‘Crocodiles are easy. They try to kill and eat you. People are harder. Sometimes they try to be your friend first.’
If you’ve ever had the experience of being badly hurt by someone you thought was a friend, you’ll probably agree with Irwin.
That plot point has become an important part of many crime fiction novels; and, if you think about it, it’s a natural fit for the genre. Sadly, it’s an all-too-realistic scenario. And it can make for suspense and tension in a plot.
For example, Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock introduces Celia Austin, who lives in a hostel for students. When some troubling events happen at the hostel, Hercule Poirot investigates. At first, it looks as though the solution is easy. Celia admits to being responsible for some of what’s happened, and everyone thinks the matter is closed. Then, two nights later, she dies. It’s soon proven that she was murdered. And Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who was responsible. It turns out that Celia made the tragic mistake of trusting that someone at the hostel was a friend, and paid a very high price for that. Christie uses that in several of her other stories, too (right, fans of Death on the Nile?).
In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, insurance representative Walter Huff is drawn into a web of deceit and murder by someone he thinks he can trust. He happens to be in the Hollywood area one day, and decides to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, who lives nearby. He arrives at the house to find that Nirdlinger isn’t home. His wife, Phyllis, is, though, and she and Huff strike up a conversation. Soon enough, Huff falls for her, and she does nothing to discourage him. Before he knows it, he’s so besotted that he falls in with her plan to kill her husband for his life insurance money. Huff even writes up the sort of policy that she needs. The murder goes as planned – at first. Then it hits Huff that he has actually been responsible for killing someone – because of someone he thought was more than a friend. And things spiral out of control from there.
They do in Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger, too. In that novel, Fabien Delorme is distressed to learn that that his wife, Sylvie, has been killed in a car accident. He’s even more upset to learn that she wasn’t alone in the car. Unbeknownst to him, she had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, and that bothers him even more than does the fact that she is dead. Delorme finds out that his rival left a widow, Martine, and becomes unhealthily obsessed with her. He stalks her, and finally gets to meet her. They begin a relationship which spins completely out of control and ends up in ugly tragedy all around. I don’t want to give away too much, but I can say that, like most noir stories, there’s plenty of betrayal and hurt from people who seem trustworthy at first.
T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton introduces readers to solicitor Jim Harwood. He gets a very difficult case when a young man named Elton Spears is accused of murder. According to the prosecution, Spears killed an enigmatic woman named Sarena Gunasekera, and threw her body off a cliff at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. He was seen in the area, and it’s already well-known that he’s a troubled person. What’s more, he’s had brushes with the law before because of inappropriate contact with girls and women. Harwood knows Spears, and agrees to take the case. Together with barrister Harry Douglas, Harwood sets out to prove that Elton Spears is innocent. If he is, then someone else must be guilty. It turns out that that someone had seemed to be a person Spears could trust…
And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? Yvonne Mulhern and her husband, Gerry, have recently moved from London to Dublin with their newborn daughter, Róisín. It’s a major disruption, but it means that Gerry can take advantage of an important career opportunity, and that means a great deal more money for the family. Everyone settles in as best they can, and Gerry digs into his new job. Yvonne is exhausted, as new parents tend to be. What’s more, she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, so she feels isolated. Then she discovers an online forum for new mums called Netmammy. She joins the group and soon feels much of the camaraderie and support that she’s been missing. She gets to know the other members, too, and feels a real sense of friendship with them. And that’s why, when one of them seems to go ‘off the grid,’ Yvonne gets concerned. She’s worried enough to go to the police, but there’s not much they can do. Then, the body of an unidentified young woman turns up in an abandoned apartment. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle, herself an expectant mother, investigates the death. The victim’s profile is similar enough to Yvonne’s missing friend that it could be the same person. If it is, then that has frightening implications for Netmammy. Little by little, and each in a different way, the two women find out the truth. Throughout this novel, there’s a strong thread of people one thinks are friends, who turn out to be anything but…
And that’s the thing. There are people who seem to be friends, but aren’t at all to be trusted. And when they show themselves for what they are, it can change everything.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leon Huff, Gene McFadden, and John Whitehead’s Back Stabbers.