Tuesday, December 21, 2010

We Are The Champions, My Friends*

Many people have a drive within them to win. They want to be the best – to win the prize. Why is winning so important? I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t have a research-based answer to that question. But sometimes it’s because the prize is very much worth having; that’s part of the reason so many people buy lottery tickets. Other times, it’s because a person is naturally competitive. Still other people simply enjoy the feeling of trying to excel, and they get a “rush” when they do. Whatever the reason, winning really is important to a lot of people. Of course, like anything else, the desire to win can overtake a person and lead to tragic consequences. We see that in real life and it’s there in crime fiction, too.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson travel to King’s Pyland in Dartmoor to look into the mysterious disappearance of a famous race horse, Silver Blaze, and the death of Silver Blaze’s trainer John Straker. Silver Blaze has been abducted from the stables of his owner Colonel Ross just before the Wessex Cup, which Silver Blaze was an odds-on favourite to win. It seems clear at first that Straker was killed because he tried to prevent the abduction. The police believe that London bookmaker Fitzroy Simpson is guilty of both crimes, and that he committed them to “rig” the Wessex Cup. All is not as it seems, though, and Holmes soon discovers some unusual clues that point away from Simpson as the killer. In the end, Holmes finds Silver Blaze as well as the murderer of John Straker. On a side note, this story is also famous for the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Holmes gets an important clue from the behaviour of Colonel Ross’ dog on the night of the abduction and murder:

“‘Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’ [Colonel Ross]

‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’ [Holmes]

‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’

‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Agatha Christie’s short story Manx Gold also focuses on the desire to win. Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker find out how tragic the urge to win can be. They’re engaged to be married and are planning their future when they hear of the death of their eccentric Uncle Myles, who lives on the Isle of Man. The two young people travel there to attend the funeral and hear the reading of the will. The will states that Uncle Myles had found buried treasure on the island, and provides clues to that treasure. Those clues are to be given to Fenella and Juan, as well as to two other potential heirs; the first person to successfully decipher the clues will win the treasure. The next morning, Fenella, Juan and the two other heirs, Dr. Fayll and Ewan Corjeag, are given the first clue. With that, all of the competitors begin a race to win the buried treasure. What’s interesting about this story is that Christie wrote it on commission in order to boost tourism to the Isle of Man. The story was printed in instalments and given to tourists. It contained cryptic clues to the location of four snuffboxes. Each box contained a Manx halfpenny with a hole through it, hung on a ribbon. Whoever found all four boxes was to take them to the local courthouse and claim the prize – 100 pounds. Ironically (since there is a winner in the story) no-one was able to claim the prize.

Dick Francis’ Whip Hand also deals with the strong desire to win. Former jockey Sid Halley has become a private investigator due to a career-ending injury. In one of the cases Halley investigates in this novel, he’s approached by Rosemary Caspar, whose husband George is an internationally famous horse trainer. She thinks that someone may be out to sabotage her husband, because all of a sudden, three-year-old horses that he’s trained are beginning to fail at the track, even though as two-year-olds, they were champions. Rosemary Caspar asks Halley to investigate to find out who’s’ behind the sabotage. At first, Halley isn’t sure anything unusual is going on but he takes the case and soon finds himself up against an opponent who will do anything to win.

The need to win also turns deadly in Emma Lathen’s Going for the Gold. That novel is focused on the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York. Yves Bisson is the star member of the French ski jumping team and has high hopes of winning a gold medal. During a trial run, though, Bisson is fatally shot by a sniper. At first, everyone thinks his death is the work of terrorists. There’s no evidence for that, though, and soon enough, it’s clear that the killer is connected to the Olympics. Two of the prime suspects are Dick Noyes, an American ski jumper, and Gunther Euler, a German ski star. With Bisson out of the race, both of the other skiers have a better chance of winning medals themselves. Sloan Guaranty Bank Vice President John Putnam Thatcher is at Lake Placid, overseeing his bank’s operations in the area. He soon discovers that the motive for Bisson’s death was more complex than a simple wish to win, and is able to connect the murder to an international counterfeiting scheme.

Winning is an important motivator in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious. Memphis, Tennessee is home to Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, one of the most popular restaurants in the area. Everyone’s excited when Aunt Pat’s is selected as a finalist for the title of Best Barbecue in Memphis. The winner will be chosen by the Cooking Channel’s food scout Rebecca Adrian, who travels to Memphis from New York to sample the food at Aunt Pat’s and at the other competing restaurants. Adrian visits Aunt Pat’s and is served a plate of the very best Aunt Pat’s can provide. A few hours later, she’s dead of poison. Since the last food Adrian ate was at Aunt Pat’s, the Taylor family and the restaurant staff come under suspicion, and word begins to spread that the food at Aunt Pat’s is dangerous. Lulu Taylor is determined to clear her family’s name and restore the restaurant’s reputation. So she investigates Adrian’s murder. There are plenty of suspects, too; Rebecca Adrian was an abrasive, malicious person who’d succeeded in angering just about everyone she met. In the end, Lulu Taylor puts the clues together and figures out who wanted to kill Rebecca Adrian and why.

