It’s very scary to feel that you’re being followed. In a way, it’s even scarier if the person you think is following you hasn’t done anything obviously threatening. In that case, at least you could let the authorities know. That sense that someone might be after you, if I may be that melodramatic, sometimes seems to heighten your senses. It also can add a very effective layer of suspense to a story.
I’m not talking here of what most of us think of as stalking. Telephone calls, verbal threats, etc. can at least be reported to the police. But simply following? That’s harder to pin down as dangerous, and that’s what makes it all the more tense.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Crooked Man, for instance, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the murder of Colonel James Barclay. The evidence suggests strongly that the victim’s wife Nancy is responsible. The couple had a violent quarrel shortly before he was murdered, and no-one else really seems to have a motive. But the Barclays were a very happy couple up until that quarrel, and Holmes becomes convinced that the police have got the wrong suspect. Then he gets a clue from a friend of Nancy’s. The two had gone out the evening of the murder and, for a time, were being followed by a man who limped and had a crooked back. He did nothing threatening, but it was still eerie. He turned out to be someone from Nancy’s past, and their chance meeting changed everything.
In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is taking a honeymoon cruise of the Nile with her new husband Simon. The trip is only really marred by one thing: Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort seems to be following them. Wherever they go, there she is. Linnet is deeply upset by this, in part because she has a sense of guilt about it. Simon was Jackie’s fiancé before he met Linnet, and Jackie blames her former friend for the breakup with Simon. The whole thing is so unnerving for Linnet that when she finds out Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, she asks him to stop Jackie. Poirot makes the point that authorities often do in cases like this: there’ve been no clear threats, and Jackie is free to go where she wishes, especially in public places. So there’s nothing he can do. This upsets Linnet even more. Poirot finally agrees to talk to Jackie, but he won’t work in Linnet’s pay. When he follows through on this, Jackie refuses to listen. So when Linnet is shot, Jackie becomes a prime suspect, until it’s shown she couldn’t have committed the crime. Now Poirot has to look elsewhere for the murderer. We may not think of Linnet as a particularly sympathetic character, but it’s easy to understand how much being followed has shaken her.
Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is the story of Walter and Joanna Eberhart, who move with their two children to the quiet community of Stepford, Connecticut. All seems well at first, and everyone settles in. Then, Joanna makes friends with Bobbie Markowe. Little by little, Bobbie begins to suspect that something strange and scary is going on in Stepford. At first Joanna doesn’t believe her. But it’s not very long before she herself notices some unsettling things. In one scene, for instance, Walter invites some friends over for drinks. One of those friends, Dale Coba, seems to be following Joanna, and it unnerves her. Still, he doesn’t directly threaten her, so there’s nothing much she can do. The same sort of thing happens one night when she’s trying to take some night ‘photos (she is a photographer by background). Again, there’s nothing specific she can identify, so she can’t do anything about what’s happening. In fact, she begins to wonder if she’s the one who’s crazy. It turns out though, that she’s very sane indeed.
In Gail Bowen’s A Colder Kind of Death, political scientist/academic Joanne Kilbourn has to relive the murder of her husband Ian. He was killed one night when he stopped to help Kevin Tarpley and Maureen Gault, a young couple whose car had broken down. Tarpley killed Ian when he refused to give the young people his car. Tarpley has been in prison since he committed the crime. One day, he’s out exercising in the prison yard when he is shot. After his funeral, Maureen shows up unexpectedly at the Kilbourn home. This is unnerving of course, but Maureen doesn’t do anything that’s clearly a threat. Then she shows up at Joanne Kilbourn’s office. Again, she is unpleasant, but not outright threatening. So there’s not much that can be done. Then, she too is murdered. At first, Joanne is the logical suspect. In part to clear her name, she works to find out who killed both young people, and in the end, she finds out the truth about her husband’s murder.
We get a different perspective on following someone around in Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger. Fabien Delorme has just learned that his wife Sylvie was killed in a car crash. As if that’s not enough, he also learns that she was not alone. She had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, who was also killed. Delorme is almost more upset that Sylvie was unfaithful than he is at her death, since their marriage hadn’t been strong for quite some time. Still, he feels a sense of loss. He also becomes curious about Arnoult’s widow Martine. He decides to follow her and find out more about her. He does nothing threatening; at first he simply spends a lot of time in a café near her home. Then he follows her to a ticket office where she and her friend Madeleine pick up tickets for a holiday in Majorca. Delorme gets tickets himself and follows the two there. Martine isn’t upset about Delorme; in fact, she begins a relationship with him. And that’s when things begin to spin out of control for both of them…
The real action in Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder begins when Malin Andersson, her husband, Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel, return to their home on the Swedish island of Fårö. They’ve been away for a couple of months, and have sub-let their home to earn some extra money. When they arrive, they see that the tenants have made a huge mess. They’re especially unnerved to find that some of their family photographs have been deliberately disfigured. Although it certainly seems to be a case of horrible tenants, the couple call the police as a precaution. Fredrik Bronan and his team take the case. They promise to look into matters, mostly to get the damage repaired. Still, the ruined ‘photos bother Malin in particular. She tries to put the matter out of her mind, until one day, she drops her children off at their schools, only to see a strange woman watching her. It’s not someone she knows; it’s not even one of the other parents she’s seen before. Still, she’s concerned she might be imagining things, and doesn’t do much about it. Besides, what can she do? The woman has the right to be on the street. Not long afterwards, Malin is in local supermarket when she gets the sense that she’s being followed. No-one’s there, but she thinks she’s heard someone. The employees can’t do much to help, and by the time Malin gets outside, whoever it was (if it was anyone) is gone. Then, other, more menacing, things happen. Now it’s clear that someone is after the Andersson/Kjellander family. Bronan and his team have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, if they can, before real harm comes to anyone. To do that, they have to uncover some deeply-hidden, very dark secrets.
It really is eerie to think that someone is following you. Even if it’s not true, it can prickle the skin. And if it is, especially if that person isn’t doing anything specifically threatening, it can be completely unnerving. Little wonder it can also be so effective in crime novels.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Police’s Every Breath You Take.