‘Till I Can’t Take it Anymore*

Pushed to the EdgeVery often, it’s not the major stressors of life that sap us the most. Those tragedies do happen, and they are awful. But they don’t generally happen very often, and if we take care of ourselves when they do, we get through them. No, what pushes most people too far is a buildup of smaller things. Those are the things that threaten marriages (e.g. ‘If you leave the cap off the toothpaste tube one more time….’). They make people lash out at strangers, too (Ever been on a long flight where there was an infant who wouldn’t stop crying? Especially if the flight was delayed, you were hungry, etc…).

That buildup of stress can add a lot of tension to a novel, and it’s realistic too. We all have those times when we feel like snapping because of all of the things that have gone wrong. Sometimes that buildup can even lead to violence and worse, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we see this sort of suspense in crime fiction.

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater takes place during a terrible heat wave. Everyone’s miserable, and there seems no end to it. In the midst of this heat, police officer Mike Reardon is shot one day while on his way to work. Detective Steve Carella and his partner Frank Bush investigate. They’re hoping that once they find out what sort of gun was used in the killing, they’ be closer to catching the murderer. Then another officer, David Foster, is shot. His death is similar, so the police have to face the possibility that they are dealing with someone who has a vendetta against cops. In the meantime, the police have other duties as well. One of them is to attend lineups of those arrested for major crimes. The idea of this is that the police will become familiar with the area’s criminals. In one such lineup, we meet Virginia Pritchett, who’s been accused of murdering her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the deed; in fact, she explains that it all happened because of the buildup of tension between her and her husband throughout the heat wave. According to her, the argument that led to the murder started out simply enough and spiraled out of control. And matters weren’t helped by the heat:

‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”

We see that buildup of small things leading to disaster in a few places in the novel.

P.D. James’A Taste For Death concerns the murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, whose body is found in a local church, along with the body of a tramp named Harry Mack. Because of Berowne’s status, the case is likely to attract a lot of media attention, so it’s going to have to be handled delicately. That’s where Commander Adam Dalgleish, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin come in. They’re the members of a special group of detectives who are assigned to cases such as this, where the media is likely to take a great interest. As the team begins to investigate, one of their first stops is the Berowne family. The Berownes are upper-class, and matriarch Lady Ursula Berowne (mother to one of the victims) is determined to protect the family’s public image. But behind that mask is a lot of ongoing resentment that’s built up. That’s especially true in the case of Evelyn Matlock, who was taken in by the family as a ward, and now serves as housekeeper and maid to Lady Ursula. At one point, she’s had one stress too much, and finally snaps:

“I’m tired, I’m overworked and I hate you all. You didn’t know that, did you? You thought I was grateful. Grateful for the job of washing you like a baby, grateful for waiting on a woman too idle to pick up her own underclothes from the floor, grateful for the worst bedroom in the house, grateful for a home, a bed, a roof, the next meal. This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.”

It’s interesting to see how class issues come out in this novel and in Evelyn’s reaction.

Ruth Rendell’s One Across, Two Down introduces us to fuel station attendant Stanley Manning. He’s never really been much of a professional success, and it hasn’t helped his career at all that he has a prison record. Still, he’s trying to make a life for himself and his wife, Vera. The big problem is Vera’s mother Maude, who lives with the Mannings. Maude despises her son-in-law, and the feeling is most definitely mutual. They make each other’s lives miserable in any way they can. In fact the only ray of hope is that Stanley knows he and Vera will inherit Maude’s money when she dies. As time goes on and Stanley feels the pressure more and more, he decides to take matters into his own hands. And if you’ve read Rendell at all, you’ll know that that’s going to spell disaster.

There’s also Martin Edwards’ short story Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa. This story concerns a sales and marketing director named Lomas. He’s always had a nicely ordered life, but times have changed, and now he finds his life unbearable. For one thing, technology has changed the way people shop, so his job has changed. Lomas’ sales strategies haven’t really been able to keep up with the times, so he’s feeling work pressure. Then there’s the way modern technology has changed the way people communicate. The Internet, mobile ‘phones and so on are all troublesome for Lomas. His family adds to these stresses; his children have become teenagers who now inhabit a completely alien world from his perspective. Even the road system has changed. Lomas has tried, but all of these stresses have built up so much that at last, matters come to a tragic head.

That’s similar to what happens in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. That’s the story of former school principle Thea Farmer, who bought some property in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains as a place to retire. She had a dream home built for herself and was ready to enjoy the rest of her life. Then things changed. First, some bad luck and poor financial decision-making meant that she couldn’t have that dream home. Instead, she had to settle for the house next door. Then, Frank Campbell and Ellyce Carrington bought the house that Thea always thought of as hers, and moved in. Thea resents both of those developments very much, and her stress is only increased when Frank’s niece Kim moves in with her uncle. Despite herself, though, Thea actually forms a sort of awkward friendship with the girl. And that leads to more trouble when Thea becomes convinced that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for his niece. All of this stress builds up to the point that Thea decides to deal with the situation herself. And what’s interesting in this story is how much of the stress Thea has brought on herself.

Most of us can handle one stress at a time, like a traffic jam, an argument, an Internet outage or a delayed flight. Pile them all on, though, and they can add up to real tragedy. And they can add suspense and character development to a story.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Head Games.


