Wednesday, April 28, 2010

This is What You Wanted, Ain't You Proud?*

Most of us have goals. They may be as simple as finishing the laundry or saving money for a vacation, or they may be as complex as becoming a top corporate executive. In some ways, having (and working towards) goals can be healthy; goals motivate us and focus us, and research shows that goals give us a purpose, and that promotes mental health. What happens, though, when our ambitions take over? Is it possible to be too ambitious? As with just about anything else, it seems to be a matter of balance. As any crime fiction fan knows, too much ambition can lead to ruined relationships – and murder.

There’s a clear example of ambition taken too far in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). In that novel, the members of the Abernethie family gather for the funeral of the family patriarch, Richard Abernethie, a wealthy manufacturer. At the gathering, Abernethie’s youngest sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that she thinks her brother was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up and claims that what she says is ridiculous. Privately, though, the other members of the family begin to wonder if Cora was right. So does Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney. The next day, Cora Lansquenet herself is brutally murdered, and now it seems even more likely that she was right. So Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate. There are several suspects, too, as Abernethie left a large fortune, to be divided amongst his heirs. Interestingly enough, it’s really not money per se that any of the heirs wants. Rather, the heirs are ambitious, and want the money to further their goals. In the end, Poirot finds that the murders were committed because the killer’s ambition was more important than anything else.

Ambition also plays an important role in Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Mrs. McGinty is a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger, James Bentley. Superintendent Spence, who actually conducted the investigation, begins to think he’s got the wrong man, so he asks Poirot to go back over the evidence and find out who really committed the crime. The evidence seems to point directly to Bentley, but Poirot soon finds that many of the other residents of Broadhinney, where Mrs. McGinty lived, had reasons to want her dead. Mrs. McGinty was a little too inquisitive for her own good, and unearthed someone’s secret. That secret stood in the way of the murderer’s ambitions, and that’s the reason, as it turns out, that Mrs. McGinty was killed.

Shona MacLean’s novels, The Redemption of Alexander Seaton and A Game of Sorrows both deal with the consequences of ambition. In The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, we meet Seaton, who’s the undermaster of the local grammar school. One morning, he’s awakened by the news that the body of Patrick Davidson, the apothecary’s assistant, has been found in Seaton’s classroom. Davidson’s been poisoned, and the immediate suspect is his rival in love, Charles Thom. Thom’s soon arrested and jailed, and he begs Seaton to clear his name. Seaton agrees, and begins to try to retrace Davidson’s last weeks to find out who had a motive to kill him. What Seaton learns is that Davidson had discovered that another death was actually a murder – committed for a kind of ambition. When the killer found what Davidson knew, this signed Davidson’s death warrant.

In A Game of Sorrows, Seaton has become a university teacher in Aberdeen. One night, he gets a surprise visit from his cousin, Sean Fitzgarrett. Fitzgarrett’s purpose is to bring Seaton back with him to Ireland, Seaton’s mother’s home. It seems that a curse has been laid on the family, and Fitzgarrett’s grandmother, Maeve O’Neill, has asked that Seaton come to Ireland to help lift the curse. At first, Seaton refuses. Then, Fitzgarrett tells him that some of the curse has already come true, and what he says sounds to Seaton like genuine crimes. So, very reluctantly, Seaton agrees to go to Ireland with his cousin. Almost before he knows it, Seaton’s swept up in family drama, political intrigue and religious turmoil. Then, his cousin is murdered and now it’s clear that Seaton’s up against a killer. Seaton finds out that it’s ambition, not a curse, that has caused the many tragedies in his mother’s family.

Corporate ambition plays a crucial role in Joseph Finder’s Killer Instinct. Jason Steadman is a sales executive for an electronics giant. He’s doing well enough, but he doesn’t seem to have the “killer instinct” that it takes to get to the top in the company. He’s reached a plateau that no longer really satisfies him, and certainly doesn’t satisfy his wife, Kate. Then, quite literally by accident, Steadman meets Kurt Semko, a former Special Forces operative and veteran of the war in Iraq. It turns out that Semko’s also a former major-league baseball player, so Steadman thinks he’d be a valuable recruit for the company’s softball team. Steadman uses the influence he does have to get Semko a job in Corporate Security. At first, it seems to have been a good decision. All sorts of good things begin to happen for Steadman, and bad things begin to happen for his company rivals. Before too long, though, Steadman realizes the price he’s paying for his and Kate’s ambitions when he finds out that Semko’s responsible for what’s been happening to Steadman’s rivals. He also learns that Semko’s got frightening ambitions of his own.

