It’s interesting how words become a part of our language. Take George Cukor’s 1947 film Gaslight. As you’ll know, the focus is a young woman who travels to Italy, falls in love, and marries. When she and her new husband return to England, she begins to notice strange things happening. As she slowly starts to question her own sanity, another, bigger question arises: what are her husband’s motives?
The film gave us the word ‘gaslight,’ which has come to mean ‘to manipulate someone into questioning her or his own sanity.’ ‘Gaslighting’ has been a part of crime fiction for a long time, and it certainly can add a lot to a story. On one level, there’s a lot of tension as a fictional character begins to wonder: ‘Am I crazy?’ On another level, there’s tension as readers wonder (and, later, learn) who is pulling the proverbial strings. There are a lot of examples of this plot point in the genre. Here are a few.
Agatha Christie used this plot point in several of her stories. For instance, in Third Girl, a young woman comes to visit Hercule Poirot. She tells him that she believes she may have committed a murder. Then, she abruptly leaves without giving her name (she says he’s ‘too old!’). Poirot learns from his friend, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver, that the young woman is Norma Restarick. With that information, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver start to look into the matter. Did Norma really commit a murder? If so, who is the victim? Then, Norma goes missing. Now, the possible murder case is even more complex. And it’s very interesting to see how ‘gaslighting’ works in this novel.
Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins begins as socialite Iris Carr prepares to travel back to London after a Continental holiday. She’s waiting for the train she needs, when she suffers what is likely heat stroke and blacks out. She recovers just in time to catch the train, and rushes aboard. She finds a spot in one of the coaches and settles in, but it’s soon apparent that she’s not welcome there. Still, she tries to rest a little. As the journey gets underway, Iris makes the acquaintance of an English governess, Winifred Froy. The two start talking and continue their conversation over tea that afternoon. Then, Iris returns to the compartment and falls asleep. When she wakes, Miss Froy is missing. Iris looks for her everywhere, but no-one can help her. In fact, the people in her compartment insist that there is no such person. As time goes by, Iris gets more and more concerned about Miss Froy, but no-one else seems to be able to help. Is there a Miss Froy? Is Iris mentally ill? If there is a Miss Froy, what’s happened to her? Those questions add to the tension in the story.
Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder features Howard Van Horn. One morning, he wakes from what seems to be a blackout. He’s got blood on him – not his own – and is terrified he’s done something awful. He visits his old college friend, Ellery Queen, to ask for help, and Queen agrees to do what he can. As Queen and Van Horn try to unravel the mystery, they return to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, where they stay with Van Horn’s father, Dietrich, and stepmother, Sally. When Sally Van Horn is murdered, all of the evidence seems to point to Howard as the guilty party. Even he believes he must have killed her during a blackout. Did he? Has someone been manipulating him? It’s a difficult puzzle, and I can say without spoiling the story that it takes a terrible toll.
In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Walter and Joanna Eberhart, and their two children, leave their home in New York City, and move to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, everything goes smoothly. The family settles in, and the children get accustomed to their new school and new friends. Then, Joanna’s friend, Bobbie Markowe, starts to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe her. But then, some things begin to happen that make Joanna wonder. As time goes by, she becomes less and less sure of the truth. Is she right about the danger? Is she losing her mind? That tension, as Joanna starts to question her own sanity, makes for some very suspenseful scenes in the novel.
The real action in Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring begins as former Philadelphia-based FBI agent Gregor Demarkian gets a note from his local parish priest, Father Tibor. It seems that Father Tibor has an odd request. A very wealthy railroad tycoon, Robert Hannaford, wants Demarkian to have Christmas Eve dinner with the Hannaford family. He won’t say why, or what he wants. But it’s worth a donation of US$100,000 to the church to him. Demarkian is happy to help the church if he can. And he is curious about what Hannford would want. So, he goes to the house as requested. By the time he gets there, though, it’s too late: Hannaford’s been murdered. Demarkian works with local police detective John Jackman to find out who the killer is. And, as it turns out, there are plenty of possibilities. In the end, Demarkian finds out who the killer is and what the motive is. He also finds out the reason Hannaford wanted him to visit: It seems that he
‘‘…complained about someone coming into his study and moving things, trying to make him think he was going senile.’’
That bit of ‘gaslighting’ plays an important role in the novel.
It’s not easy to make this plot point credible. After all, why would an intelligent person who’s not gullible start to question her or his own sanity? But when it’s done well, ‘gaslighting’ can add real suspense to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steely Dan’s Gaslighting Abbie.