Saturday, July 10, 2010

If Something Seems Too Good to Be True...

…it probably is. There’s a lot of wisdom to that old saying. And yet, people do get drawn to those sorts of offers and deals. Sometimes, there’s no real harm done, even if a person loses some money on a deal. Other times, though, there are terrible consequences to taking someone up on an offer that seems too good to be true. Every once in a while, an offer or deal comes along that’s a genuine great opportunity, and that possibility might be what keeps people dreaming and some of them open to those “too good to be true” offers. It might be different if people read crime fiction carefully and took a warning from the genre. There are lots of examples in crime fiction of offers and deals that are too good to be true, and the consequences of taking those offers.

Just ask Mr. Jabez Wilson, whom we meet in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Red-Headed League. He’s a hard-working pawnbroker whose assistant, Vincent Spaulding, shows him an interesting advertisement in the local newspaper. All red-headed men are invited to apply for a special job that will earn the successful applicant good money for very little work. Wilson is easily persuaded to apply, since he’s eager to earn some extra money. When he arrives at the specified place to apply, Wilson sees a host of other applicants, so he’s pleasantly surprised when he’s selected for the job. All he has to do is copy the encyclopedia, and not leave the job premises while he’s “on duty.” The job is easy enough, and Wilson is soon quite happy with the arrangement. Then one day he goes to work, only to find that the offices are closed and abandoned. Frustrated at his loss of income and curious about what’s happened, Wilson asks for help from Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the matter and find out that Jabez Wilson has been duped by a gang of bank robbers who wanted to use his pawn shop as a base of operations to tunnel into a nearby bank.

There’s another unbelievable offer in Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, which appears in Poirot Investigates. Captain Hastings is at a party one evening when another guest, Mrs. Robinson, comments on her and her husband’s good luck at finding a ridiculously inexpensive flat in a beautiful apartment building. The deal was far too good to pass up, so the Robinsons took the flat. When Hastings tells Poirot of the story, Poirot quickly suspects that something is wrong with this deal and takes a flat himself in the same building to investigate the matter. Poirot’s instincts are correct; the young Robinsons have unknowingly mixed themselves up in a complicated scheme involving stolen naval plans and international gangs. It turns out that they were deliberately selected from among the other applicants for the flat to provide a cover for a pair of criminals. In the end, Poirot uses several ruses to catch the criminals and solve the mystery.

In Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), there are a few examples of offers that end up being too good to be true. In that novel, Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, asks him to help her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, find out the truth behind a series of odd thefts and other goings-on at the student hostel that she manages. Poirot agrees and pays a visit to the hostel. On the night of his visit, Celia Austin, a resident of the hostel, confesses to Mrs. Hubbard and Poirot that she’s been responsible for the thefts. At first, that seems to settle the matter. But two nights later, Celia Austin dies in her sleep. Her death is put down to suicide until Mrs. Hubbard is able to show that Celia Austin was murdered. Poirot and the police investigate the murder and find out that Celia was unwittingly duped into theft by someone who persuaded her that stealing things would attract the attention of another resident, Colin McNabb, who’s particularly keen on abnormal psychology. To Celia, the offer to help her win over McNabb was too good to resist. Poirot finds another example in this novel of an offer too good to be true at Hicks, a local sporting good store where the owner tells him about a line of rucksacks he’s gotten for a very low price. When Poirot finds out about these irresistibly inexpensive rucksacks, he makes an important connection to Celia Austin’s murder, and is able to figure out what’s behind the events at the hostel.

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Joanna Eberhart and her husband, Walter, leave New York City for the small suburban town of Stepford, Connecticut, a town that seems very much too good to be true. The taxes are low, the homes are well-constructed, and the Eberharts are welcomed very warmly. Walter has a good job, the two Eberhart children make friends, and all seems picture-perfect. In fact, the family settles in quickly and everyone seems to embrace life in Stepford. Then, bit by bit, Joanna Eberhart begins to suspect that something is going on behind Stepford’s perfect façade. At first, even Joanna thinks she’s imagining things; soon enough, though, she finds more and more hints that life in Stepford really is too good to be true, and that there’s something truly chilling happening in the town. Once Joanna actively begins to search for answers to her questions, she finds out just how dangerous too much curiosity is.

Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief also takes up the issue of offers and deals that seem too good to be true. Ispettore Vianello is concerned about his aunt, Zia Anita. It seems that she’s been withdrawing funds from the company her husband founded, and she won’t explain what’s happening to the money. She has a legal right to the money, but her children are concerned about it, especially since she’s been unusually interested in astrology lately. So they ask Vianello to help them figure out where the money is going and keep Zia Anita safe from charlatans. Commissario Guido Brunetti agrees to help Vianello, and together, they find out that Zia Anita’s been paying quite a lot of money to Stefano Gorini, a man with a very shady reputation. Apparently, he’s been in trouble with the law for claiming to have medical certification that he doesn’t have. He’s been caught, too, for other scams. This time, he’s been selling several “remedies” that are supposed to cure several ailments, and that’s why Zia Anita’s been going to see him and paying him money. She believed his promise of cure-alls that were too good to be true, and it’s not until her nephew shows her that Gorini is a con artist that she sees that she’s been taken in.

