Friday, July 16, 2010

I'm Winning and I Don't Intend on Losing Again*

For most of us, competition of some sort is part of our lives. We compete for school awards and prizes, jobs and promotions, even parking spaces sometimes. Some careers, such as athletics, theater and music, involve even more competition. Of course, not every culture values competition, but in many cultures, competition is important; it’s integrated into our lives. Many people say that some competition is healthy. For instance, thousands of inventions and new developments have come about because of competition. So have many, many medical advances. Competition for resources is arguably part of what keeps populations evolving, too. But competition has its disadvantages, too. Competition can get ugly and sometimes lead to resentment or worse. In crime fiction, competition can even lead to murder. Even when it doesn’t, competition adds a very interesting layer of tension to a good crime fiction novel.

Competition is addressed in several Agatha Christie novels. For instance, there’s a very elemental competition in And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel, ten people receive invitations to stay on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. Each guest responds for a different reason, but all accept the invitations. When the guests arrive, they’re surprised to find that their host is not there. But they settle in and prepare for their stays. After dinner on the first night, the guests are shocked when each of them is accused of causing the death of at least one person. At first, the guests wonder if this is all a macabre joke. But then, one of the guests suddenly dies. Late that night, another guest dies. Then, the guests realize that they’ve been lured to the island by a murderer and they’re trapped. Now, it’s everyone for him or herself as the guests try to stay alive. It’s a fascinating study of how people learn to see one another as competitors and enemies, even after a short time.

We also see competition in Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). Amyas Crale is a famous painter who can’t seem to stay faithful to his wife, Caroline, although he loves her. When he meets Elsa Greer, Crale becomes infatuated with her and agrees to do a painting of her. He brings her to his home, where he believes he’s got the perfect background for the painting. At first, all goes well enough, although there’s a certain tension. But soon, Crale realizes he’s thoroughly besotted with Elsa, and sends her away. Eventually, he brings her back to his home, and now the competition between Elsa and Crale’s wife, Caroline, becomes more obvious and more dangerous. For instance, during one meal, Elsa comments on some changes she wants to make to the house when she is living there, and Caroline can’t let that pass. The competition becomes so fierce that Crale himself can hardly stand it. Still, he’s determined to finish the painting. Then one afternoon, Amyas Crale is poisoned. Caroline Crale is the natural suspect; she’s threatened Crale, and there’s other evidence, too, connecting her to the murder. So she’s arrested, tried and convicted, and after a year, dies in prison. Sixteen years later, the Crales’ daughter, Carla, asks Hercule Poirot to clear her mother’s name. She’s sure her mother is innocent and wants the matter settled before her own marriage. Poirot agrees and interviews the five people who were present at the time of the murder. He also gets a written account from each about the murder. Those interviews and accounts give Poirot the information he needs to solve the murder.

Athletic competition is the background of Emma Lathen’s Going for the Gold. In this case, it’s the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. The Sloan Guaranty Bank has been chosen as the official bank for the games, so John Putnam Thatcher, a vice-president for the bank, has traveled to Lake Placid to oversee the bank’s operations. One day, champion French ski jumper Yves Bisson is shot by a sniper as he’s making a jump. At first, it looks as though his death was an act of terrorism. Then, when that possibility is ruled out, It seems that one of his competitors must have shot him. There are several suspects, too, as Bisson’s death means that several other skiers now have a chance for a medal. In the end, Thatcher finds that Bisson’s death is related to a counterfeiting ring, but throughout the novel, competition plays an important role.

Business competition is the theme of Joseph Finder’s Killer Instinct. Jason Steadman is a sales executive for an electronics giant. He’s done an effective job of selling, but he’s more or less reached a plateau, chiefly because he doesn’t have that so called, “killer instinct” to best his competition and rise to the top of the company ladder. Jason faces not only his own frustration at not “rising to the top,” but also the disapproval of his wife, Kate, who’d hoped that her husband would be a top executive. Then, literally by accident, Steadman meets Kurt Semko, a former Special Forces operative. As it turns out, Semko is also a former minor-league baseball player, so Steadman thinks he’d be a perfect addition to the company’s softball team. Steadman arranges for Semko to get a job in Corporate Security, and at first, all is well. Then, Steadman begins to benefit from misfortunes that befall his competitors in the company, and good things that happen to him. It’s not long before he realizes that Semko’s behind the chain of events that have started to propel Steadman towards the top of the company tree. He tries to stop Semko, but by then, it’s too late. Now, Steadman’s up against much more danger than he’d imagined.

