Most of us would like to think we can trust our own thinking. No-one’s perfect of course, but we like to think we can make sense of what we see and hear and so on. So it’s frightening to think that we can’t believe what we think is true – that we can’t trust our own mental processes. That feeling of ‘I’m not crazy – am I?’ is woven into a lot of crime fiction, and can make for a suspenseful plot thread or character layer.
Agatha Christie uses it in some of her work. For instance, in Sleeping Murder, Giles and Gwenda Reed are newlyweds looking for their first home. Gwenda is particularly drawn to a house in Dilmouth, and she and Giles make the purchase arrangement. Soon though, Gwenda begins to have some strange experiences. She has an odd sense of déjà vu about the place, although she doesn’t really remember being there before. To make matters worse, she sees images of a dead woman lying in the hall. Worried that she might be having some sort of mental breakdown, Gwenda takes some time away and visits her cousin Raymond West and his wife. Christie fans will know that West’s Aunt Jane (Marple) takes a great interest in human nature, and is sympathetic towards Gwenda. One night, they go to the theatre, where Gwenda has a bizarre reaction to one scene. Miss Marple is soon convinced that something really is going on in the house at Dilmouth, and that Gwenda isn’t crazy. So she begins to investigate. In the end, she finds that the house holds an important secret from the past. Christie fans will also know that Miss Marple is sure that her friend Elspeth McGillicuddy isn’t crazy when she thinks she sees a murder being committed in4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!). And there’s a Christie story in which a character is manipulated by a killer into taking responsibility for murder. No spoilers – those who’ve read it will know which story I mean…
In Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he meets a young woman who’s about to jump off a bridge. He convinces her to not to follow through, and takes her to an all-night diner where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Until recently, she’s had a good life. But everything changed when her father took a business trip to San Francisco. When a housemaid warned of a fatal plane crash, Jane almost sent a telegram to her father to take another flight back. At the last minute, she didn’t do so; yet, her father did receive a telegram and changed his plans. When he returned safely, the two of them decided to find out how the housemaid knew about the crash. The trail leads to a man named Jeremiah Tompkins, who sees himself as cursed with being able to predict the future. Harlan Reid began to visit Tompkins and made use of what he learned to make an even bigger success of himself in business. Then, Tompkins predicted the other man’s death. Now convinced he will die on a certain night at midnight, Reid has lost hope and become a shadow of his former self. With this background, Shawn decides to help Jean, and gets involved in the business. He finds that this case has a lot to do with people’s states of mind and with not trusting one’s own thinking.
So does Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder. Howard Van Horn has been having a series of troubling blackouts lately. One day he wakes up from one of them to discover he’s got blood on himself and his clothes. Convinced that he’s done something horrible, he visits his former college friend Ellery Queen and asks his advice. Queen agrees to look into the case. The trail leads to the small town of Wrightsville, where Van Horn’s father Dietrich lives with his second wife Sally. During the visit, Howard has another blackout; this time, Sally is found murdered. Howard doesn’t remember the murder, but finds it hard not to believe the evidence against him. Queen, however, is less sure. Throughout the novel, we see the growing fear as Howard increasingly doubts his own sanity.
Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances introduces readers to academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. When her good friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk dies of what turns out to be poison, Kilbourn is devastated. As a way of dealing with her grief, she decides to write a biography of Boychuk. As she gets material for the book, Kilbourn also gets closer to the truth about the murder. In the meantime, she begins to suffer from an odd illness. At first, it doesn’t seem like much. Then, the symptoms get strange and more severe. For a time, Kilbourn isn’t sure exactly what to believe about it, and there’s a real sense of her anxiety as she tries to puzzle out whether she’s imagining things or is really ill (and if so, what the problem is). It’s an interesting look at what it’s like to be sure that something is wrong and at the same time, wonder if it’s ‘all in the head.’
In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, we meet Kurt, a security guard at Green Oaks Shopping Center. Part of his job involves monitoring the mall’s security cameras. During one session, he sees a young girl with a backpack. The mall’s closed, so he gets concerned that she may be lost or abandoned. The image isn’t clear, but he looks into the matter. That’s when things get strange. He can’t find the girl, although he sees her during more than one of his shifts. One night, he happens to meet with Lisa Palmer, who works at Your Music, one of the stores in the mall. They strike up an awkward friendship and Kurt tells her what he’s seen. Each in a different way, they try to find out what it all means. To do so, they have to look twenty years into the past, and to the disappearance of ten-year-old Kate Meaney.
And then there’s Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip. Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone is a marine biologist (at least in name), who’s been hired by agribusiness tycoon Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Perrone’s developed a way to make water tests come out with ‘clean’ results; and that’s just what Hammernut needs to ensure that the mandatory water samples taken near his company’s Everglades property won’t get him into trouble. When Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect what’s going on, he decides to solve the problem by pushing her overboard during a cruise. What he doesn’t know is that she survives and is rescued by former cop Mick Stranahan. Determined to find out why her husband wanted her dead, Joey works out a plan of revenge. First, she begins to play ‘mind games’ with him. For instance, she turns on the sprinkler system in the house when he’s not home. Then, Stranahan pretends to be a blackmailer who saw what Perrone did. Together, they make a nervous wreck of Perrone. He becomes increasingly unstable, which doesn’t exactly endear him either to Hammernut or to Broward County, Florida police detective Karl Rolvaag, who’s always suspected him…
There are other stories, too, in which one of the plot threads revolves around questioning one’s own thinking. It can be very scary, so it’s little wonder that it’s an effective suspense-building tool. These are a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s You May be Right.