Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I'm At My Breaking Point*

By and large, most of us wouldn’t turn to crime, especially not a serious crime like murder. For some people, though, the circumstances of life get out of control and they feel at the end of the proverbial rope. When that happens, a person might, indeed, feel desperate enough to commit a crime, even a murder. That desperation can come across as melodramatic in crime fiction and sometimes, even a bit hard to believe. After all, we all face problems in our lives, and most of us don’t commit serious crimes because of them. But when it’s well-written, desperation can be quite believable as a motive for crime, and it can add an interesting level of tautness and suspense to a story. There really are situations that can make a person desperate enough to become a criminal.

There’s an example of that kind of desperation in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death. That novel centers on the Boynton family, Americans who are traveling through the Middle East. Mrs. Boynton, the matriarch, is a cruel tyrant who likes nothing better than to have total control over her family members and just about anyone else who ventures too close. She’s made her family members’ lives miserable, and they’re all at the end of their proverbial ropes. In fact, Hercule Poirot, who’s also traveling in the Middle East, overhears a conversation one night between Raymond and Carol Boynton, two of Mrs. Boynton’s step-children. In that conversation, Raymond says,

“You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”

The Boynton family makes a trip to explore the ruins of Petra, and late one afternoon while they’re there, Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks like heart failure. But Colonel Carbury, who investigates the death, isn’t satisfied, so he asks Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot’s got plenty of suspects to choose from, since Mrs. Boynton had made everyone’s life miserable. In the end, he learns that the person responsible for Mrs. Boynton’s murder chose to kill out of desperation; the murderer had fallen into Mrs. Boynton’s clutches, so to speak, and felt there was no other way out.

That’s also how the killer feels in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. That’s the story of the death of copywriter Victor Dean, who falls to his death down a spiral staircase at the staid offices of Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., where Dean works. At first, the death looks like an accident. However, he left a half-finished letter behind in which he suggested that someone at the company was involved in criminal activity. The managers at Pym’s are eager to avoid scandal, so they engage Lord Peter Wimsey to find out the truth about Dean’s death. Wimsey goes undercover as Dean’s replacement and soon finds out he has a talent for copywriting, himself. He also finds out that an employee of Pym’s, desperate for money, has been working with a drugs gang to use the company’s advertisements as a way to set up meetings between the gang and local drug dealers. When Dean found out who the employee was, he blackmailed the culprit. Now even more desperate, the murderer felt there was no other choice but to kill Dean.

Desperation, you could say, is also the reason for the murder of Geoffrey Owens, a journalist who’s shot to death in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbor. Sir Clixby Bream, Master of Lonsford College, Oxford, is preparing to retire, and at the beginning of the novel, he’s trying to decide which of two likely candidates will be his successor. One is Julian Storrs; the other is Denis Cornford. Each of them wants the position; not less important is the fact that their wives, too, are highly motivated. Owens is a journalist who happens to have a nose for finding out things people would rather keep secret. Inspector Morse is already investigating another death in the neighborhood where Owens lives, so when Owens is shot, he and Sergeant Lewis look into that case as well. They find that desperation has led to both killings. Owens was using information he’d found out to blackmail the murderer, and the murderer felt there was no other choice but to strike.

Nothing is quite like the desperation a parent can feel about a child, and we see that in several crime novels. One of them is C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. That’s the story of Jack and Melissa McGuane, who’ve adopted baby Angelina. Their world is shattered when Angelina’s biological father, Garrett Moreland, asserts his right to custody. Moreland had never legally waived his parental rights, so the law is on his side. To make matters worse for the McGuanes, Moreland’s father is a powerful judge who’s willing to use all of his leverage for his son. Desperate to keep their daughter, and with only twenty-one days before they have to give up custody, the McGuanes – especially Jack – decide to fight back. Jack gets help from some friends, and ends up doing things he never thought he would do, because he and Melissa are desperate to keep Angelina.

In Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children, we meet Dr. Gustavo Pedrolli and his wife, Bianca Marcolini. They have an adopted son, Alfredo, whom they’ve been raising for eighteen months. Then, one night, the Carabinieri raid their home and take their son. Desperate to protect his family, Pedrolli fights back as best he can and is severely beaten. Comissario Guido Brunetti is called in to investigate because of the assault on Brunetti. Angry at what seems like an unwarranted attack on innocent civilians, he tries to find out what happened. Brunetti is told that the Carabinieri raided the home because they’ve uncovered evidence of illegal trafficking in infants, and they claim that Pedrolli’s son was bought, not legally adopted. There were other homes, too, that were part of the raid. As Brunetti begins to unravel what really happened that night, we get a sense of how desperate some couples are to have children, and the length to which they’ll go. Of course, since this is a mystery novel, things aren’t what they seem, and in the end, Brunetti finds out that there’s more to what happened than an attempt to shut down a child-trafficking ring.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit shows how desperation can even drive families apart. Mason and Gates Hunt come from a poor and abusive background. Mason has worked hard and gotten scholarships, and is now in law school. Gates is a talented athlete, but he’s more interested in his girlfriend, money he gets from his mother, and whatever he can earn from petty drug dealing. One day, Gates Hunt has a bitter argument with Wayne Thompson, a romantic rival. Later that night, Gates and Mason encounter Wayne again. The argument heats up again and before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates Hunt has shot Wayne Thompson. A sense of family duty drives Mason to help his brother cover up the murder, and life goes on for the Hunt brothers, Mason becomes a successful prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. Gates, on the other hand, turns to drug dealing and other crimes and one day, he’s caught trafficking in cocaine. Gates is stunned when he’s sentenced to forty-five years in prison. Gates begs his brother to help him get out of prison, but Mason refuses; Gates has always been trouble – serious trouble – and besides, Mason knows that his brother is guilty. Desperate to get out of prison, Gates blackmails his brother, saying that he’ll accuse Mason of the murder of Wayne Thompson. Mason calls his bluff, and before he knows it, Mason’s been indicted by a grand jury. Now Mason’s the desperate one as he tries to stay out of prison for the sake of his daughter.

Desperation also plays a role in my own B-Very Flat. University student Serena Brinkman is a gifted violinist who’s preparing for an important musical competition. On the night of that competition, she dies suddenly of anaphylactic shock. Her partner, Patricia Stanley, is convinced that Serena didn’t die accidentally, and goes to her advisor, Joel Williams, for help. Williams, a former cop-turned-professor, agrees to see what he can find out. He works with the local police to look into the case, and discovers that several people in Serena’s life were desperate. For each of the suspects, Serena stood in the way of something the suspect needed or wanted desperately. In the end, that desperation plays an important role in her murder.

We’ve all felt at the end of our proverbial rope at times, so it’s easy to identify with characters who feel the same way. Which are your favorite novels where desperation plays a role?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton's Breaking Point.


  1. These are all great examples of how desperation can lead to murder. I think the stories where a person, like Mrs. Boynton, runs over their family members and other people leads to interesting plots with many twists and turns. Because of their desperation, people act out without thinking and that is an emotion that is very believable.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - You put that quite well. Desperation really does lead people to act without thinking. It also leads to the sort of emotional overload, so to speak, that can drive people to crime - including murder. Since we can imagine that sort of thing happening, it's easier to identify with characters who behave like that.

  3. I think this kind of plot works best if the murderer has made one or two wrong choices before the murder. If he/she has felt forced to cheat and steal out of desperation, and now the next, logical step is murder to cover up ...

    But Colin Dexter´s novel doesn´t really count. Killing a curious journalist is not desperation, it is a sound, natural instinct :D

  4. Dorte - LOL! Maybe you're right about the journalist thing ; ). You also make a very well-taken point about the murderer's wrong choices, too. A lot of very fine murder mysteries are based on a murderer doing something wrong, dangerous, etc., to begin with (out of desperation), and then going on to kill to keep it hidden.

  5. I like the great deliverance by Elizabeth George. A character felt desperation because what happened to her was going to happen to another, so she committed murder. Often times in novels we read where killing happens because they're trying to save another.


  6. Clarissa - Oh, thank you for reminding me of A Great Deliverance. As you say, it really is a terrific example of a character who kills out of a desperate perceived need to protect someone else. Most of us have that protective instinct, so it's easy to identify with someone who kills out of that kind of desperation.

  7. I have no problem with the murder being committed as an act of desperation if the act is one of self-preservation or protection of a loved one. Elizabeth George is a master of getting inside people's heads and letting her readers really understand what makes her characters tick. You may not agree with their conclusions, but you certainly understand why they draw them. Oh, to be able to write as well as her! *gnashes teeth*

  8. Elspeth - You're so right that if the "desperation" plot point is going to work, there's got to be a strong pychological reason for which the murderer kills. As you say, the reader might still not condone the murder, but at least the reader understands what leads to the killing. And I wish I could write as well as some of those, "greats," myself.

  9. It's quite interesting how the breaking point often relates to children in some way. Sometimes it is an (adult) child reaching breaking point with a parent, or it might be to do with wanting to have children, or other related theme. There is an excellent novel that Bernadette has just reviewed, called A Thousand Cuts (US title Rupture) about someone who reaches breaking point in a very chilling way.

  10. Maxine - You're right. I think it's got something to do with that incredibly strong and sometimes very hard to describe bond that there is between parents and children. It defies an easy explanation, but it's there. And folks, please, please read Maxine's excellent review of A Thousand Cuts. I haven't read the book, but this is a fabulous review. Bernadette's wonderful review of the book is here.