Don’t Push Me Too Far*

pressureMost of us learn that we can only push people so far before they push back. Everyone has a different limit, but we all have one. Crime writers know this, and sometimes use it to real advantage in their novels.

That pressure, as someone pushes too hard, and someone else nears the breaking point, can add real suspense to a story. And it can serve as a credible motive for murder, at least in the mind of the killer.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we meet the Boyntons, an American family on a sightseeing visit to the Middle East. Matriarch Mrs. Boynton is malicious, vindictive, and tyrannical. She has her family so browbeaten that no-one dares go against her wishes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t resent her. A few of the members have been pushed so far for so long that they are at the proverbial breaking point. So, when Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies on the second day of a trip to Petra, Colonel Carbury decides to look into the matter. The death looks on the surface like heart failure, but the family dynamics make Carbury wonder. So, he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s also in the Middle East, to investigate. As we learn who really killed the victim and why, we see the wisdom in not pushing people past their limits.

Talmage Powell’s short story, To Avoid a Scandal, features a banker named Horace Croyden. He leads a quiet, well-ordered and completely scandal-free life, and he likes it that way. In fact, for quite a while, his life is, for him, perfect. Then he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. At first, she seems demure, with good taste and good manners. And that’s what draws him to her. They court in an utterly respectable way, and then marry. That’s when Horace discovers that his wife isn’t all the person he thought he’d married. She’s more vivacious than he’d prefer, and her habits, in his opinion, aren’t well-ordered at all. She shops without a list, she doesn’t always dress before breakfast, and so on. More and more, she pushes him to the limit. Then comes the day she accidentally destroys some ciphers he’s been working (ciphers are Horace’s passion). That’s when she pushes him too far…

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater is the first in his long-running 87th Precinct series. As the novel begins, the city of Isola (a thinly-disguised New York City) is suffering from a terrible heat wave. This novel was written before air conditioning was a common amenity for homes, so everyone’s sweltering and miserable. That includes Detective Steve Carella and his team, who are investigating the murders of two fellow police officers. They’re also expected to attend lineups of those who’ve been arrested for major crimes, so that they can become familiar with those cases. One of those suspects is Virginia Pritchett, who’s been arrested for killing her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the allegation. Rather, she explains that the murder was the end result of a buildup of tension between her and her husband that pushed her beyond her breaking point. And the miserable heat didn’t help:

‘‘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.”

In this case, we see what happens when a person is pushed too far by both the heat and a tense domestic situation.

Ruth Rendell’s One Across, Two Down tells the story of Stanley Manning, who works as a fuel attendant. He has a prison record, but he’s trying to stay on the proverbial straight and narrow, and make a life for himself and his wife, Vera. But he’s got a big problem: Vera’s mother, Maude, who hates Stanley. The feeling is mutual, but Stnaley has to put up with her, because he and Vera stand to inherit a fortune when she dies. Still, the pressure of having to tolerate Maude gets worse and worse, until Stanley decides to take matters into his own hands. And as you can guess if you’ve read Rendell’s work, this doesn’t end well.

Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s An Easy Thing addresses another sort of pressure. In that novel, Mexico City PI Héctor Belascoaran Shayne gets three different cases. One of them concerns the death of an engineer named Gaspar Alvarez Cerruli, who was killed in his office at Delex, the company where he worked. The Santa Clara Industrial Council hires Belascoaran Shayne to find out who the killer was, and bring them the proof. This case is complicated by the fact that there’s a great deal of tension between union members and management at Delex. There’s a great deal of agitation for better wages and working conditions, and the union activists have been very busy. As the novel goes on, those tensions reach the boiling point, and this plays its role in this case. What’s more, the tension adds much to the suspense in the story.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place during the last years of the British Raj in Madras (today’s Chennai). In A Madras Miasma, the first of the series, Le Fanu and his assistant, Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah, are investigating the murder of Jane Carstairs, an English visitor whose body was found in the Buckingham Canal. It’s a difficult case, made more challenging by the fact that the trail leads to some very high places. In the midst of the investigation, there’s a protest. There are many who believe that India should move to Home Rule, and that the Raj should end. These people clash with the local authorities and the police, and the situation turns very, very ugly. Then, there’s a murder. And Le Fanu finds that this death is related to the Carstairs murder, and that the killer has used the protest to ‘disguise’ that connection. Part of the suspense in this novel comes from the simmering resentment against British rule, and the increasing pressure on the government to reform, and on the protesters to be quiet and go away.

