Saturday, May 7, 2011

It's Just a Fantasy*

Most of us have fantasies. They’re actually quite harmless most of the time, and some research even suggests that fantasies are part of healthy human development. Sometimes, though, fantasies, especially about people, can be dangerous, especially when the reality doesn’t turn out to be the same as the fantasy is. A look at crime fiction shows pretty clearly what can happen when someone becomes obsessed with a fantasy.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Crooked Man, Holmes asks Watson to take part in closing the case of the murder of Colonel James Barclay. Barclay’s wife Nancy is suspected of the murder; she and her husband had had a violent quarrel just before the murder, and no-one else seems to have a motive. But prior to that quarrel, the Barclays had seemed to be a happy couple with no resentment on either side. So it’s hard to see at first what led to Barclay’s death, and Holmes is convinced that Nancy Barclay is not guilty. Then, a friend and neighbour of Nancy Barclay’s gives Holmes an important clue. On the night of the murder, Nancy had a chance meeting with someone from her past. From that encounter, Nancy Barclay learned something about her husband that destroyed her fantasy of him. That past event led directly to Barclay’s death.

Fantasies play an interesting and important role in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow. In that novel, Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda are visiting Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell at their country home for the week-end. Christow’s former love, famous actress Veronica Cray, has found out that Christow often stays with the Angkatells, and has taken a nearby cottage so she can “accidentally on purpose” meet him again. On the Saturday night, she goes to the Angkatells’ home on a trumped-up excuse and whisks Christow away to see her home. Cray’s fantasy of Christow is that he still loves her, although he’s married to someone else, and that they should plan a future together. In fact, the next day, she asks Christow to come over to her cottage so they can talk about their future. Christow shocks her, though, and tells that he once loved her very much, but doesn’t any longer. In fact, he says,

“I’m a man fifteen years older. A man you don’t even know – and whom, I daresay, you wouldn’t like much if you did know.”

When Cray finally accepts that her “fantasy future” isn’t going to happen, she becomes furious and threatens Christow. Those threats come back to haunt her when Christow is shot later that day and she becomes a suspect.

In an interesting sub-plot of this novel, also staying at the Angkatell home that week-end is Edward Angkatell, a family cousin. He’s had fantasies for years of marrying famous sculptor Henrietta Savernake, and finds it hard to see her for who she really is. In the meantime, Midge Hardcastle who’s also a houseguest that week-end, has loved Edward Angkatell for a long time, but he hasn’t noticed it because in his fantasies, she’s remained “Little Midge,” a young teenager. It’s not until he sees both women clearly that he can find any happiness.

Fantasies also play an important role in Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down. That’s the story of Mix Cellini, a phobic young man whose job is repairing exercise equipment. That’s how he meets supermodel Merissa Nash. Mix’s real life is not particularly remarkable; in fact, he’s fairly neurotic. Once he’s met Merissa Nash, though, Cellini begins to have fantasies about her and becomes obsessed with those fantasies. In the meantime, Cellini also begins to have fantasies about his own life and sense of power and becomes obsessed with the life of notorious serial killer Dr. Richard Christie. As Cellini’s fantasies become more and more real to him, his life comes closer and closer to resembling Christie’s – with tragic results.

Shoemaker’s son Sigmundo Salvatrio, whom we meet in Pablo De Santis’ The Paris Enigma, has fantasies about what it would be like to be a famous detective, just like world-renowned Renato Craig. So he’s overjoyed when he is accepted into Craig’s Academy for Detectives. At first, Salvatrio maintains his fantasies about the “thrilling” life of a detective. Then, one of the other students is killed. And then, Renato Craig becomes seriously ill. His illness means that Craig can’t attend the Paris World’s Fair, at which he was to make a presentation along with other members of a world-famous society of detectives known as The Twelve. So he sends Salvatrio in his place. When Salvatrio arrives in Paris, he soon learns quite a lot about the real men behind the “fantasy detectives” he’d always read about. And then one of The Twelve is murdered. And then there’s another death. Salvatrio works with Viktor Arkazy, one of the founders of the group, to find out who the murderer is. In the process, he has to get rid of many of his fantasies about what it’s like to be a detective.

We also see the effect of fantasies in Teresa Solana’s A Shortcut to Paradise. In that novel, noted Catalán novelist Marina Dolç has just received a prestigious award: the Gold Apple Fiction Prize. She returns to her hotel room after the awards ceremony and dinner, only to be brutally murdered. Barcelona brothers Eduard and Josep “Borja” Martínez get involved in the investigation when Borja, who was at the dinner, makes up a story about having been hired to find the killer. The most likely suspect is Amadeu Cabestany, runner-up for the award, and a bitter rival of Dolç’s, for whom he has nothing but contempt. Cabestany’s literary agent is sure that he’s not guilty, and asks the Martínez brothers to find out who the killer really is. Before they know it, the brothers are looking for a murderer, despite not being “official.” In the end, they discover that Marina Dolç was murdered because of the killer’s fantasy life. In fact, at the end of the novel, readers get to see just how powerful that fantasy world is.

In my own B-Very Flat, university student and photographer Tony Ferguson has become smitten with gifted violinist Serena Brinkman. In his fantasies, she’s fallen for him too, and he begins to invent reasons for them to meet. Despite Serena’s honesty that she’s involved with someone else, and not interested in Tony, he persists in believing that they’re meant to be together. Then, on the night of an important musical competition, Serena suddenly dies of anaphylactic shock. At first, her death is thought to be a horrible accident. Soon enough, though, it’s proven that she was murdered and Ferguson finds himself a suspect in her death.

Fantasies are normal and probably even healthy. They can help us deal with stress, push us on to achieve and add colour to our lives. But like anything else they can get out of control. When that happens, the results can be disastrous. You could even say they make good servants, but very bad masters…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Sometimes a Fantasy.


  1. Hmm I guess I write my fantasies (or at least imaginings) down and turn them into novels!

  2. Very good post. I think it's true that many people commit murder because of disappointed fantasy. They imagined one thing and when that doesn't happen, it leads them to commit murder.
    You're also right that most people live in some sort of fantasy world. Even if only in dreams. I think we need to--who needs reality all the time?

  3. Al - That's a good way to put it :-). Writers can turn their fantasies into stories. It's certainly a productive, creative outlet for them, isn't it?

    Clarissa - Thank you :-). And I think you've got a really well-taken point about having a fantasy world. Most of us have fantasies and there really is nothing wrong with them at all. Taken too far, though, they can cause real trouble... But I think one can take just about anything too far.

  4. Where would writers be without fantasies?

    I must remember to put that Rendell on the list. But buy it right now - oh, no, not until my TBR is a bit smaller.

  5. Dorte - LOL! I know exactly what you mean about TBRs! Mine is frightening at the moment. And you're so right; where, indeed, would writers be without fantasies? They are the stuff of literature.