Category Archives: Shirley Jackson

Fooling Myself*

As this is posted, it’s the 70th anniversary of the first staging of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Arguably, one of the important themes in the play is the inability to let go of illusions. Several characters in the play, including Willy Loman, have illusions about themselves and others, and it’s painful, even tragic, when they’re confronted with the reality.

That’s the way real life sometimes works, though. People may have illusions about their children (e.g. ‘My daughter’s just got a great job – she’s going to go to the top!’), or their own importance to their employer, or, or… Some of those illusions may be harmless enough; others are not. And when we are confronted with them, there can be any number of reactions.

It’s the same thing in crime fiction. And, because everyone’s different, an author has all sorts of options when it comes to weaving this theme into a novel. Certainly, it can add to character development as well as to the main plot.

There’s an Agatha Christie novel, for instance, in which someone’s quite illusory plans lead that person to commit more than one murder. No titles or sleuths, in the interest of spoiler-prevention. But Christie fans will know which novel I mean.

In Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, we are introduced to the Blackwood family: eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat,’ her older sister Constance, and their Uncle Julian. They live in a large, isolated house near a small New England town that considers them pariahs. And we soon learn the reason. Six years before the events of this novel, three other members of the Blackwood family died of what turned out to be poison. Although no-one was ever convicted, the locals are certain that one of the remaining Blackwoods is responsible. Despite this, the family lives peacefully enough, and Merricat (from whose point of view the story is told) has developed an entire set of illusions about her life, her family’s life, and the people in the town. Everything changes when a cousin, Charles Blackwood, comes to visit. His visit sets off a chain events that ends in more tragedy. Throughout the novel, we see just how strong some of Merricat’s illusions really are.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg, her husband, Henrik, and their son, Axel. Eva has always wanted the ‘white picket fence’ suburban dream, and she thinks she has it. She and Henrik have been happily married for fifteen years, and Axel is healthy and doing well.  Then, Eva’s illusions are shattered. She discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Devastated by this news, Eva determines to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she sets in motion her own plan. In the meantime, we also meet Jonas Hansson, who has his own issues. One night, Eva goes to a pub where she happens to meet Jonas. The two start talking, and before they know it, things spiral out of control for both. And part of the reason is that Jonas has his share of illusions, too.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to Thea Farmer. She’s retired from her job as a school principal and moved to the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. There, she had a custom-made house built – her dream home. But bad luck and poor financial decision-making have meant that she’s had to put that home up for sale and move into the house next door. As if that’s not enough, Thea learns that a new couple, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, have bought the house she still considers hers. To add insult to injury, Frank’s niece, Kim, comes to live with them. Unexpectedly, Thea forms an awkward sort of friendship with the girl, though, and sees in her real promise as a writer. So, she’s very concerned when she begins to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim. When the police won’t do anything about it, she makes her own plan of action. Throughout this novel, we see how many illusions Thea has about her life, her reasons for leaving her job, her home, and much more. And those illusions play important roles in the choices that she makes.

Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy introduces successful São Paolo advertising executive Olavo Bettencourt, his ‘trophy wife,’ Mara, and their son, Olavinho.  Bettencourt is very much in demand by companies that want to increase their visibility and sales. And, with Brazil’s laws about political campaigning undergoing change, Bettencourt also finds that several politicians, some of them powerful, also seek him out. This gives him a real illusion of his own importance and power. All of that changes when a gang decides to kidnap Olavinho. By accident, they abduct the wrong boy (they take the son of Bettencourt’s housekeeper), and are now caught in a dangerous web. In the meantime, Bettencourt has a serious dilemma. The more public he goes with the kidnapping situation, the more likely it is that some ugly truths about his business dealings will come out. And that could mean major legal trouble for him. But he can’t be seen to be doing nothing. As the story goes on, he learns the hard way that he doesn’t have nearly as much power as he thinks he does.

And that’s the thing about illusions. It can be very hard to let go of them, but it can be at least as dangerous not to do so. And illusions can serve some effective purposes in a crime novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Edney Silvestre, Karin Alvtegen, Shirley Jackson, Virginia Duigan

Some Others Choose the Good Old Family Home*

There are some homes that have been in the same family for many generations. They’re full of history (and sometimes, secrets), and they often develop their own personalities. Houses like that can be fascinating to explore. They can also make very effective settings for crime novels, especially those that link past crimes with the present.

