There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. And it’s generally wise to wait before drawing conclusions about people. Sometimes they do surprise you. But we can’t always help our first impressions. If you’ve ever had a very bad feeling about someone that you had trouble shaking off, you know what I mean. There are times when those feelings are not justified, of course. But there are other times when they are.
It’s interesting the way these ‘creepy’ feelings are handled in crime fiction. They can be used very effectively to build tension and to create motive. And what’s even more interesting is that they can also be used to misdirect the reader. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of many more.
In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to Dr. Sarah King, who’s recently gotten her medical license. She’s just ended a romance, and by way of healing, she’s taking a trip through the Middle East. While she’s in Jerusalem, she meets the Boynton family, also touring the area. Sarah has a pleasant encounter with Raymond Boynton, but everything changes when she meets his mother. She is immediately repulsed, and can’t help almost physically shuddering. She wonders at first whether it might be an unfortunate first impression, but she soon finds out that she was right. Mrs. Boynton is an unpleasant, tyrannical mental sadist who has her family so cowed that none of them dares go against her whims. When Sarah takes a side trip to Petra, she thinks she’s seen the last of the Boyntons. But when they turn up on the same trip, matters soon come to a head. On the second afternoon of the trip, Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and when Colonel Carbury, who is the investigator for the case, asks him to look into the case, Poirot agrees. It turns out that Mrs. Boynton’s personality has a lot do with her murder.
Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is the story of the Sternwood family. Family patriarch General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to help him solve a difficult problem. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Marlowe’s been hired to find Geiger and stop him. Marlowe’s first impression of the general is not at all a positive one. It’s actually rather eerie:
‘An old man two-thirds dead and still determined to believe he could take it.’
Sternwood has lived a decadent life and admits it; he also has an autocratic way about him. None of this appeals to Marlowe, but he takes the case. By the time he tracks Geiger down, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Marlow had hoped to simply get Geiger to leave the Sternwood family alone, but it turns out that he gets far more deeply involved with them than he imagined.
Anya Lipska’s DC Natalie Kershaw meets Janusz Kiszka in the context of a murder investigation in Where the Devil Can’t Go. She’s looking into the death of Justyna Kozlowska, who seems to have died of a drug overdose. It’s not as simple as that though, and Kershaw believes that the victim was probably murdered. Kiszka knew Justyna, and that makes him a ‘person of interest.’ He’s a sort of ‘fixer’ London’s Polish community – someone who can get things done. So he knows all sorts of people, both law-abiding and…not so law-abiding. What’s more, he doesn’t particularly trust the police, and he has his own reasons for not being entirely forthcoming with Kershaw. So she sees him as dangerous – possibly even a killer. As they get to know one another, each sees that the other has valuable skills and information, and that they’ll solve the case better by co-operating. But it takes a while before Kershaw can shed her initial bad feeling about Kiszka.
When Megan Abbot’s Lora King meets Alice Steele in Die a Little, she immediately gets a bad feeling about her. Lora is a Pasadena schoolteacher whose brother Bill has fallen in love with Alice. Alice is a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant with a shadowy past. On the surface, there isn’t really any reason to dislike Alice. She seems to treat Bill well, she’s friendly, she’s smart and she’s witty. In fact, Lora even tries to convince herself that she’s simply reacting out of overprotectiveness towards her brother. But she can’t shake her very creepy feeling about Alice. Matters don’t get any better when Alice and Bill marry, either. Then, there’s a murder. When it comes out that Alice may be mixed up in it, Lora feels especially torn. On the one hand, she is repelled by Alice’s life. On the other, she is drawn to it.
And then there’s Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. It soon comes out that Michelle was a sex worker who’d been in care since she was twelve years old. After a short time, Morriss discovers that Michelle was working for a pimp named Charlie Hawes. The more she hears about Hawes, the more contempt Morriss feels for him. But that doesn’t mean he killed Michelle. Still, she does consider him a suspect and tracks him down. The minute she meets him, she gets a very bad, creepy feeling about him. It doesn’t make her feel any better that Hawes is slick and arrogant. Among other challenges that she faces, Morriss has to separate her feelings about Hawes from a fair consideration of the evidence.
Her challenge is one we all face at times. There are just certain people who give us creepy feelings right from the beginning. Sometimes we’re right; sometimes we’re wrong. Either way, though, it’s hard to get past them.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Camper van Beethoven’s I Don’t See You.