Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I'm Holding Out For a Hero*

Do you have a hero? Someone you look up to and want to emulate? A lot of people have heroes; it seems to be a part of human nature. And some research shows that children benefit from having heroes as they grow. Heroes give us goals to reach for and they remind us of what is possible. Of course, hero-worship has its negative side, too. People are not perfect. That includes people that we consider heroes. It can be a real disappointment and lead to disillusionment when we discover that our heroes are not the ideal people we might have imagined. And yet, it’s a natural tendency to want to have heroes. That could be why there’s so much hero-worship both in real life and in crime fiction. Hero-worship can add an interesting layer to a character; it can also be a motive for murder.

There are several examples of hero-worship in Agatha Christie’s novels. For instance, in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), we meet Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore. She gets what her mother Lady Mary refers to as a “case of hero worship” for famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Egg gets her chance to spend time with her hero when she gets mixed up in the murder of the Reverend Stephen Babbington. Babbington and his wife are invited, along with Egg and her mother, to a cocktail party at Cartwright’s home. During the party, Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot also attends the party and Cartwright asks him to look into the case. Poirot agrees, much to Egg Lytton Gore’s consternation, as she wants Sir Charles to herself, so to speak, and wants him to solve the case. In the end, and after two more deaths, Poirot figures out who killed Babbington and why. Egg Lytton Gore’s hero-worship makes for an interesting sub-plot throughout.

There’s also an element of hero-worship in Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons. Eleanor Vansittart is second in command, so to speak, at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school with an international reputation. She considers her boss, Honoria Bulstrode, a hero. Miss Bulstrode is thinking of retiring in the next year or two, and she’s seriously considering Miss Vansittart as her replacement. As a part of making her decision, she asks,

“If you were running this place instead of me, what changes would you make? Don’t mind saying. I shall be interested to hear.”

After saying that she wouldn’t make any changes at all, Miss Vansittart explains why, and shows a bit of her hero-worship:

“…it’s your school, Honoria, you’ve made it what it is and your traditions are the essence of it.”

Miss Bulstrode’s dilemma about retirement is soon pushed aside when games mistress Grace Springer is shot in the new Sports Pavilion. Hercule Poirot is called in by Julia Upjohn, one of the students at the school, after another death occurs. It turns out that the events at Meadowbank are related to espionage, international intrigue, a kidnapping and a cache of stolen jewels. Throughout the novel, Miss Bulstrode’s questions about the future of the school and her concerns about Miss Vansittart’s hero-worship add a layer of interest.

In Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, Queen and his father Inspector Richard Queen are summoned to Bendigo island, the private property of wealthy and enigmatic munitions tycoon King Bendigo. With Bendigo live his wife Karla, his brother and assistant Abel and his other brother Judah. Bendigo has called in the Queens because he’s been receiving anonymous threats and wants the Queens to investigate. One night while the Queens are on the island, Bendigo is in his hermetically-sealed private office when he’s shot. It seems to be an impossible crime, since the Queens can find no gun in the office; in fact, it’s soon proven that the gun used to shoot Bendigo was never in the office at all. To make matters more complicated, the prime suspect in the crime is Bendigo’s brother Judah who’d threatened his life. The only problem is, Judah Bendigo was with Ellery Queen at the time of the shooting, and could not have committed the crime. The Queens look into the crime and soon find that it has its roots in Bendigo’s hometown of Wrightsville. So Ellery Queen travels to Wrightsville to discover what he can about Bendigo’s past. It turns out that Bendigo’s shooting has everything to do with hero-worship.

Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House also features a crime caused by hero-worship. In that novel, Superintendent Duncan Kincaid is called to the scene of a warehouse fire in London’s Southwark area. The body of an unidentified woman has been found in the remains of the fire, and Kincaid and his team begin to investigate both the fire and the death. With help from his lover and former partner Gemma James, Kincaid discovers that the body could be one of four women who’ve gone missing, and they slowly narrow down the list. As they’re doing this, another fire breaks out. It soon is clear that as well as pursue the murder investigation, the team’s got to find a serial arsonist. As the various threads of this plot come together, we find out that the fires are rooted, odd as it may seem, in a kind of hero-worship.

There’s a fascinating look at hero-worship in Pablo de Santis’ The Paris Enigma. A group of world-famous detectives, known as The Twelve, is scheduled to make a presentation at the Paris World’s Fair. One of the group’s founders, Buenos Aires sleuth Renato Craig, is planning to attend along with the others. However, he’s unable to go because of a shocking incident that’s left him ill. So he sends in his stead Sigmundo Salvatrio. Salvatrio is the son of a local shoemaker who’s considered Craig a hero for quite some time. In fact, Salvatrio considered himself very lucky to be selected for admission to Craig’s Academy for Detectives. When Salvatrio is chosen to go to Paris, he can’t believe his good fortune and when he meets the other detectives and their assistants, we get a real sense of hero-worship. Every assistant is devoted to his master, and all of them dream of being master detectives themselves. Then, one of the master detectives suddenly dies of what first looks like an accident. When it becomes clear that the accident was actually murder, Salvatrio works with The Twelve’s co-founder Viktor Arkazy to find out who the murderer is.

