Thursday, April 22, 2010

Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?*

An interesting post by Elizabeth Spann Craig raised the important question of how we deal with the conflict of what you might call torn loyalties. We all face those kinds of choices and for some of them, there seems to be no positive outcome; no matter which choice we make, someone’s hurt or something goes wrong. There are many examples of torn loyalties in crime fiction, too, and that makes sense. Not only are these dilemmas believable if they’re done well, but also, they can add a compelling layer of suspense and tension to a novel.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels deal with torn loyalties. For example, in Dead Man’s Folly, Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional author, has been invited to Nasse House to arrange a mock Murder Hunt (a sort of scavenger hunt) for an upcoming fĂȘte. Oliver suspects there may be more going on at Nasse House than simply preparations for the event, so she asks Poirot to come to Nasse House and investigate, under the guise of presenting the awards for the Murder Hunt winners. Poirot agrees and travels to Nasse House. On the day of the fĂȘte, Marlene Tucker, a young Girl Guide who was chosen to play the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is found actually killed. At first, there seems no motive for the girl’s murder. She wasn’t wealthy, envied, or mixed up in criminal activity. She was inquisitive, though and, as Poirot and the police look more deeply into the case, they find that Marlene was killed because she knew too much about some old secrets being hidden at Nasse House. As it turns out, Marlene’s death, and two other deaths, all occurred because of one person’s torn loyalties about the murderer. Even that person admits that because of those loyalties, the murderer wasn’t turned over to the police a long time before.

Poirot himself faces torn loyalties in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). In that novel, Poirot and Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp investigate the shooting murder of Henry Morley, Poirot’s dentist. There seems no personal reason for Morley’s murder, but it is possible that his death had something to do with a wealthy and powerful patient, Alistair Blunt. As Poirot and Japp begin to sift through the clues, another patient of Morley’s dies. Then another patient disappears. Finally, Poirot is able to tie together the deaths and the disappearance, and find out who killed Morley. What’s interesting is Poirot’s reaction when he realizes who the killer is. Rather than take any pleasure in what faces him, he admits that sometimes, he doesn’t like what he has to do. In this case, Poirot has a genuine respect for the murderer, and believes that there could be very negative consequences if the murderer is brought to justice. On the other hand, as he himself often says, Poirot does not approve of murder. To him, the lives of the people who’ve been killed are no less valuable than that of the murderer. In the end, Poirot makes the reluctant decision to turn the killer over to the police.

Poirot doesn’t always make that choice. In another novel, which I won’t name so as not to spoil anyone’s fun, he lets the killer go free. In that story, the consequences of not doing so are more negative than the consequences of letting a murderer go.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee comes up against divided loyalties in Coyote Waits. Chee’s best friend, Delbert Nez, is (like Chee) a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Nez is investigating a case of vandalism to some local outcroppings of rock when Chee suddenly loses radio contact with him. Chee rushes to the location, only to find that he’s too late. Nez has been shot and his car burned. Not far from the scene, Chee finds Ashie Pinto, an elderly alcoholic. Pinto has the gun with which Nez was shot, and the alcohol he’s got with him could easily have been used to set the car fire. So Chee immediately arrests Pinto for the crime. Pinto himself makes no protest. Chee is faced with a real dilemma when two of Pinto’s relatives claim that he was innocent. Then, Pinto’s court-appointed lawyer, Janet Pete, arrives and also holds that Pinto was innocent. On one hand, Chee is incensed at the murder of his close friend and wants to see his friend’s death avenged. Besides, there’s plenty of evidence against Pinto, so Chee believes he got the right man. On the other hand, Pete and Pinto’s relatives say that Pinto is being “railroaded,” and that Chee and the other members of the Navajo Tribal Police aren’t even investigating the crime; they’re just assuming Pinto’s guilt. Reluctantly, Chee comes to see that point of view and begins an investigation. In the end, it’s a good thing that he does, because he finds out that there was more to Nez’ death than there seemed on the surface.