Competition also underlies Robin Cook’s Contagion. Medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery become interested in a series of deaths from nosocomial (hospital-based) infections. All of the deaths occur at Manhattan General Hospital, and all seem to be spread by a particularly virulent influenza virus. Manhattan General Hospital is affiliated with health insurance giant AmeriCare. AmeriCare’s chief competitor is National Health. Stapleton suspects that the deaths may be related to the furious competition between the two companies, and begins to investigate them. He finds that the rivalry is behind the deaths, but not in the way he thought, and comes perilously close to becoming a casualty of the competition himself.

In Isis Crawford’s A Catered Christmas, a cooking competition has come to a very popular local cooking show, The Hortense Calabash Cooking Show. The hostess has invited five local caterers to compete; one of them is A Little Taste of Heaven, which is run by sisters Bertie and Libby Simmons. The Simmons sisters are excited about this chance for publicity, but on the day of the competition, one of the ovens on the show’s set explodes, killing Hortense Calabash. Immediately, it looks as though one of the five competitors must have been responsible. Hortense Calabash had made plenty of enemies, too, so the Simmons sisters have plenty of suspects as they get to the truth behind Hortense’s death.

There’s a different kind of competition in Laurien Berenson’s Chow Down. Melanie Travis, Berenson’s sleuth, has just found out that her son entered her Standard Poodle, Faith, into a competition to be featured in Champions Dog Food Company’s newest ad campaign. Faith becomes a finalist, so Melanie brings the dog to New York City for the final round of competition. During the competitors’ visit, Larry Kim, handler for one of the other dogs, has a fatal fall down a stairwell. Now, Melanie’s drawn into the investigation, since it’s possible that the killer is targeting all of the competitors.

Even when competition isn’t the main theme of a novel it can still be an interesting sub-plot. For instance, Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano has an ambitious deputy, Mimì Augello, whose motives he often suspects, and he enjoys scoring off Augello. For instance, in The Snack Thief, the Vigàta Questura is faced with two puzzling cases in the same day. In one, a Tunisian boat fires on an Italian fishing boat, killing one of the sailors – who happens to be Tunisian. The other, much more “local,” is the stabbing death of retiree Aurelio Lapècora inside an elevator. Montalbano is sure that Augello did everything he could to be assigned the higher-profile, international shooting incident, leaving Montalbano with the less prestigious elevator case. When the shooting case is transferred from Vigàta to the Harbor Office of Mazàra, Montalbano can’t resist getting in a dig at Augello because he’s lost his prestigious case.

There are many other crime fiction novels, of course, where competition is a theme or sub-plot. That makes sense, since competition can easily be taken to extremes. Which novels have you enjoyed that feature competition?

Oh, and in an interesting note...the restaurants whose signs you see in the 'photo are right next to each other. It's an interesting case of competition.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Santana’s I’m Winning.


  1. Jose Ignacio - Thank you : ). That's very kind of you.

  2. Interesting thoughts and more good read recommendations.
    Oh, and would you really call those two restaurants?

  3. John - Thanks : ). And it's funny you would ask whether those two are really restaurants. I don't think of them that way, myself, but a lot of people do, and they are a good example of competition...

  4. Always enjoy your post. This one got me to thinking, what about spouses? A spouse wants their loved one to win a competition or event so much they would go to the extremes to make it happen. And the same can be said of parents. Like in real life where the Texas cheerleader's mom wanted her to win so badly she committed a crime.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Mason - Thank you for the kind words. And what an interesting point you've made! That Texas cheerleader story is a really clear real-life example of how someone could want a loved one to win a competition so badly that s/he'd commit a crime to make sure it happens. It sort of reminds me of Laurien Berenson's Hot Dog, in which several crimes get committed, mostly because the criminal thinks that that's what a loved one wants (I can't say more than that because of spoilers...). It's a really interesting premise.