Thursday, February 14, 2008

Psychopathology in Mysteries: Past and Current Trends

Elizabeth Zelvin

As a mental health professional in my “other hat,” I have a tendency to diagnose the protagonists, victims, witnesses, and murderers in the mysteries I read. Sometimes these characters’ psychopathology is intentional on the author’s part, with a greater or lesser degree of accuracy or at least probability. Sometimes it’s not.

I recently was asked, in a series of questions and answers for a fellow writer’s crime fiction blog, to name my “guilty pleasures” as a reader. I confessed that one of my favorite comfort read characters (or rereads many times over) is Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver. These mysteries from the 1940s and 1950s are classic cozies. They are totally predictable and tremendously soothing. (I do love a happy ending!) They are also incisively written and astute about character as long as you accept some stereotypical assumptions about men and women that most of us in the 21st century no longer buy into. Admitting how much I like Miss Silver was embarrassing only because the guy asking the question was a hardboiled crime novelist. Some over-easy traditional mystery writers reread Patricia Wentworth too.

Anyhow, it got me thinking about the Wentworth canon. I have 42 or 43 of her books: all the Miss Silvers and quite a few of her many other novels, which are just like them except for the decorous but highly intelligent sleuth’s absence, some even featuring other characters—police and villains—from the Miss Silver books. Having read so many of them, I’m struck by how many of the plots revolve around amnesia. In the mid-20th century, amnesia was a tried and true plot device that many mystery writers turned to. Manning Coles’s Tommy Hambledon, for example, was a British intelligence agent who lost his memory in Germany for long enough to join the Nazi Party and participate actively in the rise of Hitler. Luckily, he recovered his memory in time to save the day for England. Writers have also made use of alcoholic blackouts, another form of amnesia. In David Carkeet’s 1980 mystery Double Negative, if I remember correctly, the hero hid a key piece of evidence during a blackout and had to get drunk again to remember where he’d put it: a condition I know now is called state-dependent learning.

Amnesia still crops up from time to time. Annette Meyers’s most recent Smith and Wetzon mystery, Hedging, comes to mind. But amnesia is no longer “in.” I suspect the reason is it’s more widely understood that retrograde amnesia doesn’t usually work quite the way most mystery writers use it.

Blackouts, another kind of amnesia, are still common in crime fiction. So are other symptoms of alcoholism. Sometimes the characters are aware they’re dealing with this serious and painful form of illness. Sometimes neither characters nor author get it. As a longstanding alcoholism treatment professional, I have a bias against what I call “cute alcoholism,” when excessive drinking is presented as comical or charming. Nowadays, we find more and more characters in recovery or at least intermittently trying to get sober. But compulsive hard drinking and cute alcoholism still appear in mystery fiction.

For a while, in the 1980s and 1990s, incest, pedophilia, and dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder) became popular with novelists. In one of P.D. James’s books, one character with a history of sexual abuse in childhood hides her sexuality in obesity and overeating, while another, who had run away, is found under another identity—not a subterfuge, but to those familiar with DID, clearly another personality. One of Colin Dexter’s best Inspector Morse books turns on the fact that a character who is not what she seems has alters. I’ve also read mysteries by proponents (or by authors who believe proponents) of “false memory syndrome.” Professionally and personally, I’ve met too many people with dissociative issues due to childhood trauma and sexual abuse to have much sympathy for this point of view. It’s made for some interesting stories. But by now, it has been used so often that I can see it coming hundreds of pages before the denouement. Or is that because I’m professionally familiar with the symptoms?

Nowadays, serial killers are in fashion. I’m not very fond of them myself. But readers seem to love them. And some wonderful writers bring them to life. Besides Hannibal Lecter and Dexter, Lawrence Block and Jan Burke have created some convincing sociopaths as foils for Matt Scudder and Irene Kelly. Many sociopaths, by the way, never kill anyone: they just go through life hiding utter lack of empathy behind devastating charm. I’ve had quite a few clients myself who were immensely likeable, so that I had to keep reminding myself that the charm was an integral part of the sociopathy. I’m fascinated by how easily people are fooled. Will I ever write about such a character? You never know. In the meantime, the serial killer trend has to reach saturation point some time. So what kind of twisted souls—or mental illness, depending on your frame of reference—will mystery writers turn the spotlight on next?


Sofie Kelly said...

I think we're going to see more baddies whose evil is the result of childhood trauma. I also expect more books dealing with child pornography because that subject has been in the news a lot.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Agent Janet Reid was on the Sisters in Crime e-list's Mentor Mondays this week. Talking about how individual and subjective agent preferences are, she mentioned that she won't take on a manuscript that has sexual abuse in it. For me, that's a good reason to cross Janet off my list for my whole planned series, even though I'd never say my theme is sexual abuse. My theme is recovery from alcoholism (and other addictions, including codependency, as the series continues). Unfortunately, an estimated 77 percent of women alcoholics have suffered sexual abuse, either in childhood or in their drinking days. It's not a topic I can commit to staying away from, even if I never portray it graphically or put it in the forefront of my story.

Unknown said...

An excellent point to consider. Doug Lyle is writing, "Howdunnit: Forensics: A Guide For Writers" and I'm wondering if there isn't a need for similar title that covers the true psychology behind the twisted minds of our dark characters.

Everyone wants authentic characters so why wouldn't we seek expert advice on how the mind of our character would tick?

Darwin Stephenson
ANALOG [darwin]
"15 Questions Put to 100 Anonymous Strangers"

Sophie Littlefield said...

I admire Ken Bruen for (among other things) a fearless portrayal of addiction.

I love Peter Abrahams for his exploration of the mind in his novels.

Sandra Parshall said...

I prefer killers with personal, unique motives. Serial killers usually don't interest me, especially when they're portrayed as totally out of touch with reality. I like Dexter because he's anchored in the real world and only kills people who have caused harm to others -- child molesters, murderers of children, abusive men who got away with killing the women in their lives, a nurse who killed patients, etc. A serial killer who hovers in the shadows, cackling maniacally and drooling over the prospect of causing pain -- please, I don't want to know this person. Such portrayals always strike me as forced. What does the writer, sitting at his or her computer in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee steaming on the desk, know about the mind of a bloodthirsty lunatic?

I'd rather read about, and write about, a person who is otherwise fairly normal but felt driven, by some extreme circumstance, to commit murder. That's interesting to me, because there's a story to explore. With a crazy person, you just get craziness, not answers. Give him a magic pill and he might become lucid again, then even he will be mystified and horrified by what he's done.

David Carkeet said...

Elizabeth Zelvin's memory is correct about my hero's blackout in Double Negative. In a drunken state, Jeremy Cook hears something incriminating, then forgets it, then remembers it when drunk again. I learned of "state-dependent" learning from a good friend in graduate school, John Taylor, and I'd like to credit him now for that--also for introducing me to Kingsley Amis. (Sometimes I think of Double Negative as Lucky Jim with a corpse.) The notion of "cute alcoholism" that Elizabeth raises resonated with me. Jeremy Cook is certainly a cute alcoholic. I am happy to report that Jeremy has changed since then because his creator changed. In a later novel, he drinks only root beer.