Saturday, May 22, 2010

You Can't Always Get What You Want*

It seems to be a part of human nature to want what we cannot have. On one hand, there's nothing inherently wrong with dreaming; sometimes, those dreams lead to truly great achievements, and complacency isn't always the answer. But it's possible to spend so much time focusing on things we can't have that we lose perspective. Instead of making the most of what we do have, we spend so much time wishing for what we can't have that we become dissatisfied. In crime fiction, that kind of dissatisfaction with what one has leads to crime - even murder.

One of the classic examples of this kind of dissatisfaction is in Agatha Christie's After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). That's the story of the Abernethie family and what happens to them after the death of the family patriarch, Richard Abernethie. When Richard Abernethie suddenly dies, his family members gather for the funeral and the reading of the will. During the gathering, Abernethie's youngest sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that her brother was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her, but privately, the rest of the family members begin to wonder whether she was right. Then, the next day Cora Lansquenet herself is brutally murdered. Now it seems clear that she must have been right. So Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney, visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate. As Poirot finds out more about the family members, he finds that each person had a motive for murder, and that, for many of them the motive has to do with wanting something they can't otherwise have. In fact, that theme seems to run through the novel, and dissatisfaction ends up being the reason for murder.

That's also the case in Thirteen at Dinner (AKA Lord Edgware Dies). In that novel, famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Poirot to help her get rid of her husband, 4th Baron Edgware, because she wants to marry the Duke of Merton. She tells Poirot that Edgware won't grant her a divorce, and asks Poirot to see what he can do. Reluctantly, Poirot agrees. To his surprise, Edgware tells him that he has no objection to a divorce, and has already written to Jane, telling her that. That's strange enough, but then one night not long afterwards, Edgware is shot in his study. At first, Jane Wilkinson seems to be the natural suspect. She wanted to be free of her husband; in fact, she'd even threatened to "go round there and bump him off." And, someone looking just like her and giving her name had been admitted to the house just before the murder. It's not as simple as that, though, as Poirot finds when he investigates further. It turns out that Jane Wilkinson was seen at a dinner party that night. In fact, twelve other people are prepared to swear that she was there. Besides, Edgware said he had no objection to a divorce, so Jane has no real motive. Poirot looks into the case more deeply, and soon finds more than one person who had a motive for Edgware's murder. In the end, we learn that Edgware died because the murderer wanted something that was impossible to have in any other way.

In Robert Pollock's Loophole, we meet Mike Daniels. He's a professional safecracker and sneak thief. He dreams of the "big score," wanting more than anything else to come out ahead, so to speak, and he doesn't mind taking what he's not supposed to have in order to do that. So Daniels and three fellow thieves lay out a plot to rob the City Savings Deposit Bank. They need some expert help, though, so Daniels feels he might finally get what he can't have when he meets Stephen Booker, an out-of-work architect who's desperate for money. Booker isn't by nature a thief, but his financial situation has become dire, so he agrees to be a part of the plot. While they're in the process of robbing the bank, though, a drain that they used to gain entrance to the bank overflows, with tragic consequences.

There's also a case of wanting what one can't have in Robin Cook's Seizure, in which U.S. Senator Ashley Butler dreams of becoming president. He's a powerful force in the Senate, too, so he thinks he may have a chance. Then, he discovers that he's got Parkinson's disease. Now, it looks as though he won't be able to achieve his dream. Desperate, he contacts Dr. Daniel Lowell, who's just started up a biotechnology company that specializes in stem cell research. He asks Lowell to perform controversial surgery on him that might free him of the Parkinson's symptoms, even though Butler has opposed that kind of surgery in the past. Lowell agrees, and the two work together to plan the surgery. It's got all sorts of risks, and can't be performed in the United States, so the two use the Wingate Clinic in the Bahamas. In the end, Butler's desperation to have the power he wants leads to catastrophic results for both him and Lowell.

