One 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.