They Say He’s Got to Go*

monstersOne of the most enduring plot types in any sort of writing is what I’ll call overcoming the monster. One example, for instance is the story of Beowulf and the monster called the Grendel. Of course, you don’t have to go back that far to find stories where protagonists have to overcome monsters.

If you think of monsters in the figurative sense, there are a lot of instances of this sort of plot in crime fiction. By the way, you’ll notice as this post goes on that there won’t be any instances of ‘crazed serial killer’ plots. Too easy.

In Cecil Day-Lewis/Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to Frank Cairnes, a detective novelist who writes under the name of Felix Lane. Six months before the events of the story, his son Martin ‘Martie’ was killed in a hit-and-run incident, and he’s been inconsolable since then. His grief has driven him to the point where, as he puts it,

‘I am going to kill a man.’

He’s referring, of course, to the man who killed his son. And he regards that person as a kind of monster. He sets out to find the identity of the driver, and put an end to him. Cairnes moves to the town where he and Martie were living at the time of the boy’s death, and starts his sleuthing. He finds out that the driver of the car was likely a man named George Rattery. With that information, Cairnes wangles his way into the Rattery household and looks for an opportunity to kill the man. He gets his chance one afternoon when he and Rattery go sailing together. But, as it turns out, Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary, and knew about the plot to kill him. As he tells Cairnes, if anything happens to him, the police will immediately suspect Cairnes. That’s exactly what happens when, later that afternoon, Rattery dies of poison. Cairnes seeks out poet and amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways, and asks for his help. He claims that he’s innocent (after all, why would he have planned to poison Rattery when he was going to push him overboard?) and Strangeways goes to work finding out who the real killer was. In this case, Cairnes’ grief has made him think of Rattery as a monster.

Sometimes, the monster that characters seek to overcome is in themselves (perhaps that’s another blog topic in itself…). In Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, for instance, we meet Lou Ford, deputy sheriff of Central City, Texas. He’s a quiet sort of man, a little on the ‘plodding’ side, but not stupid. He investigates when a local prostitute, Joyce Lakeland, is viciously beaten. While he’s working on that case, there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that something is going on in Central City. And all along, what people don’t know about Ford is that he’s hiding something he calls ‘the sickness’ – something he tries to overcome. And that ‘sickness’ plays its role in the story.

Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men features her sleuth, artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. The story takes place in 1932 in New South Wales. It’s a time of great hardship, with the worldwide Great Depression hitting everyone very hard. Siinclair’s family is relatively safe, as they’re wealthy and powerful. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe from tragedy. When Sinclair’s uncle, also named Rowland, is murdered one night, Inspector Biquit and his team investigate. Slowly, Sinclair comes to suspect that his uncle’s killers might be members of the New Guard, a far-right group led by Colonel Eric Campbell. The group’s aim is to stamp out all liberal and left-wing thinking, and establish a new government in Australia, that will protect the current class system, and re-establish very traditional ways of life. The more Sinclair learns about the New Guard, the more dangerous he finds them to be. In fact, they’re already plotting against New South Wales’ government, and the rest of the country will likely not be far behind. As Sinclair and his friends try to find out who murdered his uncle, they also have to work to prevent the New Guard, and Campbell, from succeeding. In this case, it’s a dangerous political group that’s seen as a sort of monster that must be stopped.

Most children are no strangers to the concept of a monster and the desire to overcome it. And for some children, it’s all too real. For instance, in Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, fourteen-year-old Adam Vander finally works up the courage to escape his abusive father, Joe. He’s always thought of Joe as a kind of monster, and with good reason. But until now, he’s always been too small and too frightened to leave. When he finally does, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who happens to be at the house when Adam makes his escape. The two spend the next week together, and form a sort of friendship. They learn, too, that they are connected in ways they’re not really comfortable discussing, but that are undeniable. And it all stems from a past incident. Still, they work together, and face real danger as the week goes on, and in the end, there’s a sense of resolution. Several parts of the story are told from Adam’s perspective, so we see how he regards Joe. It’s not exactly like Beowulf trying to defeat the Grendel, but there’s a very similar sort of sentiment.

And then there’s Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol’s The Cemetery of Swallows. That novel begins as Manuel Gemoni travels from France to the Dominican Republic. There, he kills a Dominican citizen named Tobias Darbier. There’s no doubt that Gemoni is the killer, but what’s missing is a motive. All he says about it is that he killed Darbier,

‘‘…because he had killed me.’’

Gemoni has been badly injured, so Police Commissioner Amédée Mallock of the Paris CID is sent to the Dominican Republic to bring Gemoni back to France as soon as his condition allows. When he has fully recuperated, the agreement is that he will be returned to the Dominican Republic to face trial. Mallock is particularly interested in this case, since one of his colleagues is Gemoni’s sister. As the novel goes on, we slowly learn the history of Gemoni and Darbier. And we see that the theme of overcoming a monster is woven into the plot.

It’s woven into many plots, actually. And that’s not surprising. That plot type can be very suspenseful and tense. And it’s something that resonates with readers.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blue Öyster Cult’s Godzilla.