There’s also an interesting example of torn loyalties in Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are investigating the stabbing death of Dr. Felix McClure, a retired Oxford don. As they look into his murder, they examine all of his past associations to see if anyone might have had a good reason to kill McClure. They soon come to suspect Ted Brooks, McClure’s former scout. Then, mysteriously, Brooks disappears and is later found murdered himself. Morse is sure that the two murders are related, and he and Lewis begin to investigate them as a pair. One person who seems to have a connection to both cases is Ellie Smith, a prostitute who counted McClure among her clients. Morse discovers that Ellie also has a connection to Ted Brooks. She’s, therefore, a major suspect in this case. Unfortunately for Morse, he’s also fallen for her, and she for him. So he’s got very torn loyalties. In fact, both of them sense the strain on their relationship that comes from the fact that she could very well be a double murderer. In the end, Ellie disappears, and the novel ends with Morse’s resolution to find her again.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti has to deal with divided loyalties in Fatal Remedies. Early one morning, Brunetti is called to the scene of a case of vandalism. Someone’s been throwing rocks through the windows of a local travel agency. When Brunetti gets there, he finds that the guilty person is his wife, Paola. She’s taken this action because she’s found out that the travel agency sponsors “sex tours” of Thailand that exploit children, and she’s incensed about it. Unfortunately, the owner of the travel agency is well-connected, and of course, Vice-Questore Patta, Brunetti’s boss, has no interest in “upsetting the apple cart.” Now Brunetti is torn between his loyalty to his wife (and his agreement with her on the sex trade) and his realization that she’s broken the law. Brunetti chooses to support Paola, and is forced into “administrative leave.” He’s then called back to work when the travel agency’s owner, Paolo Mitri, is murdered. Now, Brunetti has to cope with the conflict he feels between his dislike of Mitri and all that he stood for, and his equally-strong belief that murder is not the answer. In the end, Brunetti finds that Mitri’s murder is more complicated than just retribution for exploiting children.

Mason Hunt, a commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County Virginia, faces a very difficult case of torn loyalties in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. Mason and his older brother Gates are at Gates’ girlfriend’s home one afternoon when Wayne Thompson, a rival for Gates’ girlfriend, shows up. Wayne and Gates get into an argument. Later that night, the Hunt brothers are on their way home after a night of drinking when they meet up again with Wayne Thompson. He and Gates begin to argue again, and before anyone realizes what’s happened, Gates has shot Thompson. Now, Mason faces a conflict. On one hand, Gates is a no-good drug abuser and drinker who’s wasted every opportunity he ever had. Besides, Gates has just committed murder. On the other, Gates is Mason’s brother. Also, when the two brothers were boys, Gates protected Mason from their abusive father. So Mason feels a sense of loyalty to his brother. Mason’s decision to help his brother by hiding the evidence of the murder and helping to cover it up sets off a chain of events that have frightening consequences for Mason. Years later, when Gates is sent to prison for cocaine trafficking, he tries to use Mason’s loyalty against him, and accuses Mason of Thompson’s murder. He says that he’ll only admit that Mason was innocent if he’s released from prison. This sets off a bitter feud between the brothers as each tries to out-maneuver the other.

Conflicted loyalties can add much to a mystery plot. The reader doesn’t necessarily know which decision a character will make. And no matter which decision is made, there are serious consequences that can make for very engaging reading. That, in itself, adds interesting depths to a novel. What do you think? Do you think that torn loyalties makes for a good plot point? Or is that too contrived?

Oh, and about the picture… if you aren’t sure what the picture refers to, it refers to an old story by Frank Stockton called The Lady or the Tiger. If you haven’t read it, you can read it

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Lovin’ Spoonful.


  1. Another very interesting post - you certainly make me think! I can't think of an example myself, but recently read The Daughters of Cain, and that is a great example. This also brings another possibly related question to my mind - how far should a detective be personally involved in a case? There are some like Inspector Rebus who tend to get fairly involved and are thus more likely to face potential situations involving torn loyalties, and others like Adam Dalgliesh who are able to be more detached.

    I do agree that torn loyalties, if well done and not overused, make for good reading as they give readers something to think about - I like to think about what I may have done in that situation.

