Wednesday, February 24, 2010

You Love The Ones That You Betray...*

Many crime fiction novels have betrayal as a theme. At times, the victim dies precisely because she or he has betrayed the killer. Sometimes, the victim is betrayed by the killer. Sometimes, one suspect betrays another. There are other ways, too, in which betrayal is woven into the plots of crime fiction novels. One reason betrayal is such a common theme is likely that it’s a very believable motive for murder. It’s also a very human (if not praiseworthy) reaction to being suspected of murder. Betraying others is a way of keeping oneself “above suspicion.” Readers can identify with betrayal, too. Even if we haven’t, ourselves, been betrayed, we can understand what betrayal is and what its consequences might be. That’s even more the case for those who have been betrayed.

Betrayal is a major theme in Ellerry Queen’s Ten Days Wonder. In that novel, Wealthy young Howard Van Horn is suffering from a terrifying series of blackouts. One day, he wakes up from a blackout covered in blood and sure he must have committed an awful crime. He asks his college friend Ellery Queen to help him find out what’s behind the blackouts. Queen agrees. The search for the answers takes Queen to Van Horn’s hometown of Wrightsville, a small New England town. There, Queen and Van Horn stay with Van Horn’s father, wealthy Diedrich Van Horn, and his much-younger wife, Sally. While they’re there, Howard has another frightening blackout, during which Sally is murdered. Immediately, Howard seems to be the guilty party, but Queen’s not so sure and he investigates. After a year (and another death) Queen finally realizes the truth. Sally’s death and what happened to Howard Van Horn are part of a plan that’s been motivated by betrayal.

Many times, betrayal happens because the victim trusted the wrong people. That’s the case in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory, Dickory Death), in which Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of Celia Austin, a resident at a hostel for students. As Poirot looks more deeply into the lives of people living in the hostel, he finds that all of them seemed to like Celia, and she herself liked and trusted most of the people. In fact, it’s Celia’s trusting nature that puts her in harm’s way. It turns out that she found out more than was good for her and trusted what the killer told her about her discovery. When it became clear that Celia knew too much, the killer abused her trust.

There’s also a theme of betrayal in Christie’s Death on the Nile. That story, in a way, begins with a betrayal, when beautiful, wealthy Linnet Ridgeway meets Simon Doyle and falls in love with him. The problem is that Simon is the fiancĂ© of Linnet’s best friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort. Linnet ultimately doesn’t let her long friendship with Jackie stop her from marrying Simon Doyle and the two go on a honeymoon trip up the Nile. On the second night of the trip, Linnet is shot. At first, it looks as though Jacqueline de Bellefort shot her rival. Very soon, though, it’s very clear that she couldn’t have killed Linnet. There are plenty of other suspects, too. Two of the other passengers have been responsible for protecting Linnet’s financial interests, and may be guilty of fraud. One of the employees on the boat bears a grudge against her. There are other hidden motives for the murder, too. Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, investigates the murder with the help of Colonel Race. As it turns out, Linnet was not only betrayer, but betrayed.

Rita Mae Brown’s Rest in Pieces also deals with the theme of betrayal. Blair Banbridge, a successful model, has just bought a small farm in the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. His neighbor is Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Brown’s sleuth. The people of the town are naturally suspicious of outsiders, and even more so when, not long after Bainbridge’s arrival, body parts start surfacing in different parts of Crozet. It turns out that they belong to a very eccentric stranger who’d wandered into town recently. When another body surfaces on Bainbridge’s farm, there’s even more speculation about this newcomer and everyone begins to think that Blair Bainbridge is a killer. Harry has doubts, though. Her natural curiosity gets the better of her and she begins to investigate. The more Harry learns about Blair’s past and about the dead man, the more she sees that the dead man was betrayed because of a grudge, and so that the killer could gain.

