Saturday, May 15, 2010

It's Lonely (and Dangerous) at the Top of the Tree...

It’s very interesting (and ironic) that those who seem to be in the strongest, safest and best situations can sometimes be the most vulnerable. At times, that’s because people who’ve “made it” have also become arrogant and so sure enough of themselves that they don’t sense danger. Even when they’re not arrogant, people who’ve “made it” may have a sense of indestructibility that serves as a sort of mental armor. So they don’t see how much danger they really face, even from those closest to them. Of course, in crime fiction, no-one is really invulnerable, and it’s interesting to see how success can almost blind one to one’s vulnerability.

Agatha Christie deals with this theme in several of her novels; I’ll just mention a few of them. In Death on the Nile, Linnet Ridgeway has what most people would think of as everything. She’s young, healthy, beautiful and very wealthy. She’s gotten so used to having what she wants that she just naturally assumes that things will go her way. She’s not obnoxiously arrogant; she just has a natural air of command. One day, Linnet gets a visit from her best friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort. It seems that Jackie’s just become engaged, and wants Linnet to hire her fiancé, Simon Doyle, as her land agent. Linnet agrees, but then the unexpected happens; Linnet becomes infatuated with Simon. Even though Jackie and Linnet are best friends, this doesn’t stop Linnet from sweeping Simon off his feet, so to speak, and the two are soon married. They go on a honeymoon cruise up the Nile, and Linnet assumes that all is well. Linnet’s rattled to discover that Jackie has followed along on the cruise, but is soon able to recover and enjoy herself. Then, on the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. At first, it looks as though Jackie committed the murder. She certainly had the motive, and even admitted to Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, that she wanted to shoot Linnet. It’s soon proven, though, that Jackie de Bellefort couldn’t have been responsible. So Poirot looks into the case more closely, and finds that there’s more to Linnet Doyle’s murder than simple jealousy and anger.

In Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we meet Dr. John Christow, a very successful Harley Street specialist. He’s got a lucrative practice, an intact family, good looks – in short, he’s “made it.” His success helps to reinforce Christow’s preference for having his own way and seeing things only from his perspective. In fact, his mistress, sculptor Henrietta Savernake, even tells Christow that his “tunnel vision” makes him vulnerable. Christow and his wife accept an invitation to spend the week-end at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, Henrietta Savernake’s cousins and friends of the Christows. On Sunday afternoon, John Christow is shot by the swimming pool. Hercule Poirot gets involved in the investigation because he’s taken a cottage near the Angkatell’s home, and has been invited for Sunday lunch. When he arrives, Poirot comes upon the murder scene and thinks at first that it’s been staged for his benefit. He soon finds out that the murder was real, and gets involved in the investigation. In the end, Poirot discovers that Christow’s sense of invulnerability played an important role in his murder.

Sir Henry Ancred, whom we meet in Ngaio Marsh’s Final Curtain, has a similar sense of invulnerability. He’s a famous and successful Shakesperean actor who commissions Agatha Troy to come to Ancreton, the family home, to paint his portrait. Troy finds that her work is made more challenging because of Sir Henry’s large and very dysfunctional family. There seems no end to the backbiting, resentment and crude practical jokes. Still, Troy finishes the painting and is, in fact, getting ready to leave. Then, Sir Henry suddenly dies. At first, his death seems natural. But Troy isn’t convinced. Her doubts are confirmed when Sonia Orrincourt, Sir Henry’s young and beautiful fiancée, is poisoned. Troy’s husband, Sir Roderick Alleyn, is called in to investigate. He finds that Sir Henry was in far more danger than he could have imagined; his fame and success couldn’t protect him from a murderer who’s out for financial gain.

Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle also centers on a character who’s reached the top, so to speak. This is the story of Sheila Grey, a leading New York fashion designer. Sheila’s discreet, but she’s had several affairs. Now at the top of her profession, Sheila is having an affair with an equally-successful businessman, Ashton McKell, who lives in the same apartment building. McKell’s son, Dane, finds out about the affair and determines to meet his father’s mistress. Instead of resenting her, though, Dane McKell is drawn to her, and before long, they’re having an affair. Sheila’s success with both her career and her relationships has given her a false sense of security, so that she doesn’t realize the danger she faces until it’s too late. One night, she’s shot. The investigation is assigned to Inspector Richard Queen and naturally, Ellery Queen gets involved as well. At first, suspicion falls on Ashton McKell, who suspects that Sheila hasn’t been faithful to him. When he’s cleared, his wife, Lutetia and later, his son, are each suspected in turn. In the end, Queen uses a peculiar code that Sheila Grey’s developed to find out who really killed her.

M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Bore, we meet John Heppel, a successful television screenwriter. He’s done well for himself, and his success has given him a sense of invulnerability and, in his case, arrogance. Heppel decides to offer a writing class to the residents of the Scottish town of Lochdubh, and everyone’s excited. Several of the locals have dreams of become famous writers, and they’re convinced that Heppel will help them achieve their goals. On the night of the first class, Heppel shocks everyone with his denigration of his students’ work, and he ends up thoroughly infuriating the class. Lochdubh Constable Hamish Macbeth warns Heppel that his arrogance could get him into trouble, but Heppel doesn’t listen. He’s got such a strong sense of his own worth that he doesn’t see the danger. In fact, the second class session proves to be just as disastrous as the first one. Then, one night, Heppel is murdered. Macbeth is now drawn into action as he works to find out who murdered Heppel, all the while hoping it wasn’t one of the villagers. Macbeth finds that Heppel’s arrogance has completely blinded him to the danger surrounding him.

In Pablo de Santis’ The Paris Enigma, apprentice detective Sigmundo Salvatrio is studying with Buenos Aires’ master detective Renato Craig, one of the finest detectives in the world. Craig and a colleague, Polish detective Viktor Arzaky, formed a group of the finest detectives in the world. Known simply as The Twelve, these detectives are at the top of their profession. They’re planning an exhibition at the Paris World’s Fair, so all of them have agreed to gather in Paris. When Craig is unable to go to Paris due to poor health, he sends Salvatrio in his stead. Now, Salvatrio has the chance to meet his heroes. Soon after the detectives and their apprentices arrive in Paris, Louis Darbon, a Parisian detective, is killed. Then, there’s another murder. Now, it looks as though someone is targeting the great detectives. So Salvatrio works with Arzaky to try to solve the murders before anyone else is killed. What’s interesting in this novel is that each of the detectives has a strong sense of his own skill as a sleuth. In that sense, they’re all complacent, so none of them really thinks about the danger that each faces. In the end, it’s Salvatrio, the humble apprentice, who finds an important clue that leads him to the murderer.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Shape Shifter, we meet Jason Delos, a wealthy and successful investment banker. He’s the owner of a rare and beautiful Navajo rug. Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn finds out that Delos owns the rug when he sees a photograph of it in a magazine spread in Luxury Living. The strange thing about the rug is that it looks exactly like a rug that was supposed to have been burned in a trading post fire. So Leaphorn is curious about Delos’ past, and wants to know how he got the rug. Before long, Leaphorn finds out some possibly very unsavory things about Jason Delos, and Delos, who was convinced that his money and position would keep him safe, is in danger. In the end, Delos turns out to be all too vulnerable.

Very often, the very things that would seem to protect us (fame, success, fortune) are things that put us in the most danger. That’s true in real life and it’s true in crime fiction, too. Which are your favorite novels where that sense of invulnerability turns out to be all too false?


  1. Jose Ignacio - Thank you; I'm glad you found it interesting.

  2. I enjoy stories where for all their fame and fortune, the characters soon take a tumble so to speak. I guess it's that age old saying of "the mightier they are (or think they are), the harder they fall."

