You Give Me the Creeps*

Creepy FeelingsThere’s an old saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. And it’s generally wise to wait before drawing conclusions about people. Sometimes they do surprise you. But we can’t always help our first impressions. If you’ve ever had a very bad feeling about someone that you had trouble shaking off, you know what I mean. There are times when those feelings are not justified, of course. But there are other times when they are.

It’s interesting the way these ‘creepy’ feelings are handled in crime fiction. They can be used very effectively to build tension and to create motive. And what’s even more interesting is that they can also be used to misdirect the reader. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of many more.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to Dr. Sarah King, who’s recently gotten her medical license. She’s just ended a romance, and by way of healing, she’s taking a trip through the Middle East. While she’s in Jerusalem, she meets the Boynton family, also touring the area. Sarah has a pleasant encounter with Raymond Boynton, but everything changes when she meets his mother. She is immediately repulsed, and can’t help almost physically shuddering. She wonders at first whether it might be an unfortunate first impression, but she soon finds out that she was right. Mrs. Boynton is an unpleasant, tyrannical mental sadist who has her family so cowed that none of them dares go against her whims. When Sarah takes a side trip to Petra, she thinks she’s seen the last of the Boyntons. But when they turn up on the same trip, matters soon come to a head. On the second afternoon of the trip, Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and when Colonel Carbury, who is the investigator for the case, asks him to look into the case, Poirot agrees. It turns out that Mrs. Boynton’s personality has a lot do with her murder.

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is the story of the Sternwood family. Family patriarch General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to help him solve a difficult problem. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Marlowe’s been hired to find Geiger and stop him. Marlowe’s first impression of the general is not at all a positive one. It’s actually rather eerie:

‘An old man two-thirds dead and still determined to believe he could take it.’

Sternwood has lived a decadent life and admits it; he also has an autocratic way about him. None of this appeals to Marlowe, but he takes the case. By the time he tracks Geiger down, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Marlow had hoped to simply get Geiger to leave the Sternwood family alone, but it turns out that he gets far more deeply involved with them than he imagined.

Anya Lipska’s DC Natalie Kershaw meets Janusz Kiszka in the context of a murder investigation in Where the Devil Can’t Go. She’s looking into the death of Justyna Kozlowska, who seems to have died of a drug overdose. It’s not as simple as that though, and Kershaw believes that the victim was probably murdered. Kiszka knew Justyna, and that makes him a ‘person of interest.’ He’s a sort of ‘fixer’ London’s Polish community – someone who can get things done. So he knows all sorts of people, both law-abiding and…not so law-abiding. What’s more, he doesn’t particularly trust the police, and he has his own reasons for not being entirely forthcoming with Kershaw. So she sees him as dangerous – possibly even a killer. As they get to know one another, each sees that the other has valuable skills and information, and that they’ll solve the case better by co-operating. But it takes a while before Kershaw can shed her initial bad feeling about Kiszka.

When Megan Abbot’s Lora King meets Alice Steele in Die a Little, she immediately gets a bad feeling about her. Lora is a Pasadena schoolteacher whose brother Bill has fallen in love with Alice. Alice is a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant with a shadowy past. On the surface, there isn’t really any reason to dislike Alice. She seems to treat Bill well, she’s friendly, she’s smart and she’s witty. In fact, Lora even tries to convince herself that she’s simply reacting out of overprotectiveness towards her brother. But she can’t shake her very creepy feeling about Alice. Matters don’t get any better when Alice and Bill marry, either. Then, there’s a murder. When it comes out that Alice may be mixed up in it, Lora feels especially torn. On the one hand, she is repelled by Alice’s life. On the other, she is drawn to it.

And then there’s Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. It soon comes out that Michelle was a sex worker who’d been in care since she was twelve years old. After a short time, Morriss discovers that Michelle was working for a pimp named Charlie Hawes. The more she hears about Hawes, the more contempt Morriss feels for him. But that doesn’t mean he killed Michelle. Still, she does consider him a suspect and tracks him down. The minute she meets him, she gets a very bad, creepy feeling about him. It doesn’t make her feel any better that Hawes is slick and arrogant. Among other challenges that she faces, Morriss has to separate her feelings about Hawes from a fair consideration of the evidence.

Her challenge is one we all face at times. There are just certain people who give us creepy feelings right from the beginning. Sometimes we’re right; sometimes we’re wrong. Either way, though, it’s hard to get past them.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Camper van Beethoven’s I Don’t See You.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Maureen Carter, Megan Abbott, Raymond Chandler

32 responses to “You Give Me the Creeps*

  1. I’ve certainly met a few of those people, and I always thought Sherlock Holmes would give me that feeling. 😀

  2. I tend to trust my instincts and my first impressions though if I do meet someone again and they are having a ‘better day’ and I can see it’s genuine then I’m also happy to change my mind if my first impression wasn’t good. I think that gut instinct thing is built into us for a reason and as you say, is used very well in crime fiction.

    • That’s a very well-taken point, Rebecca. We have that gut instinct for a reason. And very often it is worth heeding. I’ve been known to change my view shamefacedly about people, but that first instinct is powerful.

  3. Great post, Margot. Do you plan to do a ‘yin’ post to this ‘yang’ about crime novels in which first impressions prove (dead) wrong ?

  4. Mrs Boynton really is a great example of that. It’s not even just Sarah’s reaction – Christie writes it so well the reader has exactly the same reaction too. Or at least this reader did! Even thinking of her now makes me shiver…

    • Oh, me, too, FictionFan! She really is a creepy individual, isn’t she? It’s enough to make anyone shudder. And you’re right; Christie wrote her character and the description really effectively.

