Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I Want to be Famous, a Star on the Screen*

An interesting post from Norman at Crime Scraps got me thinking about the fascination that celebrity has for so many people. Whether it’s a famous politician, an actor, an athlete or someone else, people love to read about celebrities. There are hundreds of tabloids and magazines devoted to celebrity doings, and even more blogs, fan sites and other Internet sites related to celebrities. There are hundreds of hours of television programming, too, about celebrities. Not being a psychologist, I can’t explain why so many people are drawn to celebrities. It may be that we wish we had what seems to us a fantasy life. It may be schadenfreude. It may be dissatisfaction with our own lives. It may be something else. Whatever it is, celebrities have a strong appeal, both in real life and in crime fiction.

Celebrities show up quite often in crime fiction, actually, and we can see in those novels how people react to them. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), we meet famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. He invites several people to his home in Cornwall for a cocktail party, including a local clergyman, the Reverend Stephen Babbington. During the cocktail party, Babbington suddenly dies. When it becomes clear that he was poisoned, Hercule Poirot, who also attended the party, works with Cartwright, Mr. Satterthwaite (who was also at the party) and Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore to find out who killed Reverend Babbington. Then, another murder occurs, and it’s clear that these murders are connected. In several places in the novel, Sir Charles uses his fame and people’s interest in celebrity to get information. For instance, at one point, he’s talking to Superintendent Crossfield, who’s in charge of part of the investigation:

“Superintendent Crossfield had a childish reverence for the glamour of the stage. He had twice seen Sir Charles act, and the excitement and rapture of seeing this hero of the footlights in a flesh-and-blood manner made him as friendly and loquacious as could be wished.”

In Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side), famous actress Marina Gregg and her husband Jason Rudd purchase Gossington Hall in the village of St. Mary Mead. Once they’re settled in, they decide to host a fête to benefit a local charity. All of the locals are invited. One of them, Heather Badcock, is especially excited about the fête, because she’s a fan of Marina Gregg’s. In fact, as she tells Miss Marple,

“But Marina Gregg, she’s lovely, isn’t she? Of course she hasn’t been in so many pictures of late years…But I still think there’s never anybody like her….she’ll always be a wonderful actress. I’ve always been a terrific fan of hers.”

Heather goes on to tell Miss Marple about the time when she had the chance to meet her idol. On the day of the fête, Heather gets to meet Marina Gregg again and is ecstatic when Marina gives Heather a cocktail. Tragedy strikes, though, when Heather Badcock suddenly sickens and dies. At first, everyone thinks that Marina Gregg was the intended victim, since the cocktail was hers. Soon, though, it’s clear that Heather was the intended victim all along. Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry investigate the murder and find out who wanted to kill a seemingly harmless woman and why.

We also see celebrity mania in Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts. In that novel, Queen has been persuaded to write the screenplay for an upcoming movie about film legends Blythe Stuart and John Royle. At one time, they were very much in love, but a bitter feud ended their relationship. Now, Stuart and Royle are still suspicious of each other, but they are also desperate for money, so they agree to do the film, and to participate in the publicity hype that goes with promoting the film. Everyone is shocked when the two fall in love again and are actually married. The wedding takes place on an airstrip right before the couple leaves on their honeymoon trip. With them are Stuart’s daughter Bonnie and Royle’s son Ty. The media attention to this couple and their wedding is frantic, and gives us a real look at the Hollywood celebrity craze. When the plane lands, though, both Stuart and Royle are dead, victims of poisoned cocktails. At first, their children suspect each other, but soon enough, it’s discovered that the poison was brought on board by someone else disguised as the pilot. Queen determines to find out who that person was, and why the killer targeted this famous couple. In the process, he meets celebrity gossip columnist Paula Paris, who makes her living from people’s fascination with celebrities. Paris is very helpful in uncovering the backgrounds of both victims, and that helps Queen figure out who had the motive for murder.

In P.D. James’ A Taste for Death, we meet a different sort of celebrity, Sir Paul Berowne, a Minister of the Crown. One morning, his body and that of a tramp, Harry Mack, are discovered in St. Matthew’s Church. Sir Paul has quite a lot of celebrity, not only because of his prominence in the government, but also because of his “well-born” background. So he gets quite a lot of media attention. In fact, it’s for exactly that reason that Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin are assigned to investigate the case. They’re part of a newly-formed squad specially set up to handle cases that are bound to attract a lot of media attention. As they begin to examine the case, the three sleuths find that more than one person had a reason to want Berowne dead. In the process of finding out who killed Berowne and why, the detectives uncover a great deal about Berowne’s political past, family life and beliefs.

In Michael Connelly’s The Overlook, Harry Bosch gets some help from a celebrity-crazed fan. He and his new partner Ignacio “Iggy” Ferras are investigating the death of physicist Stanley Kent on an overlook on Mulholland Drive. The murder investigation gets complicated by the potential disappearance of some radioactive material from a cancer clinic. Since Kent was working with a team to develop a new cancer treatment, his death might be linked with the possible disappearance and therefore, with terrorism. Because of the concern about national security, the FBI gets involved – in the form of Agent Rachel Walling, Bosch’s old love. Bosch and Ferras have to not only find Kent’s killer, but also they have to untangle the bureaucratic mess of competition for “turf.” In the process of their investigation, Bosch and Ferras discover that there was a witness to Kent’s murder – twenty-year-old Jesse Milford. Milford’s a Candian who’s come to the Hollywood area to try to “make it big” in music. He was in the area at the time of the murder because he wanted desperately to meet famous celebrity Madonna. He’s not a disturbed fan; rather, he wanted to send an autographed picture or some other memento to his mother to let her know he’s all right. Milford’s not a major character in this novel, but his determination to meet Madonna is an interesting example of our fascination with famous people.

