Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bearing a Grudge...

Most of us have been treated badly at one time or another in our lives. Most of the time, if the unkind treatment hasn’t been serious, or if it was one instance, we forgive and move on. After all, no-one is perfect, and we realize that anyone can unintentionally hurt us. There are times, though, when we’ve been so badly hurt (or at least, we think we have) that we hold a grudge. It’s only human nature to be resentful about something that’s happened to hurt us, so it’s not surprising that people bear grudges. Because they’re such a real part of life, grudges also play a very important role in well-written crime fiction. We can believe that a character might hold a grudge, and if the plot is well-written and strong, we can believe that that a grudge might lead to a murder.

Sometimes, that’s exactly what happens. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poirot finds the murderer of Louise Leidner, wife of noted archeologist Eric Leidner. Leidner and his team have been working on a site in the Middle East and, even though Louise Leidner isn’t particularly interested in archeology, she’s come along on the dig. When Poirot arrives to begin his investigation, he finds that most of the members of the team have a reason for a grudge against Louise. In her own unique way, Louise Leidner has managed to alienate just about everyone connected with the dig. So Poirot has to sift through everyone’s relationship with her to find out which member of the team bore such a bitter grudge that it was worth murder.

Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d) is also an excellent example of a novel in which a grudge leads to murder. In that novel, famous actress Marina Gregg and her husband have bought Gossington Hall in St. Mary Mead. When the house is ready to be lived in, Marina decides to have a housewarming even to welcome the locals and smooth relations with the people of the area. During the event, Heather Badcock, a fan of Marina’s finally gets the chance to meet her idol. What’s even more exciting is that Marina gives Heather her own cocktail. Shortly afterward, though, Heather suddenly dies, and it’s discovered that the cocktail was poisoned. At first, it seems that the intended victim was Marina Gregg, since the poisoned cocktail was hers. There are plenty of people who bear her a grudge, too, including her film rival, Lola Brewster. Soon enough, though, it’s found out that Heather was deliberately poisoned. Now, Miss Marple and her friend, Dolly Bantry, sort through the relationships in Heather’s life to find out who bore her a grudge.

There’s also a solid example of a “grudge murder” in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, in which Queen investigates the shooting of King Bendigo, an arms tycoon with his own private island. Bendigo summons Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, to Bendigo Island to find out who’s been sending threatening letters. The Queens arrive and begin to learn more about the people in Bendigo’s life, including his brothers, Abel and Judah, and his wife, Karla. One night, Bendigo is shot in a classic “locked room” way, and the Queens try to find out who fired the shot. Queen’s search for the truth about the threats to Bendigo’s life lead him to Wrightsville, the small New England town where the Bendigo brothers were raised. It’s there that he finds out about Bendigo’s past and about the grudge that has led to the shooting and the events that follow it.

P.D. Martin’s Body Count is a fascinating example of a set of murders that turn out to be related to a grudge. Sophie Anderson is an FBI profiler whose specialty is “getting into the minds” of serial killers. She’s helped by a series of psychic visions that allow her to see and feel what the killer sees and feels. A series of brutal murders seems to mirror what Sophie sees in her visions, so she confides in her friend Samantha “Sam” Wright, hoping that her visions will help to catch the murderer. When Sam herself is captured, Sophie puts her psychic visions to work to find the killer before Sam becomes the next victim. As it turns out, the murders have been planned and committed because of the killer’s grudge against someone.

One could also argue that there’s a grudge behind the events in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. In that novel, Harriet Vane has been invited back to Oxford to be a part of the Gaudy dinner, despite the notoriety she gained from her trial for murder (Strong Poison). Her relationship with the Oxford re-established, Harriet’s later asked to help in investigating a frightening series of anonymous letters, vandalism and threats. The Warden of Shrewsbury thinks that the trouble is being caused by someone in the college, and Harriet agrees to help find out who and what is behind the alarming events at the college. There’s soon a terrifying atmosphere of suspicion, as people begin to suspect one another and, as Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey get closer to the truth, Harriet herself is attacked and almost killed. Finally, the person behind the vandalism, letters and other events is discovered. As it turns out, everything going on at the college has its roots in a desire for revenge and a grudge that the perpetrator holds.

Sometimes, killers wait for a long time to act on their grudges. For instance, in Rita Mae Brown’s Pawing Through the Past, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Brown’s sleuth, is helping to plan her high school class’ twentieth reunion. Several members of the class receive a cryptic note that reads You’ll never get old. At first, everyone passes the notes off as a prank. However, when the members of the class gather for the weekend of festivities, Leo Burkey, the class Lothario, is shot between the eyes. Then, Charlie Ashcraft, another notorious womanizer, is killed and before long, it’s clear that Harry and her classmates are up against one of their own who’s been waiting for twenty years to get revenge.

