Most crime novels involve at least a little violence. After all, a lot of them are about (at least one) murder. For some novels, though, the focus of the tension is as much on the psychological as it is on anything else, perhaps more. And, for many readers, that sort of suspense has powerful impact – even more than does physical violence.
The focus on psychology (as opposed to violence) for tension has been around for a long time. For example, Charlotte Perkins Stetson’s The Yellow Wallpaper, from 1892, details a woman’s slow descent into madness over the course of a summer. There isn’t really violence in this story, but it’s psychologically suspenseful.
James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity also has more of a focus on the psychological than it does on violence. In it, insurance agent Walter Huff happens to be in the area where a client of his, H.S. Nirdlinger, lives. He stops by in the hopes of getting Nirdlinger to renew his policy. When Huff gets to the house, he finds that Nirdlinger isn’t home, but his wife, Phyllis, is. The two get to talking, and Huff is soon smitten. Phyllis does nothing to discourage him, and it’s not long before the two are involved romantically. Phyllis has a plan to kill her husband; in fact, she even knows the sort of insurance policy she’ll need to carry out her plan. By the time she shares that plan with Huff, he’s so besotted that he goes along with it, even writing the plan that Phyllis needs. The murder is duly carried out, but Huff soon sees that that’s only the beginning of his troubles. In the story, the psychology involved causes at least as much tension as does the actual murder.
Beryl Bainbridhe’s Harriet Said also uses psychology to build suspense. It’s the story of a thirteen-year-old unnamed narrator who’s waiting for her fourteen-year-old friend, Harriet, to return to England from a trip to Wales. Feeling a little restless, the narrator strikes up a friendship with a middle-aged man named Peter Biggs. She starts to feel the hormone rush that comes from attraction, but she doesn’t do anything about it, as she wants to wait for Harriet’s return. And, in any case, Biggs is both older and married. When Harriet comes back, she says that she doesn’t want her friend to be overly emotional about Biggs. Rather, she wants this to be an objective observation. So, her plan is to spy on Biggs, and then ‘humble’ him. The two teenagers put their plan into motion. But, when they see something they were not intended to see, everything changes, and takes a much more sinister turn…
There’s also a lot psychological tension in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. In it, Amsterdam police detective Piet Van der Valk is seconded to the small town of Zwinderen. Someone has been sending out vicious anonymous letters, and they’ve wreaked so much havoc that two people have committed suicide. Another has had a complete mental breakdown. The local police haven’t got very far in finding out who’s responsible, so it’s hoped that Van der Valk can discover the truth. Little by little, he gets to know the people of Zwinderen; and, as he does, he finds that many of them are really terrified of the letters. It’s a small town, where everyone knows everyone, and everyone sits in judgement. The hold that the letter writer has over the residents is much more psychological than it is anything else.
That’s also the case with A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife. Todd Gilbert and Jodi Brett are a successful Chicago couple who’ve been together twenty years, although they’ve never legally married. He’s a developer; she’s a psychotherapist. Everything begins to fray at the edges for them when Todd has an affair with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his business partner. This isn’t the first time that Todd has strayed, but this time, it’s different. Natasha discovers that she’s pregnant, and she decides she wants to marry and have a family. Todd tells her (and himself) that this is what he wants, too. His lawyer convinces him to serve Jodi with a formal eviction notice that will require her to leave their home. Jodi’s lawyer tells her that Illinois doesn’t have a provision for common-law marriages. This means that Joid has no legal claim on the house. With her options getting more and more limited, Jodi becomes more and more withdrawn. Then, Todd is killed in a drive-by shooting. On the surface, it looks as though he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, so to speak. But it turns out that someone hired the killers. And now, the police have to go through a number of suspects to find out who’s responsible.
Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry also has very little focus on violence, and much more on psychology. Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, travel from Scotland to his native Victoria with their nine-week old son, Noah. The flight itself is a nightmare, but they finally land in Melbourne. During the long drive from the airport to their destination, they suffer every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of their son. There’s a massive search for baby Noah, and all sorts of public and private groups join in. At first, there’s quite a lot of sympathy for the couple. Then, a few questions start to be raised. Little by little, suspicion starts to fall on, especially, Joanna. As she and Alistair deal with the media, the police, and Alistair’s daughter, Chloe, we learn the truth about Noah.
And then there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner. That novel takes place mostly at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant – the kind where you have to call in months ahead of time to (hopefully) get a table. Two couples, Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s brother Serge and his wife, Babette, meet at the restaurant for dinner. As the dinner proceeds, course by course, we slowly learn more about these two couples. We also learn of a terrible secret they are keeping. Paul and Claire’s fifteen-year-old son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, also fifteen, are guilty of an awful crime. In fact, that’s the reason the couples are dining together. They’re trying to work out what they’re going to do, now that the police are investigating. While we do learn what the crime is (and it’s violent), the real focus of the novel is the dysfunction in the families, and the psychology involved.
And, very often, that psychology has at least as much capacity for drawing the reader in as does violence – perhaps even more (Right, fans of Shirley Jackson’s work?). When it’s well-written, a psychological novel can be tense and suspenseful. Which ones have you liked best?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Up.