There's a particularly chilling example of wanting and resenting what one can't have in Ruth Rendell's A Judgement in Stone. That's the tragic story of George Coverdale, his wife Jacqueline, his daughter Melinda and his stepson, Giles. On St. Valentine's Day, those four members of the Coverdale family are shot. As a matter of fact, we know who the killer is from the very beginning: their housekeeper, Eunice Parchman. What's both horrifying and fascinating is her set of reasons for the murders. Eunice Parchman's illiterate. She's from a lower-class background and hasn't had many advantages. When the Coverdales hire her, though, they don't know about her illiteracy. In fact, she does everything possible to hide it from her employers. The Coverdales, on the other hand, are well-off, well-educated, and from the upper middle class. Those class differences, and Eunice Parchman's resentment of them, are strong driving forces behind the murders. In fact, this story is a powerful example of someone who's "on the outside looking in," as you might say.

Just as tragic is the set of dreams that Maeve O'Neill has in Shona Maclean's A Game of Sorrows. Maeve is the matriarch of the once-powerful Irish O'Neill family. She's got dreams of her family once again dominating Ireland, but in the 17th Century world in which she lives, England has already taken military control of Ulster, where she lives. The goal is colonization of Ireland, and as quickly as possible, subjugation. Some of the Irish have given up lands, titles, etc., in exchange for favor and high positions in the new English order of things. Others have stubbornly maintained their own Irish identity and resisted. Still others are relatively new immigrants from Scotland, sent there to colonize the land and provide a new generation of English subjects in the area who will support the Protestant monarchy. This leads to tension, intrigue, and even deadly conflict. In this atmosphere, Maeve O'Neill hosts a wedding celebration, to which a traditional Irish poet has been invited. Instead of celebrating the couple and the family, though, the poet curses the O'Neill family. As if that's not enough, some parts of this curse begin to come tragically true. So Maeve sends her grandson, Sean Fitzgarrett, to Scotland to ask his cousin, Alexander Seaton, for help in lifting the poet's curse. At first, Seaton is reluctant; he's establishing himself as a university teacher in Aberdeen, and he's fallen in love with a woman who's not likely to take kindly to his leaving. In the end, though, he agrees to go and is soon enmeshed in the politics, danger and intrigue of 17th Century Ulster. In the end, Seaton finds out what's really behind the curse and the deaths that the curse has predicted. It turns out that politics, religion and lust for power had a lot more to do with the deaths that occur than a curse does. What's almost haunting is that, even after all the tragic events that occur in the novel, Maeve O'Neill still nurses her futile dream of the return of Irish aristocracy.

In Simon Beckett's Whispers of the Dead, forensic anthropologist David Hunter uncovers another case of obsession with something one can't have. In that novel, Hunter's visiting Tennesee's Anthropological Research Laboratory. While he's there, a decomposed body is found in a cabin not far from the lab. Hunter gets involved in the investigation, and it's soon obvious that this was not an accidental death. As Hunter and the team work to find out who the dead man was, another body is found. Now it's clear that a serial killer is at work, and has been for quite some time. Bit by bit, Hunter finds out what the motive for the killings is. Then, the killer strikes close to home, so to speak, and the team has to race against time to catch the murderer. As it turns out, the murders have been committed because the killer wants something that seems impossible to get. Wanting what we can't have is a very human reaction, and it's the cause of tragedy in several crime fiction novels. Which are your favorites?

The title of this post is the title of a Rolling Stones song.


  1. I loved the AC books you mentioned. Although in the After the funeral book, the murderer did the deed because she wanted something she thought she could get. And maybe she would have gotten away with it if she didn't make the little mistakes she did.


  2. Clarissa - You do make an interesting point about the murderer in After the Funeral. The killer wants something desperately and finally, thinks it might happen, even though there wasn't much chance of it before. It's always interesting to think about what might have happened if those little mistakes hadn't happened...

  3. A Judgement in Stone does indeed reflect your theme perfectly. A stunning book, one of my all time favourites.

  4. Martin - Isn't that a fantastic novel?! It is, indeed, stunning, and one of those stories one could read numerous times and still find something of interest.