Friday, February 19, 2010

"Blind Spots"

We all have our strengths, of course, but we also often have “blind spots.” By that I mean that we have what Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot called a “strain of weakness,” and what other people call an Achilles’ heel. It’s the one area in which our judgment can be clouded, so that we don’t look at things as they really are. Sometimes, those “blind spots” can cause us to make some very poor decisions, and in crime fiction, “blind spots” can get people killed, and make it harder for the sleuth to solve crimes.

Agatha Christie brings up that very point in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, Hercule Poirot has decided to retire, and has taken a home in the village of King’s Abbott. His retirement doesn’t last long, though. One night, Roger Ackroyd, a wealthy retired manufacturing tycoon, is stabbed while he’s locked in his study. Ackroyd’s niece, Flora Ackroyd, begs Poirot to find out who the murderer is, because the prime suspect is her fiancé, Captain Ralph Paton, who’s Acroyd’s adopted son. One of the first things that Poirot does is to ask everyone involved in the case to tell him whatever they know. No-one is willing to tell the whole truth, and Poirot soon finds out that many of the characters have a “blind spot” that has led to some regrettable decisions. For instance, one character’s blind spot is feelings towards a child. Another’s is money. Another’s is the need for security. In one character’s case, that character’s judgment is so clouded by this “blind spot” that murder is the result.

That’s also the case in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), in which Poirot investigates the shooting death of successful Harley Street doctor John Christow. Poirot has taken a week-end cottage near the home of the Angkatells, where the murder takes place, and, when he’s invited for lunch one day, he comes upon the scene of Christow’s murder and gets involved almost in spite of himself. When he realizes the truth of the matter, Poirot finds that the murderer had a “blind spot” about John Christow. In this case, it was an illusion about the kind of person Christow was. As it turns out, that “blind spot” was revealed to the murderer, and was too much for the murderer to accept. That realization cost Christow his life.

Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) focuses on the death of Amyas Crale, a famous painter whose fatal attraction – one of his “blind spots” – is women. As he himself mentions, he “can’t let women alone.” The other is his art. Nothing is more important to Crale than his paintings, and this clouds his judgment. That’s one reason he gets involved with young, rich and beautiful Elsa Greer. He’s besotted by her, and agrees to paint her portrait. Crale brings Elsa to his family home, much to the chagrin of his wife, Caroline, and the painting sessions take place. It’s soon clear to all that Amyas Crale and Elsa Greer are having an affair. Crale’s friends, brothers Philip and Meredith Blake, warn him that he could be risking much, but he doesn’t listen. The painting is going well, and Crale can see no reason to stop. One day, after lunch, Caroline Crale goes down to where Amyas is painting, to bring him a beer. When she finds him there, dead, the police are called in and it’s soon clear that he’s been poisoned. Caroline Crale is soon arrested and convicted for the murder, and dies a year later in prison. Sixteen years later, their daughter, Carla Lemarchant, asks Hercule Poirot to clear her mother’s name if he can. Poirot then asks all of the people that were on hand on the day of the tragedy to write out their accounts of what happened. Through those written stories and through what each one tells him, Poirot is able to piece together what really happened. What’s fascinating about Amyas Crale is that he’s more or less oblivious to the danger he’s caused himself (not to mention the trouble he’s caused for the two women in his life) by openly flaunting his affair. He’s sure that “everything will pan out all right.”

There’s also an interesting case of a “blind spot” in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden. Landscaper Warren Howe is an abusive, hard-drinking character who’s had several affairs. On the surface, it’s easy to wonder why any of the local women would be attracted to him; they all know that he’s married and has children, and they all know his reputation for infidelity and abuse. Yet, Warren Howe never seems to lack for company. The women in his life have a “blind spot” for him. When he’s found murdered with his own scythe one day, the police thinks his wife, Tina, is responsible. They can’t get enough evidence to pursue the case, though, so the trail goes cold. Ten years later, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the case when some anonymous notes claim that Tina is guilty. As Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind look into Howe’s death, they find that the web of deception, lies and intrigue caused by this “blind spot” led to Howe’s murder.

Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk tells the story of the frightening consequences of having a “blind spot.” Stanton Lewis is about to launch a public offering of his biotechnology company, Genetrix. He’s hoping to attract more investment in the company by hiring noted neuroscientist Edward Armstrong, who’s been working on anti-depressant drug research. Armstrong and his research assistant agree to work for Genetech and before long they’ve gotten started on what could be breakthrough depression therapy. Meanwhile, Edward and Lewis’ cousin, Kimberly Stewart, have begun a relationship. When Kimberly decides to renovate an old house on some family-owned property, she and Edward discover that one of the ergots growing under the old basement has psychotropic properties. Now, Edward’s intrigued and decides to test a new drug that uses the same ergot. He assembles a crack research team and they set up a brand-new laboratory on the property. Edward’s “blind spot” is his devotion to his research. He’s so intent on developing a breakthrough drug that he and the team make the fateful decision to test the drug on themselves – with terrifying consequences.

Of course, it’s not just murderers and their victims who have “blind spots.” Sleuths have them, too. One of the criticisms that Agatha Christie’s Poirot makes of his good friend Captain Hastings is that Hastings is too easily taken in by what Poirot calls, “beauty in distress.” In several Christie novels (e.g. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder on the Links, The ABC Murders) Hastings is loath to suspect characters because they are beautiful women.

Hastings isn’t alone. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse also has a blind spot when it comes to women. In fact, in The Daughters of Cain and The Jewel That Was Ours, Morse gets involved in relationships with women who are suspects in murder cases. In The Dead of Jericho, he nearly gets involved with a woman who ends up dead – an apparent suicide. Morse doesn’t let his attraction to women stop him from investigating cases, but he does have a weakness for a women.

M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin also has a “blind spot.” In her case, it’s her ex-husband, James Lacey. She’s attracted to him at the same time as she feels herself well rid of him. Despite the fact that she knows they’re better off apart, she can’t seem to stop herself. Janet Evanovich’s bounty-hunter sleuth Stephanie Plum is the same way about her on-again-off-again lover, police officer Joe Morelli.

Ian Rankin’s John Rebus has a “blind spot,” too. He knows that his anti-authority disposition and behavior get him into trouble. Frequently. He’s been reprimanded, demoted, and more. Yet, he falls again and again into the pattern of resisting much of what authority figures tell him. In both The Falls and Exit Music, he’s suspended because of his difficulties with “following the rules” (and those aren’t the only cases). Rebus’ Achilles heel seems to be his independent, almost defiant, spirit.

It can make a character seem more human when s/he has a “blind spot,” whether it’s misplaced loyalty, a weakness for money, women, men or something else. “Blind spots” can also add an interesting layer to a plot. On the other hand, “blind spots” can frustrate the reader, who would like to see a character realize that s/he has a “blind spot.” What’s your view? Do you think those so-called Achilles’ heels are humanizing characteristics? Or do they irritate you?

On Another Note…

Please stop over at Mason Canyon’s terrific blog, Thoughts in Progress, today, Saturday, 20 February, where I’ll be guest blogging. I’ll be talking about different genres of mystery fiction and a little about why I write crime fiction. Oh, and I’ll be offering a giveaway of a signed copy of my new release, B-Very Flat.

17 comments:

  1. Although I "never generalize" I do believe that blind spots are part of being human. I think many people can overlook flaws or idiosyncratic behaviours in certain people for their entire lives. For many people it's their children's irresponsibility that they choose not to see. So, Margot, what's your blind spot?

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  2. I agree with Bobbi -- many moms have blind spots where their little darlings are concerned.

    Wouldn't our characters seem too good to be true if they didn't have blind spots or flaws?

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  3. Bobbi - I think you're right; "blind spots" really are a part of being human. You have a point, too, that for many people, their "blind spots" are their children. I can think of one Agatha Christie novel, for instance (I won't give away titles), where a parent knows about a child's crime, but doesn't say anything about it to Hercule Poirot.

    As far as my blind spot? Hmm...well, I would tell you, but I just don't see it ; ).



    Patricia - That's the thing about mothers; they really do often have "blinders," so to speak about their children. That's an interesting idea for a post, too - mothers and their children.. Thanks for the inspiration : ). And I agree - our characters really would be too perfect if they had no flaws or "blind spots." It makes for a more interesting story if the character is real, and human, and therefore, flawed.

