Most people are willing to be patient, at least for a little while, in the face of inconvenience or even adversity. That’s especially true if the problem is finite (e.g. ‘In six months, the road work will be done and traffic will move a lot more smoothly,’ or ‘Two more months and we’re in the new place. I can put with those horrible people next door for that long.’). But most people’s patience is limited. Push a person hard enough and long enough, and that person will likely eventually push back or worse. Even people with easygoing temperaments can ‘snap’ if they’re pushed too far. And in a crime novel, that tension can add a layer of character development and a solid layer of suspense.
There’s an interesting example of that tension in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. Lady Eva Brackwell asks Sherlock Holmes to help her deal with a blackmailer – Milverton – who has some ‘indiscreet’ letters she wrote years earlier. Now, she’s engaged to be married, and Milverton has threatened to give those letters to her fiancé. Holmes agrees to take the case, and tries to talk to Milverton about the matter, but Milverton is unyielding. So, Holmes and Dr. Watson find their own way to retrieve the letters. They sneak into Milverton’s home one night with the goal of finding and taking the letters. They’re in the midst of carrying out their plan when they encounter another of Milverton’s victims, who has been pushed so far that she is taking her own approach to solving her problem…
In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, the Boynton family takes a sightseeing trip to the Middle East. Part of that visit is an excursion to the ancient city of Petra. On the second day there, the family matriarch, Mrs. Boynton, dies of what looks to be heart failure. That’s not particularly surprising, given her age and poor health, but Colonel Carbury, who is in charge of the investigation, is not convinced that Mrs. Boynton died naturally. Hercule Poirot is in the area on an excursion of his own, and Carbury enlists his help in the case. Poirot gets to know the members of the family, and he finds out that Mrs. Boynton was tyrannical and malicious – a toxic person who had her family so cowed that no-one dared go against her wishes. There’s a very good possibility that she pushed one of the members of the family too hard for too long, and that person struck back.
P.D. James’ A Taste For Death is the story of the ‘blueblood’ Berowne family. When Crown Minister Paul Berowne is murdered, it’s clear right away that this case is likely to generate a lot of media attention. So, the investigation is assigned to Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) John Massingham and Detective Inspector (DI) Kate Miskin. This team has been specifically charged with investigating cases ‘of special interest’ to the press. Part of the process of finding out who the murderer is involves interviewing the various members of the Berowne household. That includes the family’s housekeeper and personal assistant to the family matriarch, Lady Ursula Berowne. The family doesn’t abuse ‘Mattie,’ as she is usually called, but they certainly don’t see her as an equal, and they make it clear that she ought to be grateful for what they do give her. The stress of her situation builds over time, especially when it comes to the way Lady Ursula treats her. At one point, Evelyn is pushed too far, and here’s how she reacts:
‘This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.’
Everyone’s shocked at her outburst, but it’s been a long time coming.
In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas, Saskatoon-based PI Russel Quant gets a new client. Wealthy business executive Charity Wiser claims that someone in her family is trying to kill her. She’s not sure who it is, and she wants Quant to find out. Her idea is to invite Quant to join the family on a cruise, so he can ‘vet’ everyone and work out who the would-be killer is. Quant isn’t particularly impressed with Charity Wiser, but he’s not one to turn down a good fee and a free cruise, so he agrees. As plans are made and the cruise begins, he starts to see that there’s plenty of dysfunction and bad feeling in the family. And several of the members have good reason to resent Charity. She has ways of humiliating people and reminding her family members that she’s the one with the money and the decision-making power. She’s pushed them all quite a lot – perhaps too far. It all adds to the tension in the novel, especially when someone makes an attempt on Charity’s life.
Abir Mukharjee’s A Rising Man is set in Kolkata/Calcutta in 1919, the last years of the British Raj. Sam Wyndham has come to the city to work with the Indian Police Service, and it’s not long before he’s pressed into action. Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal, has been murdered, and a note found stuffed in his mouth. The note threatens that ‘blood will run in the streets,’ and warns, ‘Quit England!’ On the surface, it looks as though this killing is the work of someone in the Indian independence movement, and that’s what the police want to believe. They even find an appropriate suspect. But this killing isn’t as simple as that, and Wyndham soon finds that he’s going to have to move very carefully to navigate a dangerous political situation. As the novel goes on, we see how many in that part of India feel that they have been pushed too hard for too long, and that their demands have not been heard. They’re more and more resentful, and that simmering anger adds a great deal to the tension in this novel.
It’s never a good idea to press someone too hard for too long. Most people can put up with annoyance or worse for a short time, but take it too far, and you never know what will happen. These are just a few examples from the genre. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Divinyls’ Back to the Wall.