He took the knob in his left hand, and his right moved automatically to the gun in his pocket. He felt like a machine, beyond danger and invulnerable. He had been here many, many times before, had killed him many times before, and this was only one of the times.
A description of the character Guy Haines, moments before he kills Charles Bruno’s father in Strangers on a Train (1950) the first novel by Patricia Highsmith. Today I’d like to discuss the psychological thriller. Stories in which the reader or the viewer knows, almost throughout, whodunit. The story is all about why, and whether the detective can unravel the mystery. More importantly, it is about what the act of murder does to the character of the murderer.
Many of Highsmith’s novels explore this theme to great effect. The award-winning The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) sees the protagonist Tom Ripley wonder if the rest of his life will be spent waiting for the Police to catch up with him and his murderous act. Highsmith was heavily influenced by some of the great existentialist writers and her supreme control of character disintegration puts you in mind of Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoevsky which offers a profound insight into human dilemma. The effect of the act of murder on the character of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is a masterclass of character change. Highsmith’s work more than holds its own in this company.
To write a book of this nature, or perhaps a small series of books in the case of Highsmith is one thing. To set out, from the start, to create a character whose very existence is a deliberate challenge to the accepted whodunit format, is brave beyond words. My favourite example of this does not come from classic literature, but that is not to denigrate its quality or its impact. I give you the character Lieutenant Columbo, a homicide detective with the LAPD. For 35 years and nearly 70 episodes, all of which are around film-length, the creators of Columbo stuck doggedly to the same formula. On paper, that formula shouldn’t work, but the quality of the writing and the acting made sure it did. To start with the murder occurs at the beginning of the story, right in front of the viewer. Columbo appears, often deep into the story, and has to assemble the clues, all of which the viewer has already seen. It breaks one of the founding rules of crime fiction in that once the identity of the murderer is known there is no need for the reader (or in this case the viewer) to carry on. In Columbo there is every need, for what follows is a fascinating study of the crushing guilt and responsibility of taking a life. P.D. James once wrote that murder is the ultimate crime in that the murderer takes something they cannot give. Just as Guy Haines, Tom Ripley and Raskolnikov learn, the mental effort of murder and its impact on character can be very stark.
What makes this starkness work in Columbo is the intellectual superiority of the murderer, and almost every other character, towards the detective. The creators used a simple, yet stunningly effective, formula to bring this to life. Firstly, Columbo is always dishevelled, the crumpled raincoat being his signature look, and he makes reference throughout to his wife. This gives him a distracted air, one which is actually designed to distract the suspect. Annoyed by his petty ramblings the murderer always falls into Columbo’s trap by assuming the intellectual high ground. Everything Columbo does or says has method and reason. Whenever he claims to be averse or allergic to something, he is not. It is all an act designed to extract the truth. Secondly, the murderer, and the viewer, always assume Columbo has failed to crack the case. He appears saddened, confused and almost apologetic until he reaches the door, stops and turns before uttering…just one more thing… That thing is generally the killer question and the reaction of the murderer to it always betrays the mask of intellectual snobbery they hide behind. I don’t know, but I always wondered if Steve Jobs borrowed just one more thing from Columbo. Finally, and this may be a new one for you, in almost every episode there is the same piece of music. The nursery rhyme This Old Man. Listen out for it.
The point of all this is not to pay tribute to Columbo, although that in itself is worth doing, but to focus on the importance of good character. In a simple whodunit the classic combination of means, motive and opportunity is king. However, if you give the reader or viewer all this information at the beginning the story changes completely. We’ve discussed issues related to the whydunit, or howdunit before but I always return to the same one. The anguish and mental disintegration that occurs in a murderer within a story like the ones we’ve seen here is utterly horrific, yet equally compelling. Consider this, from Crime and Punishment,
It would be interesting to know what it is men are most afraid of.
Whatever it is that drives fear, the very best psychological thrillers build a whole story around it. In Columbo’s case, 35 years worth of stories.