Friday, June 11, 2010

Like a Moth to a Flame...

Most people don’t set out to commit murder, become murder victims, or for that matter, get involved in crime in the first place. So how do otherwise ordinary people end up involved in murder? There are, of course, crimes of passion. Many people have ended up killing or being killed in the proverbial heat of the moment. Sometimes, though, someone or something draws a person to crime – even murder – like a moth to a flame. There are people who have what Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has called “calamitous magic,” that draws others to them, and also into a vortex of tragedy. There are also those who covet something so much that they are willing to do anything, even kill, to get it. It’s that fatal attraction to a person or thing that sometimes pulls an otherwise ordinary person into doing extraordinary things.

We see that kind of fatal attraction in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, a very wealthy and beautiful heiress who’s on a honeymoon cruise up the Nile with her new husband, Simon. At first, Linnet’s former best friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort, is suspected of the crime, and she’s got a motive, too. Linnet’s new husband is Jacqueline’s former fiancé, and Jacqueline has been following the wedding couple on their travels, just to un-nerve them. Soon, though, it’s proved that Jacqueline couldn’t have shot Linnet So Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, looks more deeply into the case, and uncovers Linnet’s real killer. In this story, you could say that Linnet, Simon and Jacqueline are all drawn into this tragedy because of both Linnet’s and Jacqueline’s attraction to Simon. They are both irresistibly drawn to him, and he, in his way, is just as strongly pulled to them.

The same kind of “calamitous magic” plays an important role in Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, the story of the death of Louise Leidner. She’s the wife of noted archeologist Eric Leidner, and has joined him and his team on a dig in Iraq. Louise has been receiving threatening letters, and has even seen (or imagined she’s seen) hands tapping at her window, and other phenomena. So Dr. Leidner hires a private duty nurse, Amy Leatheran, to be Louise’s companion and allay her fears. Amy soon finds that Louise Leidner has the unusual quality of getting people to fall under her sway. Even the people on the team who dislike Louise Leidner can’t deny the pull she has. Then, one afternoon, Louise Leidner is murdered. No-one saw the murder, and no-one can imagine how a stranger got into the team’s quarters, so it seems that one of the members of the dig team must be the murderer. Hercule Poirot is traveling to London from Syria, and agrees to break his journey and investigate the case. It’s not long before he, too, finds out about the hold that Louise Leidner had over people. In the end, it’s just that “calamitous magic” that caused her death.

Disaster also strikes when Same Case becomes attracted to Karen Vogel in John Locke’s Saving Rachel. Case is a computer expert who’s developed a program that covers up people’s financial “tracks” and can “hide” money. That’s, of course, very useful for people who don’t want their incomes to be known. So Sam is doing very well financially. He’s also married to a beautiful woman, Rachel, whom he loves, although they have their problems. Then, Sam meets supermodel Karen Vogel, the most stunning woman he’s ever encountered. He is irresistibly drawn to her and before long, they’re having an affair. That’s when Sam’s life spins out of control. One day, he leaves the hotel where he and Karen have spent the morning. He’s soon abducted by gangsters. Then, the gangsters kill Sam’s sister-in-law and implicate Sam. As if that’s not enough, they’ve kidnapped Rachel. Now, they force Sam to choose between his wife and his mistress. And that’s only the beginning of the vortex into which Sam Case is drawn because of his attraction to Karen Vogel.

And then there’s Marc Amos, a book dealer and the partner of Martin Edwards’ sleuth, DCI Hannah Scarlett. In The Serpent Pool, Scarlett is investigating the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. Scarlett begins to believe that this death is related to two recent deaths, and she and her team try to put the pieces together. Meanwhile, Amos finds himself drawn to his shop assistant, Cassie Weston. That’s not surprising, since she’s very attractive and seems as interested in the business as Amos himself is. The more time they spend together, the more irresistible Amos begins to find Cassie. That fatal attraction draws Marc Amos into more than he could have imagined.

Ruth Rendell writes of this kind of fatal attraction in several of her novels. For instance, in The Bridesmaid, we meet Philp Wardman, a fastidious interior designer who’s always had a horror of violence of any kind, and who’s got a particular attraction to the beautiful. At the wedding of Philip’s sister, Fee, he meets one of Fee’s bridesmaids, Senta Pelham. Senta is beautiful and has a magnetic attraction for Philip. It’s not long before he’s hopelessly drawn to her. Philip and Senta are soon romantically involved, and Philip is delighted – until Senta says that they must prove their love for each other. Each of them must commit a murder. Philip is horrified, but he’s too attracted to Senta to leave her. So he lies about having committed a murder. Then, Senta tells Philip a story of murder, and he believes that she, too, made up her story. Too late, Philip realizes he’s been drawn into a horrifying web of psychological illness and murder.

In Rendell’s Going Wrong, we meet Guy Curran. As a teenager, Guy and several of his friends were involved in drug dealing and other shady “businesses.” At the time, he and Leonora Chisolm, the daughter of a respectable family from a good neighborhood, were in love. Then, after a tragic incident with one of the gang’s drug deals, Leonora and Guy drifted apart. The years go by, and even though the two are no longer lovers, Leonora still goes out to dinner with Guy once a week, and takes a telephone call from him every day. In the meantime, Leonora’s become a university-educated political liberal, and Guy’s become a successful businessman, who now focuses on only legitimate business. But he’s still drawn to Leonora and, in her way, she is to him, too. In fact, Guy assumes that he’ll one day marry Leonora. Then, Guy’s world is turned upside down when Leonora tells him that’s she’s become engaged to someone else, an intellectual named William. Unable to break free of his attachment to Leonora, Guy determines instead to have Leonora for himself. He believes that someone’s poisoned her mind against him, and has decided to get rid of that someone. In the end, you could argue that both Guy and Leonora are pulled into a dark vortex because of their inability to resist each other.

We see that same kind of fatal attraction in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, the story of Marion Seeley. She’s a young wife who’s been left behind in Phoenix while her physician husband, Everett Seeley, goes to Mexico. He’s arranged for Marion to have a typing/clerking job at the private Werden Clinic, so both Seeleys believe that all’s well. Then, Marion meets a clinic nurse, Louise Mercer, and her room-mate, Ginny Hoyt. The two of them have a wild lifestyle that includes parties, drugs and men. When Marion meets businessman Joe Lanigan at one of these parties, it’s not long before she’s drawn into a web of fatal attraction that ends tragically for everyone.

Of course, people can be irresistibly drawn to things as well as other people. That’s what happens to music professor Jesse Montgomery in my own B-Very Flat. He learns that Serena Brinkman, a student in one of his classes, has a rare Amati violin. Montgomery isn’t a world class violinist, but he is an expert on music theory, and he’s always been particularly drawn to the sound of an Amati. From the moment he sees Serena’s Amati, Montgomery is almost obsessed with it. Then, Serena suddenly dies on the night of an important music competition. When her precious Amati violin turns up missing, Jesse Montgomery finds himself caught in a proverbial web of suspicion and accused of her murder.

The theme of fatal attraction runs through a lot of crime fiction. In part, that may be because readers can identify with that sort of “moth to a flame” appeal. In part, it’s arguably because that sort of attraction builds suspense and gives characters a believable motive for murder and other crimes. Do you agree? If so, which books with this theme have you enjoyed?


  1. Often the best murderers are ones that are easy gatherers of sympathy. They're suave and sympathetic. They can convince others that the reason behind some of the most wicket crimes are justifiable. Great research here. I liked the post.


  2. Clarissa - Why, thank you : ). You're right, too, about suave, personable murderers. And in real life, there've been lots of cases of murderers like that (e.g. Ted Bundy) where the murderer has had the ability to draw people in.

  3. I think we all are moths to our own personal flame and so we can definitely relate. We all know the things that will burn us and yet we keep reaching out to them.
    Thanks for sharing this interesting post.

  4. Cassandra - Oh, you put that quite well - "we all know the things that will burn us and yet we keep reaching out to them." I think that's one reason readers can identify with characters who fly too close to the flame, so to speak.

  5. The 'moth to the flame' theory does make for intriguing reading. There's just something about being drawn in that as a reader you can identify with to some degree. We humans are drawn to that 'light' of mystery. Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Thank you : ). I think you're right, too. There is something very human about being drawn to a "flame," whatever that flame is to us. When we see characters do that, too, it's very natural to identify with them.

  7. Patti - I wonder the same thing about myself sometimes. Or maybe I know, and just don't want to admit it... It's quite a question...

  8. In an novel I just read, The Past is a Foreign Country, the protagonist is attracted to a friend and goes along with far more than he should of the friend's activities. Because he likes the person and admires him, he can't seem to think independently or make his own value judgements.

    Great post, as usual, Margot!

  9. Maxine - Thank you : ). I want you to know, actually, that your excllent review of The Past is a Foreign Country actually inspired me to write today's post. Folks, please do check out Maxine's fine blog, and her review. It's top-notch.

  10. You have mentioned so many fine examples. I am a bit ambiguous when it comes to The Bridesmaid, though. It is a wonderful suspense novel, but it is almost too realistic for me.

  11. Dorte - Thanks : ). And I know precisely what you mean about The Bridesmaid. It is really chilling in how realistic it is...Still, as you say, quite a well-written suspense novel.