Filed under Ed McBain, Martin Edwards, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Virginia Duigan

30 responses to “‘Till I Can’t Take it Anymore*

  1. Col

    I do like the sound of the Ruth Rendell and hopefully I’ll read Cop Hater before too much more time passes!

  2. Yes. Snap crackle and pop happens all the time in real life. We can all completely relate to the high charges that happen as a result of human overload. (not me of course. never.) I am off to adjust my halo. Thanks for the insights.

    • Of course not you, Lesley. We can all only dream of attaining your ability to rise above it all…
      In all seriousness, I think you’re absolutely right; human overload happens to all of us. Sometimes we can make the space to ‘step back’ until it all settles done, but very often, we can’t. And when that happens, anyone can snap.

  3. I remember that Ed McBain one from way back when I went through a phase of his books in my teens – he uses the heat so effectively to pile extra pressure on everyone involved. Must do a re-read of his books sometime.

  4. Margot, I’m sitting on a pile of Mcbains and intend to read something for the McBain special at Patti’s blog this Friday. I read “Cop Haters” some years ago. I like his writing style, ordinary yet classy, if I may put it that way.

    • I think that’s a great way to put it, Prashant. He has a clean, simple writing style; yet, it has an elegance to it. ‘Classy’ is a very good word for it. I’m sure whichever book you choose for Patti’s special edition of Forgotten Books will be great.

  5. Kathy D.

    Yes, good topic. How many murders are committed in real life when people just go over the top and in the heat of anger or pressure just lose it and take it out on someone else? In crime fiction, the cover-ups usually start right away or else we’d lose interest.
    In real life, this is such a problem, such as in domestic violence situations when pressures get to people and someone loses their cool. I don’t mean murder here, but acts less violent but still a result of the lid flying off the pressure cooker. And somebody gets hurt.
    The Precipice is a case in point. The author really builds up the suspense and pressure in that book very skillfully.

    • I think she does, too, Kathy. And you’re right; in real life, I think a lot of violence, both domestic and against strangers, is happens because of a buildup of pressures. Most of us are accustomed to dealing with the stress of one thing at a time. We all have to cope with things like long waits, rude salespeople and bureaucrats, and so on. But it’s when they’re all piled on together that people can really snap.

  6. Kathy D.

    And, yes, I’m definitely for one stressor at a time, especially as i get older. Where can we vote on that?

  7. Margot, these are great examples of the tiny things building up to tragedy. In life we sometimes don’t realize all those little things are building inside us until that last little thing happens and there it goes. It’s like the old saying, ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ Stories with this type of build up are very realistic and can quickly draw readers in because it’s easy to see how things can go so terribly wrong.

    • You have a well-taken point, Mason. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that stress is building up until it’s too late. We’ve been taught to expect that kind of stress, so we may not even think about just how much it’s affected us until we snap. And you’re right; when books use that kind of stress to build the tension, it can be an effective way to build suspense.

  8. Oh yes, the heat and tension. Noise and tension. Crowds and tension. i wonder how the rest of the non-murdering types manage to keep a lid on the pressure cooker at similar times. A certain type who can’t perhaps? I love Ed McBain and grew up reading his stories. He is a fab writer. I must visit his books again one day. Interesting post Margot.

    • Thanks, Jane. And you raise a really interesting question. How is it some people can manage to function, even with a lot of stressors at once. Others can’t manage more than one or two. Partly, of course, it’s how people learn to manage such situations. But I also think it’s a matter of personality as well. And about McBain? I think his work is always worth a re-read.

  9. Such a great subject, both for a blog post and for a crime novel! It’s the little things, piling up and overwhelming, isn’t it? I associate this long, slow build-up with Claude Chabrol films, for some reason (although his characters don’t always snap, sometimes they just cold-bloodedly plan things for a long time) – it’s that same sense of adding little bits of stress and menace into an already fraught situation.

    • That’s exactly it, Marina Sofia. The little things that pile up with no time for decompression – that’s what drives people to the brink, in my opinion. And thanks for mentioning Chabrol. I’ve seen a little of his work, but not enough to make an informed judgement on it. That said, though, I think you make a very apt comparison there.

  10. Kathy D.

    It’s also about aging and health status. Younger: We can juggle 30 balls in the air. Women who work and have children do it every day. But getting older and so on think a few things are a time are enough, one per time period even better.

  11. The recent spate of ‘toxic marriage’ thrillers – Gone Girl and Girl on a Train for example – often show a relationship imploding under huge stress, with dire consequences….

    • That’s quite true, Moira. Those domestic noir novels really do make use of the buildup of small pressures, don’t they? I wonder if that’s going to be a trend we’ll continue to see.

  12. It seems most crime fiction and a lot of horror novels are good examples of stress buildup — the kind that makes people really lose control. I was thinking of Stephen King’s Under the Dome. Now that situation would cause me a whole lot of stress.

    • That’s interesting, Pat. I hadn’t thought of the horror genre that way, but you’re right. There is a great deal of that stress buildup. And nobody does it better than Stephen King…

  13. tracybham

    That Rendell book does sound chilling. As far as heat building up tension, the hot weather in Southern California is about to drive me over the edge.

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