If there’s anything we can say about the times we’re living in right now, it’s that they are uncertain. We’re not exactly sure what’s going to happen, and that makes a lot of people uneasy. I don’t have a strong psychology background, but part of the reason for that unease may be because we like to depend on things (and sometimes, on other people). If we can’t, then everything changes, and that can make people really uncomfortable.
That tension can be very effective in a story (even though I’d guess most of us would rather not live with it in real life). So it’s no wonder that we see a lot of this in crime fiction. It’s a useful tool for character development, plot strands, and more.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, a group of ten people is invited for a stay on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. None of them really wants to be there, but for different reasons, they all accept. When they arrive, they learn that their host isn’t there. Still, everyone settles in. That night after dinner, each person is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. There’s a chorus of denials, but then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Little by little, the surviving people come to understand that someone has lured them all to the island, and is killing them one by one. Now, they have to find out who the murderer is – if they can live long enough. All of the guests were, in their own ways, accustomed to living with a certain amount of, well, certainty. Now, no-one knows who will die next. When a storm cuts the island off and even cuts the power, there’s even more uncertainty, and the group has to re-consider things they always depended on before.
C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels take place during the Tudor years of King Henry VIII. It’s a very uncertain time in a lot of ways, not the least of which is the set of religious customs and beliefs that have always been a part of the country’s culture. With Henry VIII’s split with the Roman Catholic Church, many people are uncertain about what’s going to happen with religious worship. And what about devout Catholics? What will happen to them? And what happens if the king dies without leaving a male heir? At that time, that’s a major issue. All of these and other ‘What ifs’ cause quite a lot of tension, especially since it’s hard to know whether to trust someone or not. The intrigue at the court doesn’t exactly calm the rough seas, either. Through it all, Shardlake tries to go about his work as a lawyer without getting into too much danger, angering the wrong people, or in some other way putting himself at risk. He’s no coward, but he is well aware of just how uncertain these times are. Things people used to depend on are no longer the way they used to be.
Stark Holborn’s Nunslinger stories take place beginning in 1864 in the western part of the US. Sister Thomas Josephine lives in a convent in St. Louis, where she is accustomed to convent life and the daily rituals involved in being a nun. She joins a wagon train to travel west to Sacramento, to start fresh, but her trip is far from being an easy one. The wagon train is attacked in Wyoming, and Sister Josephine is left stranded. She’s rescued, but then taken hostage. But all may not be as it seems. It’s not always easy to tell who the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ are in this situation. And this is only the first of the Sister Josephine stories. At that time, in that place, it’s never certain whether there’ll be enough food, a natural disaster, an ambush, or perhaps good land with fresh water. And it’s a far cry from the well-ordered convent life that Sister Josephine has always known.
There’s also a lot of uncertainty in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, which takes place in South Africa not very long after the end of apartheid. Journalist Robert Dell is on a day trip with his family outside of Cape Town when the car is ambushed. Dell is injured, and his wife and two children are killed. Dell’s devastated, but wants to find out who’s responsible. He’s soon got other problems, though, He’s framed for the murders and jailed after a sham trial. His father, Bobby Goodbread, finds out what’s happened and engineers his rescue, but that doesn’t mean things are easier. The two go in search of Inja Mazibuko, the powerful Zulu leader who is behind the murders of Dell’s family members. In doing so, their paths will cross with other people whose lives have gotten mixed up with Mazibuko’s. As they get closer to finding Mazibuko, things get more and more unsettled and dangerous. It’s an uncertain time; with apartheid gone, no-one is sure what’s coming next. And there are plenty of dangerous people who are willing to do whatever is necessary to get what they want.
And then there’s Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, which takes place in Helskinki. In the future that’s depicted here, climate change has created millions of climate refugees, many of whom have come to Finland. Helsinki has become overcrowded, and there aren’t nearly enough police or public services. The situation there is very close to anarchy, and no-one is certain about what’s going to happen next. It’s an unsettled time, and it impacts everyone. Against this backdrop, Tapani Lehtinen is getting concerned about his journalist wife Johanna. She’s been working on a major story about a killer nicknamed the Healer. This murderer has claimed responsibility for the deaths of several executives from corporations that the Healer deems responsible for the misery everyone’s living through now. Johanna hasn’t contacted her husband, and to him, that’s a danger signal. So, he decides to look for her by following up on the Healer story. As the search goes on, we feel the tension and uncertainty that happens when people don’t know what’s going to happen next, whether they can stay where they are, or how to deal with all of the changes going on.
And that’s the thing. We humans tend to like at least a little predictability. When things stop being dependable, this leads to the sort of uncertainty that can cause anxiety and worse.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s You Must Love Me.