We also see “celebrity fever” in Liza Marklund’s Prime Time. Investigative journalist Annika Bengtzon is about to go on a trip with her partner Thomas Samuelsson and their children. Her plans are interrupted by the shooting death of famous television celebrity Michelle Carlsson, the star of Summer Frolic at the Castle. Bengtzon soon finds that there are twelve suspects in this murder: the cast and crew of the show. Every one of them had a motive for murder, so it’s a case of finding out which of the suspects is the real killer. Although this novel doesn’t focus on rabid fans, we do get a look at the life of someone who lives what’s supposed to have been a charmed life.

In Robert B. Parker’s High Profile, we meet Walton Weeks, a famous radio commentator who’s inspired fanatic devotion. Because his views are so controversial, though, he’s also inspired fanatic hatred. When he’s found shot and hung, Paradise, Massachusetts police chief Jesse Stone is called in to investigate. He finds that Weeks was the object of a lot of “celebrity fever.” He also had several ex-wives and a current wife, all of whom had motives for murder. So did Weeks’ bodyguard. Then, to complicate matters, Weeks’ pregnant mistress is found murdered. The more that Stone finds out about Weeks’ life, the more secrets he uncovers as he gets to the truth about the murders.

People’s fascination with celebrities doesn’t always involve murder, of course, but it’s an interesting part of our group psychology. Little wonder it also adds layers of interest to crime fiction novels. Have you enjoyed novels that include this plot point? Which ones?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles' Drive My Car.


  1. I am convinced there is a gene especailly for being interested in the private lives of other people and I don't have the gene. Not only have I never been interested in celebrity goings on but I am also not interested in reality TV in which people share the intimate details of their lives or any other form of "sharing" by 'normal people' or celebrities. Heck I am one of the few people left in the western world who doesn't even have a facebook account.

    Now that the rant is over I can't for the life of me think of a single book in which a celebrity features - I'm sure I have read some but perhaps my not being interested in them extends to fiction and I just forget all about them as soon as I've read them :)

  2. Bernadette - I don't understand people's interest in telling the most intimate details of their lives on reality television, either. Like you, I just simply am not fascinated by those "tell-all" shows. There may, indeed, be a gene such as you describe; I know Mr. Confessions of a Mystery Novelist has absolutely no interest whatsoever in celebrities - even celebrity athletes, and he's a sports fan.

    It's interesting, too, that our interests (or lack thereof) often have a lot to do with books we do or don't like. People not interested in sports, say, don't often read mysteries where sports feature unless they are very well-written books. People who aren't "star-crossed" don't read mysteries about celebrities - unless those novels are very well-written.

  3. I don't know why humans have a fascination for celebrities but it's true. Even I'm affected by it. I remember reading a book by Leigh Russell "Cut Short" where one character became obsessed with one celebrity. That was a great read. I don't know if you read it or not.

    I love the second paragraph of your comment. I think it's true. I've never read any horse racing mystery books by... oh, I forget his name, because I'm not a fan of the sport.


  4. Clarissa - I think you're right that lots of humans are fascinated by celebrities. Some people are more fascinated by others, but famous people do just have an appeal. Thanks for mentioning Cut Short, too. That sort of novel - where a character becomes obsessed like that - is an example of what I had in mind.

    It's funny, too, that you'd mention Dick Francis' horse racing mysteries. I think that mysteries like that that are focused on one particular sport or area of interest are going to be less appealing to people who don't share that interest. Unless the mystery is very, very well-done, it's hard to draw people in who aren't interested in the context or setting.

  5. It makes an excellent motive. I guess there is someone we would all want to meet--and if it doesn't turn out well. I think of the Stephen King novel MISERY. That was all too real.

  6. Patti - Oh, that's such a good example of "celebrity fever" gone horribly wrong! And you're right; that sort of obsession can make for a really compelling and believable motive.

  7. Good job with the picture, Margot! "The Mirror Crack'd" is one of my favourites - many years ago I saw a movie of it with Elizabeth Taylor playing Marina Gregg.

    And yes, Dick Francis' mysteries might include horse racing - but then again many don't. I've learned about glassblowing, meteorology, merchant banking and many other professions from Dick Francis' books. Give one a try, Clarissa! You may be surprised.

  8. Elspeth - Why, thank you :-). I rather liked that 'photo, too. And I agree; that movie was terrific. Most of the time, I'm such a purist about movies that I often don't think they're up to the book's level. That one's a good 'un, though.

    And I agree. There are so many things that Frances treats in his novels; no wonder his books are still so popular...

  9. Mirror Cracked ... is one of my favourite Jane Marple books, and is one of the perfect examples of the genre.

    But when I think of crime and obsession with celebrities, I just can't think beyond Mark Chapman and the guy who shot at Reagan to impress Jodi Foster. Truly cases of art never being able to get at ridiculous as real life.

  10. ayna - Oh, you are so right! Cases like Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley are eerie and strange - much stranger than anything I could ever write. It's troubling, too... There was also the sad case of actress Rebbecca Schaeffer, an American actress who was shot to death by crazed fan Robert John Bardo. There are other cases as well. It is troubling.

    But you are right; The Mirror Crack'd... is such a great Jane Marple case, with so much in it...

  11. Well, this is stretching it a bit, but there was an actor playing Rambunctious Rabbit who gets murdered in the Lomax and Biggs mystery, The Rabbit Factory, by Marshall Karp. The movie studio that employs Rabbit in its theme park is the true target of the killer, but the famous Rambunctious Rabbit's death created quite a stir. :)

  12. Patricia - Oh, I'm so glad you mentioned The Rabbit Factory. I just love Marshall Karp's humour, and that story is also quite a good mystery. And yes, Rambunctious Rabbit certainly does create a stir.