Today would have been U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s 203rd birthday. There’ve been a lot of stories told about Lincoln, some of them true and some of them not. And that’s got me to thinking about how myths about people get passed along. When someone becomes famous or notorious, myths start building up about that person until the myths sometimes matter more than the person does. What’s more, the person behind the myths is almost never the person portrayed in them. But that usually makes the real person more interesting. Just a quick look at crime fiction should be plenty to show you want I mean.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot for instance is fully aware of his near-mythical status. In fact if truth be told he likes having that much fame. In Murder on the Orient Express for instance, he is at dinner before boarding the famous Orient Express for its three-day journey across Europe. While he’s eating, he’s approached by an old friend M. Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Bouc says,
‘‘But you, you are at the top of the tree nowadays, mon vieux!’
‘Some little success I have had, perhaps.’ Hercule Poirot tried to look modest but failed signally.’
The myths about Poirot’s skill at solving crime get new fodder in this story when on the second night of the journey, American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. Bouc asks Poirot to investigate and he agrees. Readers of Christie’s Appointment With Death will notice a reference to the way Poirot’s reputation is affected by what happens in this story. The reality is though that Poirot as a person is more interesting than his reputation. That’s why a lot of people like the fact that sometimes Christie’s stories are narrated by Captain Arthur Hastings, who shows us what the real Poirot is like, warts and all as the saying goes.
Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe has also achieved near-mythical status. And some of the myths about him (e.g. that he doesn’t leave his brownstone if he can avoid it) are true. Most of Wolfe’s clients don’t really see ‘the real Wolfe’ though. They come to the brownstone, they tell him about their cases and he and his team solve those cases. Other than the fact that he’s irritable and arrogant, lots of people don’t know how much of what they’ve heard is myth and how much is true. But Archie Goodwin knows. And because the Nero Wolfe stories are told from his perspective, we get to see the Nero Wolfe behind the myths. For instance in Too Many Cooks, Wolfe is reluctantly persuaded to go to the very upmarket Kanawha Spa in West Virginia. He’s been invited to address a meeting of Les Quinze Maîtres, the fifteen greatest chefs in the world and as fans of Nero Wolfe will know, there isn’t very much that can induce Wolfe to travel. But this does. Not long after Wolfe and Goodwin arrive, one of the master chefs Phillip Laszio is stabbed. Wolfe refuses to investigate at first but is finally persuaded. In this novel we see some of the man behind the myth. For instance, Wolfe doesn’t refuse to travel out of arrogance; he’s afraid of (or shall we say very uncomfortable with) being on things that move. He’s vulnerable in other ways too and that look ‘behind the myth’ makes Wolfe more interesting.
But of course, having myths passed around about you – even if they’re in praise – isn’t always a good thing. For instance in Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear, Sydney detective Ella Marconi has to deal with the jealousy that myth-building can cause. She’s gotten quite a good reputation for solving difficult cases and word has gotten around. In this novel she and her team are working on the murder of Paul Fowler, who was shot while tossing a football around with a few friends. Another detective John Gerard has been assigned to the team and it turns out that he’s both jealous and malicious. He often refers to Marconi as ‘the great Marconi’ or ‘the great Ella Marconi’ and it’s obviously done spitefully. At first she tries to make clear that she’s no hero and no better at the job than anyone else is. But Gerard keeps up his campaign. In the end, Marconi has almost as much trouble dealing with Gerard’s jealousy and blunders as she does solving the case. Fans of Ella Marconi will know that the real person behind the ‘office myths’ is wrong sometimes, makes mistakes and is certainly not the ‘larger-than-life’ character that the myths would have one believe. But those myths get in the way of everyone seeing that.
We also see a case of myths getting in the way in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Jodie Evans Garrow has what looks like a good life – successful husband, enduring marriage, two healthy children. But then her daughter Hannah gets in an accident. As fate would have it, Hannah is taken to the same hospital where years before, Jodie gave birth to another child Ella Mary. When Jodie goes to visit Hannah, a nurse at the hospital remembers her and asks about the child. Jodie says she was given up for adoption. But when the overzealous nurse looks into the matter, she finds that there are no adoption records to support Jodie’s story. When the story begins to get around, all sorts of questions arise: What happened to the baby? Why aren’t there any records? Did Jodie have something to do with the baby’s disappearance? The more these questions are asked, the more of a pariah Jodie becomes. People begin to believe all kinds of myths about her and matters aren’t helped by the fact that even Jodie’s own mother contributes to the myth-building. In the end, we learn the truth about Jodie’s life and about Ella Mary and the reality of Jodie’s life is much more interesting and more human than the myths about her are.
In Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are, we are introduced to regional TV presenter Frank Allcroft. He’s happily married and has a good relationship with his eight-year-old daughter Mo. But he’s reached a crossroads in his life. At the same time as he’s trying to figure out his own direction, he’s also coping with the death of his legendary mentor Phil Smedway, who was killed while out jogging. Smedway was also Allcroft’s predecessor at the TV station so his loss has hit Allcroft hard. Everyone thinks the death was a tragic hit-and-run accident. But Allcroft isn’t so sure. He pays a visit to the scene of the accident and discovers that the road there is straight and even. Even an impaired driver should have been able to see Smedway in time to avoid him, and there’s plenty of space on that part of the road for a car to move out of the way. The more Allcroft thinks about it the more he wants to know why Smedway died. As he starts to ask questions, he learns more and more about his mentor, about the myths that had been built up and about the reality behind them. By the end of the novel Smedway becomes a much more interesting person in real life than the myths about him are. Among other things this novel also explores the way myths affect the person behind them.
People who become almost mythological are still people. And if you look behind the legends and myths and stories, you often find that the reality is much more interesting than the myths are.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Heaven on Their Minds.