  2. Book Mole - Thank you : ). Isn't The Daughters of Cain a good novel? I'm glad you've read it.

    You raise a very interesting question about how involved detectives should be in their cases. As you say, Rebus often gets personally involved. Holmes didn't (except for A Scandal in Bohemia where he met Irene Adler). Dalgliesh is also more detached, but Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch does get more personally involved. I'm not sure there's a "right" amount of involvement. I've read too many fine novels on both sides of this question. Rather, I'd say that it depends on the context and the way the author has written the sleuth. If it's a "fit" for the sleuth's personality and it's well-written, then sleuth involvement makes some sense. Otherwise, it can seem contrived.

    That brings me to your last comment. It is interesting to think about what one might do in a similar (i.e. "torn loyalties) situation. For that reason, readers often get engaged in a novel where the sleuth has to deal with this kind of conflict, and that can be absorbing. As you say, it depends on whether it's well-written.

  3. I think a character being torn between loyalties make a brilliant tool for an author. But it has to be believable. In the book I am working towards getting published (not a mystery more of a thriller) divided loyalty is an issue for several characters.
    Sometimes things aren't clear cut are they.


    Publish or Perish

  4. Al - You put that quite well. Sometimes things really aren't clear-cut, so a character faces a difficult question of loyalties. As you say, that premise can be fascinating and quite suspenseful. But yes, it also has to be believable. If it seems contrived, then that takes away from the plot.

  5. Encyclopedic knowledge and a lovely writing style makes visits here always worthwhile.

  6. Patti - *Blush* Thank you! You just made my week : ). And I have no idea how you manage to fit all of the terrific content that you do into your own amazing blog. Folks, do visit Patti's excellent blog. Good film and book reviews, fun things to talk about, and of course, Forgotten Friday books await you!

  7. Conflicted loyalties does keep the reader guessing. It's also a great way to keep you turning page after page because you can't decide what will happen next. Another interesting post.

    Conflicted loyalties

  8. Mason - Thank you : ). You're absolutely right; when a major character is conflicted, especially if neither outcome is a good one, it is very hard to know what the character will do. That makes for real reader engagement, doesn't it?

  9. There is nothing more interesting than placing a character at a crossroads. A multi-layered character facing a difficult decision involving issues that cannot be labeled simply 'right' or 'wrong' is one of the most engrossing situations in literature. Handled with care, the writer can take the reader on a ride through the character's conscience with all its accompanying mores and prejudices, because ultimately, that is what will make the decision.

    Wow. I've put my Rossi in this position. Now I'm terrified. Thanks, Margot! ; P

  10. Elspeth - Not to worry; you have a lot of talent, and I'm sure 'ol Claudio will do just fine, and so will you.

    As to your thoughts on being at a crossroads, I couldn't agree with you more. A character with depth, faced with a real dilemma, is, indeed, engrossing - even haunting. We all come to those decisions, too, so not only do readers get caught up in the characters and their lives, but also, they can identify with those characters. You make a very well-taken point, too, that when the character makes a decision, it's based on the character's own perspective, values, experiences, and so on. So putting a character in that situation allows for a real exploration of the character's, well, character.

  11. Margot,
    Great insight -- and great timing, as Miss Lemon has just finished reading One, Two, Buckle My Shoe. For another novel in which torn loyalties turn up the intrigue, you might like Who Is Simon Warwick? by Patricia Moyes.

  12. Elizabeth - Thanks : ). Isn't it odd how that happens? One reads something and just then someone comments on it. I think One, Two... is an interesting story on several levels, actually. Thanks also for the Moyes recommendation. I'd heard of that one, but never read it. I'm going to have to look for it.

  13. I read Fatal Remedies while visting Venice and much enjoyed it. A very good example of your point about torn loyalties.

  14. Martin - What a perfect place to have read Donna Leon's work! And isn't Fatal Remedies an interesting look at that sort of conflict? My guess is, given that police are humans, with personal lives, friendships and the like, that most of them face torn loyalties at least sometimes.