Everyone needs a certain amount of ability to get on with others. In fact research suggests that not being able to function as part of a group is the most important reason for which people are fired, not hired or not promoted. And I’m sure that any crime fiction fan can tell you that the genre is full of characters (quite often sleuths) who run into trouble because they don’t get on well with other people. At the same time though there’s something to be said for thinking for oneself and not going along with what others say and do in the hope it’ll be the politically savvy choice. If you’ve ever had a sycophantic colleague at work> you know exactly what I mean. Sycophants can be very dangerous because they’ll say and do anything if it’ll get them some kind of advantage. And even those who aren’t per se dangerous can be awfully annoying. Of course that can also make these characters interesting sources of tension in a novel or series…
For instance in Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec we meet Agent Yvette Nichol. In Still Life she is new to the agency and wants more than anything else to establish herself and “belong.” She is excited to be assigned to work with Gamache because of his outstanding reputation and at first she toadies to Gamache. But Nichol is arrogant and unwilling to really learn. So she has more than one run-in with her boss. Nichol’s tendency to do whatever it takes to get ahead becomes a problem for Gamache in more ways than one as the series continues.
Carl Hiassen’s Skinny Dip features sycophant Chaz Perrone. He’s got a degree that he hasn’t really earned in marine biology and is soon hired by Florida agribusiness magnate Samuel Johnson “Red” Hammernut. Perrone’s role is to give credibility to Hammernut’s claims that his commercial farm does not cause pollution in the protected Everglades. Perrone discovers a way to alter water samples so they look innocent and he’s content to flout the law that way because it helps him stay in Hammernut’s good graces. And it earns him a generous income. Then Perrone’s wife Joey deduces that something is going on and confronts him. He tells her what she wants to hear (as I “said,” he’s a sycophant) but now he’s afraid she’ll ruin his comfortable setup. So he takes her on a cruise, ostensibly to celebrate their anniversary, and pushes her overboard. Perrone thinks he’s solved his problem but Joey doesn’t drown. Instead she is rescued by former cop Mick Stranahan and together the two of them hatch a scheme to get back at Perrone and find out why he tried to kill her.
In H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case we get a look at how Ganesh Ghote began his career with the Bombay police. Ghote has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector when he’s sent by his superior to the mountain town of Mahableshwar where Englishman Robert Dawkins’ wife Iris recently committed suicide. Dawkins wants to know what would have driven his wife to such a drastic act and Ghote is assigned the task of finding out. One of his first stops is the Mahableshwar police station where he discovers to his dismay that the local cop in charge is Pathan Barrani, his old nemesis from the Nasik Police Training School. Barrani is a sycophant and a bully and he has absolutely no desire to have Ghote on his patch. But he tells Ghote that he already investigated the case and it was a definite suicide. Ghote soon finds though that this explanation doesn’t quite fit. There are too many little details that aren’t consistent with a verdict of suicide. So Ghote keeps digging and asking questions. In the end, and in spite of Barrani’s sycophantic insistence that the “official” explanation is correct, he finds out the truth about Iris Dawkins’ death.
Martin Edwards’ sleuth DCI Hannah Scarlett knows all too well what it’s like to have to deal with a sycophant. Her boss ACC Lauren Self is politically savvy enough to know whom to kiss up to as the saying goes and she does so shamelessly. Her rationalisation is that she wants financial and other support for the Cumbria Constabulary, so she has to “make nice” with the “higher-ups” and with wealthy supporters. But from Scarlett’s perspective (and she’s not the only one with this opinion) Lauren Self has a very appropriate surname…
And then there’s local reporter Meredith Morgenstern, whom we meet in Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier. Morgenstern lives and works in the small British Columbia town of Trafalgar but she’s eager for the big break that will give her national attention. She gets what she thinks is her chance when wealthy local developer Reginald Montgomery is murdered. Montgomery co-owned Grizzly Resort, which is planned as an upmarket tourist attraction. Some locals support the plan because it will bring in needed revenue. Others violently oppose it on environmental grounds. So Montgomery’s death is big news for several reasons. In fact it’s so big that L.A. television journalist Rich Ashcroft is sent to Trafalgar to cover the story. He has nothing but contempt for the locals, including Morgenstern, but she is so eager to impress Ashcroft and “make” her career that she essentially does whatever he wants. Her behaviour ends up putting the investigation in jeopardy and she betrays her former friend Constable Moonlight “Molly” Smith in the process.
And of course no discussion of crime-fictional sycophants would be complete without mentioning Donna Leon’s Vice Questore Giuseppe Patta. He is exclusively self-motivated and will say and do anything to further his career. He toadies not just to his superiors but to anyone who’s wealthy and powerful. He frequently opposes the kind of thorough investigation that Leon’s sleuth Commissario Guido Brunetti wants to conduct, particularly if the object of Brunetti’s investigation is anyone with enough clout to cause trouble. Patta is not completely inept or stupid but he is so self-serving that Brunetti knows that the only way to get Patta to approve anything is to show him how it will benefit him. Of course fans of Leon’s series know that that’s exactly how Brunetti and Patta’s assistant Elettra Zorzi manipulate Patta.
Sycophants can be annoying and even dangerous so the wise person knows who they are and knows them for what they are. But they do make for interesting characters and conflict in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lional Bart’s I’d Do Anything.