I Know It’s Building Up Inside of Me*

trysmsallpressuresHave 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Glenn Canary, Helen Fitzgerald, Karin Fossum, Martin Edwards, Talmage Powell

16 responses to “I Know It’s Building Up Inside of Me*

  1. A really funny variation on the slow-build-up of annoyance that leads to murder is James Thurber’s short story, “The Catbird Seat.” It’s now in public domain so you can read it here:


    Don’t be drinking anything while you read it. Thurber is really funny.

  2. Great (non-spoiler) use of After the Funeral for this topic. Another one I like is Harriet Lane’s recent boo, Her. The reader is aware throughout the book that one character is stalking another, for no good purpose, but the motive for her dislike is not revealed till the end: and it was one that I found very satisfying, really because it was such a strange, apparently minor one – I found it very convincing. (though I’m sure not everyone would).

  3. It must be harder to do these sort of plots now that divorce is so common. In the old days, murder was really the only way to get rid of that annoying spouse who slurped his tea every evening… 😉

    • FictionFan – You have an interesting point. In today’s world, if the tea-slurping gets to you too much, it’s easy to leave. Not, of course, that divorce is always an easy, casual decision. But my guess is most people would find it easier to be divorced/alone than in prison for murder. I think those ‘buildup’ plots are a bit harder for that reason. Fitgerald handles it brilliantly (I think) in The Cry, but it’s tricky. I think it’s probably easier to do a plot where there’s an explosion of ‘road rage’ after a lot of little things have happened, or where neighbours have a feud.

  4. kathy d.

    This is a rough topic. Even though divorce is more readily and legally available, it’s not always the result for irritated spouses or partners. I just saw on the news that a woman killed her spouse yesterday, although usually the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak. The couple is an elderly one, so perhaps the woman hadn’t thought of her ability to move out and get a divorce.
    And if divorce was always sought, we wouldn’t have a lot of crime fiction!
    I’m sure a pile up of stresses and strains is at the root of many murders in real life as reflected in fiction.

    • Kathy – You make a well-taken point. Divorce or simply moving out is an option, but may not be for everyone. Or, as you say, it may not occur to a person. I think that piling up of stress can really end up disastrously; it’s probably behind a lot of real-life murders, and it is in crime fiction too.

  5. I absolutely loved The Cry. Perfectly paced and written. In fact I still need to read more by Helen Fitzgerald. The Broken by Tamar Cohen is a novel that shows how pressure in domestic situations builds up and the people inside them sometimes have little ability to stop the ride their on.

    • Rebecca – I agree about The Cry. It is a very, very well-written novel. And I’d like to read more by Fitzgerald too. Thanks also for mentioning The Broken. I’d heard that was a good ‘un, but hadn’t (yet) had a chance to read it. I appreciate the reminder of it.

  6. kathy d.

    One of the most shocking mysteries to deal with this topic and with disastrous results is Tana French’s Broken Harbor. Stresses from outside and inside the family from the economic and housing crises just push people over the edge in many ways.

  7. Margot – Another great topic requiring as you say real finesse by a mystery author to pull it off. A little different context, but once again my memory recalls certain police detective and his dogged persistence (“there’s just one more thing”) which brings suspects to a breaking point kind of testiness.

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. And yes, I really do like that rumpled-coated, cigar-holding detective’s way of driving suspects to distraction with ‘just one more question.’ That definitely adds to the tension and it’s easy to see why suspects ‘crack’ after a time. Thanks for reminding me.

  8. Col

    I’m unfamiliar with your examples. I like the sound of a couple of the short stories, Canary’s in particular. I’ll look out for it.

    • Col – Canary’s is a good short story I think. One nice thing about short stories is that they let you get a look at an author’s style without investing an awful lot of time and effort.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s