Betrayal also plays a role in P.D. Martin’s Body Count. Sophie Anderson, an Australian transplant to the U.S., is an FBI profiler. Her specialty is getting “into the minds” of serial killers. She settles into her new job and makes a friend, Samantha Wright, to whom she confides a secret: Sophie Anderson has psychic visions. She’s had them ever since her brother was abducted when she was a child. Until now, Sophie hasn’t told anyone about her visions, but now, they bear an eerie similarity to a series of more recent killings. Sophie begins to use what she learns in her visions to try to catch the killer, but before she can, Samantha herself is abducted. Now, Sophie has to put herself at risk to find out who’s behind these killings. When she does find out, she realizes that the killer has been betraying everyone’s trust – including Sophie’s.

Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary is also focused on betrayal. Glenn Hadlock has recently been released from San Quentin prison, and is desperate for a job. So he applies for a job as a bodyguard/escort to Eileen Scofield, the beautiful young wife of Victor Scofield, a very wealthy invalid. Scofield hires Hadlock, and before long, Hadlock is settled into his job. It’s not long, though, before Hadlock finds himself drawn into a web of deception and betrayal when he finds himself falling in love with Eileen Scofield, even though he knows that he’s under strict orders to keep their relationship platonic. Hadlock knows that Scofield pays his salary and that he’s at real risk if he’s discovered. On the other hand, he can’t resist the enigmatic Eileen Scofield. In the end, betrayal plays a critical role in the fates of all three.

In my own B-Very Flat, violin virtuosa Serena Brinkman is also the victim of a betrayal. She’s an undergraduate violin major studying at Tilton University. When she gets the opportunity to compete for a prestigious spot in a local touring orchestra, she prepares as well as she can. On the night of the competition, Serena suddenly dies of what turns out to be anaphylaxis. Her partner, criminal justice major Patricia Stanley, asks her advisor, Joel Wililams, to find out what happened to Serena. Williams agrees somewhat reluctantly, and he and the Tilton police soon find that Serena’s world was far from the safe place she thought it to be. It turns out that Serena was betrayed by someone who was willing to sacrifice her for a personal goal.

Betrayal is, perhaps, worst when the betrayer is someone who is in a position of a great deal of trust. That’s why medical mysteries capture our attention as much as they do. The doctor is supposed to be someone we trust to look after our health. Some of us, as a matter of fact, put implicit trust in our doctors. So it’s even more disturbing when a doctor betrays us .There are many such novels; I’ll must mention one. Robin Cook’s Godpplayer is the story of Cassandra “Cassi” Kingsley, who’s a psychiatry resident at the prestigious Boston hospital where her husband, Thomas Kingsley, is a respected cardiac surgeon. Soon after she begins working at the hospital, Cassi finds out about several unexplained surgical deaths. What’s especially frightening to her is that these deaths seem connected to her own husband’s practice. Now, Cassi and her friend, pathologist Dr. Robert Seibert, try to discover what’s behind the deaths. What they find puts Cassi in a great deal of danger, and in the end, Cassi is betrayed when the killer’s agenda is judged to be more important than Cassi’s life.

There are, of course, many novels I haven't mentioned here that feature betrayal as a major theme. Betrayal is such an important theme in crime fiction because it’s such a believable context for a murder. We can believe that someone might kill because he or she was betrayed, or that someone might betray a business partner, friend or loved one for gain. Do you agree? Do you enjoy crime fiction that features betrayal?

*NOTE – The title of this post is a line from the Hooters' Satellite.

On Another Note….

I’d like to congratulate these friends and fellow bloggers whose crime blogs were mentioned among the top 50 in an online article in Court Reporter.

Rhian at It’s a Crime! (Or a Mystery…)
Peter at Detectives Beyond Borders
Karen at Euro Crime

Craig at Crime Watch
Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise
Martin at Do You Write Under Your Own Name?
Norman at Crime Scraps

Well done and well-deserved, all!!!

I am also deeply honored that Confessions…..was included on the list. Thanks to the staff of Court Reporter for the honor!


  1. I like your blog and I also saw that article...I mentioned it on my blog as well.


  2. Ann - Thank you so much : ). I appreciate it. This was really exciting for me : ).

  3. Congratulations. I haven't seen the list, but I can understand how your blog would be included. You do a wonderful job with your posts. They are always insightful, entertaining and thought provoking.

