I Got the Feeling That Something Ain’t Right*

Growing SuspicionsHave you ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window? Even if you haven’t, you probably know the premise: L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies is laid up with a broken leg; to pass the time, he begins to observe what’s going on in the other apartments that face the same courtyard his does. It’s not long before he begins to suspect that one of those other people, a man named Lars Thorvald, may be a murderer. Part of the tension in the film comes from the the fact that we don’t see the suspected murder, and there’s no real evidence that anyone’s been killed. And yet, Jeff is convinced that something is very wrong. Everything Thorvald does has a logical explanation; yet it also has a possibly sinister one as well. And of course, the more convinced Jeff is that Thorvald is a murderer, the more possible danger there is for him and his girlfriend Lisa Fremont.

It’s arguably a bit harder to depict that kind of growing suspicion with words, but it can make for a suspenseful plot point in a crime novel. Is someone a character observes a criminal or not? We see that in all sorts of crime fiction; space only permits me a tiny sampling.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), French moneylender Marie Morisot, who goes by the name of Madame Giselle, is poisoned while en route from Paris to London. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Chief Inspector Japp concentrates his attention there. Hercule Poirot was on the same flight, so he works with Japp to find the killer. One evening, two of the other passengers, Jane Grey and Norman Gale, are having dinner and discussing the case. They notice detective novelist Mr. Clancy eating at the same restaurant and decide to sleuth him. As they do, they come to believe that he’s acting most suspiciously:

‘His direction, too, was erratic. Once, he actually took so many right-angle turns that he traversed the same streets twice over.
Jane felt her spirits rise.
‘You see?’ she said excitedly. ‘He’s afraid of being followed. He’s trying to put us off the scent.”

Mr. Clancy does other things too that make the two suspect him.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is the story of Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their move to the quiet town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, the move seems like an excellent decision. The town is lovely, they’ve been welcomed, and their children Pete and Kim have settled into school and begun to make friends. Then Joanna’s friend Bobbie Markowe starts to suspect that something dangerous is going on in Stepford. At first, Joanna thinks Bobbie is overreacting. But then other things happen that convince Joanna that Stepford is not the idyllic place it seems to be. Everything she observes seems to have a very plausible explanation; in fact, she herself wonders whether she may be crazy. But she learns that what she’s noticed also has a very sinister explanation as well.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King learns that her brother Bill has met and fallen in love with Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. Lora wants to be happy for her brother since they’ve always been close. But she’s not at all impressed with Alice. On the surface, Alice seems terrific; she’s beautiful, pleasant and quite devoted to Bill. But Lora has her doubts. Still, she puts the best face on it when Bill and Alice get married. Then, little things begin to surface that make Lora doubt Alice even more. Everything she learns has a plausible explanation, and Alice provides them. But Lora’s suspicions continue to grow. Then there’s a murder, and Alice may be mixed up in it. Lora is afraid for her brother, so she decides to find out whether that’s true. The more she learns about Alice’s world, the more repelled Lora is by it; at the same time though, she is drawn to it. And that sense that something is probably – but not definitely – very wrong adds a layer of tension to the story.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces us to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. The ‘bread and butter’ for his private investigations company is ‘vetting’ potential brides and bridegrooms. Before final wedding arrangements are made between families, one or the other often hires an agency such as Puri’s to make sure that the prospective new family member is respectable and meets the family’s standards. One such case is that of Brigadier General Kapoor, who hires Puri to look into the background of Mahinder Gupta, who is slated to marry Kapoor’s granddaughter Tisca. On the surface, there seems no problem with Gupta, and there’s no one thing in particular that upsets Kapoor. But he has the feeling that something isn’t right about the bridegroom-to-be, and he’s become worried. As Puri and his team investigate, they find out something that Kapoor didn’t know.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to former school principal Thea Farmer. She’s planned and had built a ‘dream house’ in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But poor financial decisions have meant that she has to change her plans drastically. Instead of the perfect home, she’s had to settle for the smaller house next door – ‘the hovel,’ as she refers to it. To make matters worse, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington have purchsed the home that Thea still sees as her own. She dislikes them both intensely, and even more so when Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them. Still, Thea develops a kind of friendship with Kim. So when she slowly begins to be convinced that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate environment for the girl, Thea gets concerned. She soon learns that the police aren’t going to do anything about it because they don’t have actual evidence that there’s any problem. Everything Thea witnesses has a plausible explanation. But she is certain that Kim is at risk. So she makes her own plans to deal with the situation.

Everything may appear perfectly innocent on the surface, but sometimes it’s not. And sometimes little suspicions can grow, whether or not they’re well-founded. That possibility can make for a solid layer of suspense in stories (and in films!). Which ones have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Megan Abbott, Tarquin Hall, Virginia Duigan

30 responses to “I Got the Feeling That Something Ain’t Right*

  1. I’m going to mention Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes again – when a student dies in a tragic accident at a training college, Miss Pym feels there is something wrong. She doesn’t want to believe that – it’s going to be so much better for everyone if it was truly an accident. But she knows a bit too much about everything that was going on in the college in the highly stressful runup to the end of term….

