In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, Poirot is traveling in the Middle East when he’s asked to investigate a strange murder. Noted archeologist Eric Leidner and his team have been excavating near Baghdad. One afternoon, Leidner’s wife Louise is killed by a blow to the head while she’s resting in her room after lunch. No-one’s been seen entering or leaving her room, and the window is barred, so no-one could have gotten in through the window, either. The more Poirot learns about this murder and about Mrs. Leidner’s history, the more he realizes that the crime centers on her personality. In fact, it’s just for that reason that she was killed. As Poirot puts together the pieces of this puzzle, he finds out that the makings of that murder were always there. The killer was always, “a little ruthless.” It’s that ruthlessness combined with Louse Leidner’s unique personality that led to the murder.
We see another example of “the tiger doesn’t change his stripes” in Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death). In that novel, Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary Miss Lemon asks him to help her sister get to the bottom of a group of strange thefts and other occurrences at the student hostel she manages. One night, Celia Austin, a resident of the hostel, admits that she’s been responsible for the thefts, and everyone thinks that the matter is settled. However, two nights later, Celia dies suddenly, apparently the victim of suicide. It’s soon proven, though, that she was murdered. Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into the lives of the other residents of the hostel and soon find out that most of them have secrets to hide. It turns out that Celia knew too much about one of the residents, and that, as the saying goes, signed her death warrant. What’s interesting is that once Poirot finds out who the killer is, he also finds out that the killer has killed before. In fact, the killer left a signed confession to the earlier crime. The confession was kept hidden by someone who believed that there was a chance that the killer might change. If that didn’t happen, the orders were to give the confession to the police.
In Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box, Inspector Wexford is convinced that “the tiger doesn’t change his stripes.” Years earlier, Eric Targo had been Wexford’s choice suspect in the strangling murder of Elsie Carroll, but Wexford wasn’t able to make the case against him and Targo disappeared. Now, Targo has returned. Wexford believes that Targo is a killer, even though Targo is living a “respectable” life, and officially, there are no complaints against him. Still, Wexford is wary of him, and it seems that Targo is taunting his nemesis. His van is seen near the Wexford home, and one day, the Wexfords’ new gardener, Andrew Norton, is found strangled in a crime that mirrors the death of Elsie Carroll. Wexford is sure that Targo is guilty, and tries to convince his partner that Targo is worth pursuing. It’s an interesting case of the prejudice that “once a killer, always a killer.”
There are plenty of other novels in which the criminal has always had, if you will, the makings of a killer. I’m sure you could think of at least as many as I could. However, there are also novels that aren’t a case of a “tiger not changing his stripes.” In those novels, the criminal may commit one crime, and then never another. Or, the criminal may be someone who would never have imagined committing a crime before, and afterwards, never would again.
For example, in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School for Men, Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a visit from a Mr. Molefelo, a very successful landowner, ostrich rancher and civil engineer. Years earlier, when he was a young man, Mr. Molefelo had gotten his girlfriend pregnant and did little to help her. He also stole a radio from his kind landlords. Time went on, Mr. Molefelo married and had children and became prosperous. But a recent near-death experience with poachers on his ostrich ranch has caused him to re-think his life. Now, he wants to make amends for the wrong he did. So he asks Mma. Ramotswe to track down his landlady Mma. Tsolamosese and his former girlfriend Tebogo Bathopi so he can make things right. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and after some effort, she finds both ladies. In the end, Mr. Molefelo is able to make amends, and we get the strong sense that he would not commit more crimes.
In C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, Jack and Melissa McGuane are the proud and doting adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. All is well until the McGuanes are informed that eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, Angelina’s biological father, never waived his parental rights and now intends to exercise them. Since Moreland has never shown an interest in Angelina, McGaune can’t imagine why he’d suddenly take an interest. The McGuanes decide to fight for Angelina and before long, they go up against some very powerful enemies. For instance, Garrett Moreland’s father is a powerful judge who has adamantly taken his son’s side in this conflict. Garrett himself has some very shady and powerful friends who are not afraid to support Garrett. In the end, McGuane ends up doing things he would never have dreamed of doing, just to fight for his daughter. As the novel ends, he reflects on the things that he’s done, and discusses having “crossed the line” and doing things he would not have done before. It’s an interesting discussion of what makes a criminal and how an otherwise law-abiding person might “turn criminal.”
That happens in Pablo de Santis’s The Paris Enigma, too. In that novel, world-famous detective Renato Craig opens up an academy for detectives in Buenos Aires. Sigmundo Salvatrio, the son of a local shoemaker, is one of a few local boys chosen to study at the academy. They’re allowed to follow Craig as he works and he gives them various assignments as he gets cases. Then, Craig is on the case of a corrupt magician, and ends up, if you will, on the wrong side of the law. That experience affects him so much that he becomes ill and unable to travel to Paris for the World’s Fair. So he sends Salvatrio in his place. That’s how Salvatrio meets the other members of The Twelve, a group of detectives from all over the world who’ve gathered in Paris for the World’s Fair. While they’re there, one of their number is murdered, and Salvatrio helps Viktor Arkazy, one of the detectives, solve the case. In this novel, Renato Craig wouldn’t have imagined being a criminal – until he became one. We get the sense, too, that he wouldn’t make that choice again.
It’s an interesting question whether or not people can really change. Some people believe it’s possible to fundamentally change. Others believe that “a tiger can’t change his strips.” What do you think? Which novels have you enjoyed that deal with this issue?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger's Still the Same.