It seems to be human nature, at least for a lot of people, to want that jolt that comes from being a little scared. I don’t mean of course truly terrified; that’s traumatic. But a lot of people like a little shot of adrenaline. That’s part of why people ride roller coasters, go through ‘haunted houses,’ watch suspense movies and read certain kinds of crime fiction. It’s part of why people allow themselves to be dared to do things, too. It’s little wonder then that we also see a lot of characters like that in crime fiction novels. Not only does that make sense from a human perspective but also, it can be a very effective context for a story.
In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Arthur Hastings is returning to London after a business trip. In the same carriage is a young woman who calls herself Cinderella. The two get to talking and it comes out that Cinderella loves reading detective stories and following news of real-life murders. Hastings isn’t exactly thrilled by this aspect of Cinderella’s personality, and is even less so a bit later in the novel when he meets her again. He and Hercule Poirot go to France after Poirot receives a letter from Paul Renauld asking for his help. When they arrive at the Renauld home, they find that he’s been murdered. Hastings is walking around the Renauld property with the aim of having another look at the crime scene when he quite literally bumps into Cinderella. She says that she’s fascinated by the whole thing and wants him to show her round:
‘Me for the horrors…’
Hastings does so, mostly to impress her with the fact that he’s in on the investigation. It’s interesting to see the contrast between his almost-Victorian sense of what ‘should’ interest a young lady, and his companion’s enjoyment of that rush of adrenaline.
In Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, a house party gathers at Black Dudley, the home of academician Wyatt Petrie. Petrie’s just taken over the place from his uncle Gordon Coombe, and is looking forward to having some of his friends there. After dinner on the first night of the party, the guests move to the drawing room, where they notice a dagger hanging over the fireplace. Wyatt is persuaded to tell the story of the dagger. According to him, the family legend was that the dagger would take on a red glow if it was touched by anyone who’d committed murder. The family later developed a sort of ritual about the dagger. The lights would be turned off and everyone would pass the dagger round in the dark. The object of the ritual was to avoid being the last one caught with the dagger. The hint of danger involved in passing a dagger round in the dark in a spooky old house (it is an eerie place) appeals to just about everyone, so the group decides to play the game. It turns all too deadly the next morning when it’s found that Coombe has died. Dr. George Abbershaw, one of the guests, is asked to sign the death certificate but he soon finds that the victim was likely stabbed in the back with the dagger. With help from Albert Campion, who’s also a member of the house party, Abbershaw finds out who killed Gordon Coombe and why.
In Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black, school friends Sally Henry and Catherine Ross are coming home from a Hogmanay party. They’ve gotten a lift most of the way but are walking for the last bit of the trip. Then they spot the home of Magnus Tait, an eccentric misfit who lives by himself. Catherine wants to wish Tait a happy new year, but Sally doesn’t. Catherine dares her though, and the two knock on the door. For Catherine it’s a bit of an adrenaline rush, and she rather likes the thrill of being just a little scared. Tait invites the girls in and they toast the New Year. Not many days later, Catherine Ross is found strangled in a field not far from Tait’s home. Because Tait was the last person known to see the victim, he becomes the most likely suspect. It doesn’t help his case that he’s already suspected of having killed another young girl Catriona Bruce, who disappeared some years before. But Tait claims he is innocent, and there is no definite physical evidence that connects him with Catherine Ross’ murder. So Inspector Jimmy Perez has to look elsewhere for the murderer.
Karin Fossum’s When The Devil Holds the Candle introduces us to Andreas Winther. He’s a young man who’s easily bored and enjoys taking risks. He savours the adrenaline rush that goes with risk-taking. His best friend is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. Zipp doesn’t share his friend’s love for a bit of adrenaline, but he does value the friendship. So he and Winther do everything together. They get in a little trouble now and again, but thus far it hasn’t been anything really serious. Then one day, Andreas’ love of that ‘jolt’ gets him and Zipp involved in much more than either of them intended. After they part ways at the end of the day, Andreas disappears. His mother Runi wants to make a report to the police but at first, Inspector Konrad Sejer isn’t overly concerned. After all, there’s nothing necessarily ominous about a young man going off for a few days. But when more time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, Sejer takes the case more seriously. His best source of information on what happened is Zipp, but Zipp is completely unwilling to give Sejer any information at all. Little by little though, Sejer breaks down Zipp’s composure and finds out what happened on the day of Andreas’ disappearance.
In William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, we ‘meet’ thirteen-year-old Frank Drum. He and his family live in the small town of New Bremen, Minnesota. In the summer of 1961, a boy Frank knows from school is killed on the railroad tracks near the town. Frank knows he isn’t supposed to be down by the tracks, but he can’t resist the chance to go there and try to make sense of what happened. So he and his younger brother Jake walk along the tracks. Jake’s very reluctant but Frank enjoys the adrenaline jolt. While they’re on the tracks they find a dead man. Near him is a stranger, a South Dakota Sioux they’ve never seen before. When the man invites them down to see the dead man, Jake wants no part of it. But Frank is overwhelmingly curious. After all, as he rationalises it, you don’t see a dead man every day. So the two boys go down to see the body. Tragically, those are not the only two deaths they’ll encounter that summer and Frank has to learn some unpleasant truths about life. He also learns that that jolt you get sometimes from being a little scared doesn’t seem as much fun when you’ve been really frightened.
Everyone’s different of course. Some people love the jolt they get from roller coasters, thriller novels and so on. Others don’t think it’s much fun at all. But either way, it’s an important part of the human experience. Now, want to see what’s inside that old storage shed in the ‘photo? Dare ya! Erm – mind I’ve been known to write crime fiction…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Van Halen’s Jump.