Most of us would probably say we wouldn’t commit a crime. Well, maybe exceeding the posted speed limit, but a “real” crime, like robbery? Most of us wouldn’t even consider it. That’s one reason that it can be hard for crime fiction authors to make us sympathise with characters who do commit crimes. When it’s done well, though, we can see why a character commits a crime; we might even think, “I might do the same thing.” It’s that ability to make readers identify with criminals that can make those fictional criminals all the more human.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, we meet Alec Legge. He’s a young scientist who’s been under a tremendous amount of pressure lately, so he is persuaded to take a rest in the country for a few months. He and his artist wife Peggy take a cottage in the village of Nassecomb where they’re soon drawn into preparations for a fête to be held at Nasse House. This particular fête is to include a Murder Hunt, a bit like a scavenger hunt. In this competition, entrants are given a synopsis, clues and suspects for an imaginary murder and challenged to name the murderer, weapon and motive. Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver has been commissioned to create the game, but she begins to suspect that more is going on at Nasse House than a Murder Hunt. She asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter and he agrees to visit Nasse House. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who is playing the part of the “victim,” is actually strangled. Poirot works with Inspector Bland and the police to find out who killed Marlene Tucker and why. In the process, he finds out that Alec Legge has been mixed up in espionage and that Marlene Tucker could have found out about it. As we learn more about Alec Legge, we can have some sympathy for him. He had certain mild political leanings and got interested in a particular group. When he decided they were going too far for him and asking too much of him, he wanted to break with the group. As he says, though,
“…once you get into these people’s clutches, it isn’t so easy to get out of them. And I want to get out of them…You feel you’re caught like a rat in a trap and there’s nothing you can do.”
Poirot understands Legge’s situation and gives him a suggestion that promises to be successful. As he and Legge discuss the matter, readers can see why Legge has acted as he did.
In Robert Pollock’s Loophole or How to Rob a Bank, London architect Stephen Booker is in deep financial trouble. Hard economic reality has led his firm to fire him. After weeks and weeks of looking unsuccessfully for a new job, Booker is desperate for money. He takes a night job as a hired car driver, hoping that he can continue to look for a job in his field during the day. Then he meets Mike Daniels, who’s a professional thief. Daniels and his team are planning a major heist of the City Savings Bank, and he needs the services of someone like Booker. At first, Booker can’t imagine falling in with a group of bank robbers, but he’s got a wife and two children whom he loves. He can’t stand the thought of not being able to provide for them. Besides, he’s afraid he’ll lose his wife’s respect if he doesn’t do something soon. So he lets Daniels convince him to work with the thieves and they put their robbery plans into action. We might not think that robbing a bank is the right thing to do, but in this novel, it’s easy to identify with Booker’s reasons for being willing to do just that.
C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye introduces us to Jack McGuane, who works for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. He and his wife Melissa are proud and loving adoptive parents to beautiful baby Angelina. One horrible day, the McGuanes are informed that Angelina’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, never legally waived his parental rights and now wants to exercise them. The McGuanes plan to fight this decision, but Moreland is the son of a powerful judge, so they don’t have much chance of being able to keep their daughter. The McGuanes meet with the Morelands and Judge Moreland tries persuasion, bribery and threats to get the couple to surrender Angelina. After that meeting, Jack McGuane resolves to do whatever he needs to do to keep his daughter. “Whatever he needs to do” leads McGuane to do things he would never have imagined. But throughout the novel, we can identify with him and it’s easy for the reader to think, “I’m not sure I wouldn’t do the same thing if this happened to me.”
And then there’s Sven Israelsson, whom we meet in Åsa Larsson’s The Black Path. He’s the former boss of SGAB, a Swedish chemical analysis company. That company is about to be taken over by an American company when Kallis Mining, another Swedish firm, buys enough stock to keep SGAB in Sweden. Israelsson feels quite a lot of loyalty to Kallis Mining for saving his company and his job so when the mining company finds positive results from a test drilling, he helps the company cover up that information. Israelsson’s coverup helps lead to illegal insider trading and makes a fortune for Kallis Mining and for Israelsson. Attorney Rebecka Martinsson finds out about this insider dealing as she works with police detectives Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke to solve the brutal murder of Inna Wattrang, head of information with Kallis Mining. Martinsson and the two detectives think that Inna Wattrang’s death may be connected to this coverup, so they interrogate down Sven Israelsson. As we learn more about him, we learn more of the truth behind the insider dealing, and although what he did is illegal, we can see why he did it. He turns out to be, as Sven-Erik Stålnacke puts it,
“A man with a conscience.”
So, in the end, is Ernest Fabià, who does freelance translation in Teresa Solana’s A Shortcut to Paradise. Illness and an accident have put Fabià out of work for quite a while and behind on the family finances. In fact, the family’s financial situation becomes so desperate, at least to Fabià, that he decides to take action. He makes the desperate decision to commit a robbery. He doesn’t plan to kill anyone, nor leave his victim financially ruined. All he wants is the nine thousand euros that he needs to keep his family in their home. One night, he goes to Up and Down, a trendy Barcelona club frequented by the very rich. He robs famous author Amadeu Cabestany, who’s gone to the club to drown his sorrows after losing a prestigious literary award to his bitter rival Marina Dolç. What neither man knows is that at the same time as the robbery is going on, Dolç is being murdered at the Ritz Hotel, where both she and Cabestany are staying. When Cabestany finally manages to get back to the hotel, he finds that the police believe he’s the killer, and in fact, they arrest him. The only person who can clear him is Fabià, who at first is unwilling to admit what he did. When he discovers that Cabestany’s in jail, though, Fabià finally decides to come forward. Rather than go directly to the police, though, he admits what he’s done to Barcelona private detective “Borja” Martínez, who’s been working on the case with his brother Edouard. Now the Martínez brothers have the evidence they need to clear Cabestany and convince the police to look elsewhere for the criminal.
What about you? Have you read novels where you can identify with someone who commits a crime? If you’re a writer, how do you balance the reality that something is a crime with the desire to make your characters appealing and encourage readers to identify with them?
*Note: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Old Man.