In John Locke’s Saving Rachel, we meet Sam Case, a brilliant computer expert who’s developed software that “hides” money for people who don’t want questions asked about their wealth. Case is a rather ordinary-looking guy, although he’s doing well financially, so it seems too good to be true when supermodel Karen Vogel shows interest in him. Even though he knows how unlikely it is that a woman like that would want him, Case responds to her interest, and the two are soon having an affair. Then one day, Sam Case realizes that it all was, indeed, too good to be true. He’s abducted by gangsters and forced to choose between his wife, Rachel, and Karen Vogel. As if that’s not enough, he’s also framed for the murder of his sister-in-law. Before he knows it, Case is mixed up in a complex plot involving millions of dollars and is in a desperate race to save his wife and stay alive himself.

Lest you think that every attractive offer is dangerous, there are also cases where an irresistible offer turns out to be just as good as it seems. That’s what happens to Mrs. St. Vincent in Agatha Christie’s short story, The Listerdale Mystery, which appears in The Golden Ball and Other Stories. Mrs. St. Vincent is a badly-off widow who’s struggling just to stay in the small, cheap home she shares with her son, Rupert and daughter, Barbara. Although the family is gentry, they’ve fallen on hard times. In fact, Barbara doesn’t even want to bring home the young man she’s interested in because she’s ashamed of where the family lives. One day, Mrs. St. Vincent reads of a house available to rent. The house seems perfect and the rent ridiculously low. Mrs. St. Vincent is wary of the offer since it seems very much too good to be true, and so is her son. But she goes to see the house and falls in love with it. Almost before she knows it, she’s accepted the offer and the family has moved in. She and Rupert are curious about the house’s eccentric owner, Lord Listerdale, and in fact, Rupert suspects that something sinister is going on. In the end, though, the solution to the mystery isn’t suspicious at all, and it’s one example of a story with a quirky twist and a happy ending.

Maybe it’s those few cases of “dream deals” that actually work out that keep us hoping that something that seems too good to be true really is good. Or perhaps it’s that we want to believe we could actually “come out ahead.” Whatever the reason, people do seem to be drawn to things that seem too good to be true, no matter how dangerous they are. What’s your view? Which novels have you enjoyed that feature this plot point?


  1. I never seem to remember a book's title when I comment on your post. LOL However, I did enjoy this post and it makes a great point. We want to believe good things came happen, but we know 9 out of 10 times it's just a scam. In real life as in the books, if the scam breaks the person it can also lead to murder.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - You put that very well; we do want to believe in those "too good to be true" offers, so even though we know better, we can get drawn in. As you say, most of the time, things that seem too good are too good and that can lead to all kinds of consequences - including murder.

  3. I love the examples you gave, especially with Sherlock Holmes and AC. It amazes me how inventive those two writers were with their plots. I guess that's why they sold so many books.


  4. Clarissa - You've got a point. Both Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie were very creative and inventive people. It doesn't surprise me at all that they both have large and devoted followings. I try to learn from what they were able to accomplish...

  5. I used to wonder how you came up with so many fine examples, now I wonder how you come up with so many topics!

  6. Patti - You are way, way too kind. I guess it's just my diseased imagination ; ).

  7. Ah, yes, I can comment now - for some reason Google Chrome broswer did not like your comment window, Margot, but IE is OK with it.

    Great post, as ever. I was just wondering if a good plot for a mystery would be someone driven mad by all these "free" offers (not) one gets these days. For example, get six free issues of some magazine. But the only way to get the deal is to sign up by direct debit to a year's subscription or more. Or when you are at the checkout, and the sales person urges you to take out their storecard to save x % on today's purchases. Of course he/she is on commission. It's even more annoying, actually, to be behind someone in the queue who succumbs to the offer....all this is enough to make one feel quite murderous towards all these marketing departments who dream up these inconvenient lunacies instead of just making things cheaper in the first place....

  8. Maxine - So glad that IE let you comment : ). I do wish different technologies worked better together...

    I had to laugh outright when I read your comment, too! I can easily see a plot (are you listening, Carl Hiaasen? ; ) ) where someone accepts one of those offers, finds out how much it really costs and then exacts revenge. How delicious! And I agree, the only thing as annoying as being accosted with one of those offers is having to wait while someone else falls prey. Especially if that someone is in the express check lane which is supposedto be for people who want to make quick purchases. And then there are those direct-mail adverts; I often wonder how much greener our planet would be without those "impossibly good offers."

  9. Now everybody else is watching the World Cup final so I have time to finish my blog round ;)

    It is funny to be reminded of The Stepford Wives. I read it when I was very young, and I found it a bit annoying then because I wasn´t quite certain what was going on. Today I think it was admirably done.
    As Maxine says, one could easily find material for a modern plot - hardly a month goes by when I don´t win a million euro or something. Perhaps if I tried to answer those e-mails....?

  10. Dorte - LOL! So that's the way to true wealth! Responding to spam E-mails that promise riches beyond belief! Now I understand! ; ). I agree that The Stepford Wives is a very well-written book. I, too, first read it as a youngster, but like you, didn't really "get it" until I was older. Maybe it's one of those novels one "grows into."

  11. The Red Headed League is an excellent story but the plot is absurd when you sit back and think about it. Surely the sign of a great writer that it all hangs together so well.

  12. Archavist - You put that quite well. The plot is absurd, but we believe it as it's going on. As you say - the sign of a great writer.