Many of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers also deal with ambition. I’ll just mention one of them. In Contagion, medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery notice a series of deaths from what seems to be a new and particularly virulent strain of influenza. All of the deaths occur at Manhattan General Hospital, so Stapleton suspects the viral infection may be nosocomial (hospital-caused). When he starts a more serious investigation, he runs into official resistance (naturally, Manhattan General doesn’t want these deaths publicized). He finds out, though, that Manhattan General is affiliated with AmeriCare, a large insurance provider. Its main rival is National Health. Stapleton begins to suspect that the rivalry between the two companies may be behind the deaths. As he and Montgomery get closer to the truth, Stapleton also gets closer to real danger for himself. Almost too late, he finds out that someone’s ambition is really what’s behind the deaths.

My own Joel Williams novels also deal with the excesses of ambition. In Publish or Perish, graduate student Nick Merrill has just received a coveted fellowship. He’s also just about to patent some valuable new software. When he dies suddenly, former police detective-turned-professor Joel Williams comes to suspect that the death may have been murder. There are plenty of suspects, too. Nick’s chief rival for the fellowship is highly-driven, ambitious Rose Shelton, a fellow graduate student for whom work matters more than anything else. Then, there’s Nick’s advisor, Connor Hadley, whose goal of tenure depends on the software that he’s just stolen from his protégé. There’s also Carrie Woods, whose rapid rise to success in the department might come to an end if it gets around that she’s been having an affair with Nick. In the end, Nick’s death turns out to be the direct cause of someone’s ambition.

Ambition also motivates some of the suspects in the murder of Serena Brinkman in B-Very Flat. Serena’s a gifted violinist who’s preparing for a major musical competition. On the night of the competition, she suddenly dies of what turns out to be anaphylaxis. Her partner, Patricia Stanley, is convinced that Serena’s death was not an accident, and asks her advisor, Joel Williams, for help. Patricia’s right; Serena was murdered. One of the suspects, Michelle Park, is Serena’s major musical rival. Another, Marcie Bratton, is Serena’s dorm advisor. Marcie’s got ambitions, too, but Serena’s found out a secret about Marcie that could ruin her chances at the career she wants if it gets around. There are other suspects, too, and Williams works with the local police to put the pieces of the puzzle together and find out who murdered Serena.

Even when ambition doesn’t directly cause murders, it can get in the way of investigation. Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti often finds that in the cases he investigates. His supervisor, Vice-Questore Patta, is an opportunist and social/political climber, so to speak, whose reputation is more important to him than is finding out the truth.

Unchecked ambition can be a powerful force, and a believable motive for murder. It can also seem unrealistic if the characters are not well-drawn. Which are your favorite novels where ambition is a major factor?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Everybody Loves You Now.


  1. Ambition is a classic motive because it's something we can understand and empathize with, but it still makes a villain really villainous.

    (I really like these multi-book analyses you're doing, btw.)

  2. Daring Novelist - Why, thank you : ). You're absolutely right, too. There are things about which anyone might be ambitious. Most of us set goals, so we can identify with a character's having some ambition. It's when it takes over that, as you say, the villain becomes truly villainous.

  3. Ambition with regards to climbing the social ladder seems to be a theme in several Golden Age novels in which class distinctions are addressed.

    Also, you have brought up a good point with Vice-Questore Patta. Several boss/subordinate relationships in crime fiction seem to be strained, mostly because of the bosses' ambitions. Besides Brunetti/Patta, I can think offhand of the Jury/Racer relationship and I think there are others along those lines too.

  4. Book Mole - You're absolutely right; social amibitions play a crucial role in many Golden Age novels. Two of them that I first thought of when I read your comment are Agatha Christie's Lord Edgware dies and one of the characters in The ABC Murders.

    Thanks for reminding me of the Jury and Racer dynamic. You're right that their relationship is affected by Racer's ambitions. One thought I had when I was reading your post was the strained, to put it mildly, relationship between Hamish Macbeth and Chief Inspector Blair. As you say, there are others like that, too.

  5. Much of this is what I am trying to write about. Very timely.

  6. Patti - You've intrigued me : ). I'd love to learn more about what you're writing, and I'm glad this was timely for you.

  7. Ambition can really help us out in a murder mystery, can't it? Great motive to knock someone off!

    I'd say that political ambitions in different novels come to mind. Of course, the titles escape me. Wish I had half of your memory, Margot...

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  8. Elizabeth - Thanks for the "vote of confidence," but really, it's not always a matter of memory. I do my share of going back and re-reading...

    You are right about how useful ambition is, though : ). I love it as a motive, whether it's the real motive or a "red herring."