I Promise I’ll Believe*

BeliefsOne of the many things that crime writers do (besides, of course, telling good stories) is explore human nature and human psychology. One of the many really interesting phenomena of psychology is that sometimes, people want to believe something so badly that they find it well-nigh impossible to let go of that belief. That desperate need to believe is part of why charlatans and quacks are sometimes so successful. Of course that’s certainly not the only instance where we see how far people will go when they need to believe something. Just a few examples from crime fiction should show you what I mean. 

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt for an upcoming fête that will be held on the grounds of Nasse House. Mrs. Oliver may be scatty about some things, but as Hercule Poirot puts it, she is also,


‘a very shrewd judge of character.’


So when she begins to suspect that something sinister may be going on at Nasse House, Poirot pays attention. When Mrs. Oliver asks him to come and investigate for himself, he agrees. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was playing the Victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed.  Poirot works with Inspector Bland and his team to find out who committed the murder and why. As he learns, there is one person who knows quite a lot about what happened, but that person wants desperately to believe in the culprit, and can’t admit what really happened. Even in the end, that person would rather blame someone else.

In one of the plot threads of Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello is facing a family problem. His aunt Zia Anita has been behaving oddly lately. For one thing, she’s taken what Vianello thinks is an unhealthy interest in astrology. What’s more, she’s been withdrawing money from the family business and giving it to Stefano Gorini, a self-styled doctor with a dubious background. The money is hers to do with as she wishes, so it’s not a question of theft. Still, Vianello is concerned. So he asks his boss Commissario Guido Brunetti to help him look into the matter. Brunetti agrees and he starts to do a little investigation. It turns out that Gorini has been in trouble with the law before for practising medicine without a license. Now he’s set himself up again and people are coming to him for cures that he can’t deliver. As Brunetti looks deeper into the matter, he finds that there are people who so need to believe in Gorini that they will not accept his being a charlatan. In one case, that desperate need to believe has a tragic result. 

There’s a different sort of need to believe in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have a fifteen-year marriage and a six-year-old son Axel. On the surface of it, everything is fine in their lives, but that’s mostly because Eva has a desperate need to believe in the ‘white picket fence’ kind of life. It’s what she has always wanted and she badly needs to believe that’s what she has. Then she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. His betrayal of her is devastating for Eva, and her reaction to it sets in motion a terrible chain of events. As the novel unfolds, we see that their marriage wasn’t the happy bond that Eva needed to believe that it was. In several places in the story, the reader can’t help but think, ‘If you’d only looked at things honestly, this all could have been avoided.’ It’s a fascinating look at the need to believe things. 

So is Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. In that novel, Delhi private detective Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri learns on news broadcasts that a former client Dr. Suresh Jha has been murdered. Since Jha was a client, Puri has more than a passing interest in the case and begins to ask questions about it. The circumstances of the death are to say the least unusual. Jha had joined other members of the Rajpath Laughing Club one morning for their laughing exercises. All of a sudden, so say witnesses, the goddess Kali appeared and stabbed Jha. The event makes for sensational headlines, and many people really believe that Kali appeared. They desperately feel the need to believe in that spiritual connection. What’s interesting is that Jha was the founder and head of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (D.I.R.E.). His mission was to debunk the myths that allow charlatans to take advantage of people’s need to believe. He called those people ‘the godmen,’ and did everything he could to expose them. So it’s very possible that one of Delhi’s spiritual leaders had something to do with Jha’s death. Puri and his team investigate a few of them as well as several other suspects. As they get to the truth about what happened to Jha, we see how powerful a force people’s need to believe really is. 

We see that in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red too. Rebecca Thorne is a Wellington television journalist who’s looking for the story that will make her career. She thinks she may have found that story in the case of Connor Bligh. Bligh’s been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home when the murders were committed. Now there are little hints that Bligh may be innocent. And of course, he’s always maintained he wasn’t guilty. If he’s right, then this could be a career-making story and Thorne pursues it. As she does, she gets closer to the story than is really wise. And the questions come up: is Bligh innocent, or is that just something some people really need to believe?  Is he guilty, or do certain people truly feel the need to believe he’s guilty, so they won’t have to look elsewhere? 

There are a lot of other novels of course that explore how desperately people need to believe things. For instance, I haven’t even touched on the novels where a character (sometimes the sleuth) believes so strongly in a suspect’s innocence that s/he investigates the case just for that reason. It’s another example of how our need to believe moves us.

ps. A special thanks to FictionFan, whose terrific review of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Coming of the Fairies inspired this post. If you haven’t sampled FictionFan’s excellent review blog, you’re in for a treat!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sheryl Crow’s Strong Enough


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Karin Alvtegen, Paddy Richardson, Tarquin Hall

17 responses to “I Promise I’ll Believe*

  1. Wow, Margot. As always, you’ve opened up a wide field here. I can think of scads of classic mysteries, many from the Golden Age, in which people were wrapped up in odd systems of belief. Let me name just four of them which are among my favorites:

    In “The Black Camel,” by Earl Derr Biggers, a young actress believes desperately in the powers and predictions of a fortune teller named Tarneverro. She confides a secret to him – and that secret leads her to become a murder victim. (It’s a Charlie Chan book, by the way, which I’ll be reviewing the week after next on my site.)

