Some people find it very hard to take advice and listen to others. If you’ve ever tried to give advice or important information to someone who simply wouldn’t listen to you, you know what I mean. Sometimes it’s because those people are so insecure that learning from others is just too hard. Other times it’s arrogance or real shame about admitting one’s making a mistake. There are other factors, too, of course. Whatever the cause, people who won’t “step outside themselves” and learn from others tend to keep making the same mistakes over and over and it can sometimes lead to disaster. It’s clear enough in real life, and there are plenty of examples in crime fiction.
For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Sherlock Holmes tries to give advice to Violet Hunter, who’s come to see him about a job offer she’s had. She’s been offered a position as governess in the home of Jephro Rucastle. The terms of the position are lucrative, but some of Rucastle’s requests are a little odd. Holmes advises his client not to take the job and she herself has some misgivings about it. But when Rucastle makes the offer financially even more attractive, she can’t resist. So against Holmes’ advice, Hunter takes the job. It’s not long before she realises she’s made a terrible mistake. Her unwillingness to listen to Holmes has led her into an unpleasant home, some dark secrets, and real danger.
In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot takes a tour of Egypt and a cruise of the Nile. In his travels, he meets Jacqueline “Jackie” de Bellefort, whose former fiancé Simon Doyle has jilted her and married beautiful and wealthy Linnet Doyle. To complicate matters, Linnet Doyle was Jackie’s best friend before she met and fell in love with Simon. As a way of getting even with Simon and Linnet, Jackie’s been following them everywhere on their honeymoon travels, just to make them feel uncomfortable. Poirot tries to tell Jackie to put the past behind her and get on with her life. He advises her to leave the couple alone, return home and pick up her pieces, so to speak. Jackie doesn’t listen, though, and goes along on the cruise of the Nile. Her decision turns disastrous when Linnet Doyle is shot one night and Jackie becomes the prime suspect. Even after it’s proven that she couldn’t possibly have shot the victim, she gets swept up in the investigation. Her choice not to listen to Poirot leads to all sorts of tragedy.
In Christie’s Third Girl, Ariadne Oliver works with Poirot to find out the truth about Norma Restarick. Norma’s a young woman who visits Poirot because she “may have committed a murder.” She doesn’t give her name, though, and leaves after telling Poirot that he’s too old to be of help. Poirot tells the story to Oliver, who, as it turns out, has met Norma Restarick. Between the two, they figure out who she is and begin to ask questions about her and her background to try to find out whether she’s committed a murder and if so, who the victim is. Then, Norma disappears. As the case goes on, Poirot warns Oliver to be careful and advises her not to do anything too reckless. Oliver doesn’t listen to him though and one day, she decides to follow Norma’s boyfriend David Baker to see if she can get some answers. That decision leads Oliver straight into danger, and she’s attacked. It’s only after that attack that Oliver really understands how desperate someone is to keep anyone from finding out the truth.
In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Bore, we meet John Heppel, a successful screenwriter. There’s a lot of excitement in the Scottish village of Lochdubh when Heppel offers a series of writing classes to the residents. A number of aspiring writers show up for the first class, hoping that this will be their “ticket” to writing fame. To everyone’s dismay and anger, Heppel humiliates his students and denigrates their writing. Lochdubh constable Hamish Macbeth hears all about the disastrous class and decides to pay Heppel a visit. He advises Heppel to be more supportive of the students, and more considerate of their feelings. Heppel refuses to listen, complacent in his own sense of expertise. The second class is no better than the first, and now, there’s real anger against Heppel. Then one day, Heppel is murdered. Macbeth suspects his death may be related to the way Heppel’s treated the members of his class, so although he has sympathy for the villagers in the class, he begins to look into the case and find out who hated Heppel enough to want to kill him.
Sometimes, sleuths refuse to listen to wise advice, too. That’s the case with Agent Yvette Nichol, whom we meet in Louise Penny’s Still Life (I know, I’ve been mentioning this one a lot lately. I’ve re-read it recently and it’s fresh in my mind…). She’s recently been named to the Sûreté du Québec, and is proud of her accomplishment and eager to prove herself. She’s even more proud and excited when she’s assigned to work with Inspector Armand Gamache on her first murder investigation, the killing of beloved retired schoolteacher Jane Neal. Nichol is smart and able to make deductions, but she has an awful lot to learn and soon proves herself to be both smug and arrogant. What’s worse, when she becomes aware that she’s not making a good impression, she has no idea why and begins to blame others, especially Gamache. For his part, Gamache tries to help her, at least at first. He encourages her to listen carefully, to learn and to take lessons from those more experienced. When Gamache’s advice fails to hit its mark, things worsen and in the end, Yvette Nichol pays for her refusal to reflect and to really listen to the advice she is given. It’s sad, too, because she never really does learn a lesson and never comes to understand what happened to her.
Shona Maclean’s Alexander Seaton doesn’t listen to advice very well either, at least at first. He’s a disgraced former candidate for the ministry who’s now undermaster of the local grammar school in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. After the personal situation that led to his disgrace (this is detailed in The Redemption of Alexander Seaton), Seaton is consumed with guilt and self-loathing. He’s convinced he has no friends, and there are certainly people in the town who won’t associate with him. But he’s not completely alone. One of the few people in town who see beyond the superficially hard Seaton is the local doctor James Jaffray. Jaffray tries to help Seaton see that despite his mistakes and personal problems, he has friends and wallowing in self-pity isn’t helping him at all. At first, Seaton doesn’t believe Jaffray, although he does respect the man. But in The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, when the body of apothecary’s apprentice Patrick Davidson is found in Seaton’s classroom, he finds himself drawn into the lives of others against his will. Seaton’s friend Charles Thom is charged with the crime, and begs Seaton to clear his name. Seaton agrees and before he knows it, he is involved in the investigation. In the end, he discovers who killed Patrick Davidson and why. He also learns to forgive himself and re-establish relationships with others.
And then there’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe, the “star” of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma. Ramotswe is a wise and strong character, but she hasn’t always been that way. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, we learn about her backstory. As a young woman, she meets Note Makoti, a skilled jazz musician, and promptly falls in love. She’s eager to be married and gets some of her sense of self-worth from the idea of being a wife. Her father Obed Ramotswe warns her about Makoti and advises her not to marry him. Mma. Ramotswe won’t listen, though, and goes off with Makoti. Too late, she finds out that her father was right. Makoti is abusive, alcoholic and adulterous. In the end, Mma. Ramotswe has to face up to her refusal to listen to her father, swallow her pride and return home. That decision proves to be a wise one, as it gives her the freedom and self-confidence that she needs to open her own detective agency after her father’s death.
It’s sometimes not easy to take advice from others, and it’s not always easy to admit that we need guidance. But the consequences of not paying attention to advice can be tragic. What do you think? How do you react when you’re given advice? Which stories have you enjoyed that feature this kind of character? If you’re a writer, do you write characters who simply don’t listen to others?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb.