What’s Inside Your Mind?*

Psychology and PsychiatryAs we’ve come to understand the human mind a little more over the last hundred years, we’ve learned how much of a role psychology plays in the way we interact with others, behave, and react to life. And an interesting comment exchange with Sergio at Tipping My Fedora has got me to thinking about what an important role psychologists and psychology play in crime fiction. There are sleuths who are psychologists or psychiatrists and there are many novels now where characters who’ve been through trauma get mental/emotional help and support as well as whatever other medical help they may need. And that all makes a lot of sense; as psychology and the study of the mind have matured and become an important part of medicine, it’s logical they’d work their way into crime fiction too.

We see an example of psychology in action so to speak in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is touring the Middle East. There, he encounters the Boynton family, a group of Americans who are on holiday. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is a mental sadist who’s had her family cowed for years, so when she dies of what seems to be heart failure, no-one feels any great sorrow. Colonel Carbury is in charge of investigating sudden deaths in that area and at first glance, it seems an easy case. The weather was hot and Mrs. Boynton was elderly and not in good health, so it all seems clear enough. But then Dr. Theodore Gerard, who was on the same tour as the Boynton family, suggests that something more might be going on. Gerard is a well-known psychologist who has noticed the severe dysfunction in the family. He suspects that Mrs. Boynton may have been murdered, and that psychology may be the key to the mystery. Colonel Carbury decides to pay attention to what Gerard has suggested and asks Poirot to look into the matter. As he investigates, we get an interesting look at the way our understanding of psychology was progressing at that time (the novel was published in 1938). It was quite Freudian in nature and it’s interesting to see how those views affect the way Gerard sees the case.

One of the areas in which psychology has developed in the last four or five decades has been in our understanding of the way children think. Child psychology is now a respected sub-discipline of psychology, and we see how professionals in that field work in the novels of Jonathan Kellerman. One of his two main protagonists is Alex Delaware, a former child psychologist and expert at working with young people who’ve suffered trauma. In Blood Work for instance, Delaware has testified in the case of the divorce of Richard and Darlene Moody. Richard Moody has some severe emotional problems which make him unable at the moment to look after his children. So the judge orders him to get psychiatric help and medication before he is allowed even supervised visits with his children. At first Delaware thinks that will be the end of the case. But then Moody decides to take his own approach to seeing his children and starts to stalk his ex-wife and children as well as Delaware. In the meantime, a former colleague Raoul Melendez-Lynch asks Delaware’s help on another case. He has diagnosed five-year-old Heywood ‘Woody’ Swopes with a form of lymphoma, but the parents have refused the chemotherapy regimen and other recommendations he’s made. They insist that holistic medicine will cure Woody and they won’t consent to treatment. Melendez-Lynch wants Delaware to work with the family, but instead, the parents suddenly pull their son from the hospital and disappear with him. Now, Delaware sets out to track the boy down before his condition worsens. He talks to his friend LAPD cop Milo Sturgis about it but Sturgis can’t do much. No real crime has been committed. So Delaware slowly puts together the pieces himself. In this novel, we see several sides of Delaware’s practice as a psychologist. He consults, testifies, works with children and their families and interacts with his colleagues.

Sometimes even the hardiest police sleuths can be pushed ‘over the edge’ and find themselves in need of professional mental help. Today that’s not seen as a cause for shame, and it shows up in a lot of crime fiction. For instance in Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote, Harry Bosch has hit his limit you might say for a number of good reasons, and ends up pushing his supervisor through a window. For this he’s ordered off duty for an indefinite amount of time until he gets a psychiatric evaluation and some professional help. He is assigned to work with Dr. Carmen Hinojos to get to the root of his psychological ‘baggage’ and unwillingly goes to see her. While he’s off-duty, Bosch is eager for something to occupy him so he decides to look into an old case – the murder of Marjorie Lowe, a prostitute who was killed thirty years earlier and who happens to have been Bosch’s mother. As he works through this case, he also faces some of his own childhood sadness and we see through his meetings with Hinojos how psychology professionals can help their clients face things they don’t even admit exist.

Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin is a psychiatrist who is accustomed to working with people who have all sorts of mental illnesses and difficulties. In Lost (AKA The Drowning Man), for instance, he is faced with a particularly challenging case. O’Loughlin’s friend DI Vincent Ruiz has wakened in a hospital bed, his leg badly injured form a bullet wound. He has no memory of what happened to him or how he came to be rescued. The only facts that seem to be clear are that he was pulled out of the Thames after nearly drowning, and that he had been working a ‘cold case’ when he was injured. O’Loughlin works with Ruiz to help him put the pieces of his memory together. Little by little Ruiz begins to recall what happened. Seven-year-old Mickey Carlyle disappeared three years earlier and was assumed to have been killed by known paedophile Howard Wavell. In fact, Wavell’s in prison for the crime. But Ruiz thinks Wavell might be innocent and that Mickey may still be alive. He was pursuing leads on this case when he was injured and as soon as he recovers, he takes up the investigation again. In the end, after help from O’Loughlin, Ruiz finds out the truth about Mickey Carlyle.

Psychologist Sara Struel proves to be very helpful in Karin Fossum’s He Who Fears the Wolf. Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are called in to investigate the murder of Halldis Horn, who’d lived by herself since her husband’s death. One very likely suspect is Errki Johrma, a young man with mental illness who is one of Struel’s patients. The police want to interview him, since he was seen in the area on the day of the murder. But he’s disappeared. As the police look for Johrma, Sejer gets help from Struel about the kind of person the young man is, what is causing his mental illness and whether he might be the killer. One of the interesting things about her role in this novel is that it allows us to see how mental health professionals have to balance their obligation to confidentiality with their obligation to protect society from potentially dangerous people (and to assist the police). It’s a delicate balance and Fossum addresses it here.  

In Camillla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace, we meet Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She shares a practice with a few colleagues and professionally at least, things are going well. However, she is struggling personally with grief over the death of her beloved husband Stefan and is emotionally fragile. One day she receives a strange letter that makes it clear she is being stalked. Then other eerie things happen and it seems that someone is trying to discredit her. What’s worse, whoever is stalking her has access to her private patient records. Then the body of one of her patients Sara Matteus is near Bergman’s home. There’s also a suicide note that suggests Bergman is responsible for the victim’s decision to kill herself. But it’s not long before the supposed suicide is shown to be murder. Bergman is briefly suspected, but soon enough it’s clear that she has an enemy who is getting more and more dangerous. Throughout this novel, along with the mystery and the investigation, we also see the day-to-day realities of psychologists’ professional lives.

Our knowledge of human psychology has improved dramatically in the last decades so it makes sense that we’d also see psychology playing an important role in crime fiction. I’ve only had space to touch on it briefly here. Which crime-fictional psychologists have made an impression on you?

Thanks, Sergio, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest that you include Sergio’s fantastic Tipping My Fedora as one of your next blog stops? It’s a terrific resource for classic crime film and book reviews. While you’re there, I’m sure you’ll agree it’s well worth adding to your blog roll.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Handheld’s What’s Inside.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Jonathan Kellerman, Karin Fossum, Michael Connelly, Michael Robotham

14 responses to “What’s Inside Your Mind?*

  1. Margot: While Maisie Dobbs is not a conventional clinical psychologist she is a psychologist who uses insight into human actions and behaviour to gain information and assess people. I love her technique of mirroring someone’s physical actions to help understand what they are thinking.

    • Bill – You have a well-taken point about Maisie Dobbs. She isn’t as you say a psychologist in the way we normally think of them (i.e. with therapy sessions, patients and the like). But she has a psychologist’s insight into people and very often helps her clients psychologically as much as anything else.

  2. The only psychologist I can think of is Tony Hill in Val McDermid’s series that starts with The Mermaids Singing. I read that book but the violence and especially the torture kept me from continuing the series. Aside from that, I thought it was well-written and the psychological elements were interesting. The TV series (at least the first three I watched) were the same. Very good, very interesting, very uncomfortable.

    And Tipping My Fedora is a great site that I visit often.

    • Tracy – You’re absolutely right about Tony Hill. The psychological elements that his insights add to the Hill/Jordan stories really add an interesting angle and of course suspense to them. Thanks for mentioning this series. And Tipping My Fedora is one of my must-stops on my blog round.

  3. kathy d.

    What about sleuths, public and private, who use the science of psychology to solve murders? Commissaire Adamsberg certainly does that in Seeking Whom He May Devour? Without giving spoilers here, the inspector draws on his knowledge of human psychology and its aberrations to figure out the murderer. And although not as pronounced in The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Adamsberg uses his knowledge about human behavior and individuals’ psychological history to also figure out who are the culprits here — and, without giving spoilers away, I can say the “Ghost Riders” aren’t the murderers. The solution is based on deductive reasoning and evidence. However, a detective wouldn’t have figured this out without understanding human psychology and what motivates people to do what they do.

    • Kathy – You have a well-taken point about non-psychologist sleuths who use their knowledge of psychology as they solve crimes. I like your examples of Seeking.. and The Ghost Riders of Ordebec too. No doubt about it that Adamsberg uses what he knows about psychology when he’s on the case. There’s also Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who always considers psychological principles when he’s working on a case. Several sleuths do that I think.

  4. You get bad psychologists too. In Lawrence Block’s ‘Hope to Die’ isn’t it an evil psychologist/psychiatrist who commits the murders. It’s my favourite of the Matt Scudder books.

    • Sarah – Good memory – right you are about Hope to Die. Thanks for reminding me of it too – I must re-read some of the Matthew Scudder sries. And of course you’re right that there are other bad fictional psychologists too – a sobering reminder of how much power a psychologist can have…

  5. col

    I vaguely recall Robert Parker’s Spencer novels, before I packed them in featuring his girlfriend who was a psychologist. Mainly a minor character, so I’m not sure she contributed much to the books or Spencer’s solving of his cases.

  6. Isn’t it also true that a lot of sleuths are busy saying that psychology is the most important thing, but it doesn’t always make for great detecting/reading, so they actually have quite a lot of ordinary honest clues too…? Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley does that a fair bit I think, she’s a terribly distinguished psychiatrist AND psychologist – she always SAYS she is solving psychologically, but I’m not convinced…

    • Moira – Nor am I. I’m very glad you brought up Mrs. B. because as you say, she is distinguished in the field. And she does bring in psychology as she talks about cases and interacts with witnesses and suspects. But she pays as much attention to physical evidence, timing and so on as anyone.

  7. I like the books that are called “psychological thrillers” or “psychological suspense” too — just think of all the mind bending that happened in the pages of “Gone Girl.”

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