Saturday, October 17, 2009

Human Nature 101 - Lessons from Mystery Novels

Well-written characters are believable and genuine. They reflect a lot about human nature (or at least, the author’s view of human nature). When it comes to murder mysteries and crime fiction, we’re challenged to think about the dark side of human nature. In a good mystery, we see that part of a human that allows her or him to kill and through that, we learn about that dark part of ourselves. In the best mysteries, the characters who kill are so real that we can sometimes get a little uncomfortable wondering whether we might do the same thing under the right conditions. Here are just a few things about our own human nature that crime fiction shows us:

The instinct for self-preservation is stronger than most of us realize.

In many mysteries, the murderer kills to protect himself or herself. Sometimes, it’s to protect a reputation. Other times, the killer strikes to protect a “safe” lifestyle or to prevent a damaging secret from coming out. In all of those cases, the perceived need for safety drives an otherwise “normal” human being to do something he or she would otherwise never have dreamed of doing – kill another human. Agatha Christie treats this theme brilliantly in Cards on the Table. In that novel, four people with impeccable reputations are invited to dinner at the home of a very eccentric host. So are four sleuths, including Hercule Poirot. When the host is murdered during an after-dinner game of bridge, the reader finds that four of the guests are hiding very dark secrets that they might do anything – including murder – to keep, so as to preserve those reputations. Christie also deals with this theme in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, in which an overly-inquisitive charwoman is murdered. As Poirot looks into the lives of the “very nice” people who employed her, he finds that any one of them might have killed her to protect a respected, safe lifestyle.

We also see this theme in Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, where Dr. Arthur Calgary is drawn to investigate the murder of Rachel Argyle, the matriarch of the Argyle family. He holds an important clue that proves the innocence of Jacko Argyle, one of Rachel’s adopted children, who was convicted of her murder and died in prison. The other members of the Argyle family have no desire to have the case opened again, since it means that one of them must be guilty of Rachel Argyle’s murder. All of them want to preserve their comfortable lifestyles, and for one of them, re-opening the case means giving that comfortable life up.

Self-preservation is also a theme in Marcus Woodson’s Blood Don’t Lie. In that novel, “regular guy” Jerome Henderson comes home from work one day to find his wife and daughter missing. When he files a police report, he is suspected of killing them. Henderson insists he’s innocent and becomes a fugitive from the law to protect himself (and find out who killed his family). Lead Detective Barney Pinick isn’t satisfied that Henderson is innocent, and investigates the case with help from reporter Kelli Dunmore. What he finds during that investigation is a dark secret that someone would do anything to keep hidden. What’s interesting about this novel is that Woodson approaches the instinct to self-preservation on two levels: the need for the protagonist (or is he the killer?) to protect himself and someone else’s need to protect a secret.

It is possible to love too much.

Another sometimes-dark truth that mysteries teach us about human nature is that there’s a fine line between devoted love (which can nourish a person) and obsessed love (which can drive a person to kill). Agatha Christie shows us this in Death on the Nile, in which Linnet Rideway Doyle, a wealthy and beautiful society woman, is shot while on a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. Suspicion first falls on her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, whose fiancé, Simon Doyle, has married Linnet instead. Jacqueline loves Simon desperately – so desperately that she says she would die without him. In fact, Hercule Poirot says of her that she “cares too much.” Jacqueline doesn’t forgive Linnet for “stealing” Simon, and follows the couple wherever they go. Her obsession with Simon is a fascinating study of what happens to a person who loves too much.

Christie treats this topic again in Sad Cypress. In that novel, Elinor Carlisle is arrested for the murder of Mary Gerrard, the protégée of Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura. Elinor has good reason to want Mary dead; her fiancé, Roddy Welman, has become infatuated with Mary. Dr. Peter Lord, Laura Welman’s doctor, falls in love with Elinor and asks Hercule Poirot to do whatever is necessary to prove her innocent. Throughout the novel, Christie gives the reader glimpses into Elinor’s almost fanatic love of Roddy and his obsession with Mary, which is almost as strong. We also see how strong Peter Lord’s love of Elinor turns out to be.

Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life also focuses on what happens when love becomes obsession. In the novel, Queen is visiting an old friend, John Levering Benedict III, a wealthy playboy. So are Benedict’s three ex-wives, his attorney and his attorney’s secretary. When Benedict is murdered on the first night of Queen’s visit, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen investigate. What they find is that obsessed love and deep passion play an important role in the murder.

“Old sins cast long shadows.”

