Have you ever said (or at least thought), ‘If you do/say that one more time, I’m going to kill you!’? In actuality of course, we’d never follow through on those threats. But it goes to show how little things can add up to real stress. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of murders, both fictional and real, aren’t the ‘big, splashy’ murders you may read about on the news or in thrillers. They’re committed because of small things that build and build.
It can be challenging to sustain the suspense in a story like that. But those stories often do reflect the way real people sometimes react to life’s pressures. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, the Abernethie family gathers when patriarch Richard Abernethie dies. When the family returns to the house after the funeral, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone hushes her up and even Cora asks the family not to pay any attention to what she says. But privately, the other family members begin to wonder whether she might have been right. When she herself is killed the next day, they’re even more sure of it. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate. Poirot agrees and travels to the family home at Enderby Hall to look into the matter. As he gets to know everyone involved, he finds that this case isn’t about huge amounts of power or millions of pounds. It’s a ‘quieter’ sort of murder that’s all about, among other things, pressure building up.
So is Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal. Horace Croyden is a meticulous and quite straitlaced banker who prides himself on always carrying the family name with pride. He has a very quiet life that includes his work and his hobby of working ciphers. Then he meets his boss’ cousin Althea, and everything changes. At first, she seems quiet, ‘ladylike’ and a solid match for him. But he soon finds that she is livelier and more vivacious than he thought, and he’s not particularly pleased about that. What’s more, she’s started rearranging the furniture in his home, adding brighter colours and a different look. That in itself makes him uncomfortable, as do some of her other habits (she even shops without a list!). Then one day, Althea pushes too far. She destroys some of the ciphers her husband was working. So Horace takes his own approach to dealing with his domestic problem…
In Glenn Canary’s short story Because of Everything, a man named Ernie finds himself in trouble when he discovers that two men are looking for him. He’s well aware of what that means, so he decides to see if he can stay with his wife Cherry for a few days. He left her a year ago, so he’s not sure of the reception he’ll get, but he can’t think of anything else to do. Besides, they are still married, and he knows that Cherry loved him. She’s not exactly thrilled to see him, but when he tells her why he needs to stay with her, she lets him. As the story goes on, we learn about the little things that built up between the couple; Ernie was not exactly a steadily-working, faithful husband. And in the end, we see how those things figure in to what happens in the story.
There’s also Martin Edwards’ short story 24 Hours From Tulsa. In that short story, a sales and marketing director called Lomas finds his ordered world falling to pieces. For one thing, people’s buying habits have changed with the advent of online shopping, and Lomas can’t seem to adapt his sales strategy to respond to that change. For another, he’s finding that his business is relying more and more on modern technology that he dislikes and mistrusts. He’s expected to be comfortable with mobile ‘phones, computers and so on, but he isn’t. Even the road system has changed beyond his recognition. And then there’s the matter of his children, who no longer seem to live in the same world he occupies. Little by little, all of these things and others build up. In the end, the stress they all create drives Lomas to take a very drastic step.
Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back finds Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigating the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. At first, there doesn’t seem to be much of a motive for murder. Annie was well-liked, popular in her village and reasonably successful at school. She had a boyfirend, too, and they seemed happy together. It doesn’t take long though for Sejer and Skarre to discover that this wasn’t a random killing by a deranged stranger. Someone Annie knew is responsible for her death, and little by little, the detectives uncover the stresses, strains and series of events that led to it. It turns out that small, daily stresses and the way they build up have a lot to do with what happens in the novel.
And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson take their nine-week-old son Noah from Scotland to Melbourne. When they arrive, they begin the long drive from the airport to their final destination in Victoria. Along the way, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. The couple alert the police and immediately the Australian media makes much of the case. There are pleas for the baby’s safe return, many volunteer search parties and national and international fundraising efforts. As time goes on though, some questions begin to come up about Noah’s disappearance. Could one of his parents have been responsible? If so, which one and why? Soon enough, the couple have as many detractors as they once had supporters, and there’s soon a full-scale investigation. As the story goes on, we see how little pressures, stresses and strains have led to what happens in the novel.
And that’s the thing about those ‘domestic’ murders (and I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them). They don’t usually result from a a major ‘splashy’ event. Rather, it’s the buildup of pressure, stresses and one thing after another that can lead to a tragic end. It’s not easy to pull off this kind of story, as it can be challenging to keep the suspense building credibly. But these murders really do happen, so it makes sense that we see them in crime fiction too. I’ve given a few examples; your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Running on Ice.