Monday, July 12, 2010

Just Deserts...

Do you believe in karma? Lots of people do, and that may be part of the satisfaction we get from news reports that tell us that a criminal has been successfully convicted, or from crime fiction where the “bad guy” is caught. Of course, it may not be as simple as karma; after all, I’ll bet you could list far more examples than I ever could of real-life situations and crime fiction, too, where innocent people are caught in terrible situations. It’s harder in those cases to argue that those people’s thoughts and actions brought about those situations. There are lots of examples, though, both in real life and in crime fiction, of people whose patterns of behavior bring about certain consequences, some of them positive, and some disastrous.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we meet Mrs. Boynton, a tyrannical matriarch who brings her family on a tour of the Middle East. Mrs. Boynton dominates her family to the point where no-one in the family dares to question what she says; no-one even leaves the hotel where the family is staying because of their fear of Mrs. Boynton. During their trip, the family makes a visit to the ancient ruins of Petra, along with some other tourists. On the afternoon after they arrive, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies. At first, her death is put down to heart failure, which isn’t surprising given her poor health, the heat and the exertion of the trip. But Colonel Carbury, who’s investigating the death, isn’t satisfied. Neither is Dr. Theodore Gerard, one of the other tourists in the group. Dr. Gerard’s had the opportunity to observe Mrs. Boynton and her family and he suspects that she might have pushed someone in the family too far for once, and been murdered. Hercule Poirot is traveling in the area, so Colonel Carbury and Dr. Gerard ask for his input, and Poirot agrees to investigate. He finds that Mrs. Boynton had a lifelong pattern of tyranny, petty domination and mental sadism and that pattern led quite directly to her murder. In fact, there’s an interesting discussion in the novel of whether Mrs. Boynton had this kind of personality because she’d once been a prison wardress, or whether she’d once been a prison wardress because of her pattern of behavior.

In Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday for Murder and Murder for Christmas), Poirot investigates the brutal murder of Simeon Lee, whose patterns of behavior have arguably brought about the consequence of his murder. He’s a wealthy elderly man who’s always ruled his family with a proverbial iron fist. He uses his wealth to control his family, he was flagrantly unfaithful to his wife, and has little respect or liking for his children. So when he invites the members of his family to join him at the family home for Christmas, no-one wants to accept the invitation, but no-one dares refuse it. On the night of Christmas Eve, Lee is killed. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby with a friend, so he gets involved in the investigation. As he gets to know about Lee’s past, his patterns of behavior, his decisions and his lifestyle, Poirot finds out that they are directly connected with Lee’s death. In fact, as we learn, Lee’s murder was caused by his patterns and his decisions.

There’s a very interesting story of facing the consequences of behavior and patterns in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School for Men. In that novel, Mr. Molefelo is a successful landowner, ostrich rancher and civil engineer. He’s become prosperous, but a near-death experience has led him to reflect on his life and weigh what he has done with it. He visits Mma. Ramotswe because he wants her help in setting right some things that he did wrong. When he was a young man, Mr. Molefelo stole a radio belonging to his kind landlady and her husband. He also got his girlfriend pregnant and then did little to help her. Now, he wants to, as he puts it,

“…make good the bad deeds I did.”

He doesn’t call it karma, but Mr. Molefelo wants to do good to reverse the bad decisions he made. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to help him find his former landlady and his former girlfriend so that he can apologize to them and pay back his debt. With some help (and a clever ruse), Mma. Ramotswe tracks down both people, and is able to arrange for Mr. Molefelo to make good his wrongs.