All of us have what’s commonly called “baggage.” It may take the form of a broken love affair, a lapse of judgment, a terrible home life, or something else. For most of us, we get on with our lives as best we can, despite that “baggage.” However, in some cases, the past haunts a person so much that it drives that person to murder.

We see a solid example of this in Carol O’Connell’s Shell Game. In that novel, magician Oliver Tree is tragically killed when a death-defying escape from crossbows goes horribly wrong. Detective Kathleen Mallory (who has “baggage” of her own) is convinced the death was not accidental, and begins to probe Tree’s past. What she finds is a group of four elderly magicians, all of whom are connected by a tragic death and betrayal in World War II Paris. As it turns out, those events have everything to do with Tree’s death.

There’s also a solid example of this in Martin Edwards’ (his blog is here) The Cipher Garden. In that novel, landscaper and notorious womanizer Warren Howe is brutally murdered with his own scythe, and his wife, Tina, is suspected of the killing. The case isn’t solved at first because Tina has an alibi. Years later, historian and academician David Kind, who’s moved to the Lake District where the murder was committed, takes an interest in the case when he tries to solve the mystery of the strange layout of his garden and tries to find out more about the previous owners of his cottage. So does DCI Hannah Scarlett, when several people (including the police) receive anonymous notes accusing Tina of the murder, and bringing up old secrets of adultery. The Howe family doesn’t want the case reopened, and, as Scarlett and Kind investigate, each in a different way, they find that neither do the villagers. What these two sleuths discover is that old village sins had everything to do with Howe’s murder.

…and of course, the most important:

No-one is really incapable of murder.

There are too many mystery novels in which “the least likely person” is actually the murderer for me to mention here. But they all serve as a reminder that any of us, under the right circumstances, might kill.

Of course, well-written mystery stories teach us a lot more than these lessons. I’ve just scratched the surface, so to speak. What have you learned about human nature from your favorite mysteries and authors?


  1. Margot, this hits the spot as usual. I am currently reading the first George Gently novel - GENTLY DOES IT by Alan Hunter and I am struck by how realistic the characters feel - except he describes one as "stuggy" - that's a new word to me, but I think it means short and stumpy - at least that's how I am visualising him.
    The host of the first Tuesday book club, a TV show here on the ABC is promoting true crime this week, and one of the promos says that we are all capable of murder - I wonder if we really are. My general thoughts about myself are that I am too squeamish, but I guess it depends on the moment. I can only imagine committing murder in a boiling rage though, not plotting and planning and then committing in cold blood.
    It occurs to me also that you might want to list your blog on the Mr Linky on the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge - you certainly refer to her often enough - see

  2. Kerrie - Didn't Alan Hunter do a great job of making characters real? I didn't read Gently Does It, but the ones I have read really do have realistic characters. I'm glad that you picked that up. Thanks, too, for looking up what "stuggy" means. I never heard of that word before your post.

    It's an interesting question to ponder, whether we would all be capable of murder. Like you, I think I'd be squeamish about it, but I wouldn't say "never." I'm fairly certain that it if were a question of protecting my daughter or husband from imminent danger, all bets might be off. I'd like to think I would never commit a murder in cold blood though. I can't imagine myself choosing to take a life to further a goal of my own, for instance, or get money.

    Thanks for the info on the Mr. Linky on your ACRC; I'll list my blog there.

  3. I've learned that everyone is capable of extreme goodness or extreme evil. I've learned that everyone reacts to a situation in their own unique way. Personal histories colour our sight as we look out and live in the world; which is why I discover each of my main characters' histories. This gives them their attitudes, their prejudices, and their capability or non-capability for change.


  4. Elspeth - You make such an astute point! People's experiences really are key to the way they deal with life, so it's really important to understand those backgrounds. I get to know my characters, too, as I write, and I think it's also important to make those characters real for the reader. It's only then that the reader can see what motivates a character to kill.

    You also make a really interesting point about the human capacity for good or evil. It's amazing what lower and upper limits human behavior can reach, and it's also really interesting to see how different authors write about those capacities.

  5. I've learned that everyone is a suspect... And I've learned to love that.
    Excellent post... I'm going to be visiting this blog often :)

  6. Welcome, Jm - Thanks for visiting! I'm glad you like what you've seen so far.

    You make a very well-taken point, too, that no-one in a mystery novel is entirely "above suspicion." Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot often says that he suspects everyone until he can prove, to his own satisfaction, that the person isn't guilty. Having everyone be suspect adds to the suspense in a good mystery novel, and keeps the reader guessing.