Wednesday, September 1, 2010

You're Still the Same*

An old saying goes that the tiger doesn’t change his stripes. Is this really true? Are people the same throughout their lives or can people change? Of course people change physically over the years (um…but I’d rather not get into that *sigh*). People can also change certain things about themselves (for instance, changes in diet, changes in tastes, moving to a new location). But can people change who they fundamentally are? It’s an interesting question, and there isn’t an easy answer to it. On one hand, in real life, when police investigate crimes, they operate at least partly under the principle that people don’t change. When a crime is committed, the police look for patterns in the crime that resemble other crimes – modus operandi. When police have a suspect in custody, they look for incidents in the suspect’s past that might show whether she or he has a pattern of certain types of behavior. Both of these strategies can be very useful at identifying a killer, and both suggest that people really don’t fundamentally change. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who commit one crime and never commit another. Or, they become much more or much less liberal. Or they change in other fundamental ways. What’s interesting is that crime fiction is just as divided, if you will, on the question of whether people can change.

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.


  1. Now isn't that the million dollar question. I hope they do. However, I'm not sure. I love your post.

    You said, "On the other hand, there are plenty of people who commit one crime and never commit another." Well, perhaps they committed a crime solve a problem and when solved, they didn't need to commit another crime however, if in the same circumstance, would they commit the crime again? That would be interesting to find out.

    You made me think again tonight.


  2. Clarissa - ...and that's quite a compliment, so thank you : ). I honestly don't know for sure myself whether people can fundamentally change; it's a fascinating question, though, isn't it?

    As you say, it would be very interesting to find out if people who commit a murder that solves the problem they think they have ever kill again. I know that Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot said that the person who kills once will kill again. Maybe that happens...

  3. Off topic, but... didn't you say you take all of your own pictures? If so, this one requires an explanation! Tiger in your basement, maybe?

  4. Karen - Yes, I do take all of my own pictures - including this one. My secret? A very close-up shot of a toy tiger puppet : ). Really. Sorry not to be more exciting than that..*sigh*

  5. Nothing to do with mysteries, but it is a wonderful point you make. People change, they always do. Not just physically, but as people. Sometimes the change is for the good, sometimes not, but I doubt if anyone goes through life without changing.
    But I wonder - does the essence of the person remain the same? Is there even something called the essence?

    You really made me think, Margot. Again.

  6. An interesting debate, Margot. I kind of think that people can change if, and only if, they do want to change. It is possible, although it might be difficult in ocassions. But don't take me too seriously, I might be wrong.

  7. Rayna - You make a very strong point; I think it would be hard to go through life without going through any changes at all. On the other hand, as you say, if people have an essence, it's an interesting question whether that can change. I wonder, too, whether people have what you could call an essence...

    Jose Ignacio - I agree that a person's motivation has a lot to do with it. If a person chooses to change, then that can happen. But as you say, it can take a lot of work. And it may depend on what, exactly, that person wants to change.

  8. What an interesting post, Margot! All your posts are interesting but I particularly like the varied examples you have put together in this one. I am of the view that people don't fundamentally change their natures, but one or two of the cases you highlight make me wonder if I am right!

  9. Maxine - Thank you - how kind of you : ). I really do think about that myself sometimes. Like you, I've always thought that people's fundamental nature doesn't change. And yet, one reads things (crime fiction or not crime fiction) that make one wonder. Perhaps it depends on what the force is that might make people change...

  10. Very thought provoking post. I think a person can change, but that part they changed is always there under the surface and can sometimes be brought back either because they just want to go back to their old ways or because circumstances caused them to have to.

    Thoughts in Progress

  11. Mason - You have an interesting point! People may be able to change - even fundamentally - but a part of what they were may always be there. If that's true, then yes, circumstances could make them go back to what they were, or they could simply make the choice. It's a really interesting question, isn't it?

  12. I love this post! You've brought up a fascinating dilemma, Margot - how much do (or can) people really change? My thought is although people grow and mature their fundamental characters remain relatively the same. I had the experience of attending a class reunion and discovered people I liked back in the day, I still liked. People that weren't my cup of tea still weren't.

    People's opinions on various subjects may change and their priorities may shift at different times in their lives. But what makes them tick stays the same. Just my opinion of course!

  13. Elspeth - Why, thank you : ). I think it's a fascinating question, too, if I may say so. It's so interesting that you would bring up class reunions. Those are such effective contexts for thinking about how we change or don't. Perhaps you're right: some things about people might change. But their basic personalities are, perhaps, quite a lot more fixed. As you say, that's just an opinion, but it really does make sense.

  14. This is a timely topic. I am addressing this very issue in my trilogy. There are a group of bad guys and girls doing some very bad things like killing people.

    At the end of th story, is it possible for one or more to be remorseful and repent? Can thy change their heart and their ways? I writing this section as we speak. Its topics like this that makes writing so much fun.

    Stephen Tremp

  15. Stephen - Your trilogy really sounds interesting! It's always interesting to think about how people feel when they kill. Do they really change their ways, so to speak? Do they feel justified?

  16. Actually the puppet is funnier than the tiger in the basement. :D