There are a lot of such fictional houses – many more than space permits. But here are a few. I know you’ll think of many, many more.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual takes place in that sort of home. In the story, Holmes tells Watson about one of his cases, a case that began with a visit from an old college friend, Reginald Musgrave. Musgrave dismissed his butler, Richard Brunton, after catching the man reading a private family paper. Not long afterwards, Brunton and a maid named Rachel Howells disappeared. Holmes agreed to look into the matter, and he found that the paper Brunton was reading contained a cryptic poem that all of the Musgrave men learned. That poem proved to be the key to a very old mystery, and the key to the disappearance of Musgrave’s staff.  Conan Doyle did some other mysteries, too, that take place in an ancestral family home, didn’t he, fans of The Hound of the Baskervilles?

Agatha Christie used family homes in several of her novels and stories. One of them is Enderby, the home of the Abernethie family, whom we meet in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). When patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, his family members gather for his funeral and the reading of his will. During that gathering, his younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered. Everyone dismisses the idea right away. The next day, though, Cora herself is murdered. Now, the remaining family members begin to suspect that she was right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. Enderby itself isn’t the reason for the deaths. But it makes for an interesting setting, and, among some of the older characters, there’s talk about ‘the old days,’ and what the house used to be like. I see you, fans of Sleeping Murder and of Peril at End House, and of 4:50 From Paddington, and of…

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the Blackwood family. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood lives in the family home with her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian. The family is quite isolated, and that’s mostly because of a tragedy that took place six years earlier. Three other members of the Blackwood family died of what turned out to be poison, and everyone in town is convinced that someone in the Blackwood family is responsible. Still, the Blackwoods have made a life for themselves, and everything goes smoothly enough. Then, they get a visitor. Charles Blackwood, a family cousin, comes to the house. His visit sets of a chain of events that ends in real tragedy. In this novel, the house itself adds to the suspense.

Much of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache takes place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. It’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone, and some people are deeply rooted in the place, and a part of its history. So are some of the houses. One in particular is the Hadley House, which plays a role in the very first novel, Still Life. It’s got its own history, and Gamache has more than one experience there.

In Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, we are introduced to the de Luce family. The protagonist of this series is eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives with her father, Colonel de Luce, and her two older sisters, in the family home, Buckshaw, in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia is a child, but she is also highly intelligent, and a very skilled chemist. In this novel, she uses her skills to help clear her father’s name when he is accused of murdering a visitor to their home. Buckshaw is a distinctive old house, with lots of passages, unused rooms, and so on. And it contains Flavia’s chemistry lab, which has its own personality.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood, in which we are introduced to genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In that novel, he is commissioned by Boston business executive Walter Sloane to trace the ancestry of Sloan’s wife as a gift. The trail leads to the Fairborne family, which has lived in the US since before the American Revolution. One branch of the family returned to English in 1781, along with a group of Loyalists, so Tayte goes to Cornwall, where the family moved. There, he finds that the modern Fairbornes are strangely unwilling to help him find out the truth about what happened to their ancestors once they got to England. Tayte continues to search for the truth and learns that the answers might be very dangerous to him. The contemporary Fairbornes live in Rosemullion Hall, the family home. It’s been Fairborne property since the 18th Century, and Tayte finds that it has plenty of history and secrets to share.

Houses that have been in the same family for a long time often develop their own personalities as they absorb a family’s history. They’re fascinating places. They can also be really effective settings for a crime novel (right, fans of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca?).


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daphne du Maurier, Louise Penny, Shirley Jackson, Steve Robinson

A Stranger Came In From the Night*

This is the time of year when, very often, family and friends gather to celebrate. There are all sorts of traditions that go with those gatherings, too, and they all vary. It’s one thing when a gathering like this is composed of family, and, perhaps, very close friends. But the dynamic changes completely when a new person – a stranger to the group – is present,

That new dynamic can add much to a crime story. There is, of course, the matter of the various relationships involved. There’s also the new person: who is that person and what’s that person’s motive? There are other factors, too, that can make that trope (a new person joins a family gathering) very effective.

