Sunday, December 19, 2010

When the Chips Are Down

How do you handle a crisis? Does it bring out the best in you? Do you keep your head or fall apart? Perhaps it depends on the kind of crisis you’re facing; it does for many people. An interesting comment exchange with Rayna at Coffee Rings Everywhere has got me to thinking about what happens to people when, as the saying goes, the chips are down. Sometimes, a tragedy actually ends up bringing out the best in people. We see that in real life and it’s evident in crime fiction. Sometimes, on the other hand, the worst sides of people’s natures come out. We see that in real life and crime fiction, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Sir Charles Cartwright hosts a cocktail party to which he’s invited some out-of-town guests, including Hercule Poirot, and some local guests. Shortly after the party begins, the Reverend Stephen Babbington, a beloved local clergyman, dies suddenly of what turns out to be poison. Poirot joins Cartwright, Mr. Satterthwaite (who was also at the party) and Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore (another guest) in trying to find out who killed Babbington. Then, as the investigation is going on, there’s another murder, similar in many ways to the first, at another house party. One of the guests who attended both parties is Oliver Manders, a self-absorbed, blasé young man who treats just about everyone contemptuously. And yet, as the mystery gets more and more disturbing, it’s Manders who steps up, as it were. The tragedies seem to bring out a better side of Manders as he tries to help in the investigation. Most importantly, he befriends Egg Lytton Gore, who’s been truly shaken by the murders and, by the end of the novel, is in desperate need of a friend.

We see the same kind of “stepping up” in the person of Frances Cloade, who appears in Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide). She’s the wife of attorney Jeremy Cloade. When Cloade’s wealthy older brother Gordon Cloade dies suddenly from a bomb blast, his brother Jeremy is in crisis. That’s mostly because Gordon Cloade had always taken care of his siblings and assured them they had nothing to worry about financially. Then, unexpectedly, Gordon Cloade married. Since he died without making a will, his family, who had depended on him, is left without any expectations. In Jeremy’s case, this is a serious problem, since he’d speculated with some of his clients’ money and relied on his brother to save the day. When Frances Cloade finds out what her husband’s done, she doesn’t fall apart. In fact, she shows her strength of character. She stays loyal to him and determines to find a way to get her husband out of the crisis he’s created for himself. Then, a stranger who just might be the long-lust husband of Gordon Cloade’s widow Rosaleen comes to town. When he suddenly dies, Hercule Poirot is called in to help find out who killed the strange visitor and why. Throughout the investigation, Frances Cloade shows both her courage and her loyalty.

And then there’s Judah Bendigo, whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead. He’s the brother of King Bendigo, an eccentric and very wealthy munitions manufacturer. King Bendigo has been receiving anonymous threats, so he summons Queen and his father Inspector Richard Queen to his private home on Bendigo Island to investigate. Bendigo shares the island with his wife Karla, his brother Judah, and another brother Abel. One night shortly after the Queens’ arrival, King Bendigo is in his hermetically-sealed private study when he’s shot. It’s a classic “impossible” crime, since there is no gun in the sealed-up study. Furthermore, the main suspect in the crime is the alcoholic Judah, who’s got good reason to resent his brother. The only problem is, Judah Bendigo was with Ellery Queen at the time of the crime, and could not have fired the shot. So the Queens investigate. Their investigation of the shooting leads them to the Bendigos’ home town of Wrightsville, a small New England town. Eventually, Queen finds that what happened on Bendigo Island has everything to do with King Bendigo’s past. As the novel evolves, Judah begins to show his character and at the end of the novel, it’s clear that he’s the strong one of the family.

Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel has an interesting example of how tragedy can bring out the best in people. In that novel, Elijah “Lije” Baley is a New York police detective in a future where humans have populated other planets. Spacers (humans who’ve populated other planets) and Earthmen (those who’ve remained on Earth) dislike and distrust each other. So when word gets out that prominent Spacer Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton has been murdered, the pressure is on for Baley to solve the murder as soon as possible in order to prevent a war between the Earthmen and the Spacers. To do that, he’s assigned a partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. Much to Baley’s chagrin, Olivaw is a positronic robot. Like most humans, Baley despises positronic robots. However, he has to get beyond that side of his nature and “step up” to work with Olivaw and solve Sarton’s murder if a war is to be averted.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. There are also people whose worst natures come out when tragedy strikes. For instance, in Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, Chief Inspector Alan Banks and his team investigate several unpleasant happenings in the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. A voyeur’s been making life miserable for several Eastvale women. Several break-ins have been frightening the local residents. And as if that’s not enough, one resident, Alice Matlock, is killed. At first, it looks as though her death is the result of a break-in gone wrong. But soon, Banks figures out that she was killed by someone else. As the novel goes on, we learn who the burglars are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. As we follow them, we see a fascinating, if disturbing, case of a character whose worst nature comes out over time. It’s clear that this particular person is actually taking advantage of the events in town for a personal agenda that gets more dangerous as time goes on. In the end, Banks even thinks of this character as evil.

In Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. As the team looks into the case, they find that it’s quite probably related to two more recent murders. So Scarlett works with her friend and co-worker Fern Larter and Larter’s team to connect the murders. Throughout the novel, we see Scarlett’s relationship with her lover, book dealer Marc Amos, undergo a crisis, just when Scarlett could most use his support. We then see how Marc Amos handles that crisis, as well as the local tragedies. At one point, Amos makes a crucial decision that shows his worst side; it’s fascinating to see how the stress on their relationship and the murder investigations affect him.

We see another case of the worst side of someone’s nature coming out in Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo. In that novel, Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham is fascinated when a long-dead body surfaces in a bog near her home in the Lake Distric. There’s evidence that the body just might be that of Fletcher Christian of Bounty fame. This body may have a connection to the belief Jane’s had that William Wordsworth might have left behind a poem that’s never been found. Since such a poem would be the find of a scholar’s career, she travels from London to her home village in the Lake District. As Jane begins to ask questions about the manuscript, it becomes clear that there are several people after it. Then, a series of unexplained deaths begin to occur, all of them connected with the search for the mythical manuscript. Soon, Jane finds herself desperately trying to steer clear of her rivals for the manuscript, who want her out of the way, and the police, who have reason to think she might be involved with the tragic occurrences. In the end, it turns out that someone in Jane’s life has allowed the worst part of human nature to come out. The discovery of the body in the bog and the search for the manuscript brought the killer too close to what you might call “the dark side,” and we see what happens when one gives into one’s worst impulses.

What do you think? Is tragedy more likely to bring out the best in people or the worst? If you're a writer, how do you handle this in your characters?


  1. That's a tough questions. As you've shown, it could go 50/50. I think it would depend a lot on the tragedy and how it relates to the person - directly or in-directly. In books both ways can make for very intriguing plots.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. I try to make each character react differently under each circumstance. And sometimes I don't know how they will react until they do react that way. Fascinating topic.

  3. Mason - I think you've got a very good point. It probably does depend on what the tragedy is and what the consequences of the tragedy are for the person. I think you're right, too, that it matters whether the person is directly or indirectly affected by the tragedy. Either way, it is intriguing...

    Clarissa - Thanks :-). I know what you mean about each character reacting a little differently. They are, after all, all different people. Why would they all react in the same way? I had to smile when I read what you wrote about not knowing how your characters will react until they do; that's happened to me, too...

  4. I am so glad you mentioned Elijah Baley- he is definitely one of my favourite detectives of all time. And the reason I like him is because he is a normal human being with all the failings of a normal human being, but when the chips are down, he never fails to rise to the challenge. And in book after book, he is one person who always manages to rise beyond prejudice (which is why he solves many of the mysteries).

    Who can really tell how they will react when the chips are down. Forget anyone else, I can't even be sure I know how I will react. But if I were a writer, I would, like Clarissa, have some characters who react in either way.

  5. I love the reactions of characters to tragedy and stress. I think it can make the killer cocky or anxious....leading to mistakes. I think it can spur a character into sleuthing (if the tragedy involves a loved one). It can also make people either more guarded with what they say, or less guarded. Fun to play with. :)

  6. Rayna - That's what I like about Lije Baley, too. He is completely human. He has faults and weaknesses and sometimes he's wrong. But he does, indeed, rise to the challenges of investigation. And you're right; he manages to get beyond his own prejudices to solve cases. I like it, too, that he's fully aware he's got faults.

    It's interesting that you'd say you're not sure how you'd react under extreme stress. I think most of us don't unless something happens to us. But in real life, people react in different ways, so I think books should reflect that. And you are a writer.

    Elizabeth - Oh, it is fun to explore the way people react to extreme stress. And because people react in such different ways, it can make for effective character development and some very powerful scenes. I hadn't thought about it that way, but you know, you're right: stress and tragedy can spur the sleuth on to investigate. It has all sorts of effects on killers, too, and that lets a writer create more character variety. So many possibilities...

  7. Throw any crisis at more than two people it's a for-sure thing they're both react differently. The fun part is when more than one person wants to be in charge of handling the crisis. Our poor characters! We do put them through the wringer (and sometimes, I mean that literally!)

  8. Elspeth - LOL! Yes we do; does that make us masochists? I do hope not; I've always thought of myself as a nice person. Really...

    And you're right, of course; no two people react to a crisis in the same way, and it is fascinating to see how they work out who's going to do what.

  9. Like Mason, I think it can go both ways. We don´t really know what is inside people until they are tested by a crisis or two. And in a good story I think the trick is to give your readers both kinds: those who crumble or turn nasty, and those who grow no matter what they go through. (easier said than done - I know).

  10. Dorte - Oh, well put. We never do know what is inside a person until there is some sort of personal test. It is easier said than done, but you're quite right, I think. Readers want characters who crumble and characters who grow. After all, there are people who react in both ways.