There’s Someone Around Me Just a Step Behind*

ThreatenedHumans 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Karin Alvtegen, Katherine Howell, Martin Clark, Ruth Rendell

14 responses to “There’s Someone Around Me Just a Step Behind*

  1. It’s a good theme for a crime novel as under these circumstances, ordinary people can be put into extraordinary circumstances. Most people want to protect their reputations, careers etc and a few might be tempted to commit murder to do so( I guess this happens in real life too). In AC’s ‘One Two Buckle My Shoe’ the murderer tries to posit that he did it for the good of mankind but in fact it was just self-protection.

    • Sarah – Now that’s a good example of exactly what I mean. In One, Two…, the killer feels threatened – everything that’s been built up could fall down, so to speak. And that’s enough for a murder. That’s how threatened and afraid the murderer feels. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  2. Excellent points as usual, Margot. Certainly self-protection against dangerous secrets being revealed is one of the primary motives in a great many mysteries.

    One of the best Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout is “Murder by the Book,” in which someone apparently sets out to murder everyone who has seen the manuscript of an unpublished book – the man who wrote it, a person who typed it, another who read it at a publisher’s office – all become victims. What secret does it contain that makes someone all too willing to kill to preserve it?

    Another favorite, and, I think, one of Elizabeth Daly’s best books, “The Book of the Dead” also deals with a secret concealed in a book – a copy of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” To preserve that secret, a killer is prepared to murder any number of people, and it is up to bibliophile Henry Gamadge to figure out who, what and why.

    Oh yes, discovering shocking secrets can lead to one’s unfortunate and premature demise. In Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s “The Cape Cod Mystery,” the victim is a writer who has a nasty habit of knowing – and revealing – other people’s secrets. Perhaps he might have been better off as a blackmailer…

    Just a few of the relevant books that come to mind – I’ll bet other readers will have more suggestions!

    • Les – Thanks for the kind words. And you’re quite right: feeling threatened by someone else’s revealing of one’s secrets is a powerful motive for murder. It’s been the theme of a lot of crime fiction and you’ve mentioned some terrific examples. I must re-read Murder By the Book (Haven’t checked that one out in a long time). And you’ve reminded me that I mean to put one of Elizabeth Daly’s books in the spotlight. I may just choose The Book of the Dead. And yes indeed The Cape Cod Mystery is a perfect example of a victim who dies because he knows too much for someone’s sense of safety. Rather reminds me in that sense of Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table. In many ways of course they’re different stories, but that sense of being afraid to have one’s secrets revealed is common to both.

      • Margot, I do think you would really enjoy The Book of the Dead, which has some absolutely stunning surprises for the reader – Felony & Mayhem Press has reissued the book, and it should be readily available. Christie wrote a great many books in which secrets – hidden or revealed – were at the heart of the motive, and you have mentioned several of them. Great topic for a post!

        • Les – Thanks – I will definitely have to check that Daly out. And you’re right; Agatha Christie seemed to have a real for hidden secrets and they harm they can do…

  3. Hiding secrets makes a character vulnerable to blackmail or exposure, and that threat can make a person take drastic measures for self-protection.

    I’m reminded of Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which by the way, I discovered and enjoyed thanks to your blog posts, Margot.

    • Pat – Oh, I”m so glad you enjoyed Die a Little. Isn’t it a great story? And you’re quite right that anyone might feel threatened if s/he is keeping a secret and someone could find out about it. It’s such a strong source of tension in a novel I think.

  4. This is one of my favorite elements of mysteries because it involves secrets! Always a pleasure to find out a character’s secrets in crime fiction. 🙂

    • Elizabeth – Oh, I totally agree with you. Characters’ secrets add to the mystery, that’s for sure. And then they feel threatened because someone else might find out, you’ve got a great plot point!

  5. I have been trying to write a story about a poison pen writer but I find her so disagreeable that I keep putting it aside. Funny how that is such a disagreeable activity.

    • Patti – Oh, I know what you mean. Those kinds of letters really are awful. And I have to wonder at the people who write them. You’re making me think of Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, that has poison-pen lettters at its core…

  6. Sorry, but the comments on the Elizabeth Daly book sent me off topic. The Book of the Dead is one of the three Daly books I have never read. I hope you do spotlight one of her books. Murders in Vol 2 is another; I have copies of those two, but I have never been able to find a reasonably priced copy of Deadly Nightshade.

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