Thanks For Watching As I Fall*

Tailspin and FallingOne of the ways that crime writers build up tension in a novel (and I admit, it’s not very fair in a way) is for otherwise solid, stable people – even people with strong reputations – to go on a downward spiral. Of course, bad things can happen to just about anyone, but there are some crime novels in which that plot point is a main focus. In those stories, the criminal may try to discredit someone else in order to frame that person and throw off suspicion. Or, the criminal may have personal reasons for wanting to ruin someone’s reputation or life. Either way, it can make for an interesting layer of suspense, especially when that downward spiral is the work of someone else.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, for example, Elinor Carlisle has the sort of life many young women of her era would envy. She’s attractive, she’s well-off and she’s engaged to marry Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, who’s a catch, as the saying goes. Things begin to fall apart for her when she gets an anonymous letter suggesting that someone may be trying to angle for her wealthy Aunt Laura’s fortune. It’s not that either Elinor or Roddy is particularly greedy, but they are accustomed to a comfortable life, so they pay a visit to the family home Hunterbury, where Aunt Laura lives. Matters begin to get worse when it’s clear that Roddy has become infatuated with Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter. Then, Aunt Laura dies of complications from a stroke. Not long afterwards, Mary is poisoned. All sorts of circumstantial evidence suggests that Elinor might be the murderer. She has motive, too, since Aunt Laura wanted to provide generously for Mary, and since Mary is the cause of Elinor’s broken engagement. Local GP Dr. Peter Lord wants to clear Elinor’s name and asks Hercule Poirot to do it, whether or not Elinor is guilty. The whole experience takes a terrible toll on Elinor and it’s interesting to see how she copes with it.

Michael Robotham’s The Suspect is the first of his series featuring pscyhologist Joe O’Loughlin. In that novel, O’Loughlin has a contented life with a wife he loves and a daughter he absolutely adores. Everything starts to change though when he gets involved in a case of murder. One afternoon the body of a nurse and former patient Catherine McBride is found near London’s Grand Union Canal. At first Inspector Vincent Ruiz of the Met is only interested in O’Loughlin’s professional expertise and whatever he may be able to offer about the victim’s history. But soon, pieces of evidence turn up that implicate O’Loughlin. Then there’s another murder. And another. As the story goes along, O’Loughlin’s life starts to fall apart as he tries desperately to find the killer and clear his own name. In this case, I don’t think I’m spoiling the story to say that the things that happen to O’Loughlin are very carefully planned.

David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight introduces readers to Superintendent Frank Swann, a police detective in 1970s Perth. Swann’s been away from Perth for several years, but returns when he learns that a former friend brothel owner Ruby Devine has been killed. There aren’t really many suspects in the case except for Ruby’s lover Jacky White, but there’s not enough evidence there to go for a conviction. Swann soon begins to suspect that Ruby was murdered by one of the ‘purple circle,’ a group of corrupt cops who have any number of dirty secrets they don’t want revealed. When Swann calls for a Royal Commission into the corruption, his enemies on the force do everything they can to discredit him, including accusing him of corruption. That’s why, in Zero at the Bone, we learn that Swann has left the force and is now a private investigator. In that novel, he’s hired to look into the suicide of Max Henderson, a highly-respected geologist. He finds that Henderson had gotten involved in some very dirty dealings with corrupt politicians, mining executives and greedy local business executives. As Swann gets closer to the truth about what’s really been going on in Perth’s mining industry, he learns that some very powerful people are willing to do everything they can to discredit him even further, both personally and professionally…

We also see that in Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace. Siri Bergman is a successful Stockholm psychologist who’s managed to start putting her life back together after the tragic death of her husband Stefan. One day she gets an anonymous letter that makes it clear she is being stalked. As if that’s not enough, she finds that someone’s gotten access to her private client files. Then, she is set up to be arrested for drink driving. And to make matters worse, the body of a client Sara Matteus is found in the water on her property. There’s a suicide note that makes it look as though Bergman is responsible for her client’s death. When it’s proven that the victim was murdered, Bergman is briefly considered as a suspect. Her name is cleared, but there’s still someone out there who is willing to do whatever it takes to thoroughly ruin her career, and possibly kill her. If she’s going to salvage her professional reputation and stay alive, Bergman will have to find out who her enemy is.

And then there’s Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry, which takes place in Victorian London. Scottish private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn have built a solid business for themselves and all’s going well. But then an old nemesis from Barker’s past returns to London. He is Sebastian Nightwine, whom Barker exposed as a criminal years ago. Now he’s back and Barker knows trouble is about to follow. And it does. Barker and Llewelyn soon find themselves the object of a massive manhunt when Barker is accused of murder. This means, among other things, that they have to go into hiding. What’s worse, all of Barker’s available funds have been frozen, so he has no access to money. Then there’s another death that turns out to be murder. Barker and Llewelyn will have to best Nightwine and get the police to believe them that Nightwine is behind all of the incidents if they’re to survive. But Nightwine is no easy prey, and he has a very long and unpleasant history with Barker. He also has plans that include getting Barker permanently out of his way.

Life can start to fall apart for any one of us of course. But it’s a bit different when that tailspin is the work of someone else. And that feeling of paranoia and suspense can add a solid layer to a crime novel, especially when the character has what seems to be a stable life. These are just a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent). Over to you.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s My Happy Ending.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, David Whish-Wilson, Michael Robotham, Will Thomas

24 responses to “Thanks For Watching As I Fall*

  1. I have recently read a couple of books that fit this category, I think. In both cases the heroine has a past that people use against her. Very sleazy. I just read and reviewed DOWN CEMETERY ROAD, and Zoe Boehm, the main protagonist, is trying to find a missing child. It is hard to go into how she is discredited without spoiling the story, but her background of some mental problems doesn’t help

    Also, in GARNETHILL by Denise Mina (not yet reviewed), Maureen O’Donnell is framed for the murder of her boyfriend. Because she has a history of mental problems and had been institutionalized for her problems, she finds it hard to convince anyone of her innocence.