Agatha Christie used it a number of times in her work. For instance, in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas, and A Holiday For Murder), family patriarch Simeon Lee invites the various members of his family to visit the family home, Gorston Hall, for Christmas. No-one really wants to go, as he is a malicious, tyrannical person. But he also holds the proverbial purse strings, so everyone accepts the invitation. The family duly gathers just before Christmas. Then, a stranger arrives. He is Stephen Farr, the son of Lee’s business partner. Lee welcomes Farr and invites him to stay for the holiday. Then, on Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby, and he is persuaded to work with the police to investigate. He finds that nearly everyone had a very good reason to kill the victim. Throughout the novel, Farr gets a sort of outsider’s view of the Lee family, and his perspective is interesting. You’re absolutely right, fans of After the Funeral.

In Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring, it’s the sleuth who’s the visiting stranger. In that novel, Philadelphia-based former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian gets an unusual request from his parish priest, Father Tibor. It seems that a wealthy man named Robert Hannaford wants Demarkian to have dinner with his family on Christmas Eve. If Demarkian agrees, Hannaford will donate US$100,000.00 to the church. Demarkian has no idea why Hannaford would want him to visit, but he can hardly deny the church the money. So, he agrees to go. By the time he gets to the Hannaford home, He finds that it’s too late to learn what his host really wanted: Hannaford’s been murdered. Demarkian works with Detective John Jackman to find out the truth behind the murder. And, in the process, he gets to know the various members of the Hannaford family. It’s interesting to see how that dynamic is impacted by his presence.

Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit is the story of the Ogden family. Irene and Frank Ogden live on a New England property called Cabrioun, which used to be the property of Irene’s now-deceased first husband. The Ogdens are faced with a challenge. They own a business with a family friend, Luke Latham. It’s a factory that makes specialty wood products using a process that Ogden designed. But the business depends on a certain sort of wood that’s no longer available. The only place where it can be logged is on a piece of land that Irene inherited from her first husband, with the proviso that it not be logged for twenty years. To solve this problem, the Ogdens and Latham decide to hold a séance to contact Irene’s first husband and ask his permission to log the land. That idea isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds for this family. Irene is a medium, and both her husband and Latham are believers in spiritualism. So, the séance is arranged. Along with the Ogdens, there are several other participants, most of them family members. One outsider, though, is Svetozar Vok, a well-known stage magician who’s taken to debunking fake spiritualists. As you can imagine, he has an interest in this séance. The event takes place, and it’s quite eerie. Then, that night, Irene is killed. It turns out that it’s one of those ‘impossible but not really’ murders, and Vok’s presence in the group certainly impacts what happens, and the dynamic among the members.

In Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, we meet the Blackwood family: Mary Katherine ‘Merricat,’ her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian. They keep very much to themselves, and it’s soon clear that that suits them. It’s also soon very clear that the people of the local town want nothing to do with them, and that something is very wrong. Six years ago, three other members of the family died by poisoning, and everyone in town is sure that one of the surviving Blackwoods is responsible. No-one was ever arrested, but the suspicion lingers. The Blackwoods are accustomed to being isolated, but one day, a stranger joins them. He is Charles Blackwood, a cousin who’s never really been a part of the family. His visit touches off a series of events that ends in another tragedy. But even before that happens, we see how the family dynamic changes and the suspense builds as a result of his visit.

And then there’s Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. This is the fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, one of the last people to executed for murder in Iceland. The execution took place in 1830, but the murders took place in 1828. As this novel begins, Agnes and two other people have been found guilty of murdering two farmers, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. It’s decided that Agnes would benefit from spending the last few months of her life with a ‘good Christian family,’ so she is sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. They’ll get the benefit of her presence to help with the work, and she’ll have exposure to an ‘upstanding’ family. At first, the family is not at all happy to have a condemned murderer living with them. But, little by little, they get to know Agnes, and she gets to know them. And, in the time leading up to her execution, it’s interesting to see how the family dynamic is impacted by this stranger living with them.

