Humans can be very self-protective. And that makes sense; it’s part of the reason our species has survived. If we weren’t self-protective, we would take far too many dangerous risks. That instinct to protect ourselves especially comes out when we feel threatened. I don’t just mean physically threatened (although of course that’s a very real phenomenon). I mean other kinds of threats too. For example, we see how self-protection can work when a person is blackmailed. If one’s position, marriage, financial stability, reputation, etc. are at risk, that can cause all sorts of reactions, just as feeling physically threatened can. It’s just as true in crime fiction as it is in real life and feeling threatened can add a very effective thread of tension to a story even if that threat isn’t the main plot.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot is traveling by air from Paris to London when one of his fellow passengers Marie Morisot dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, so Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and the French authorities to find out which passenger is the murderer. The victim was a well-known moneylender who did business under the name Madame Giselle. The ‘collateral’ she used for her loans was information she got about her clients. The arrangement was that if the client didn’t pay up when the debt was due, Madame Giselle would reveal what she knew. The social consequences of that possibility are enough that almost all of Madame Giselle’s clients paid what they owed. As Poirot and the police investigate, they discover that more than one passenger felt threatened by Madame Giselle and it’s not hard to understand how that feeling of being threatened could have led someone to kill.
There’s a stark portrayal of what happens when a person feels threatened in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman as their new housekeeper. At first, everything goes well enough. Parchman is a little eccentric, but she does her job very well and doesn’t cause any real problems. But the truth is that she is hiding a secret that she is desperate not to reveal. It doesn’t help matters that the Coverdales are wealthy and well-educated and quite accustomed to the class differences that separate them from their new housekeeper. They’re not bad people but they do take their ‘social superiority’ for granted in a lot of ways. Then Parchman begins to fear that her secret will be found out. She becomes even more evasive about her background and nearly paranoid that the Coverdales will discover what she’s hiding. When George Coverdale’s daughter Melinda actually does find out what the housekeeper’s been hiding, Eunice Parchman takes extreme and horrifying action to protect herself. Among other things this novel really shows the effect of the perception of threat.
In Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, we meet Commonwealth of Virginia prosecutor Mason Hunt. He survived an abusive childhood to go to law school and make a success of himself. But he’s hiding a secret from his past. Years earlier, his older brother Gates murdered his (Gates’) romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Mason helped his brother hide the evidence mostly out of his sense of loyalty to Gates. Now the past has as you might say caught up with Mason Hunt. Gates has been imprisoned on cocaine trafficking charges and begs his brother to help him get out of prison. Mason refuses and Gates threatens him, promising to implicate him in Thompson’s murder, which was never solved, if he doesn’t help. When Mason continues to refuse to help, Gates makes good on his threat. As Mason and his deputy prosecutor Custis Norman try to find ways to deal with this threat, we see how much it affects Mason Hunt’s attitudes, perceptions and choices. That feeling of being threatened adds real suspense to this novel.
It also adds suspense to Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. In that novel, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is hired by successful accountant Daniel Guest. Guest has had a few private relationships with men but he’s ‘in the closet’ as the saying goes, and is very much afraid his private life will be revealed. The threat becomes more real to Guest when he’s blackmailed. He hires Quant to find out who the blackmailer is and make that person stop. Things turn even uglier when the blackmail turns deadly and Quant finds that there’s more to this case than it seems on the surface. Throughout the story, Daniel Guest’s sense of being threatened has several consequences. At first, all he wants to do is pay off the blackmailer to make that person go away. Then, when he hires Quant, he doesn’t want the blackmailer arrested; that might let too much information be public. There are other places too in the novel where we see Guest’s sense of feeling threatened and his fear adds a solid layer of tension to the story.
In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have been having some marital problems. Henrik’s been distant for some time, and Eva becomes worried that the life she’d created for herself and her family will fall apart. She’s always wanted a successfully married life in a nice home with a healthy family and up until now that’s what she’s had. When Eva discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful, this threat to her peaceful, ordered world is more than she can stand. She goes to a pub one night where she meets Jonas Hansson, who has his own personal issues. After their meeting, things quickly spiral out of control for both of them, especially when Eva discovers who the ‘other woman’ in Henrik’s life is. Throughout this novel, we see what a powerful force the feeling of being threatened is.
We also see that in Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. New South Wales police inspector Ella Marconi is part of the team that investigates the murder of Paul Fowler. He and some friends were tossing a football around in a park on a hot summer’s day when he suddenly collapsed. When it’s discovered that he died of a bullet wound Marconi and the members of her team begin to look into Fowler’s background to find out who would have wanted to kill him. One of the paramedics who respond to the emergency is Holly Garland. She’s hiding some secrets from her past, but she’s done well as a paramedic and has made a good reputation for herself. She has a loving fiancé Norris Sanderson and a life that’s finally settled and positive. But everything she’s worked for is threatened by this case. First, she’s paired with an obnoxious paramedic Kyle who knew her in her past life and who she’s afraid will remember her. If he does, she has no doubt he’ll reveal what he knows and she’ll face real consequences. What’s worse, one of Paul Fowler’s friends is Holly’s brother Seth, who knows all about her past life and whom she doesn’t trust. This case re-unites them and makes Seth a real threat to Holly’s new life. Her feeling of being threatened adds a solid layer to this novel.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention the many novels that include physical threatening. That would’ve been too easy. But certainly that’s a part of crime fiction too. The perception of being threatened gets at the very core of our sense of self-protection and can lead to elemental fear. Little wonder it’s such an important source of suspense in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Offspring’s Gotta Get Away.