Filed under Cecil Day-Lewis, Honey Brown, Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, Jim Thompson, Nicholas Blake, Sulari Gentill

28 responses to “They Say He’s Got to Go*

  1. Tim

    I’m intrigued by the trope you highlight; I cannot think of any examples now (since the Swiss-cheese brain is off-the-grid today), but I will BOLO for “monsters” in my upcoming excursions in crime fiction. I wonder if Shakespeare’s Iago counts; sometimes monsters commit no crimes but instead instigate crimes.

  2. Tom Franklin’s terrific novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter begins like this: ‘The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.’ Ott has himself been regarded as a kind of monster and ostracised by the local community after he was suspected of abducting his girlfriend (whose body was never found) years before.

  3. The one that springs to mind is Peter from Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog. His uncle Phil is a monster – a vicious bully with a strong line in psychological torture. He pushes and pushes, until eventually Peter reaches breaking point and it becomes a battle between them. It’s an exceptionally well-drawn picture of this kind of monster, though for me the enjoyment of the book was spoiled by repeated episodes of animal cruelty – not gratuitous in the context of the story, but it still bothered me unfortunately. For people who don’t get upset by that, though, it really is well worth reading…

  4. What a powerful trope you’ve chosen and one that I’m sure I’ve come across plenty of times, but no good examples spring to mind today, sadly.

  5. An interesting look at crime fiction, Margot. I hadn’t stopped to realize how ‘monsters’ could come in so many forms. At the first mention, I was thinking only of children who face the monsters of abusive parents or adults. Quite intriguing.

    • Thanks, Mason. I think it is interesting how we conceive of ‘monster’ in such different ways. And there’s this theme all through literature of trying to overcome whatever the monster happens to be. It’s a really interesting sort of conflict.

  6. The only one I can think of is A COLD TOMORROW which features the Mothman. Not what you’re going for, I know, but I just read this series so it’s stuck in my head. 🙂

    • I know what you mean, Sue. When I’m in the middle of a series, or just finished one, I do the same thing. I admit, I’ve not (yet) read Mae Clair’s Point Pleasant series. I hear good things about it, though, and I hope you enjoyed it.

  7. Keishon

    Great post, Margot. I went and bought The Cemetery of Swallows. I like a deep, contemplative crime novel and that looks to be one. Some people are monsters due to their horrific actions. I’d add Derek Raymond’s antagonist in I Was Dora Suarez. I don’t recall him being described as a monster (he probably was) but his actions were horrific. It’s Raymond’s most deeply disturbing book. As you mentioned already, The Killer Inside Me was good as well as Pop. 180. I think Thompson deserves the credit for creating small town sheriff’s who are psychotic. I find those kind of books very riveting. Patricia Highsmith is good at writing about hidden sickness but she tends to humanize her monsters to some degree.

    This is a fascinating topic I’d like to see explored in more depth.

    • Thank you, Keishon. I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. And it is the kind of topic that can be explored from a lot of angles. You know, you have a point about Jim Thompson’s work. He was good at creating those small-town context where the sheriff (or some other authority figure) is just on the edge…and goes over it. And that adds real suspense. Thanks for mentioning Derek Raymond, too. I’ll admit, I’ve heard of it, but not (yet) read it. Still, from what I know, it’s a good example of a character who behaves monstrously. As for Cemetery of Swallows, I’ll be interested in what you think of it. It’s not a ‘typical’ sort of crime novel (is there one?), and it doesn’t move along in a sequential way. Still, it is contemplative.

  8. Perhaps not classified as a mystery, but certainly featuring one of the most horrible monsters of all time, Silence of the Lambs came to mind right away. Hannibal Lechter still causes chills to run down my spine when I hear the name.

    • Oh, he is a great example, Pat!! Thanks for mentioning him. Chilling, indeed, and Harris did such a great job of telling a serial-killer story. That takes real skill. And, actually, I think of Silence of the Lambs as a crime novel, if not exactly a mystery novel. Interesting how a novel can be a mix of genres.

  9. kathy d

    Honey Brown’s book was different and riveting, dealing with a topic about which I’d never read in fiction. We know what’s coming but getting there is quite a trip.
    When I think of monsters, I think of some Fred Vargas books. In Seeking Whom He May Devour, my first outing with this French writer, the “monster” is thought to be a “wolfman” in a mountain community. It’s cleverly written and though the story about the wolfman comes from an old rural myth, the resolution is quite scientific.
    And then there is “An Uncertain Place,” which is quite a puzzler with legs sticking up out of a cemetary compelling Commissaire Adamsberg and his team to investigate. Vampires enter this story so there are some “real” monsters. What’s real is hotly debated at the end of the book. Quite interesting although some Vargas fans were aggravated. Not me though. I have figured out she’s quirky personified.

    • You make a very good point, Kathy, about Fred Vargas’ work. In both of those novels, there’s a fear of monsters or something similar, and Vargas weaves that neatly into the stories. I’m glad you mentioned her work. And, yes, she does create some memorable quirky characters, doesn’t she?

  10. Oh great theme, great post. I remember the villain from Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost – he was a monster, there wasn’t much doubt whodunit, we just needed to worry about how Campion would pin him down.

    • Thanks, Moira. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And that Allingham is a terrific contribution; I appreciate your filling in that gap. It takes skill to let readers in on whodunit early in the story, and still keep readers drawn in the entire way.

  11. tracybham

    I did read Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, and enjoyed it very much. And there are other very interesting suggestions in the post and in the comments.

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