    • I love that example, Moira. Thank you. There all those little signs that may mean nothing. Or everything. And you bring up something else important too. Sometimes the person who starts to become suspicious really doesn’t want to believe there’s anything badly wrong. That can make it harder to see something for what it really is.

  2. The classic “Jack the Ripper” – type book, Marie Belloc Lowndes’s The Lodger, written in 1913, is all about that kind of situation. At a time when an unknown killer who calls himself “The Avenger” is preying on women in London, a respectable elderly couple, the Buntings, find a new lodger to take their upstairs room and give them some badly needed money. The lodger, who calls himself “Mr. Sleuth,” settles in, and the Buntings are overjoyed. But, bit by bit, they begin to notice that their new lodger is…strange. He is fond of late-night solitary walks. He dislikes questions. And as their uncertainty grows, “The Avenger” seems to have moved his operations into their neighborhood…

    • Les – I couldn’t possibly agree more with your choice of example. The Buntings don’t want to believe their lodger is anything but, perhaps, a bit eccentric. But as time goes by, more and more observations suggest something much worse. Thanks for filling in that goap.

  3. Is it a bit too obvious to mention ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ (the original book: Murder at Road Hill House)? Mr Whicher has an uncomfortable feeling about the family relationships in the household where a three-year-old boy is found murdered. He suspects first one then another of the household members, but he never finds sufficient proof and is derided (class difference in the 1860s), and subsequently suffers a breakdown. Subsequent events, though, proved his suspicions were quite justified, although we will probably never find out the full truth.

    • Marina Sofia – That’s not too obvious at all! And it’s a great example of how the assumption that ‘It couldn’t possibly be _____’ can get in the way of finding out the truth. That’s a great instance of how growing suspicions work in crime fiction – thanks!

  4. Keishon

    I think the overly suspicious and things not appearing as they seem are a familiar plot element I’ve seen in gothics among other works if I’m reading this right. Ran into that a lot in Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart’s work. Most memorable story for me this year that has a similar plot device is by Margaret Millar for Beast in View. I’m thinking it does but I could be wrong. I’ve not had the pleasure of reading any of the books you’ve mentioned this time.

    • Keishon – Oh, my goodness, I hadn’t thought of writers such as Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart, but yes! There’s certainly a lot of use of that plot point there. Growing suspicion, seemingly innocuous actions that aren’t so innocent, the whole thing. I’m very glad you brought that up.

  5. You started with a movie so I’ll add another. Hitchcock’s Suspicion!

  6. Ira Levin’s ROSEMARY”S MURDER also uses this device. She feels something is amiss with her new neighbors but can’t persuade anyone else.

  7. I haven’t read any of the books except the AC Death in the clouds but I love REAR WINDOW. One of my favorite films. Was talking about it the other day. I can’t think of any other mysteries that fit the category but I want to watch Suspicion now.

    • Clarissa – I hope you do get the chance to see Suspicion. It’s a great film of suspense; it really is. And I don’t blame you for loving Rear Window. It’s excellent in my opinion.

  8. Kathy D.

    I’ll join the chorus rooting for Rear Window, a classic and well worth seeing many times.
    Thea Farmer is not someone whom I’d like to know. From the book’s beginning, one senses something lurking beneath the surface with her.
    Precipice is a good book, unusual, but riveting.
    And with Hunting Blind, too, by Paddy Richardson, the reader always has a sense something big will happen. The author knows how to build suspense, while showing sympathy for the characters.

    • Kathy – You’re quite right about Paddy Richardson, an author who can tell a really compelling story. And while Thea Farmer may not be the world’s kindest person, she’s a fascinating character and the book is absorbing. And Rear Window? Can’t beat it for suspense.

  9. I have not read any of these books and they all sound interesting. I did see the movie for Stepford Wives… very creepy. The book is probably even creepier, but maybe not if you know the ending?

    Great topic, Margot.

    • Thanks, Tracy. Actually, it’s just my opinion, but I think the book really is creepier than the film. But your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary. I do recommend the book if you get the chance.

  10. Another Rear Window fan here! How about ‘Northanger Abbey’ as one of the few examples of that kind of suspicion which turns out to be unfounded…

    • FictionFan – Rear Window really is a classic, isn’t it? And you’re right about Northanger Abbey. There are definitely those built-up suspicions, but handled quite differently (and adeptly, in my opinion).

  11. I love Agatha Christie! Mysteries are so cool.

  12. And of course the original short story that REAR WINDOW is based on, Cornell Woolrich’s ‘It Had to Be Murder’

  13. Kathy D.

    OK. I guess I must see Rear Window again during this holiday season. You’ve all convinced me that Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, as well as Raymond Burr (Brrr!) will be revisited.

  14. Like Mike Cane, the first thing that came to my mind was Hitchcock’s ‘Suspicion’. A great movie.

    • Sarah – Suspicion is a fabulous film, isn’t it? So much suspense! I also feel that way about Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. But then, I’m a Hitchcock fan.

  15. Col

    I did enjoy the Levin book, back in the day. Due a re-read at some point I think.

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