If crime fiction shows us nothing else, it shows us that people do have their limits. There’s only so far that most of us can be pushed. If the pushing continues, there are bound to be consequences. And that tension can add a great deal to a crime story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Divinyls’ Back to the Wall.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Ed McBain, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Ruth Rendell, Talmage Powell

21 responses to “Don’t Push Me Too Far*

  1. Thanks Margot, for the lovely mention of Le Fanu, much appreciated

  2. I had forgotten about the hot summer weather in Ed McBain’s Cop Hater. Heat can certainly make one irritable. I wonder if the opposite kind of reaction happens with cold weather.

    • That’s an interesting question, Tracy. I’d suppose if people are cooped up too much together in freezing weather, that can put the pressure on. On the other hand, most people probably wouldn’t spend a lot of time outside in the cold.

  3. Mrs Boynton so deserved to be murdered! And poor Horace Croyden – I haven’t read that one, but frankly if his wife goes shopping without a list then she really deserves all she gets – a heinous crime! 😉

    • Well, I think so, too, FictionFan! 😉 – In all seriousness, that story is eerie exactly because it’s told from Horace’s point of view, and he’s quite serious. It’s the story of a man for whom what he does makes absolute perfect sense. And that makes it a bit creepy. And as for Mrs. Boynton? Yes, not at all the sort of woman who’d win Person of the Year…

  4. I like that you mentioned the weather as a factor that can push someone to the limits too. I was also thinking about the pressures of a job but I guess that would be considered people as in the boss or co-workers. Pushing the limits in a story does make it realistic. Great post, Margot.

    • Thank you, Mason. It is interesting, isn’t it, how the weather can push a person to the limit. And you know, you’re absolutely right about work stress, too. Sometimes the amount of work, or the pressure to get it done by a certain time, or a person at work, can push a person very, very close to the edge.

  5. I do love the array of examples you have here – I think part of the reason that Ruth Rendell was so successful was because she wrote about relationships that we can all relate to, Stanley and Maude Manning being one of them.

    • I think you’re absolutely right, Cleo. Stanley and Maude are realistic and authentic, so they resonate with readers. To me, that’s part of Rendell’s skill at building suspense. these stories could really happen, because those characters could really, potentially exists. Thanks for the kind words.

  6. Margot, Jack Reacher in KILLING FLOOR fits the bill. Wrongly arrested for a murder he did not commit, Reacher moves heaven and earth to prove his innocence and nail the men who murdered his brother — and he does it with cold-blooded precision.

    • Yes, he does, indeed, Prashant. That’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post, so thank you. I need to do a spotlight on one of the Reacher novels…

  7. R. T.

    And pushing Eunice too far does not end well.

  8. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    “Don’t Push Me Too Far” — by Margot Kinberg

  9. This one really struck a chord with me, Margot. I’m definitely one of those “don’t push me too far” types. And, Living and growing up in the South without air conditioning at home or in school didn’t help matters any. Heat and humidity are NOT my friends! 🙂

    • I don’t think you’re alone, Michael. Howell Raines expressed it this way:

      ‘…those legendary hours of buzzing heat and torpidity that either bind you to the South or make you crazy to leave it.’

      And that sort of heat and humidity can take an awful toll on one’s disposition…

  10. This is what happens sometimes when someone is bullied. When pushed too far, the vulnerable might hurt themselves, or they might strike back and hurt others. It’s a sad fact of life these days that children need to be prepared for this kind of stress because the bullying can happen at any age.

    • That’s quite true, Pat. Bullying can happen at any time, and in even the ‘nicest’ school/place of work, etc. And you’re right; if you push someone too hard, that person could respond in all sorts of ways, many of them tragic. We’ve all known of too many cases that ended horribly.

  11. Everyone has a limit, and when pushed past that limit there’s no telling how a person will react. This was a great article with perfect examples. I’ve never consider this while writing crime fiction, but you’ve opened my eyes. The weather is excellent example of something that can exacerbate an already tense situation.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Melissa. And I know just what you mean about people having their limits. That limit might vary from person to person, but we all have that point. And you’re absolutely right; the weather can make things even more stressful and tense. I think that can be a really useful tool for writers.

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