Have you ever known people who lived very much in what we sometimes call a world of their own? Sometimes, it seems as though people like that have lost touch with reality, even if they can function in the actual world.
In some cases, that disconnect is because of a mental health problem. In some cases, it has other bases. Either way, characters like that can add an interesting touch to a crime novel. Is the character really as ‘out of touch’ as it seems? Is the character hiding something sinister? Characters who live in a world of their own can add a particularly interesting layer to a psychological thriller, too, and there are a lot of examples of that. Here are just a few examples from thrillers and crime fiction to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, for instance, we are introduced to the Boynton family. They’re taking a tour of the Middle East – their first visit outside their home in America. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is unpleasant, malicious and controlling. In fact, she has her family so much under her control that no-one dares do anything without her approval. When she is murdered on the second day of the family’s trip to the ancient city of Petra, Hercule Poirot (who is in the area) investigates. He soon discovers that every member of the family had a good motive for murder. One of those members is seventeen-year-old Ginevra Boynton. Of all of the family, she’s the one who seems to be suffering most from her mother’s influence. She has a very tenuous connection with reality, and doesn’t always seem lucid. Yet, she is very sure of what she does believe. Without spoiling the story, I can also say that she is not as ‘out of touch’ as it seems.
In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, Queen is staying in a rented house in the Hollywood Hills. He’s there for some peace and quiet – and some writing. Everything changes when nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill asks him for help. Her father, Leander Hill, has recently died of a heart attack, and Laurel is convinced that it was brought on deliberately. Queen’s reluctant to investigate at first. But Lauren tells him that, just before his death, her father received a series of macabre ‘gifts’ that she thinks were a message to him. What’s more, Hill’s business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘gifts.’ The puzzle is irresistible for Queen, so he starts asking questions. And one of the people he meets is Priam’s stepson, Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac doesn’t live with his mother and stepfather; rather, he lives in a tree. He wears as little as possible – frequently nothing at all. And, in the world he lives in, there’s about to be a nuclear blast, so everyone has to get ready for life after ‘The Bomb.’ He may seem eccentric – even mentally ill. But to Mac, the way he lives makes perfect sense.
As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell introduces us to the Cosway family in The Minotaur. Swedish nurse Kerstin Kvist accepts a job with the Cosways who live in an old, Victorian home called Lydstep Old Hall. Her role will be to care for 39-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. Soon after settling in, Kvist begins to see that this family is not a typical family (if there even is such a thing). For one thing, Mrs. Cosway, the family matriarch, insists that Kvist’s patient be kept under heavy sedation – something Kvist isn’t sure is necessary. For another, the entire family lives and behaves as though it’s still the Victorian Era. They seem to live in a world of their own in that sense. Kvist decides that she’ll have to take some action with regard to her patient. So, without informing anyone, she begins to withhold his medication. That decision has tragic consequences for several people. Throughout the novel, we see how the Cosways have their own, insular little world, quite apart from the real world. I know, fans of 13 Steps Down…
So do the Blackwoods, whom we meet in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The story is narrated by eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood, who very much lives in her own world, and seems quite out of touch with reality at times. For her, any little action can be an omen, and she has several rituals that make sense to her, but aren’t at all connected with reality. We soon find out that her sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian, have their own psychological issues. All of them live in a rather isolated house near a small Vermont village. And it’s not long before we learn that a tragedy took place there six years earlier. As the story goes on, we find out what that tragedy was, and we learn some dark truths about the family and the village. One of the plot threads in the story is the disconnect between the members of the family and what most people would call reality.
And then there’s Teresa Solana’s A Shortcut to Paradise. In that novel, noted Catalán novelist Marina Dolç has just received the very prestigious Golden Apple Fiction Award. There’s a glittering event to celebrate the award, and, of course, Dolç attends. After the event, she returns to her hotel room, where she is brutally murdered. Her top rival, Amadeu Cabestany, is the most likely suspect. In fact, he’s arrested for the crime. But he says he’s innocent. Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez, get involved in the investigation when Borja claims they’ve been hired to find the killer. As they look for the real murderer, they find that more than one person could have wanted the victim dead. And when they get to the truth, we learn that Dolç was killed because someone lived in a separate world, so to speak, not very connected with reality.
Sometimes living in a world of one’s own can bring on real surges of creativity. Ask any writer and you’ll find that imagination plays a big role in writing. But sometimes, the price of not being connected with the real world is very high…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan O’Day’s Angie Baby.