Any time a new person is added to a group, that group’s ‘feel’ changes. And that’s especially the case if it’s a family group, and the new person is a stranger. That tension can add a lot to a crime novel when it’s done well.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Allan Taylor’s The Stranger.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Hake Talbot, Hannah Kent, Jane Haddam, Shirley Jackson

We Keep to Ourselves*

Today’s technology has meant that it’s possible to communicate with nearly anyone, nearly anywhere. But it wasn’t so long ago that families could be very insular, having little contact with anyone who wasn’t a member of the family. Even with modern communication, there are still some families that keep to themselves.

Everyone needs a different amount of social contact, but most experts agree that it’s important for mental health to have some outside contact. Families that are too turned in on themselves can become dysfunctional. And that can have all sorts of consequences. Certainly, it can in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to the Boynton family. Mrs. Boynton, the family matriarch, is tyrannical and malicious. In fact, she has her family so much under her thumb that no-one dares to refuse her even the slightest request. Her three stepchildren, Lennox, Carol, and Raymond, and her daughter, Ginevra ‘Jinny,’ have very little experience outside the family property, and don’t interact comfortably with others. So, when the family takes a sightseeing trip to the Middle East, they’re not sure exactly how to behave. The family decides to include a visit to Petra in their itinerary; while they’re there, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. On the surface, it looks as though her death was natural. She wasn’t in good health, the trip was physically taxing, and the climate is very warm. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied. So, he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot soon learns that a number of people had very good reasons to want Mrs. Boynton dead. As he interviews the various family members, we see how being a part of a secluded, insular family has impacted each of them.

As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell tells the story of the Cosway family in The Minotaur. This family keeps very private and insular, and matriarch Mrs. Cosway would like to keep it that way. But her son, 39-year-old John Cosway, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. So, the family hires a full-time nurse, Kerstin Kvist, to care for him. She is happy to take the position, as it will allow her to be closer to her lover. At first, things seem to go well enough, although Kvist finds the family to be a little strange. But she soon learns that her patient is kept heavily medicated at his mother’s request. In Kvist’s professional opinion, he doesn’t need that medication. So, without telling anyone, she withholds the drugs he’s been taking. Her decision turns out to have tragic consequences for more than one character. Throughout the novel, we see how insular this family is, and how that’s affected the members.

The Blackwood family, whom we meet in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is also extremely insular. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood lives with her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian on a Vermont estate. It’s soon clear that they are not welcome in the nearby village, and gradually, we learn why. Six years earlier, three other members of the family were poisoned, and everyone is convinced that one of the Blackwoods is a murderer. Still, although they’re isolated, the Blackwoods have made a sort of life for themselves. Then, the outside world intrudes. A family cousin, Charles Blackwell, comes for a visit. That event touches off a series of other events that end in real tragedy.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is, in part, the story of the wealthy and very insular Vanger family. Almost forty years ago, Harriet Vanger went missing, and was presumed dead. But for the past few years, her great-uncle, Henrik Vanger, has been receiving gifts of dried flowers, just as she used to send him for his birthday. He wants to know the truth about what happened to her, so he hires journalist Mikael Blomqvist to find out. Blomqvist is highly motivated to agree to investigate, because his magazine, Millennium, is in serious financial trouble. Together with his research assistant, Lisbeth Salander, Blomqvist looks into the Vanger family’s past. And he finds out the truth about Harriet Vanger.

And then there’s Peter Robinson’s A Strange Affair. In one plot thread of this novel, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks gets a telephone message from his younger brother, Roy, who lives in London. The message says that Roy needs his brother’s help, and that it may be a matter of life and death. Banks is going through his own problems, but he musters up the energy to go to London. When he gets there, he finds that Roy is missing. Eventually, he discovers that this case has a link to a case that Inspector Annie Cabott, his teammate and former lover, is investigating. As the novel goes on, we see that the Banks family is, in its own way, quite insular. And the family history has played its role in the relationship between the Banks brothers.

Some families are like that. The members turn inward rather than outward, and keep to themselves. Sometimes, that’s not necessarily a problem. But sometimes, especially in crime fiction, it can spell disaster.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Inverso.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Peter Robinson, Ruth Rendell, Shirley Jackson, Stieg Larsson

What’s in My Head*

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.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Beryl Bainbridge, Charlotte Perkins Stetson, Helen Fitzgerald, Herman Koch, James M. Cain, Nicolas Freeling, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson