Most of us like to think we have some control over our lives. Even though we may know intellectually that we can’t always control what happens, we want to feel that we can. That’s part of why it can be so unsettling when we decide to share our lives with someone. In doing that, we give up some of the control we’ve had over our what we do.
Feeling as though you’re losing control (or no longer have it) can be scary, and in a story, it can cause tension and suspense. So, it’s no surprise that it happens as often as it does in crime fiction. It can add a lot to a story.
In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), for instance, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow is comfortably married, with two children. His wife, Gerda, looks up to him and is completely devoted to him. In many ways, he likes it that way, because he likes to feel in control. But in other ways, it makes him restless. Things are different with his mistress, Henrietta Savernake. She’s a successful sculptor who has her own independent life, and is not at all under Christow’s thumb. He likes the intellectual give-and-take with her, but he doesn’t like feeling that he has little control over what she thinks. One weekend, the Christows are invited to visit the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. The Angkatells have also invited a group of relatives (including Henrietta, who’s a cousin). On the Sunday, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot is invited for lunch that day and arrives just after the murder. At first, the case seems clear-cut. But things don’t turn out to be as simple as it seems on the surface…
James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity introduces readers to insurance agent Warren Huff. One day, he happens to be in Hollywoodland, not far from the home of one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger. He stops by, hoping to get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t hime, but his wife, Phyllis, is. She and Huff strike up a conversation, and it’s not long before Huff is smitten. Phyllis does nothing to discourage him, either, and they soon begin an affair. She tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband, and that she has a plan to profit by his death. By this time, Huff is so besotted that he goes along with her plan, even writing the double-indemnity insurance policy that Phyllis wants. The murder is duly carried out, but Huff soon becomes aware of how very little control he has over what’s happened, and what happens next. That recognition is extremely unsettling, and as things continue to spin out of control for Huff, it adds to the tension.
That sense of losing control can also happen when we feel our bodies are beginning to betray us, and it can be frightening. For instance, Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances introduces readers to political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn. The main plot of the story is the murder of her friend, Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. As a way of coping with her grief, Joanne decides to write a biography of Andy’s life. In the process of getting the information she needs to do that, she gets closer and closer to the truth about his death. In the meantime, something troubling is happening. Joanne seems to be getting ill and losing weight for no apparent reason. As the novel goes on, things continue to get worse, and the doctors can’t tell her exactly what’s wrong. It’s not spoiling the story to say that we find out what’s going on in the end; but until we do, it’s quite unnerving.
Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind also explores that feeling of loss of control. Dr. Jennifer White is a successful Chicago-based orthopaedic surgeon. She is diagnosed with early-onset dementia, so she has to leave her position at the age of sixty-five. As the novel opens, she lives with a caregiver, Magdalena. She still functions well on some days, but she is slowly losing control over her mind. It’s truly scary for her, as you can imagine. On some days, she’s simply a retired surgeon. On others, she doesn’t know who that person is in her house, or who it is (her children) who visit her, and that unsettles her. Then, the woman who lives next door is murdered. The two have known each other for years, so Detective Luton, who’s investigating the murder, suspects that Jennifer may know more than she can say about the killing. There’s other evidence, too, that implicates her. But Luton isn’t going to have much time to try to get to the truth before her witness mentally slips away completely.
Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney is a Bangkok-based PI. She runs her own business and is very independent. When we first meet her, in Behind the Night Bazaar, she doesn’t have a partner, as she would rather live life on her own terms and make her own decisions about the business. She likes having that control. So, when she meets Rajiv Patel, in The Half-Child, she’s fully prepared to keep him at the same distance as she’s kept other men in her life. But she finds herself getting closer to him than she’d planned. In the end, they become intimate partners as well as business partners. On the one hand, Patel is smart, and has much to contribute to the business. And the two care deeply about each other. On the other, it’s very unsettling for Keeney at times. She doesn’t get to make all of the decisions any more, and she doesn’t have control that she used to have. For her, being involved with Patel is worth the uneasiness, but that doesn’t mean she never feels it.
And that’s not surprising. Most people don’t like to feel that sense of loss of control Little wonder that it can add so much to a crime story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Shameless.