I’m sure you’ve heard of the old expression, ‘It’s always the quiet ones…’ As any crime fiction fan can tell you, there are all kinds of murderers, both loud and quiet. But even though it’s really not true, not even in fiction, there is this lingering idea of the murderer as the ‘the quiet type.’
Perhaps one reason might be that very often, those who are relatively quiet and unassuming tend to be taken for granted. Sometimes, this can mean that the pressures of life that can get to any of us build up without anyone taking notice. And then the proverbial kettle boils over.
Crime writers sometimes use this strategy – of the pressure building up and up – to add suspense to a novel or to shed light on why a character might commit murder. It’s got to be done thoughtfully of course; otherwise there’s the risk of characters who don’t act credibly. But when it is done with care, that quiet character who is more and more pressured can add a lot to a novel. Here are just a few examples.
Agatha Christie used that sort of character in several of her stories. It’s difficult to choose one without giving away spoilers, but here goes. In Appointment With Death, the Boynton family is on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East. The family is headed by tyrannical matriarch Mrs. Boynton, who has made a life of keeping every other member cowed. One afternoon, during a family visit to Petra, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure. But even though the explanation makes sense (Mrs. Boynton was getting on in years and not in good health), Colonel Carbury isn’t completely convinced it’s a natural death. Hercule Poirot is also in the area, so he agrees to look into the matter. As he interviews the various family members and fellow sightseers, we see just how much pressure Mrs. Boynton put on everyone. Christie gives us a sense of the buildup of pressure too, right from the beginning of the novel. In fact, the first sentence is:
‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?’
It turns out to have been spoken by one of the suspects, and shows how desperate all of them had become.
In Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery are summoned – that’s really the best word for it – to Bendigo Island, a private island owned by munitions magnate Kane ‘King’ Bendigo. It turns out that there have been threats on Bendigo’s life and, although he himself doesn’t take them seriously, others do. And Bendigo’s safety matters greatly, since his business is seen as pivotal to the world’s balance of power. The Queens are asked to find out who has threatened Bendigo’s life and stop that person. The island is a heavily-guarded private place, so there aren’t many suspects. The most likely are Bendigo’s two brothers Abel and Judah, and his wife Karla, so Ellery Queen begins there. Right away we sense the dysfunction in the relationships among those living on the island, and we also see how ‘King’ Bendigo earned his nickname. While he’s not sadistic or cruel, he is very much in charge, and doesn’t tolerate the least resistance to his wishes. It seems that Bendigo is well-enough protected, but one night, he’s in his hermetically-sealed study with Karla when he is shot. Badly wounded, he’s given immediate treatment. It’s now clear that someone really does intend to kill him. But the Queens’ first question is: how did the would-be killer manage it? The study was sealed shut; there was no gun anywhere in it; and it can be proven that neither Karla nor her husband fired a gun. Judah Bendigo is a likely suspect, since he bitterly resented his brother. What’s more, both of his brothers are contemptuous of him and exclude him from all business decisions. The only problem is that Judah was with Queen at the time of the shooting. He has an iron-clad alibi, as the saying goes. So Queen is faced with an ‘impossible-but-not-really’ mystery as he tries to figure out who shot King Bendigo. The trail leads him to the Bendigo brothers’ home town of Wrightsville, where he finds out some surprising truths about the family. The more he learns, the more we see how pressure building up can have grave consequences.
We also see that in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. Met Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin have been named as a special investigative team with a focus on crimes of special interest – crimes that are likely to generate a lot of media attention. Such a crime is the murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, whose body is found in a local church one morning. Along with his body is the body of a tramp Harry Mack. Part of the job of investigating the murder is, of course, looking into the lives of Berowne’s family members and others living in the house. One of them is Evelyn Matlock. The Berowne family took her in after her father was convicted of murder; since then she’s become the family housekeeper as well personal assistant to family matriarch Lady Ursula Berowne. The family isn’t abusive to her, but at the same time, she’s never been treated as an equal. As the novel goes on, we see how the stress of her situation has impacted her. In fact, when the investigating team finds out who killed Paul Berowne and Harry Mack, here’s what Evelyn has to say:
‘This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.’
Part of the way James builds suspense in this story is by hinting at this pressure early on and showing readers how it’s slowly built up over time.
Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery is the story of the murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn. He and some of his friends have gone in together on the purchase of a lottery ticket. Much to their joy, the ticket is a winner, so the group of them go out to celebrate. Later that night Leverkuhn is stabbed to death in his own bed. Intendant Münster of the Mardaam police leads the investigation into this murder, and he and his team naturally begin with the victim’s family and friends. Also considered are of course the other residents of the building where the Leverkuhns live. There are several motives, too. For one thing, Leverkuhn’s death means that his fellow lottery winners each get more money. And then there’s the family itself. While there’ve been no ‘official’ reports of problems, there are always secrets in a family. There are also the other people who live in the building, who may have had their own reasons for wanting Leverkuhn dead. Bit by bit, the investigating team follows up leads and slowly discovers the truth. It turns out that the slow building up of pressure has played an important role in this story.
It does in Shelly Reuben’s The Boys of Sabbath Street too. Artemus Ackerman, mayor of the small city of Calendar, wants the town to have a museum of magic. The idea is that it’ll bring in tourists and therefore, more revenue. The plan is to convert the old Baldwin Theater for the purpose, and Ackerman has hopes that he can get the funding he needs for the project. Then, there’s a fire on the same street as the site of the proposed museum. No-one’s killed, but the property destruction worries everyone. Matters get worse when there’s another fire. And another. Now it’s clear that an arsonist is at work. Ackerman’s assistant and publicist Maggie Wakeling works with Fire Marshal George Copeland to find and stop the arsonist before there’s any more damage or any loss of life. When they find out who that person is, we discover that the slow buildup of stress has had a lot to do with the events in the story.
It isn’t always ‘the quiet ones’ who commit crime. But the slow buildup of stress and trouble can have all sorts of terrible consequences. These are a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Green Day’s Basket Case.