Did you ever have the uneasy feeling that you were being watched? I don’t mean stalking – that’s a different sort of thing. Rather, it’s the feeling of vulnerability that comes from feeling as though you’re under the proverbial microscope. It’s part of the reason that many people prefer to pull their window shades or blinds down after dark.
The feeling that someone’s looking can add a lot of suspense to a story. And, for an author, it offers lots of possibilities for a plot point. Is the person who’s watching a witness to a crime? Is the person being watched a victim? A killer? There are other plot points, too, that involve that creepy feeling of being watched.
Agatha Christie uses that plot point in more than one of her stories. In 4:50 From Paddington, for instance, Elspeth McGillicuddy is on her way by train to visit her friend Miss Marple. At one point, another train, going in the same direction, passes Mrs. McGillicuddy’s train, and she happens to look into one of the windows of that other train. To her shock, she sees what very much looks like a man strangling a woman. But there is no body found on the other train, and no-one has reported a missing person who answers the woman’s description. So, the train authorities and the police are not inclined to believe Mrs. McGillicuddy. But Miss Marple does. She does her own sort of experiment and finds out where the body would likely be – on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, which is the property of the Crackenthorpe family. Then, she convinces a friend, professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to get a position there. Lucy does some sleuthing, and she discovers the body more or less where Miss Marple predicted it would be. Now the police are called in, and Miss Marple works with them and Lucy to find out who the woman was, and why (and by whom) she was killed.
Beryl Bainbridge’s Harriet Said is the story of one fateful summer in the lives of two teenage girls. As the story begins, the unnamed narrator of the story is waiting for her friend, Harriet, to return from a trip to Wales. In the meantime, she happens to meet Peter Biggs, a middle-aged man who’s unhappy in his marriage, and generally dissatisfied with his life. The two find that they enjoy each other’s company, and the narrator feels the beginnings of the ‘hormone rush’ that signifies attraction. But she doesn’t dare do anything about it until Harriet comes back. When she does, Harriet insists that her friend not get too emotionally involved with Biggs. Instead, she wants this to be an objective observation, like other experiences the girls have had. So, the two plan to spend some time spying on Biggs, and then, says Harriet, they’ll find a way to ‘humble’ him. One day, they’re carrying out their plan, watching through one of the windows of Biggs’ house. They see something they’re not meant to see, and everything changes. Their plan also changes, and morphs into something much worse than it had been. Then, things spin out of control, and it all leads to real tragedy.
Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel takes place mostly in the small Dutch town of Zwinderen. Amsterdam police detective Piet Van der Valk has been seconded there to help investigate a strange series of events. Several of Zwinderen’s residents have been getting vicious anonymous letters. The letters have had such a powerful impact that they’ve led to two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to find the person responsible, so Van der Valk has been asked to look into the matter. Zwinderen is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. People think nothing of looking into one another’s windows, and there’s plenty of gossip. In fact, one’s considered odd at best, and suspicious at worst, if one doesn’t leave the window shades up, so to speak. So, at first, it’s hard to find out who sent the letters. Van der Valk also finds that few people will talk to him about the letters they’ve gotten. There’s a sense in the town of always being under scrutiny, so no-one wants to seem to be doing anything that might start even more gossip. In the end, though Van der Valk gets to the truth.
Peter Robinson’s Gallows View introduces his protagonist, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks. In the novel, Banks has recently been transferred from London to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He and his family are working on the process of settling in, but there’s not a lot of time for that. The police are on the trail of a peeper who’s been making the lives of Eastvale women miserable. It’s very unsettling, and plenty of people are upset that the police aren’t doing more to catch this person. Then, there’s a series of home invasions and robberies. And a murder. Now, Banks and his team have to deal with multiple cases. They find that, in their way, the cases are connected, and once Banks finds that fragile link, he’s able to get to the truth.
William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in Moscow, in the years just before World War II. Stalin is firmly in control of the USSR, and the dreaded NKVD has agents everywhere. To add to that, ordinary citizens are encouraged to denounce even friends and family members. So, everyone knows better than to trust others. And everyone knows that anyone might be watching, at any time. Against this backdrop of paranoia, Captain Korolev of the Moscow CID has to go about his job of finding the truth about murder cases. It’s often a delicate balance for him. On the one hand, he’s required to do his job. On the other, the trail sometimes leads to very high places. And anyone who dislikes him could easily denounce him, with all of the consequences that would have for him.
We also see that sort of ‘being watched’ in one plot thread of Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Gerda Klein, her husband, and their daughter, Ilse, live in Leipzig, in the former East Germany. It’s the early 1980’s, and the Cold War is still in full force. The Stasi have ‘eyes and ears’ everywhere, including in people’s private homes. Everyone knows that people look through windows, listen in on telephone conversations, and more. It’s an atmosphere of real uneasiness and lack of trust. And that’s part of the reason for which the Kleins decide to leave East Germany. It’s a major risk, but they make their escape and end up in the small town of Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. There, they start a new life. Ilse becomes a secondary school teacher, which is how she gets involved in the life of one of her most promising students, Serena Freeman. When Serena stops showing interest in school, and then disappears entirely, Ilse gets concerned. Her involvement in Serena’s life draws her into more than she had imagined.
It really is an eerie feeling to wonder if you’re being watched. So, it’s little wonder that authors use this plot point. So do filmmakers, don’t they, fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chad Price’s All.