The Navajo people don’t call it karma, but in Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn series, there are plenty of examples of people whose patterns and choices lead directly to what happens to them. Chee thinks of it as not being in harmony – in balance – and he sees what happens when someone chooses a destructive path. For instance, in The Ghostway, Chee searches for the killer of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s moved to the Reservation. He’s also looking for Margaret Billy Sosi, a Navajo teenager who’s distantly related to Gorman and who disappears from the school she attends. Chee believes that Gorman’s murder and Sosi’s disappearance are related, and investigates the cases together. Apart from the actual cases, there’s an interesting set of discussions in this novel about how walking in hozro (beauty) leads one to balance and harmony, and making destructive decisions leads in the opposite direction. In fact, in one of the climactic scenes in the novel, Margaret Billy Sosi has returned to the Reservation and undergoes a cleansing ceremony to help her walk again on the right path. At the end of the novel, when Gorman’s killer is caught and the puzzle solved, Chee, too, plans a similar healing ceremony for himself. The Chee/Leaphorn novels give us another, very interesting perspective on patterns and choices that bring certain consequences.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit features brothers Mason and Gates Hunt, two sons of an abusive and violent father. Mason takes advantage of every opportunity he’s given. He goes to college, then law school and eventually becomes a successful attorney. Gates, on the other hand, wastes his opportunities. He’s a talented athlete but does little with his life and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare money, money his mother gives him and whatever he can earn from petty drug dealing. One day, Gates has an argument with Wayne Thompson, a rival for his girlfriend. Later that night, the Hunt brothers encounter Thompson again. Almost before anyone knows it, Gates has shot Wayne Thompson. Mason Hunt feels that he owes his brother because Gates protected him from their father when they were young. So he helps his brother hide the evidence of the murder. The years go by and Mason Hunt becomes a successful prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. He marries and has a daughter who becomes his pride and joy. But you could say Mason’s karma catches up with him when his brother, who’s continued to waste his life, is jailed for cocaine trafficking. Gates Hunt tries desperately to get out of jail and when he’s unsuccessful, he threatens to implicate Mason in the Wayne Thompson shooting in exchange for his freedom. Now Mason’s decision to protect his brother and hide the murder comes back to haunt him as he’s indicted for murder.

You could argue that sleuths have to face karma, too. For instance, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse faces the consequences of his karma in a few ways. He’s passionately devoted to his job; that’s one reason he doesn’t seem able to form a permanent intimate relationship. It seems to be his karma to be alone – not because he’s not interested in women, nor because there are no women interested in him, but because of his patterns and choices. Morse faces the same kind of thing about his health. He takes no account of his health, which is how he ends up with diabetes and, in The Wench is Dead, with an ulcer. It seems to be Morse’s karma to suffer health problems because he’s prioritized a stressful job, drinking, and an unhealthy diet over his health. Of course, Morse’s lifestyle is part of his appeal as a unique character, and his fans wouldn’t want him any other way…

Not everyone believes in karma, and it might not explain everything. But there certainly are plenty of examples of how a pattern of behavior and decisions can lead to very real consequences. What’s your view? Which novels have you enjoyed where karma plays a role?

Oh, and the picture? I couldn’t resist this one. It’s not dinner – just desserts ; ).


  1. I don't know much about Karma but I love it when Poirot find out about a murder and when he realizes who did it, lets them go because the victim was such a bad person. For example, Murder on the Orient Express.


  2. Clarissa - Oh, I agree; I like it when Poirot (or any sleuth, for that matter) looks at all sides of situation. And I have to agree; the victim in Murder on the Orient Express was a pretty bad person...

  3. One of the reasons I enjoyed Teresa Solana's A Not So Perfect Crime which I recently finished was that it had one of these endings...two private detectives discovered who the murderer was but the woman who had been killed was essentialy horrible and the man who was the murderer was really quite lovely and everyone sort of agreed that they wouldn't tell the authorities. I guess it can't work like this in real life (everyone taking justice into their own hands) but I was surprised by how much this ending please me - I didn't realise I was quite so opposed to law & order :)

  4. Bernadette - What a great example of exactly the sort of thing I mean! Here's a guy whose pattern of being a terrific person led to everyone agreeing not turn him in. On the other hand, the woman's habit of being a nasty type led to her being the murder victim. I'm generally in favor of law and order, myself, but there are those times.... Folks, Bernadette's excellent review of A Not so Perfect Crime is here.

  5. Karma in a mystery book is always a good thing. You just never know when it's going to come back and bite the character (so to speak). Other times karma leads the character to do good things. These are great examples of that.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Thanks : ). And I agree with you; part of the surprise - the twist - in a good mystery is when karma comes back to haunt a character. Sometimes, as you say, it works out well. Other times, though.....

  7. I do believe in "what goes around comes around" in mystery novels at least. Readers want to see villains pay for their crimes. Or I do.

  8. Patti - You put that very, very well: we do want the "bad guy" to pay. It gives us a real sense of catharsis, I think. It also just seems to restore order in some way.

  9. I absolutely agree with Patti. The bad guys must pay in a mystery because too often they don't in real life!

  10. Karen - You put that quite well! In real life, there are a lot of people who "get away with it." In crime fiction, it's very cathartic when they don't!