Most of us learn that we can only push people so far before they push back. Everyone has a different limit, but we all have one. Crime writers know this, and sometimes use it to real advantage in their novels.
That pressure, as someone pushes too hard, and someone else nears the breaking point, can add real suspense to a story. And it can serve as a credible motive for murder, at least in the mind of the killer.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we meet the Boyntons, an American family on a sightseeing visit to the Middle East. Matriarch Mrs. Boynton is malicious, vindictive, and tyrannical. She has her family so browbeaten that no-one dares go against her wishes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t resent her. A few of the members have been pushed so far for so long that they are at the proverbial breaking point. So, when Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies on the second day of a trip to Petra, Colonel Carbury decides to look into the matter. The death looks on the surface like heart failure, but the family dynamics make Carbury wonder. So, he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s also in the Middle East, to investigate. As we learn who really killed the victim and why, we see the wisdom in not pushing people past their limits.
Talmage Powell’s short story, To Avoid a Scandal, features a banker named Horace Croyden. He leads a quiet, well-ordered and completely scandal-free life, and he likes it that way. In fact, for quite a while, his life is, for him, perfect. Then he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. At first, she seems demure, with good taste and good manners. And that’s what draws him to her. They court in an utterly respectable way, and then marry. That’s when Horace discovers that his wife isn’t all the person he thought he’d married. She’s more vivacious than he’d prefer, and her habits, in his opinion, aren’t well-ordered at all. She shops without a list, she doesn’t always dress before breakfast, and so on. More and more, she pushes him to the limit. Then comes the day she accidentally destroys some ciphers he’s been working (ciphers are Horace’s passion). That’s when she pushes him too far…
Ed McBain’s Cop Hater is the first in his long-running 87th Precinct series. As the novel begins, the city of Isola (a thinly-disguised New York City) is suffering from a terrible heat wave. This novel was written before air conditioning was a common amenity for homes, so everyone’s sweltering and miserable. That includes Detective Steve Carella and his team, who are investigating the murders of two fellow police officers. They’re also expected to attend lineups of those who’ve been arrested for major crimes, so that they can become familiar with those cases. One of those suspects is Virginia Pritchett, who’s been arrested for killing her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the allegation. Rather, she explains that the murder was the end result of a buildup of tension between her and her husband that pushed her beyond her breaking point. And the miserable heat didn’t help:
‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”
In this case, we see what happens when a person is pushed too far by both the heat and a tense domestic situation.
Ruth Rendell’s One Across, Two Down tells the story of Stanley Manning, who works as a fuel attendant. He has a prison record, but he’s trying to stay on the proverbial straight and narrow, and make a life for himself and his wife, Vera. But he’s got a big problem: Vera’s mother, Maude, who hates Stanley. The feeling is mutual, but Stnaley has to put up with her, because he and Vera stand to inherit a fortune when she dies. Still, the pressure of having to tolerate Maude gets worse and worse, until Stanley decides to take matters into his own hands. And as you can guess if you’ve read Rendell’s work, this doesn’t end well.
Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s An Easy Thing addresses another sort of pressure. In that novel, Mexico City PI Héctor Belascoaran Shayne gets three different cases. One of them concerns the death of an engineer named Gaspar Alvarez Cerruli, who was killed in his office at Delex, the company where he worked. The Santa Clara Industrial Council hires Belascoaran Shayne to find out who the killer was, and bring them the proof. This case is complicated by the fact that there’s a great deal of tension between union members and management at Delex. There’s a great deal of agitation for better wages and working conditions, and the union activists have been very busy. As the novel goes on, those tensions reach the boiling point, and this plays its role in this case. What’s more, the tension adds much to the suspense in the story.
Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place during the last years of the British Raj in Madras (today’s Chennai). In A Madras Miasma, the first of the series, Le Fanu and his assistant, Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah, are investigating the murder of Jane Carstairs, an English visitor whose body was found in the Buckingham Canal. It’s a difficult case, made more challenging by the fact that the trail leads to some very high places. In the midst of the investigation, there’s a protest. There are many who believe that India should move to Home Rule, and that the Raj should end. These people clash with the local authorities and the police, and the situation turns very, very ugly. Then, there’s a murder. And Le Fanu finds that this death is related to the Carstairs murder, and that the killer has used the protest to ‘disguise’ that connection. Part of the suspense in this novel comes from the simmering resentment against British rule, and the increasing pressure on the government to reform, and on the protesters to be quiet and go away.
If crime fiction shows us nothing else, it shows us that people do have their limits. There’s only so far that most of us can be pushed. If the pushing continues, there are bound to be consequences. And that tension can add a great deal to a crime story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Divinyls’ Back to the Wall.