All of us are tempted at times to do things that we shouldn’t do. Sometimes, the temptation is simple, fleeting and easy to resist. Other times, it takes quite a lot of will power (or “won’t power” if you prefer) to resist. Whether we yield to temptation or listen to the “better angels of our nature” sometimes depends on what the temptation is, what the risks and consequences are, and how strong our commitment is to those “better angels.” Giving in to temptation plays a very important role in crime fiction, and it’s easy to see why. Since all of us face those kinds of choices, it’s easy to identify with – even be absorbed by – characters who face similar choices. Also, it’s surprising how often giving in to temptation ends up in murder and other crimes, at least in crime fiction.
Agatha Christie deals with this theme quite a lot in her novels. I’ll just mention a few examples. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot has decided to retire to the village of King’s Abbott and grow vegetable marrows. He’s not left in peace for long, though. When retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed to death one night, his niece, Flora, asks Poiriot to investigate the murder. Ackroyd’s adopted son, Ralph Paton, is the most likely suspect, and Flora wants his name cleared. Poirot agrees, and begins to look into the matter. He finds no lack of suspects, either, as Ackroyd had a large fortune and a collection of relations in need of money. Poirot soon discovers that every suspect is hiding something, and in several cases, it’s the inability to resist temptation. In fact, Ackroyd was killed because the murderer has what Poirot refers to as a “strain of weakness” and wasn’t able to resist temptation.
That’s also true of the killer in Death on the Nile. In that novel, wealthy and beautiful Linnet Ridgeway falls in love with Simon Doyle, the fiancé of her best friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort. As Hercule Poirot later points out to her, she has the choice to leave the matter alone or pursue the relationship. When Linnet decides to give in to temptation, she sets off a chain reaction of events that she’s not even really aware of at first. She and Simon get married and go off on a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. Jacqueline de Bellefort follows the couple on their travels, much to their chagrin. Then one night, Linnet is shot. At first, Jacqueline seems the most likely suspect; she’d even told Poirot that she’d like to shoot Linnet. Very soon, though, it’s proven that she couldn’t have committed the crime. Now, Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, looks more deeply into the case. It turns out that the unwillingness to resist temptation lies behind Linnet’s death and that of four other people. What’s interesting about this novel is that as we get to know the other travelers on the cruise, we find that nearly all of them have a particular temptation that’s impossible to resist.
Interestingly, although the theme of temptation is the same, an entirely different outcome occurs in Wasps’ Nest, one of Christie’s short stories that appears in Double Sin and Other Stories. One day, Poirot pays a visit to an acquaintance, John Harrison. He tells Harrison that he’s there to prevent a murder, and makes reference to Claude Langton, former fiancé of Harrison’s current fiancée Molly Deane. Harrison brushes off the warning, saying that he and Langton get along well. Poirot insists that the threat of murder is real, though, and then takes his leave. In the end, Poirot’s visit does prevent a murderer from giving in to temptation, but in true Christie fashion, not the murderer we imagine.
There’s another case of what happens when we ignore “the better angels” in Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is a former candidate for the ministry. Just before he was to assume his duties, though, he spent the night with the woman he loved, despite knowing how potentially dangerous that was. The two of them were caught together and in 17th Century Scotland, that was a very grave matter, so Seaton’s disgraced. Katherine’s reputation suffers, too, and she’s quickly married off to someone else and sent away. Seaton is then relegated to the position of undermaster at the local grammar school. One morning, he awakens to find the body of Patrick Davidson, assistant to the apothecary, has been found in his classroom. When it turns out that Davidson’s been poisoned, suspicion falls on Charles Thom, the music master. Thom was Davidson’s rival for the love of Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter. Thom is soon imprisoned, and he begs Seaton to clear his name. Seaton agrees and begins to look for the truth behind Davidson’s murder. What he finds is that Davidson was murdered because he discovered a secret that the murderer had been keeping.
In John Locke’s Saving Rachel, we meet Sam Case, a rather shady computer expert who’s developed a program that hides money for people who don’t want too many questions asked about their finances. Case has a beautiful wife named Rachel, whom he loves. He can’t resist, though, getting involved with an irresistible model named Karen Vogel. Before Case knows it, that decision to give in to temptation gets him into more danger than he could have dreamed of. One day, he’s abducted by gangsters who force him to choose between his wife and his girlfriend – and that’s just the start of Case’s troubles. In the end, Sam finds that his decision leads to much more than just infidelity.
One of the most chilling examples of the consequences of temptation is Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep. Marion Seeley is a young wife who’s left behind in Phoenix when her husband, Dr. Everett Seeley, loses his medical license and has to move to Mexico because of his cocaine habit. Seeley has set his wife up in an apartment, and arranged for her to work as a filing clerk and stenographer at the private Werden Clinic. Although Marion is more or less abandoned by her husband, all starts out well enough. In fact, she is soon befriended by an extroverted nurse named Louise Mercer and Louise’s room-mate, Ginny Hoyt. Louise and Ginny have decadent private lives that include wild parties, drugs, and men. It’s not long before Marion’s tempted to share their lifestyle, and when she gives into that temptation, everything changes for her. She meets Joe Lanigan, one of Louise and Ginny’s “friends,” and it’s not long before she’s completely under his proverbial thumb. In the end, Marion’s decision to fall in with her friends ends in tragedy for everyone.
Allan Dean Foster’s short story Pipe Dream has another eerie example of the risks of temptation. Emma been invited to a friend’s party and finds everyone there boring. She’s thinking of leaving when she notices a man sitting apart from the rest, smoking a distinctive pipe tobacco. When she tries to make conversation, he brushes her off. Almost out of contrariness, Emma continues talking with this guest, who turns out to be Dr. Walter Scott. The two end up enjoying each other’s company, and almost before she knows it, Emma and Walter are having an affair. The only thing that seems to come between them is that Walter is unusually sensitive to what he considers nosiness on Emma’s part. That doesn’t bother Emma particularly, since he’s told her quite a bit about himself, even about his two prior marriages. Then, Walt’s birthday is coming up, and Emma wants to give him a gift. So she decides to buy him a tin of his special tobacco. Emma knows she’s not supposed to poke around among Walt’s possessions, but she can’t resist the temptation and digs around until she finds his tobacco hoard. When Walt finds out that Emma has found his tobacco, he’s upset that she’s been nosing around. Too late, Emma finds out what’s in Walt’s tobacco.
Giving in to temptation is a plot point in lots of crime fiction, possibly because it’s such a very human failing. Which are your favorite novels that center on this theme?