  5. Kathy D.

    Creepy character? An interesting facet of crime fiction. Usually a detective’s instincts are well-founded and prove correct late on in a mystery.
    This is especially true of women both in and out of fiction.
    I can think of so many times that my instincts or intuition proved right.
    I think this trait is embedded through evolution or else our species wouldn’t have survived. It’s a trait animals have, too, to sense who to trust and who to run from or protect oneself from or one’s offspring.
    There are a lot of creepy characters in Sara Paretsky’s new book “Brush Back,” and V.I. Warshawski’s instincts are usually on target.

    • That’s true, Kathy. We do have a sort of instinct; it’s ingrained into our species. And you’re right that other animal species have that sort of instinct, too. As you say, crime fiction is full of examples where the sleuth’s instincts about a person are proved right in the course of a novel. It’s not always the case, and that’s really interesting, too, both in real life and in fiction. The author can use it for misdirection.

  6. Margot: I try hard not to think of people as creepy.

    Having represented people dying of AIDS and others badly injured and others struggling with addictions and others charged with serious offences I know outward appearance does not reflect the person.

    And I hope no one will look at me and think I am creepy.

    • Bill, that’s exactly and precisely the reason for which it’s wisest to get to know someone before coming to conclusions. As you say, appearance doesn’t say much about a person’s character. And I couldn’t imagine anyone thinking of you as ‘creepy.’

  7. I know what you mean Margot – it can be so unsettling when you are aware that there is somethign ‘not right’ but which is not otherwise truly concrete and books can do this so well. Mind you, in the novels of Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell, I would have to apply that to practically all the major characters 🙂

    • 😆 That’s quite true, Sergio. Rendell and Highsmith knew how to wrote very unsettling characters, didn’t they? There just are authors who can tap that sense of unease about a person and make you feel it. And that can work very well to build suspense.

  8. Col

    Creepy brings to mind a certain estate agent, Mr Heming in A Pleasure and a Caliing. I hope to try something from Maureen Carter one of these years!

  9. Mr Henning immediately sprung to my mind 🙂

  10. Margot, the Harry Potter series has a few characters who gave me the creeps, like Professor Snape and Death Eater Lucius Malfoy. Sometimes, such characters are scarier than actual villains.

  11. In life, more often than not I find my intuition is right. It’s when I choose to ignore it that I get myself in trouble. In books, I love those characters. Sometimes it’s creepier than being told by the author that he/she is a villain.

    • You’re right about that, Sue. And you make an interesting point about trusting instinct. Sometimes it’s hard to get that balance right (trust yourself vs don’t judge a book, etc..). But there are plenty of times when that instinct is right.

  12. Patricia’s point about Sherlock Holmes is well-taken: a lot of detectives, in fiction as well as tv and the movies, are pretty creepy themselves.
    I’m glad you mentioned Gen. Sternwood. The Marlowe novels are full of unsavory, often minor, characters, and Chandler’s gift for language, especially his way of describing the little details, depicts the characters’ creepiness so very well.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Bryan, about Chandler’s language. He definitely had the gift of making readers really ‘feel’ the sort of character he was describing, and Sternwood is no exception to this. You’re right, too, that some of the well-known fictional detectives out there do have an air of eeriness about them…

  13. Kathy D.

    In movies, who could be more creepy than many characters played by Peter Lorre? In The Maltese Falcon and so many other films.
    No, I would not at all in life suspect someone based on appearance, but if I sense someone is dangerous and looks at me strangely and I figure that out, and then the person starts chasing me down the block and screaming at me, with me just getting in the front door of my building in the nick of time, that is reading signals correctly. That is one thing that happened to me and I picked up on the inherent danger quickly.
    I see people from all over the world here which is terrific, and I am not a suspicious person, but sometimes when I have an instinct that somehting is wrong or that a storeowner is being dishonest, an employer (Oy on that one, not for publication), or a cab driver has a problem, it turns out I’m right.

    • I’m sorry you had that scary experience of being chased, Kathy. That’s one of those times when it really pays to heed one’s instincts. The same is true of cabbies, shopowners, and a lot of other people too. As you say, it’s one thing not to suspect someone because of the way s/he looks. I think that’s important. On the other hand, it’s also important to be aware of those little, almost infinitesimal signals that someone may pose a threat. Not an easy balance! And you’re right; Peter Lorre portrayed some deliciously creepy characters.

  14. Sergio’s comment reminded me of a book that I think is a favourite of both of ours: A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell. The housekeeper Eunice Parchman is repellant, but people don’t trust their instincts (and run a mile from her) and tragedy results.

    • Oh, absolutely, Moira! There are several things about Eunice Parchman that are repellant, but as you say, people don’t heed their instincts, and the result is awful. It’s a great example of that, I think, and yes, one of my all-time top crime fiction reads.

  15. Kathy D.

    And then there is the controversial psychological thriller on today’s “best-seller” lists, “The Girl on the Train.” Unreliable narrators, creepy men and women, what a treasure trove of creepy characters. Read it at your own peril and keep looking over your shoulder.
    This is true of books in which the killer’s remarks or point of view are written in italics at the start of the book or in separate sections or on the pages. Reader: Beware.

  16. I have been wanting to read Megan Abbot’s Die a Little. Also Working Girls. Both sound very interesting.

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