    Thoughts in Progress

  3. Mason - You've got a point. When characters think they "have it all," or they really do seem to "have it all," it can be all the more fascinating when we find out how vulnerable they can really be.

  4. Now you have whetted my appetite for reading Death on the Nile, which I'd already picked out as my next Christie read.

    I hadn't thought about the vulnerability of such strong successful characters, but that does make them targets for envious and resentful people.

    I see one of the books you mention is by M C Beaton, an author I've not really enjoyed. Would you recommend Death of a Bore as a book I'd be more likely to like than the ones I have read, namely Death of a Gossip (the first Hamish Macbeth book)and Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House?

  5. Margaret - I noticed you've chosen Death on the Nile to read next; I really think you'll enjoy it : ).

    You're right; very successful people can spark resentment and envy, even if they don't intend to, and I think that's interesting in crime fiction. It certainly makes for a good motive : ).

    About Death of a Bore some ways, I think it's better than Death of a Gossip. The point of view is, I think, better, and some of the characters a little more well-rounded. On the other hand, if you don't enjoy very light reads (I know that was one concern you had about Death of a Gossip), this probably won't very much appeal to you. I actually like the character of Hamish Macbeth quite a lot, and I very much like the Lochdubh setting of the Macbeth series. So I'm biased. But I know that people seem to either really like M.C. Beaton, or really dislike her.

  6. Jealousy of the rich and powerful is all too common in today's society. Its prevalence in crime fiction is only too apropos. This blog brought to mind two of Michael Connelly's books: The Lincoln Lawyer and The Brass Verdict. In both, Mickey Haller represents rich, elite, and powerful clients. It's telling, I think, that both of our hero's clients are guilty.

    Another aspect of society's envy of the elite is seen in crime fiction's treatment of the FBI. There's no question that they are the most accomplished of police forces, yet I don't know of any crime mystery where they are not treated with suspicion, disdain, and behind-the-back ridicule. Michael Connelly, Tony Hillerman, Robert B. Parker, and even Janet Evanovich run this sub-theme throughout their books. To extend and paraphrase Mason Canyon's comment a bit: The mightier they are (or think they are), the harder we want to see them fall.

  7. I found it difficult to vote Stepanie Plum as my choice for "Femme Formidable" but I just had to do it. I'm in awe of Ms. Evanovich's ability to make absurd characters and implausible situations seem so real. How many authors could write 15 novels where the hero blows-up at least one car per novel?

    PS. Emily Pollifax should have made your list, probably for the same "unreal realism" reason.

  8. Bob - You make a well-taken point about those novels featuring Mickey Haller. It is, indeed, an interesting fact that we see the supposedly "safe" fall in those stories. I think that happens in several of Connelly's novels, actually, as one of his strategies is to show the corruption underneath the successful exterior of L.A.

    I also agree with you about the way the FBI is portrayed in novels that don't have FBI agents as sleuths (e.g. Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs . We do, indeed, see that in Hillerman, Parker, Connelly, and Evanovich. I've also seen it in the work of Mickey Spllane. It may be because of their elite status, or for some other reason, but it definitely seems to be a pattern.

    And thanks for voting in the poll : ). It's interesting you mention Emily Pollifax. She does certainly get out of lots of dangerous situations, but I just didn't see her on a list of more "hard boiled" female sleuths. That's also why I didn't include some other terrific female fictional sleuths.

  9. I can't think of any novels where that's happened but I know that Death on the Nile is one of my favorites (probably because JJ Fields) acted in the movie version. I loved how AC had the killer do the murder. Ingenious. Great post.


  10. Clarissa - Thanks : ). Isn't it funny how movies we see have a powerful influence on the books that we read? I was involved in an interesting comment exchange at Patti Abbott's wonderful blog, Pattinase, just the other day. And of course, you're right that Christie was quite ingenious in Death on the Nile about how the murder is accomplished. Folks, I recommend that one highly if you haven' read it.