    In Dorothy Bowers’s marvelous “Fear and Miss Betony,” the titular character is trying to help a former student, now a school principal, who is trying to solve what may have been a poisoning. Somehow, it is all connected to a psychic and crystal reader who calls himself The Great Ambrosio, who has a devoted following in the town and who seems to know a great deal about Miss Betony.

    Elizabeth Daly’s “Any Shape or Form” begins when her sleuth, Henry Gamadge, is invited to the country estate of an old friend, Johnny Redfield, to meet Redfield’s aunt, an elderly woman who appears to have become some kind of sun worshipper. She asks to be called by her “astral” name – Vega. She very soon is murdered, practically in front of Gamadge, and her “sun worshipper” pose proves to be critical to the solution.

    And then there is Hake Talbot’s “Rim of the Pit,” a stunning “impossible crime” mystery filled with seances, spiritualism and apparently murder by evil spirits. It’s a mystery, not a fantasy or horror story, and those beliefs in evil spirits are key to understanding what really happened. The book begins, by the way, with one of my favorite opening lines: “I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.” It’s one of my favorites.

    Apologies for going on so long, but I think all these are books in which unusual belief systems – and the need for some people to believe in them – prove to be essential to the stories.

    • Les – No need for apologies. I really am happy to have those suggestions from you. You’re such an expert in classic and GA novels that I always learn from your ideas. And you’re quite right about the way this theme of needing to believe something pervades crime fiction. It certainly is apparent in GA and classic crime fiction and also in more modern crime fiction. It made it difficult actually for me to decide which examples to use…

  2. One of the best Fr Brown stories, The Eye of Apollo, concerns a weird cult religion and a prophet Kalon. It’s obvious to us as well as Fr Brown that Kalon is a charlatan, but the heiress Pauline believes very strongly… I think the story is very clever and creepy.

  3. Thanks for the mention, Margot! :)

    Sticking with the Conan Doyle theme, I always feel rather sorry for Mary Sutherland in ‘A Case of Identity’ when Holmes decides not to tell her how she has been fooled into believing Hosmer Angel loves her. “If I tell her she will not believe me. You may remember the old Persian saying, ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.’ ” Not one of Holmes’ finest hours!

    • FictionFan – No, indeed it’s not. And you’ve actually chosen a story that I almost mentioned here. I didn’t for reasons of space, so I’m very glad you did. Interesting how Holmes has those moments, but at the same time in other stores (e.g. A Scandal in Bohemia and The Solitary Cyclist among others, he takes a different attitude. Hmmm…..
      And it’s my great pleasure to mention your excellent blog.

  4. Clarissa Draper

    Shirley Wells has a character that is a private detective and often he continues a case even when things are not going so well because he believes in a character’s innocence. I’ve heard of the laughing club in India. It’s a real thing.

    • Clarissa – Oh, that’s interesting! I didn’t know it was real. And thanks for reminding me of Shirley Wells’ work. I need to get more familiar with it than I have been so far.

  5. Sadly, I have nothing to add for once regarding examples. I enjoyed reading this article as usual. I just hope to one day be this well read! Some of the books I’ve not heard of while there are others that I have in passing. Will look these up, thanks Margot!

  6. Ms. Kinberg, thanks for reminding me of Tarquin Hall and his work. I really must get around to reading some of his novels set in Delhi. The Laughing Club is for real. I think we have a few in Mumbai too. People of all ages get together early morning and laugh out loud, as a form of beating stress and other maladies. Forced laughter doesn’t come easily.

    • Prashant – That’s really interesting! I didn’t know that the Laughing Clubs are real. And I do recommend the Tarquin Hall series. The stories are well-written and I do love the charaacters and the sense of life in Delhi.

  7. Believing in an accused person’s innocence can send a sleuth on a wild goose chase until she finally faces the truth . And a policeman who single-mindedly believe in a man’s guilt has sent many innocent men to prison. I suspect the many true-life cases are why the fictional treatments are so compelling.

  8. Col

    Ditto Keishon – no examples spring to mind. I might need to look up the Hall books set in India, I can’t recall reading anything from there.

  9. I know I’ve mentioned her before, but Miss Climpson in Strong Poison as the fake medium always makes me laugh.

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