One of the realities of human nature is that we sometimes do things we know aren’t good for us, either mentally, physically or both. And it’s got nothing to do with intelligence or awareness. If you’ve ever had just one more piece of cake, knowing it’s doing you no good, you know what I mean. If you’ve ever given in to the urge to pass that person ahead of you in traffic, knowing you’re taking a risk by speeding, you know what I mean. That aspect of human nature can add a very effective layer to a crime fiction novel for a few reasons. For one thing, it can give a character depth and add interest. And it can help to build suspense.
In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia for instance, we meet Richard Carey. He’s an archaeologist who’s worked for years with renowned archaeologist Eric Leidner. All’s gone well thus far, but this year, things are different. This year Leidner’s brought along his wife Louise. She’s beautiful and can be gracious and kind when she chooses. But it’s not long before the atmosphere among the members of the dig team begins to deteriorate. And a lot of people blame Louise for it. No-one can really explain exactly how and why, but it seems that she has a way of setting people against each other and of stirring up drama even though she herself is what people used to call ‘well bred.’ Then, one afternoon, Louise Leidner is bludgeoned during an afternoon rest in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area on his way back to London and is persuaded to take a side-trip and investigate. He soon learns that just about all of the members of the dig team had a reason to want to kill the victim, and that includes Richard Carey. Carey and Leidner have been best friends for some time but despite all of the reason that told him not to, Carey found himself falling in love with Leidner’s wife. He bitterly resented her for having that attraction for him, and himself for succumbing to it. So he becomes one of several people who could have committed the crime.
Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne faces a similar situation in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. She is having a relationship with married attorney Joe Fahey. She knows full well that the relationship isn’t a wise choice. Joe is a good man and kind to her, and he genuinely does care about her. But it’s clear that he’s not planning to leave his wife and Thorne knows that. She knows all of it intellectually, and she knows intellectually that there are other men out there – men who are not married. But she carries on with the relationship. She’s soon distracted from that personal trouble when she’s told about the case of Connor Bligh. Bligh has been in prison for years for the murder of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. He claims that he’s innocent, and there are little hints that he might be. If so, this would be a career-making story, so Thorne pursues it. And although her rational self tells her not to get too close to the story, she finds that difficult to do as she tries to uncover the truth about whether Connor Bligh is or is not a multiple murderer.
In M.J. McGrath’s White Heat, we are introduced to Edie Kiglatuk, a half-Inuktitut hunter and
‘…the best damned guide in the High Arctic.’
Her reputation is laid on the line one day when one of her clients Felix Wagner is shot during an expedition. At first, the death is put down to accident and there is a great deal of pressure from the council of Elders to leave matters alone. But then, Edie’s ex-stepson Joe commits suicide (or is it suicide?). There’s another death, too, and before she knows it, Edie is enmeshed in a case that’s a lot larger than one gunshot. Throughout it all, Edie struggles with alcohol. She gave up drinking after she and her ex-husband Sammy split. She knows the damage that alcohol has done to her people and to her life. She knows it’s not good for her. But that doesn’t mean she completely resists the temptation. In the same novel, we meet Derek Palliser, the senior of Ellesmere Island’s native police officers. He works with Edie to investigate the deaths, but in the meantime, he has an issue of his own. He had a passionate relationship with artist Misha Ludnova, but she has returned to Yellowknife and now won’t contact him. Much as Derek knows intellectually that that’s all for the better, he can’t let go of his feelings for her, nor can he resist giving in and following what he can of her life in Internet searches. You can’t really call him a stalker and he means Misha no harm. And even he knows that his feelings for Misha are not doing him any good. It doesn’t really stop him though.
Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit features paramedic Jane Koutofides. She and her paramedic partner Alex Churchill are called to the scene of a car accident and find the driver Marko Meixner unhurt but seemingly confused and disoriented. They take him to a nearby hospital for observation although at first he doesn’t want to go. Meixner maintains that he’s in danger and so will they be too if they spend any time with him. The two paramedics want him to have a psych evaluation but he leaves the hospital abruptly. When the very same man is found dead later in a fatal train accident, Koutofides and Churchill try to help police detectives Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare find out the truth about Meixner’s death. In the meantime, Koutofides has another serious issue going on in her life. She’s having a relationship with newsreader Laird Humphreys. Humphreys wants to keep the relationship quiet because, he says, he doesn’t want the media to get wind of it and splash their personal lives all over the tabloids. And for the most part that excuse works. But little by little Koutofides begins to wonder in the back of her mind what’s going on. Her intellectual self tells her that he isn’t a good choice for her. And yet at first she goes along with his wishes and makes mental excuses for him. Then one night she finds out an upsetting truth about Humphreys that she can’t ignore. It’s an interesting look at what happens when we’re confronted with our own unwillingness to give up what we know isn’t good for us.
And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. He’s a Delhi-based private investigator who has a stable marriage and children he loves. But even he isn’t immune to doing things he knows aren’t good for him. He has a weakness for good food, especially for food that isn’t healthy for him. His wife Rumpi does what she can to persuade, cajole and manipulate him into eating more wisely. And Puri is both intelligent and wise enough to know she’s right. That doesn’t stop him though…
And that’s the thing about human nature. Sometimes even when we know we shouldn’t do a search for that ex, or have that other piece of pie, or…or…, we do anyway. That theme runs through a lot of crime fiction, only a glimpse of which I’ve had space for here. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Stranger.