    • Tracy – I’m very glad you mentioned Down Cemetery Road. Zoe Boehm is a really good example of the kind of character I had in mind with this post. And I think you’ll find that Mauri O’Donnell is too. On the one hand, she isn’t exactly in a high-status professional job. On the other, she is definitely ‘set up’ and discredited when her boyfriend is murdered. I really hope you’ll enjoy that trilogy; I think it’s really well-done.

  2. Clarissa Draper

    This reminds me of a book I just read based on the TV series Luther and there is a character that spirals out of control. He’s a Detective who has allowed a dangerous criminal to purposely fall, leading to a coma. Now there’s an investigation into his actions. And his wife is having an affair. And his life spirals out of control. You’re right, it does create a lot of tension. Loved the topic tonight.

    • Clarissa – Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It it does add real suspense and tension to a story when an otherwise stable character is set up to fall. Whether it’s because of internal investigation or something else, it’s always nerve-wracking…

  3. RT

    It is a fairly normal trope for someone significant to take a tumble. Consider one of the earliest “detective stories” in the form of a drama: Oedipus the King. But I never took time to think about in the terms you have generously described. I will now BOLO for the high and the mighty sinking in the depths. In fact, it might be a reading selection strategy: seek out and read about Oedipus’ descendants in crime fiction.

    • RT – You have a very well-taken point, and Oediups Rex is a great example. I like your idea too of choosing a famous character like that and seeking out modern-day descendants. There must be many such characters as I reflect on it. Thanks very much for the ‘food for thought.’

  4. Margot: In The Broken Window by Jeffery Deaver, Lincoln Rhymes pursues the “man who knows everything” through data mining (a truly frightening concept) and has been framing innocent men whose lives crumble because of the skilful manipulation of computer information.

    Going back in time the real life story of Alfred Dreyfus, as told in An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris, is compelling. Dreyfus becomes the scapegoat when the French military must find a spy within its ranks. Dreyfus is a convenient choice. He is an outsider as a Jew and Alsatian. Actual guilt is immaterial.

    • Bill – The Dreyfus story is indeed a terrible real-life example of the way a person with a stable life and good character can be discredited and brought down. As you say, in that case guilt didn’t matter. And you’re right, The Broken Window is a terrific fictional example of setting up innocent people to take the blame for crime. It is really a frightening prospect isn’t it what the consequences of data mining are…

  5. This is very apt Margot, you must have read my mind. My next scene has a big arguement in it!

  6. Great topic and great examples. I like the way in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the evil housekeeper Mrs Danvers does a number on the vulnerable Mrs de Winter…

    • Moira – Thank you. And thanks for that fabulous example of the way someone can be discredited and brought down. That’s definitely a big part of the suspense in that novel.

  7. Col

    Another fascinating post and another day when my brain has gone for a wander! I’ll enjoy D W-W when I get there!

    • Col – I really think you’ll like his Frank Swann series. Great atmosphere, a solid set of plots, and very well-drawn characters in my opinion. And thanks for the kind words.

  8. BROKEN HARBOR by Tana French certainly fits this.

  9. As always a fascinating post and I just had to find out more about Fatal Enquiry by Will Thomas as this sounds like just my kind of read and then I find out it’s part of a series – oh well I can see my TBR swelling even more.

    • Cleo – I really do think you might enjoy Fatal Enquiry. It is indeed part of a series, but it’s not crucial to have read them in sequence in order follow along and be engaged in the story. And I know all too well exactly what you mean about the ever-growing TBR…

  10. Yes, fascinating post. Is it The Face of Trepass by Ruth Rendell, where everything starts to unravel for the main character, who I think is being set up as a murder suspect? I remember the mounting confusion and unease. Patricia Highsmith though is surely the past master of the everything-falls-apart novel. Simenon was pretty good at it too, in the non-Maigret novels.

    • Chrissie – You have a very good memory! That is indeed the story of someone who starts out doing well and ends up on an awful downward spiral. And you’re right; Highsmith certainly handles that plot point brilliantly. And so does Simenon. Actually does Pascal Garnier too.

  11. Thanks for referencing Frank Swann in this discussion Margot. The downward spiral is a nice way to describe the structure of many crime novels, or ‘characters circling a drain’ as I’ve heard it described too. It’s a good structure for delivering suspense when the stakes are high, but for me it also produces some interesting insights into character, and perhaps therefore human behaviour – the idea of what happens to ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances, observing what they might learn about themselves, now that they can’t wear their regular and comforting masks. Some good books here for me to follow-up on, thanks…

    • David – It’s my pleasure to help spread the word about Frank Swann. And I do hope we’ll hear more about him (no pressure or anything 😉 ). You make a strong point too about the value of the ‘circling a drain/downward spiral’ plot. It does add tension and suspense of course. But it also allows both the author and the reader to see the sort of stuff the character is made of, if I can put it that way. It also exposes the characters to themselves and that too can make for an interesting layer. I also think (and you’ve done it well in your novels) it allows the author to bring a bit out from other characters too. How do they react to the spiral??? Lots to think about here, for which many thanks.

  12. Kathy D.

    Scott Turow’s book “Innocent” has a definite unraveling, won’t say by whom.
    And I second the suggestion of Tana French’s “Broken Harbor.”

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