As this is posted, it would have been Sigmund Freud’s 161st birthday. There’ve been a lot of criticisms of Freud’s work through the decades as we’ve gotten to understand the human mind a little better. But it’s hard to deny his influence on the field of psychology. And many people agree that he was actually the founder of psychoanalysis.
The whole point of psychoanalysis is to bring to the surface unconscious fears and anxieties, repressed memories, and the like, so as to address mental health issues. There’s a lot to this approach to psychotherapy – far more than there is space in this one post. Besides, I’m not a psychologist. But one of the key facets of it – and something very relevant for crime fiction – is the intimate relationship between client and therapist.
That relationship is fascinating, actually. In the best of situations, it’s intimate without being a friendship or a romance. It’s professional without being cold, too. People tell things to their therapists that not even their partners may know. Yet, a healthy therapist/client relationship doesn’t entail the emotional responsibility, if I can put it that way, that other intimate relationships entail. And we certainly see a lot of therapist/client relationships in crime fiction.
In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to Dr. Theodore Gerard, a noted psychologist. During a trip to the Middle East, he meets the Boyntons, an American family on a sightseeing tour. He’s fascinated by them on a professional level, and that’s not surprising. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is tyrannical, manipulative and malicious. Her impact on her family members is so negative as to be pathological, and just about everyone shows some symptoms of the trauma. The one who seems to be suffering the most is Mrs. Boynton’s youngest child, seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny.’ As Gerard gets to know her, he sees (and so do readers) that she has delusions, and shows other signs of mental illness. On the second day of the visit to Petra, Mrs. Boynton is murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and is asked to investigate. As he does, he relies on Gerard’s professional opinions of the various family members. And, in the end, he finds out who the killer is. It’s not spoiling the story to say that there’s an epilogue, that takes place five years after the murder. And it’s very interesting to see how the client/therapist relationship has developed between Gerard and Jinny Boynton.
The ‘Nicci French’ writing duo has created a series featuring London psychologist Frieda Klein. In Blue Monday, the first in that series, Klein is working with a new client, Alan Dekker. He has many anxieties and other issues, and Klein tries to help him work through them. Then, he begins to tell her about dreams he has in which he and his wife have a son who looks just like him. In real life, they have no children, and Klein tries to work with Dekker to address that and some other issues he’s facing. Then, four-year-old Matthew Faraday goes missing. The media makes much of this, and there are all sorts of efforts, both formal and informal, to find the boy. When Klein hears about this case, she begins to worry, first subconsciously, and then consciously, that there might be a relationship between the boy’s disappearance and the work she’s been doing with Dekker. Klein takes her commitment to Dekker’s privacy very seriously, but she’s concerned about Matthew Faraday, too. So, she approaches DCI Malcolm Karlsson, who’s in charge of the Faraday case. Each in a different way, the two begin to look into what happened, and they learn that this incident is related to a past disappearance. Among other things, the story shows just how intimate and complex the client/therapist relationship is.
Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace features Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She has her own personal issues, but she’s been successful professionally. And she’s developed effective professional relationships with her clients. Those relationships are intimate and personal, though, as all therapaeutic relationships are. So, Bergman is truly dismayed when she learns that someone has gotten access to her case notes. Then, the body of one of her clients, Sara Matteus, is found floating in water near Bergman’s home. There’s a suicide note that specifically mentions Bergman, too. But it’s soon clear that the victim was murdered. At first, Bergman is a ‘person of interest.’ But it’s shown that she is innocent. It’s also clear, though, that someone is out to ruin her, and might not be satisfied with just that. Now, Bergman is going to have to work quickly, and co-operate with the police, if she’s to stay alive.
There’s also Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, the story of Dunedin psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson. She’s just getting started in her profession when she meets a new client, Elisabeth Clark. Her first meetings with Elisabeth show just how difficult it can be to establish any kind of rapport with a client, so as to build trust. After a time, though, Elisabeth does begin to trust her new therapist a little, and shares a terrible story from her past. Years earlier, her younger sister, Gracie, was abducted. No trace of her was ever found, and the incident devastated Elisabeth. This story is hauntingly familiar to Stephanie, whose family faced similar devastation when Stephanie’s younger sister, Gemma, was abducted. Against her better judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest, and try to find out who caused such pain to both families. So, she travels from Dunedin to her home town at Wanaka, and works to find out the truth about the two missing girls. Among other things, this novel shows the intimacy that there can be in a therapaeutic relationship.
Fans of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels, and of Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin novels can say similar things about those series. They show the complexities and intimacy that develop when two people work together to help one of them heal. It’s little wonder this complicated relationship figures in so many crime novels.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Annie Ross’ Twisted.