It never fails, does it? You’re busy with your life, when something happens to disrupt your routine. It may be someone coming in to fix the boiler/air conditioning/etc., or it may be that your access to the Internet isn’t working. There are lots of other things like that that happen, and they always manage to happen just when you’re in the midst of everything.
It’s frustrating in real life, of course. And it’s realistic in crime fiction, too. After all, those are the sorts of frustrating things we all have to deal with at times. And for the writer, those discomforts also allow for added tension and sometimes conflict.
In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence pays a visit to Hercule Poirot. Spence is concerned because James Bentley is soon to be executed for the murder of his landlady, Mrs. McGinty, and Spence thinks Bentley may be innocent. He asks Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot travels to the village of Broadhhinny to investigate. There’s not much available in terms of lodging in such a small village, but Poirot finds a room at Long Meadows, the property of Johnnie and Maureen Summerhayes. Almost immediately, Poirot finds that his accommodations are, to say the least, not to his taste. His hosts are not skilled at running a guest house, so the food is bad, the room is uncomfortable, and the home is completely disorganized. Needless to say, those frustrations add tension (and actually, some funny moments) to the story. And they don’t make Poirot’s investigations any easier!
Stan Jones’ White Sky, Black Ice introduces readers to Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active. Although he is Inupiaq, he was adopted and raised by white parents in Anchorage. So when he is assigned to the small northern town of Chukchi, there are a lot of adjustments he has to make. Shortly after his arrival, Active gets involved in the investigation of two deaths that, on the surface, look like suicides. One is George Clinton, who’s found dead outside a bar. The other is Aaron Stone, who’s found dead on what was supposed to be a hunting trip. Investigating Stone’s death involves going out to Katy Lake, where the victim’s hunting cabin was, so Active gets a ride from bush pilot Cowboy Decker. The plane is extremely small and uncomfortable, with so much noise that both pilot and passenger have to wear headphones so that they can communicate. And the trail isn’t any more comfortable, especially with night coming on and winter approaching. Fortunately, Active finds a place for the night with Amos Wilson, who has a cabin in that area. The cabin is far from what most of us would think of as comfortable, but it’s warm and safe.
In one sub-plot of Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets a temporary office-mate. There’s been vandalism in the building that houses the Department of Journalism at the university where Kilbourn works, and several of the faculty members in that department have to find temporary office space elsewhere until the damage has been repaired. Kilbourn offers to share her office with a colleague and friend, Ed Mariani. On the one hand, the two like each other, so they both work to make this arrangement go as smoothly as possible. On the other hand, it’s awkward for both of them. If you’ve ever had to share an office with someone, you know how uncomfortable that can be, what with people’s different habits, schedules and so on. Still, the two of them make the best of the situation. Matters get even more uncomfortable, though, when Kilbourn begins to wonder whether her friend and temporary office-mate might have committed murder…
In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin is asked to lend his expertise when the body of a young woman, Catherine McBride, is discovered. It turns out that the victim is a former client of O’Loughlin, so he rather reluctantly agrees to try to help find out who would have killed her. Then there’s another murder. And this one implicates O’Loughlin. DI Vincent Ruiz was already under the impression that O’Loughlin might know more about the case than he let on; now he begins to suspect him. O’Loughlin will have to clear his own name, and go up against a very dangerous killer, to avoid being convicted of crimes he didn’t commit. At the same time as all of this is going on, the boiler in the O’Loughlin home is broken, and a plumber will have to be called in. That means strange people coming in and out of the house, a disruption of routine, and, of course, the expense. If you’ve ever had that happen to you, you know how frustrating the whole thing can be.
And then there’s Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. In that novel, which takes place in London in the early 1920s, Emily Wray has recently lost her husband. At this time, and in this place, ladies don’t really have careers, as a rule. So Emily and her daughter Frances have no other option, as they see it, but to open their home to lodgers (they’re called ‘paying guests’ as a euphemism). The Wrays put out discreet advertisements, and soon enough, Len and Lilian Barber accept the terms and move in. Everyone knows that the arrangement is more or less necessary. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, fun, or smooth. For one thing, there’s the awkwardness of having strangers in the house. For another, there are the inevitable annoyances such as extra noises, not enough hot water when you want it, and so on. But everyone tries to make it work. Before long, though, things begin to spin out of control, and the end result of this arrangement is real tragedy.
Not all of those frustrations do end up that way, but they’re often enough to put us completely out of sorts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think my Internet’s about to cra –
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from No Fun at All’s Trapped Inside.