Friday, July 2, 2010

Settling Scores

Real-life and crime fiction sleuths are ideally supposed to keep a certain emotional distance from the cases they investigate. They need objectivity to solve cases effectively, and for sanity’s sake, they need to avoid getting too involved with the people they encounter as they investigate. After all, murder is a violent, horrible thing to happen. Allowing oneself to really absorb that on a regular basis would probably be too much to bear. Besides, anyone a sleuth deals with in the course of an investigation could be a killer – or the next victim. Still, sleuths are only human. At times, they can’t help but make a case personal. That’s especially true if the sleuth feels that he or she has a score to settle.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning death of Emily Inglethorp, a wealthy philanthropist. Captain Hastings is staying with his friend John Cavendish, Emily Inglethorp’s stepson, at the family home, Styles Court, in Essex. Late one night, Emily Inglethorp dies suddenly of what turns out to be poisoning. By chance, Hastings happens to run into Hercule Poirot, who’s been forced by World War I to flee his native Belgium and is living in the nearby village of Styles St. Mary. Hastings tells Poirot of the events at Styles Court and Poirot begins to investigate. The most obvious suspect is Emily Inglethorp’s husband, Alfred, whom no-one else in the family likes or trusts. In fact, as the evidence in the case mounts up, Alfred Inglethorp is arrested for the murder. Poirot, though, suspects there’s more to the case, and continues searching for answers. For Poirot, this is a very personal case. Emily Inglethorp sponsored Poirot and several other Belgians who are also refugees, and Poirot was grateful to her for saving his life and helping him. So for Poirot, finding Emily Inglethorp’s killer also settles a personal score.

In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Poirot investigates the shooting death of George Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware. Edgware’s wife, actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most obvious suspect. She wanted to be free of Edgware so that she could marry another man, the Duke of Merton. As if that weren’t enough, she’d even threatened Edgware’s life, saying that if she couldn’t get free of him, she’d have to “go round in a taxi and bump him off myself.” Finally, someone looking very like her, and giving her name, visited Edgware on the night of the murder and seems to have been the last person to see the her husband alive. All is not as it seems, though, and as Poirot investigates the murder, he finds that more than one person had a reason to want to kill Edgware. Besides, it seems that Jane Wilkinson had a strong alibi for the night of the murder. At one point, one of the suspects in the murder case tells Poirot a story that turns out to be completely fabricated. Poirot settles the score neatly when he sums up the case at the end, and frightens that suspect. In fact he later says he did that to teach the suspect a lesson.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer often settles personal scores when he investigates. In My Gun is Quick, for instance, he takes it quite personally when he finds out about the hit-and-run death of Nancy Sanford, a down-and-out prostitute he meets at a coffee shop. When they first meet, Hammer hears her hard-luck story and gives her some money to start over. When he hears that she’s been killed in what looks like an accident, he determines to find out who killed her and why. Hammer finds out that Nancy Sanford was collecting evidence against a prostitution ring, and was going to have the ring shut down and the leaders imprisoned. So he sets out on a mission to find those responsible for her murder.

Hammer’s score-settling sometimes gets him into very deep trouble. The same thing happens to Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus. He’s got a long-standing animosity against Edinburgh crime lord Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, who’s been behind a great deal of drugs smuggling, prostitution and other crimes. In fact, as Rankin fans know, Rebus and Cafferty go up against each other frequently. So, in Exit Music, Rebus is only too happy to make a connection between Cafferty and the murder of dissident Russian poet Alexander Todorov. His desire to settle a personal score against Cafferty gets him suspended just before his scheduled retirement – and leads to a very unexpected twist at the end of this novel.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch sometimes settles personal scores, too. For instance, in Echo Park, we learn of the case of the murder of Marie Gesto. She went shopping in a Hollywood supermarket one day, left the store and never made it home. Bosch investigated that case, but never got the hard evidence he needed to solve it, although he did have a suspect in mind. Years later, Raynard Waits is arrested for two brutal murders. In fact, the police catch him with gruesome evidence of his crimes. Bosch, who’s working in the Open/Unsolved Unit for the L.A.P.D., hears that Waits may be willing to trade confessions for other murders for a guarantee that he’ll avoid the death penalty. Now, Bosch has to re-think his theory about the Gesto case. He also finds out that when he first investigated the case, he missed an important clue that could have led him to the killer. So in this case, his investigation is a matter of settling a score as well as solving the case.

In James W. Fuerst’s Huge, we meet Eugene “Huge” Smalls, a misfit New Jersey pre-teenager who wants to become a detective. He’s not good at making friends and he’s had quite a number of anger issues to deal with. But he’s also unusually intelligent and he’s read a great deal of work by writers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. His goal is to be just like them. Huge gets his chance when his grandmother asks him to find out who defaced the sign at the retirement home where she lives. Huge takes the case and begins to investigate. He’s sidetracked several times along the way by his anger and by his desire to even the score, so to speak, with a few of the older boys in the neighborhood. He’s especially got a grudge against two of the local boys whom he thinks have been harassing his older sister. It’s not until Huge is able to set aside his own personal agenda that he’s able to find out the surprising truth about what really happened to the sign.

Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box is another example of a sleuth who wants to settle a score. Years earlier, Inspector Reg Wexford had investigated the strangling murder of Elsie Carroll. At the time, he’d suspected a strange man named Eric Targo of the murder, but he couldn’t get the evidence he needed to pursue the case. Then, Targo disappeared. Now, years later, it seems that Targo’s returned to Kingsmarkham. What’s more, Targo seems to be targeting the Wexford home and taunting Wexford. His van’s been seen outside the home and Wexford believes he’s been stalking the family. Then, one day, Andrew Norton, the Wexford’s new gardener, is found strangled in the same way that Elsie Carroll was strangled. Wexford is convinced that Targo’s responsible, but has trouble convincing his partner of the fact. Meanwhile, the team is also investigating an allegation that sixteen-year-old Palestinian immigrant Tamima Rahmam is being forced into marriage. While the team is sorting this case out, Targo disappears again. As Wexford and the team tie together the threads of these cases, we see how Wexford’s need to settle the score with Targo motivates him.

It’s only human to want to get even when someone’s scored off one, so it’s understandable when sleuths, too, are motivated that way. What’s appealing about novels that use this plot point is that they show the sleuth as a human. On the other hand, if they’re not done well, novels like this can turn the sleuth into a vigilante, which is harder to make believable. What’s your view? Which novels have you enjoyed that focused on settling a score?

On Another Note…..

My sincere thanks to
Patricia Stoltey for awarding Confessions of a Mystery Novelist this Sunshine Supportive Commenter award. I am honored : ). Patricia’s blog is a thoughtful portrait of the life of a writer, and I always learn when I visit. In fact, I’ll be there on 19 August, so I’m especially honored at this award. Patricia’s written two fine crime fiction novels, too: The Prairie Grass Murders and The Desert Hedge Murders. Please stop by her terrific blog.

I’m asked to pass this award on, but all of you who are nice enough to comment on my blog brighten my day, so I couldn’t choose just some of you. Feel free to claim this award as your own, with my sincere thanks for your kind and wise comments!

Thanks, Patricia!


  1. Congratulations on the award, Margot. I was thinking about Rendell's Monster in the Box before I read that far. I believe she's used that theme in several other of her novels.

  2. Thanks for the reminder of MONSTER IN THE BOX. I have had it on the bedside table all year, but it keeps slipping down the pile.
    I enjoyed your examples. I do think HP often tries to exact vengeance on behalf of the victim, especially if they are young and female.
    On the other hand he is often most wrathful with the young women who "go against nature"

  3. John - Thank you : ). You've got a point, too. Rendell does use that theme in several novels but, in my opinion, she uses it especially effectively in The Monster in the Box. Not that Wexford doesn't feel strongly about his other cases (e.g. Road Rage), but I think particularly strong in Monster....

    Kerrie - I hadn't thought about it, but you've a very good point about HP's views of women. Women who, in his view, "act like women" and are victims, then yes, he does settle the score for them (You've got me thinking of examples now...). But women who don't? Who turn out to be "the bad guy" or are otherwise not sympathetic? Yes, he can be quite merciless.

    And about The Monster in the Box...I hope you'll like it. I have books like that, too, that keep slipping down the pile, so to speak...

  4. I just finished Monster in the Box and I agree that it is quite a nice Renellish take on the "settling scores" theme. Mo Hayder's recent books are to do with settling scores of various kind - notably the Man (who I can never remember if he's Wandering Man or Whispering Man....). One very chilling book I read earlier this year on the settling scores theme is Woman With Birthmark by Hakan Nesser. Very black indeed - carrying the concept to its logical extreme.

  5. Maxine - I'm glad you liked Monster in the Box. And thanks for bringing up Mo Haydar's Walking Man; he's a really interesting character; he makes me want to do a whole post on those unusual characters who pop up in crime fiction. Thanks also for mentioning Woman With Birthmark. I still haven't gotten to that one on my TBR list, but I need to. Folks, here is Maxine's excellent review of Woman With Birthmark.

  6. Congratulations on the award. Your blog is always a ray of sunshine even though you discuss murder and mayhem. :) I haven't read Monster in the Box but it sounds interesting. I'll have to check into it. Hope you have a wonderful holiday weekend.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Mason - Why, thank you! : ) - that's very kind of you. And thanks for the good wishes. I hope you enjoy the holiday weekend, yourself : ). And I think you'll like The Monster in the Box; if you like Ruth Rendell, it's one of her good ones.

  8. I think at some point all sleuths are involved personally. Police are often called to see friends or family members murdered. It's so disturbing and often they want to be involved but I like it when the writers forces them to distance themselves. I think in real life, they would be forced to but I like it also when the character finds creative ways to solve the case without the detectives knowing.

  9. Clarissa - I hadn't thought about it that way, but you're right. Sleuths do get involved personally, whether or not they want to be. As you say, friends, relatives, co-workers, acquaintances, can all involve a sleuth personally. So it's not surprising when a sleuth wants to settle a personal score. It is interesting, too, isn't it, when detectives find ways to solve a case, or at least stay involved, even when they're officially not supposed to. That takes creativity to make it believable, but it it interesting.