pressure to live up to her sister’s expectations. In the end, Rowe finds out the truth about both Niki’s death and Wilson’s and begins to come to terms with what happened to her sister.
Of course, it’s not just family expectations that can put pressure on a person. The expectations caused by peer pressure can also be very stressful. That’s what Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe discovers in Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle. In that novel Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jakob Skarre are contacted by Runi Winther about the disappearance of her son Andreas. At first Sejer doesn’t worry too much about it. Young men often go off on their own for a few days without it meaning anything is wrong. But as time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, Sejer begins to take more notice and he and Skarre undertake an investigation. Zipp is Andreas’ best friend and is in the best position to know what happened to him. But Zipp claims he doesn’t know what happened to his friend after they parted company on the day Andreas disappeared. It takes all of Sejer’s skill to discover what happened to Andreas and as he does so, we learn about the friendship between Andreas and Zipp. We also learn how the pressure of living up to a peer’s expectations affects this friendship.
The pressure of living up to work expectations can also put stress on a person and add to a novel too. For instance in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood we are introduced to probationer Lucy Howard, who has just recently joined the Tasmania police. She wants more than anything else to do a good job and to live up to everyone’s expectations. She’s determined to do everything right but one morning everything goes disastrously wrong. She and her mentor Sergeant John White are sent to the scene of a burglary in progress. Lucy stays in the front of the house while her boss goes round the back. Before anyone really knows what’s going on White has been murdered and his killer has fled. Lucy blames herself for not doing something to prevent the murder or at least catch the killer and part of the reason for that is that she’s put herself under a great deal of pressure to ‘do it all right.’ She and her colleagues are determined to catch the murderer and it looks as though that person is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, a part-Aborginal teen who’s been in and out of trouble most of his life. This case is a political ‘hot potato’ because of the delicate nature of race relations in the area. Any hint of police brutality or not following policy will bring on much more than just angry letters to newspaper editors. So the police have to tread very carefully as they look through the evidence to see whether Rowley really did commit the murder and if so how they can get incontrovertible evidence of that.The pressure that Lucy feels to live up to what she sees as expectations adds to the tension in this novel.
We all face the pressure of expectations at work, at home and even among friends. Sometimes that pressure can be a real source of stress – and make for a really interesting layer of tension in a novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Jones’ Fool For Rock ‘n’ Roll.