Imagine how you might feel if you really, honestly believed someone was trying to kill you. It would likely be even worse if you didn’t exactly who it was, because you wouldn’t know the source of the threat. All of the tension, anxiety, and worse that comes from feeling threatened like that plays havoc with someone’s life.
In a crime novel, though, it adds tension and suspense. And it’s an effective tool for involving a sleuth in a case. So, it’s little wonder that we see it as often as we do in the genre. The ‘someone’s trying to kill me’ plot line has arguably become a trope, and that tension and conflict are part of the reason.
Agatha Christie uses that plot point in several of her stories. For instance, in Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are staying at the Majestic Hotel in St. Loo. Poirot has determined to take his ease and retire from active investigating. Everything changes when he happens to twist his ankle, and Magdala ‘Nick’ Buckley comes to his aid. In the course of their interaction, she tells him that she’s had a few escapes from death in the last few days. On the surface, it can all be passed off as a series of weird events and nothing more. But then, Poirot discovers a hole in the hat she leaves behind. And the bullet that seems to have made that hole. Now, he suspects that someone’s trying to kill her. He warns her and starts to get to know the other people in her life, to find out who might be targeting her. Then, there actually is a murder. Nick’s cousin has come to visit and borrows a distinctive shawl one evening. While she’s wearing it, she’s shot. Poirot slowly puts the pieces together and discovers who threatened Nick’s life and killed her cousin.
In Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains, we are introduced to private detective Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver. One day, she gets a letter from Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour, that begins this way:
‘Dear Mrs. Gilver,
…My husband is going to kill me, and I would rather he didn’t.’
The two arrange that Dandy will visit her new client in the guise of a maid seeking a job. That will give her the opportunity to get to know the various members of the household, and in particular, Philip ‘Pip’ Balfour. Dandy duly goes to the house, gets a job using an alias, and starts her duties. Early the next morning, Pip Balfour is found dead, and Superintendent Hardy is called in. Lollie claims that she didn’t commit the murder, but she is a prime suspect. Then, there’s another murder. Now it’s clear that something sinister is going on in the house. Dandy and her business partner, Alec Osborne, work to find out who the killer is.
Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas begins as Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets a visitor. Wealthy business tycoon Charity Wiser has come to suspect that someone in her family is trying to kill her. So, she sends her granddaughter, Flora, to Quant to ask him to investigate. And Charity Wiser has an idea for helping him get to know the suspects. She is planning a family cruise on her private boat and invites Quant to join the group. This, she believes, will give him the opportunity to ‘vet’ the members of her family. Quant’s pleased at the opportunity for an all-expenses cruise and agrees. He soon finds that almost everyone in the family has a good reason to want Charity Wiser dead. Not only does she have a fortune to leave, but she is manipulative, and seems to delight in wielding her power and in putting her family in situations that she knows will make them uncomfortable. Against this background, Quant will have to find out who the real enemy is before that person finishes the job.
Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob is the story of South Florida judge Robert Isom ‘Maximum Bob’ Gibbs. He’s earned his nickname because of his reputation for handing out the stiffest sentences that the law allows. He wields a lot of power in the county, and he’s made his share of enemies. One day, an alligator is found on his property. It doesn’t hurt anyone, although it causes damage. Still, an alligator is a dangerous animal, and the police are called in, in the form of local police officer Gary Hammond. He begins to wonder whether the alligator might have been put there deliberately, and if so, by whom. But he doesn’t have much to go on. Then, one night, shots are fired into the judge’s home. Now it’s clear that someone is trying to kill the judge, and there are plenty of suspects. After all, he’s infuriated plenty of convicts and parolees. And there’s his wife, who might have any number of motives. There’s also the fact that he’s a womanizer, with all that that entails. In the end, and after more than one death, Hammond and parole officer Kathy Diaz Baker find out who has been targeting the judge.
One of the more interesting uses of this plot point comes in Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw. In that novel, wealthy Tokyo magnate Takaoki Ninagawa is devastated when his granddaughter, Chika, goes missing. Matters get even worse when her body is found, and it’s discovered that she was raped before she was killed. Ninagawa decides to do something about it. He finds out that the killer is a man named Kunihide Kiyomaru and offers a bounty of one billion yen to anyone who kills Kiyomaru and can prove it. When Kiyomaru learns of the price on his head, he goes into hiding in Fukuoka, about 1100 km/685 mi from Tokyo. If Kiyomaru is to be prosecuted for the rape and murder, he’ll need to be transported back to Tokyo, and SP (Special Police) officer Kazuki Mekari of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department (MPD) is given the task of making that happen. Mekari and his team travel to Fukuoka and prepare for the journey to Tokyo with their prisoner. But it won’t be easy. Many thousands of people know about the bounty and would like nothing more than to kill Kiyomaru. And there’s nothing to say that one of the members of the police escort couldn’t be tempted, too. With so many people trying to kill this particular person, getting him back alive will be a daunting task.
The thought that someone is trying to kill you is an eerie one. In real life, it’s truly awful. In crime fiction, it can add suspense, tension and an interesting plot like to a story. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Giraffes’ Louis Guthrie Wants to Kill Me.