In my own Publish or Perish and B-Very Flat, there are several characters who are driven by a desire to win. In Publish or Perish, graduate student Rose Shelton is determined to win a coveted fellowship. When she loses the competition to Nick Merrill, she resolves to do anything necessary to take the fellowship away from him; this makes her one of several attractive suspects when Merrill is murdered. In B-Very Flat, we meet gifted violinist Michelle Park. She’s preparing for an important music competition for which her chief rival is fellow student Serena Brinkman. When Serena is murdered on the night of the competition, Michelle becomes an important suspect.

Many of us are motivated by the desire to win and we do all sorts of things because of it – even enter competitions to win copies of books…which brings me to a very important announcement. Thanks to all of you who entered the competition to win a signed copy of B-Very Flat. I’m so glad you enjoyed the “Do You Know Your Victims” quiz. If you’ll recall, I mentioned that all of the novels in that quiz have something in common. So what’s the answer? What do they have in common? The answer is......All of them have been featured on In The Spotlight. Did you guess correctly?

And now, without further ado, here’s the (sort of) live drawing of the names of the two winners of signed copies of B-Very Flat. Congratulations!!! I’ll be in touch with both of you very soon.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen's We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions.


  1. Thanks for remembering Emma Lathen, an unjustly neglected writer.

  2. Patti - I agree; the "Emma Lathen" writing duo of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart wrote some solid stories that don't get enough attention.

  3. I couldn't see the video but I want to congratulate the winners!

    I love the topic of winning because many murder victims are chosen because of their strong desire to keep going and taking their wants too far.

    Great post.

  4. Hi, Clarissa,
    Check the video again; I changed the settings so it can be seen.
    And absolutely, winning is an engaging topic for mystery, isn't it? I hadn't thought about it, but yes, many murder victims become victims because they take that desire too far..

  5. Ah, I refreshed and could see that Rayna and Ignasio won! Congrats, guy!

  6. Clarissa - Thanks for checking again. It's good to know there isn't some terrible technical problem. Yes, indeed, congratulations to Rayna and José Ignacio :-).

  7. Congratulations to the winners!
    Say, I thought I'd read every Agatha Christie out there - when was Manx Gold published? It sounds very interesting.

  8. Deniz - Manx Gold is a short story that appears in The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories. At least that's the collection in which I read the story; it may have appeared elsewhere. The story is interesting, but the story behind it, I think, is even more so.

  9. Thanks Margot! Darn - something else for the wishlist [g]

  10. I love the 'live' drawing. Congratulations to the winners. Another great topic. The desire to win does make people do things that they may not otherwise do.

    Thoughts in Progress

  11. Great post, as ever, and great examples. I too am glad you included "Emma Lathan", whose books I very much enjoyed reading.

    Karin Altvegen's Shadow is a good example of the dark side of winning - about someone who was desperate to win the Nobel prize for literature....to no good result!

    And best wishes for the holiday season, Margot!


  12. Mason - Thanks :-). And I thought it was kind of fun, and something interesting to try, to do a "live drawing." Glad you enjoyed it, too.

    You're right: sometimes that urge to win can, indeed, drive people to do things they would never think of doing otherwise. It can make for a compelling plot.

    Maxine - Thank you; and thanks for the good wishes :-). My best to you and your family, too! Emma Lathen's books don't always get the recognition they deserve. In fact, you and Patti have inspired me to put one of them on my In The Spotlight feature...

    I'm glad you mentioned Shadow. I confess, I haven't read that one yet; it's on Mount TBR. But yes, it certainly does deal with the question of how far a person will go to win. I must move that one up higher on the list...

  13. Margot thanks you very much. I should have told you yesterday that I couldn't open the video, but now I feel very fortunate. Congratulations to Rayna.

  14. José Ignacio - Oh, my pleasure :-). I appreciate it that you stopped back and were able to see the video this time. :-)

  15. The one day when I am just not able to stop by, and I miss something so important- isn't that how life always is!

    Thank you so much, Margot, for having the quiz, and the wonderful gift. If I could pick one draw to win, it would have been this one, because I have just not been able to get hold of your books in India, and have been looking for them for so long. Thank you, again.

    And that song is a particular favourite of my younger son.

  16. Rayna - Thanks for the kind words :-). And believe me, it's my pleasure.

    Please tell your son I like this song very much, too. I've always thought that Freddie Mercury (lead singer - born Farrokh Bulsara) was quite an under-rated talent as a guitarist. Did you know he spent much his childhood in India? He went to school in and near Mumbai, actually.

  17. It gets a little closer than that. Freddie Mercury finished his studies at St. Mary's School, which is where my uncle went. Given they are just a few years apart in age, I am pretty sure they went to school together. He was not yet Freddie Mercury, so I am pretty sure my uncle doesn't remember him at all.
    And many of Dick Francis' works deal with the lengths people go to win, don't they? In different ways.

    And I am so glad you mentioned Silver Blaze- if ever I completely understood why a murderer 'committed a murder', it is that one.

  18. Rayna - Oh, wow! I didn't know that about your uncle's probable connection to Freddie Mercury. How cool! Freddie Mercury was a lucky guy to know a member of your family.

    And I agree with you about Dick Francis. He really did explore that drive to win, and very effectively, I think. And about Silver Blaze? Absolutely! It's so clear and easy to see how and why that death happened...