Sleuths have heroes, too, of course. For example, Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe has what you could call hero-worship for Sir Seretse Khama, first president of an independent Botswana. Mma. Ramotswe has a picture of him in her home, and often reflects on his philosophy and on the good she believes he did for Botswana. Khama’s name comes up in more than one of the novels featuring Mma. Ramotswe. You could also say that Mma. Ramotswe’s father Obed Ramotswe is a hero to her. Although he has died when the series begins, she remembers him with respect, admiration and love, and often reflects on the good man he was and what he taught her.

Jassy Mackenzie’s Jade de Jong, whom we meet in Random Violence, also considers her father a hero. Jade’s father was a Johannesburg police inspector who was murdered while he was working on a case. Ten years after his death, Jade returns to her home after living abroad because the man she believes killed her father is about to be released from prison. She’s making her own plans when her father’s former partner David Patel asks her to help him investigate the brutal murder of Annette Botha. While they’re working on this case, another murder happens. And then another. These three seemingly random killings are all related, and as de Jong and Patel look into the cases, they find out the connection among them. Throughout this novel, de Jong is also dealing with her father’s murder and her own private agenda, and as we get to know her, we see how much hero-worship she had for her father.

Hero-worship is like most other qualities. It’s got negative and positive aspects. It can be helpful and dangerous, too. Maybe that’s why it figures in several crime fiction novels, only a few of which I’ve had space to mention. But what do you think? Do you think hero-worship can be healthy? Which novels have you enjoyed where hero-worship played a role?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For a Hero.


  1. What's scary is when you have copy-cat killers. Often Jack the Ripper fans are copying the killings of Jack because they view him as a hero. It's a common theme in many books and movies where the bad guys are made the hero and emulated.

  2. Clarissa - Oh, you've got such a good point! There's a whole post in the kinds of crime fiction in which killers consider other killers heroes and want to be like them. Ruth Rendell's 13 Steps Down comes to my mind, and there are a lot more.

  3. I think hero worship, and I cannot think beyond Mark Chapman. Compared to him, most crime fiction fades in imporatnce.

    I read Paris Enigma recently, and didn't like it much - too sketchy- did you?

  4. I tend to be a bit of a cynic (ok a lot of a cynic) which is why I am a little surprised by how much I enjoy Chris Grabenstein's John Ceepak/Danny Boyle novels because Ceepak is definitely a hero type character - being a good person who has sound morals which he is quite open about without forcing them down other people's throats. I've just finished listening to the last one of these books and I couldn't help but wonder how different a place the world would be if real-life John Ceepaks (because I'm sure they're out there) were heroes instead of sports stars and the like.

  5. Rayna - Oh, you are so right about Mark Chapman. Real life people like that do make a lot of crime fiction pale...

    I'm sorry to hear that you didn't much like The Paris Enigma. I understand what you mean, too, about sketchy. I think I liked it better than you did, but I'll admit, I liked it more for the characters and the discussions of philosophy of crime and detection than I did for the plot.

    Bernadette - I know what you mean about being cynical; the real world is not an ideal place and real people are not ideal. And yet there are some characters (and I'm glad you brought up Ceepaks, because he's one of them) who are good people. You can't help admiring them. It would, indeed, be quite a different world, wouldn't it, if people looked up to folks like Ceepaks instead of to celebrities...

  6. Hero worship can so often go astray, or become obsessive. Then, as others have mentioned, the object of the worship might not actually be that heroic. On a lighter note, however, one could make the argument that Captain Hastings suffered from hero worship when it came to Poirot. Then again, perhaps the power of the little grey cells would have made anyone worshipful.

  7. Elspeth - You know, I thought about both Hastings and Dr. Watson when I wrote this post. Both of them have what you could call hero-worship. And yet neither is blinded to his hero's all-too-human failings. I think it's when people lose sight of the fact that their heroes are just people that admiration can lead to dangerous obsession.

  8. Hero worship - my attitude is rather negative though I know it can be good for young people to have e.g. sports heroes (which may keep them from less healthy interests). But it is a fact of life so when the skilled writer handles it well, it can make an excellent story. Eleanor Vansittart is a fine example.

  9. Dorte - You're right; for good or for bad, hero worship is a fact of life. As you say, it's got negative sides to it, but I agree that young people can sometimes benefit from choosing a sports hero as opposed to getting into trouble. I suppose it depends on whom one chooses as a hero and how realistic one's view of that hero is.

  10. Hero worship does have it's good and bad sides in both books and real life. It is scary to think of the real criminals that people have made heroes out of. Look at Charles Manson and how he has been worshiped by so many.

    Thoughts in Progress

  11. Mason - Oh, that is a scary, but very effective, example. For some reason that I don't myself understand fully, people find Charles Manson compelling. Some even do seem him as a sort of folk hero. That's an interesting point. It certainly shows one the negative side of hero-worship, doesn't it?

  12. I think Archie Goodwin considers Nero Wolfe his hero...he certainly is awed by Wolfe's brilliance.

  13. Patricia - I have to agree with you there. Wolfe is, indeed a hero to Goodwin. What's interesting about that is that Goodwin is no mean detective in his own right.