One of the things that crime fiction teaches is that we’re never quite as much in control as we might like to think we are. And that’s an unsettling thought. But it can make for solid suspense and tension in a crime novel. There are lots of cases for instance where characters think they can manage a situation or even another character, only to find they’ve created a monster as the saying goes. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.
In Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death, Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu is called to the scene when a body is discovered not far from Dale’s Camp. It’s hard to determine the cause of death at first, since hyenas found the body before humans did. And on the surface it looks as though the victim simply strayed too far from camp and was attacked by animals. But Kubu isn’t so sure, and forensic evidence supports the idea that this may have been murder. The trail leads to the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), and that creates its own problems. The Botswana government considers BCMC essential for its economy, and there’s no desire to embarrass anyone who works there, especially not those at the top. But then there’s another murder, also with company connections. And another. In the end, Kubu and his team find out who’s behind the murders and how it all relates both to past history and to BCMC. And it turns out that someone’s ‘business arrangement’ has created a monster.
There’s also a sort of arrangement that leads to a monster being created in Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack. Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano is a Buenos Aires cop in the Argentina of the late 1970s, a time and place when it’s very dangerous to navigate life. Early one morning, he gets a call about two bodies that have been found by a river bank. Both murders bear the hallmark of an Army hit, and Lescano knows the consequences of speaking up about them. But he also finds a third body – one that wasn’t reported. It turns out that this dead man is Elías Biterman, a successful moneylender and pawnbroker. Lescano soon learns that some very important people do not want the truth about this murder to come out, and there is a great deal of pressure on him to leave it all alone. But he perseveres and we learn the truth about what really happened. This murder and others that occur in the novel are in part the tragic consequence of someone who didn’t have nearly as much control of a situation as was thought.
That’s also true in Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). Very late one night, Sanna Stråndgard discovers the body of her brother Viktor in the Church of the Source of All our Strength. Stråndgard was a very popular, almost cult-like figure among the locals of Kiruna and outlying areas, and he was becoming very well-known in the rest of Sweden too. At first, there doesn’t seem to be much motive, since he had so many devotees. Sanna is distraught, and turns to her former friend, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson, for help. Martinsson has no desire to return to her home town of Kiruna, but for Sanna’s sake she reluctantly does so. Then, the police get some evidence that Sanna herself may be the killer. She claims that she’s innocent though, and begs Martinsson to defend her. For various reasons Martinsson would really like to have no part in this. But Sanna has two daughters and Martinsson doesn’t want them turned over to the state. So she agrees to represent Sanna. That’s how she meets police investigators Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke. At first uneasily, but later willingly, they work find out who the killer is. In the end, we see a clear example of how proverbial monsters can be created.
In Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, we meet artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and his brother Wilfred. They’re very different people and often don’t get along. Both are devastated though when their uncle, also named Rowland, is bludgeoned one night. At first, the police suspect that the victim’s housekeeper may have had something to do with the killing, but Rowly is certain she’s completely innocent. So he begins to ask questions. He soon learns that his uncle’s murder might be connected with a far-right group called the New Guard. This group seeks to stamp out communism and any left-leaning sympathy and create a new society run by ‘a few right thinking men.’ Rowly decides that the only way to learn the truth about the murder is to infiltrate the group, so he contrives a commission from the group’s leader, Colonel Eric Campbell, to paint his portrait. Little by little, Rowly learns the truth about what happened to his uncle. And as he gets closer to the group’s top members, he also learns the group’s ultimate plans. This too is a case of a monster being created.
Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer is the story of poet Tapani Lehtinen and his wife Johanna, who is a news reporter. In their world, climate change has wreaked havoc on the world, leaving millions of climate refugees. Little is done to maintain order and society is quickly descending into anarchy. Against this backdrop, Johanna is pursuing a story about a man who calls himself the Healer. He claims to be responsible for the murders of several CEOs of corporations that he believes are guilty of the ongoing destruction of the planet. The idea of the murders is to avenge those affected by this devastation and to call attention to it. When Johanna disappears, Lehtinen decides that the best way to trace her is to follow the story she was working on, and he begins to do just that. Little by little he learns the truth about the Healer and as he does so, he also gets closer to knowing what happened to his wife. In the end we see that someone created a monster, which led to some tragic and unintended consequences.
Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear introduces readers to Paul Fowler. One hot afternoon, he and some friends are tossing a football around in a local park when he suddenly collapses and dies. Soon enough it’s established that he was shot, sniper-style, and New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare investigate. They begin with Fowler’s ex-wife Trina and his friends and business associates. As they interview and follow up with these people they learn that Fowler had a hidden side to his life and that some people aren’t telling everything they know about it. When the police finally find out who killed Fowler and why, we see that sometimes, when you create a monster, it turns on you…
There are a lot of other examples of this plot point in crime fiction. It’s an effective one for the genre, and I’ve only had space here for a few instances. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Three Days’ Grace’s Animal I Have Become.