In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow, who was spending the weekend at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell when he was killed. The case seems very clear-cut at first. As Christie fans will know, though, things aren’t exactly as they appear to be. At one point, Poirot is discussing the actions of one particular character. Here’s what he says:
‘Have you not seen a dog caught in a trap-it sets its teeth into anyone who touches it.’
He has a point. When people (and other animals) feel cornered, they often strike out. That instinct for self-preservation is very strong. Certainly the character to whom Poirot is referring does that; other crime-fictional characters do, too.
For instance, in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is assigned to find sixteen-year-old Margaret Billie Sosi, who has gone missing from the school she attends. Her disappearance turns out to be connected to the murder of a distant kinsman Albert Gorman. A Los Angeles Navajo, Gorman had moved to the Reservation not very long before he was killed. Chee tracks Sosi to Los Angeles, but she disappears again. When Chee learns what, exactly, links the missing teenager to the murder, he finds out the truth about both. As he does, we see the effect that feeling cornered has on Sosi. I can say without spoiling the novel that she’s not a ‘demon seed’ ‘baddie.’ But like anyone else, she has an instinct to stay alive.
That same instinct is woven into Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. In that story, Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins gets a threatening letter from IRS agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter claims that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars to the agency; if he doesn’t pay, he’ll be imprisoned. Rawlins knows that he can’t pay the debt, and prepares to go to jail. Then, a solution comes in the form of FBI agent Darrell Craxton. Craxton wants Rawlins to help bring down suspected communist Chaim Wentzler. In return, Craxton will make those tax problems go away. Seeing no other choice, Rawlins reluctantly agrees. As he gets to know Wentzler, he forms a friendship with the man and becomes less and less inclined to be a part of Craxton’s plans. Then, one of the other residents in Rawlins’ apartment building apparently commits suicide. And there are two other deaths, both clearly murders. Rawlins is innocent, but he was present at both crime scenes, so the LAPD have him in their sights. At the same time, he’s doing his best to resolve his dilemma about Chaim Wentzler. Feeling very much cornered, Rawlins does what he feels he has to do to deal with both issues.
In one plot thread of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale, Natasha Doroshenko flees the Ukraine with her daughter Katerina after the murder of Natasha’s husband Pavel. He was a controversial journalist whose stories had angered the wrong people. At first, Natasha thinks she and her daughter have found safety in Denmark. She even falls in love again with Michael Vestergaard. Then, everything changes. Natasha is imprisoned for attempting to murder her fiancé. During her time in police custody, she overhears a conversation that convinces her she hasn’t escaped danger from the Ukraine. She manages to elude the police and heads for Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. Natasha’s goal is to retrieve her daughter and flee again. As she tries to do so, we see the effect of feeling cornered on the choices she makes and the things she does.
There are also examples of what people do when they feel cornered in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Digger’s Rest Hotel. It’s 1947, and Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has recently returned from harrowing service in World War II. He’s seconded to the town of Wodonga, where the local police are dealing with a series of robberies committed by a motorcycle gang. The most recent one has ended in serious injury, so there’s a lot of pressure to solve these crimes as quickly as possible. In the process of working this case, Berlin gets involved in another: the body of fifteen-year-old Jenny Lee has been found in an alley. At first, Berlin thinks that her death is connected with the robberies. But he learns that the motorcycle gang was not involved. Now he has to find out the truth about both cases. And I can say without spoiling the story that that sense of feeling cornered, with no way out, plays an important role.
It does in Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, too. Fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has finally managed to escape his abusive father, Joe. But Adam’s been so kept away from the world that he’s completely unprepared for life ‘on the outside.’ This makes him extremely vulnerable. He finds a protector in Billy Benson, a young man who visits the house just as Adam’s preparing to make his escape. Billy takes Adam under his wing, as the saying goes, and helps him with basics like a place to stay, clothes and food. During the week they spend together, the two become friends. They also get mixed up in some very real danger that threatens both of them. As the story goes on, Adam and Billy have to face some very unsettling truths about themselves and their pasts. And throughout the novel, the suspense is built as both of them react to both the danger and those truths. In more than one place, that sense of being cornered plays an important role in what they do.
When people believe they’re trapped, the instinct to stay alive sometimes takes over, as it does when any animal senses that it’s cornered. And the impact of that feeling can make for a solid layer of tension in a novel. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Lynne’s No Way Out.