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  4. I think "blind spots" do add to the characters and sometimes makes the plot more intriguing. With a "blind spot" in a book the reader can relate to the character more.

    Thanks so much for guest blogging at Thoughts in Progress today. Wonderful post.

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  5. Mason - You're absolutely right. It's much easier for us as readers to identify with characters when they, like we, have "blind spots" and so-called Achilles' heels. When a plot has believable characters, it engages readers more.

    ...and believe me, I'm the one who's grateful to you for letting me "camp" in your "living room." : )

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  6. We all certainly have our point of view and may not see what we need to see in order for the truth to be revealed. Blind spots make interesting character flaws.

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  7. Journaling Woman - I really like the way you put it: as an issue of point of view. When characters are too attached to their points of view, that's where the "blind spots" come in, and you're right, they are interesting character flaws.

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  8. "For many people it's their children's irresponsibility they choose not to see." Is my house bugged?
    Yes, that is my blind spot and it is more of a large rash than a spot.

    Your mention of Morse's bad luck with women reminded me of a quote in a newspaper by a centenarian male, who put his longevity down to avoiding three Ws. Work, wheels and women.

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  9. Norman - I think a "blind spot" about our children ia an occpuational hazard of being a parent; I really do. You are far from alone in that.

    I had to laugh at that newspaper quote you shared! Some people really do swear by avoiding entanglements. I'm not so sure, though; there's also interesting research that suggests that those relationships add to our years.. Interesting question...

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  10. As I developed my manuscript, I decided to make the characters 2-3 years younger. Their "blind spots" due to their immaturity in certain areas help introduce internal and external conflicts. These conflicts open the door for twists and turns in the plot.

    STephen Tremp

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  11. Stephen - Oh, that's intriguing! Immaturity certainly can be a "blind spot," and I'm sure that it leads to some very interesting twists and turns. Certainly younger people often don't have the life experience to avoid certain pitfalls, so it makes sense that they'd be "blind" in that way.

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  12. I understand what people are saying about "blind spots" with their children - I don't see it quite that way, in that I am aware of some of the issues that my children have (not that I don't have plenty of my own!) and perhaps a better expression is "turn a blind eye", ie. help them through it rather than not actually seeing it in the first place?

    In crime fiction i agree that the blind spot is often what helps the murderer to escape notice, especially if that person is in a position of trust and/or authority (eg in the police force or a religious official of some kind). In fact, thinking about it, this is true in real life too, where criminals have gone undetected for years because everyone has seen the respectable facade. Peter Temple writes about this in several of his books, eg The Broken Shore. Also the first Simon Beckett book, the Chemistry of Death, has a villain who is in a position of trust and (trying not to spoil) there was a reason people felt sorry for this person, so that everyone had two blind spots in that case.

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  13. Maxine - I do like that phrase - "turning a blind eye." That describes it quite well.

    You're right, too, about people in positions of trust. The news is full of stories about people who've abused positions in schools, medical offices and more, and of course, crime fiction is full of that, too. Thanks for mentioning Temple in regards to that, because he does address it. Pity, or sympathy or something of the kind can also make people turn a blind eye. I'm thinking of an Agatha Christie novel where the killer turns out to be someone that people, well, felt sorry for and that people wouldn't have imagined would have committed the crime. Interesting "food for thought."

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  14. I think that it is easier for us to accept blind spots if we share the weakness or know someone who does, someone who is still a kind and loving person. So I can sympathize with the alcoholic sleuths, but I tend to be impatient with the immature (Stephen´s example) because I was quite mature (married and had my first child before I was 20) so why can´t they just pull themselves together and grow up! ;)

    I have a youngish, immature protagonist myself, but I have had several problems with her because she annoys me quite a bit.

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  15. Dorte - LOL! I realy had to laught at what you said about your protagonist. Sometimes they do annoy us, don't they? I know what you mean, too, about finding it easier to accept someone's blind spots if we have the same one (or at least understand it). Sometimes it's hard to be sympathetic, then, and I think it takes special skill on the author's part to make such a character likeable.

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  16. Your protagonist had better watch out, Dorte, or her creator might award her a premature sticky end ;-)

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  17. Maxine: well, I think I´d better kick the dust out of her - I plan to let her grow up a bit and use her for a series!

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