  4. Mason - Thank you : ). How very kind of you : ). Comeing from someone whose blog is as entertaining and informative as yours is, that means a lot to me.

  5. Do you enjoy crime fiction that features betrayal?

    Oh yes, I do. I am teaching a wonderful story about murder most foul with a mother and an uncle who betray her son. You may have heard about it; it is called Hamlet.

  6. Dorte - LOL! So besides being an extremely talented playwright, Shakespeare was a crime fiction writer : ). I like that perspective.

  7. Thanks for the mention Margot, and congrats on being on the list. I am surprised that Petrona wasn't on this list [I plagiarize a lot of material from dear Maxine], but as I was down as "True Crime" I nearly missed me!
    I do like crime fiction that feature betrayal, because they are stark warning of what goes on in real life.

  8. Norman - It's my pleasure to mention Crime Scraps. You really do have a wonderful blog. I was surprised, too that Petrona was not included. I would certainly have included it. Maxine's blog is really top-notch.

    I like the way you put that, too: "..stark warning of what goes on in real life." You are right that betrayal does go on frequently in real life, so to include it in crime fiction is a reflection of reality.

  9. Congratulations on having your blog mentioned, but I'm really not surprised. As I've said before, Margot, your knowledge of this genre is awe-inspiring.

    As for responding to today's post...I love mysteries involving betrayal. To be betrayed means trust was given. Trust was misplaced or abused. Not all people are good. Trust must be earned over time, not given out blindly.

    As you might be able to deduce, I'm in a fairly dark mood this morning. Deadlines tend to have that affect on me.

  10. Elspeth - I know what you mean about deadlines. I always feel sour, myself, when I'm up against them. You do make a very well-taken point, too, that in real life (and in good crime fiction), people are not always good. Some people abuse trust. The reality of that, and the consequences of it, really can make for a compelling story.

    Also...thanks for the kind words : ). Coming from someone I respect as I do you, that means a lot.

  11. Congratulations, Margot, you certainly should have been on that list so I am glad you are. And Norman too, though strange he should be in the "true crime" category, perhaps a reflection of the social and poltical comment that he often includes in his posts (eg Italian crime novels and their relation to reality.) Petrona often does not get on these lists, I think there are three reasons: it isn't good enough; it isn't only about crime fiction (though it is more about crime fic now than it was a couple of years ago); and that its title hasn't got "crime" or "mystery" in it. Probably a combination of all three!

    Very well deserved, Margot, anyway - and I like this post of course. The Agatha Christie section made me think of Henry James, the one about the menage a trois where the man married the ill woman. So sorry to have blanked on the title - it wasn't The Golden Bowl, The Turn of the Screw or The Ambassadors, I think....

  12. Maxine - Thanks for the kind words. I agree that Norman's mention is well-earned, too. And I think the only reason Petrona wasn't mentioned is that there was a serious lapse. Your blog is, without a doubt, one of the finest review blogs and crime fiction discussion/update blogs that there is. Folks, if you haven't visited>Petrona, you are missing out on wonderful, thoughtful reviews, solid and informative updates, and interesting discussion!

    Thanks for mentioning Henry James. Hmm....I haven't read his work in such a long time. It might be The Sacred Fount, but I'm not sure. In any case, I am glad you brought his writing up. Henry James is often overlooked these days, but was a great writer.

  13. I just went to look it up because it was annoying me that I couldn't remember. It was The Wings of the Dove. There was a modernised movie of it starring Helena Bonham Carter, in which the plot was simplified and made much more explicit (quite necessary with HJ, I find his plots so subtle that sometimes I have read the whole novel without a clue as to what was supposed to have happened!). But, this movie did change quite a bit, I think, though the central theme was the same.

  14. Maxine - Thanks! I was wondering, too, and I appreciate that you told us which book it is. You're right about James' plots, too. I didn't see the movie, but I could well imagine that there had to be some major changes so that the central point was clear.