In some crime fiction, even when the crime isn’t committed because of a grudge, that desire for revenge plays its part in the events. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger. The real truth is that Mrs. McGinty found out someone’s secret from the past, and that person was willing to do anything – including commit murder – to keep that secret. Interestingly enough, more than one character involved in that past appears in the novel, and it turns out that one of them has a grudge about what happened in the past. This adds an interesting layer of character interest to the story.

Sleuths can have grudges, too, of course. For instance, in Ian Rankin’s John Rebus novels. Rebus frequently runs up against powerful local crime lord Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty. Cafferty has gotten away with more than one crime that Rebus can’t connect to his nemesis, so Rebus certainly bears him plenty of animus. In Exit Music, we see how this grudge plays out when Rebus finds out that Cafferty may be involved in the murder of dissident Russian poet Alexander Todorov. One result of Rebus’ wanting to “get” Cafferty is that he’s suspended just a few days before his retirement. So Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke investigates Todorov’s murder with Rebus more or less on the sidelines (although, being Rebus, he’s still involved in the case). The epilogue to this novel has a fascinating twist to the Rebus/Cafferty dynamic, by the way.

As always, I’ve only been able to mention a few novels in which grudges play a major role. Grudges and the desire for revenge can be powerful motivators and so they’re strong forces in crime fiction. On the other hand, some people argue that it’s not realistic that anyone would take a grudge as far as murder. What do you think? Do you enjoy crime fiction where a grudge plays a major role?


  1. Yes, grudges are great motivation for all kinds of mayhem and murder. For the psychotic, it doesn't take much to go off the handle because of real or imaginary slights. Great grist for mysteries.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Morgan - You're absolutely right. For people who are mentally unstable, a real or imagined grudge can be a powerful motive. It can be especially intriguing if the victim doesn't realize that the murderer has a grudge. That gives the opportunity for all kinds of suspense...

  3. An absolutely fascinating subject. I am a great believer in moving on and that life is far too short to bear a grudge. Luckily for crime fiction aficionados some people hold grudges for years and the perpetrators in many novels have long memories.

  4. Grudges take far too much energy for me. I know some people who like to hold on to them and I wonder why they aren't exhausted all the time. Still, it does motivate them to do some extraordianry things and I have to admit that many of my characters hold onto things forever. It helps provide a direction and a goal for a character and to keep them focused.
    Thanks for an interesting post and discussion.

  5. I love grudges! At least in fiction. It makes for a good motive or a good red herring to point to a suspect we haven't picked as the killer.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. Norman - I know what you mean! I, too, tend to try to let go of things; life really is too short, isn't it? But that certainly doesn't make for very compelling crime fiction. So, like you, I'm glad that in crime fiction, some people nurse a grudge for a lifetime.

    Cassandra - I hadn't thought about focus, but you're absolutely right. Holding a grudge can give a person a purpose and a focus in life. That, in itself, can make a character interesting and give her or him some shape and form.

    Elizabeth - That's a well-taken point! Besides making for spicy motives for murder, grudges are terrific "red herrings," aren't they? That's one of the things I think makes for well-written crime fiction - when more than one character has an equally plausible motive.

  7. I'm with everybody else--grudges are great motives. And the bigger the grudge, the better the motive.

  8. Alan - I like the way you put that: "...the bigger the grudge, the better the motive." A grudge against someone who cuts one off in traffic doesn't count as a good motive for murder for most of us. A grudge against someone who sent one to prison on a false accusation? That's another story altogether.

  9. I loathe grudges in real life, but they make excellent motives. Especially as they often make the murder plot less black and white, because the reader can sympathize with the antagonist.

  10. Heeheehee, this is one my character's motive in my WiP. You've explained it beautifully, Margot; in my opinion there might be nothing more deathly than a long-held, festering grudge. Maybe. I'm not giving anything away.

  11. Dorte - Oh, I could not agree with you more! In real life (to me, anyway), there is no sense spending time and mental energy and ruining a relationship over a grudge. On the other hand, you're right that grudges allow for a more complex character study, a very interesting set of motives and a "clean" plot line (i.e. there is a clear reason why the killer strikes). So it makes sense that there are grudges in crime fiction.

    Elspeth - Oooh, glimpses into your WIP! I *am* excited. I love the words you use, too: "...a long-held, festering grudge." Those are the kinds of grudges that really lead to some fascinating plots and strong character interactions.