You’ll Give in to Your Desire When the Stranger Comes Along*

Giving InOne 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Katherine Howell, M.J. McGrath, Paddy Richardson, Tarquin Hall

30 responses to “You’ll Give in to Your Desire When the Stranger Comes Along*

  1. Hello my deario! I’m settled and connected in the North – North West River, Labrador! I look forward to reading the M.J. McGrath’s books. The little library in this community is quite good and I’m zooming through their mysteries. I will be coming by here for recommendations for sure – just finished the last two Louise Penny books – my she’s good! So look forward to coming over for tea from time to time (virtual of course) and you’re warmly invited to my wee home on the beach.

    • Jan – Oh, so delighted!!! to hear from you, Jan! it’s good to know you’re settled in. And yes, Louise Penny is so talented isn’t she? I’m glad you’ve been catching up on her work. And I hope you’ll enjoy White Heat. It’s different to Penny’s novels, but it’s a powerful story. Wishing you much good as you pick up your life in the North.

  2. Katy McCoy

    These books look very interesting – but not all that easy to get in Sacramento CA.! The library does have the Hall books and luckily, the first one is even on CD and I’ve requested it. But the Richardson book is not even available on Amazon, except for one copy of a large print and very expensive trade paperback )and expensive on Amazon UK). White Heat is only available on ebooks (which I don’t like) but interestingly, the second book is available in ebook and book. The Howell book also is not at the library but Amazon shows ebooks available – but expensive. It’s nice to find about books that we wouldn’t ordinarily see – it’s a treasure hunt!

    • Katy – You’re quite right about how hard it can be to get certain books. Since you live in the U.S., let me if I may mention The Paperback Swap as a great resource for finding books. It’s a very nice online ‘swap meet’ place for all kinds of fiction and non-fiction. I’ve noticed that a lot of publishers are now making books available electronically and in a lot of ways that makes sense. It is easier to get them that way. But you’re not the only one who prefers paper books. As you say, it’s a treasure hunt and although it’s not always easy, it’s worth it!

  3. I’ve always admired The Hollow, one of Christie’s deeper books, and I think one we share a liking for: John Christow knows he shouldn’t be having an affair, knows he isn’t nice enough to Gerda. Gerda knows she annoys him by being so indecisive. Henrietta knows she shouldn’t be having an affair, but the power of love is too strong. All of them are caught out by forces they can’t resist, and tragedy results….

    • Moira – Yes, indeed. The Hollow is a great example of the way people who know better do still do things they shouldn’t – that are no good for them. And those characters come off as actually quite human and as you say, deep. The novel is very effective that way I think. I’m glad you brought it up. You’re right that we share a liking for it.

  4. We are often our own worst enemy. that’s for sure. As soon as I started reading your post, I felt guilty and put the lid on the container of dark chocolate almonds sitting by my keyboard. Not sure how to turn that into a story idea though.

    • Pat – Ohhh…I love dark chocolate almonds too! I’d find it hard-put to put the lid on them. And I know there must be a story there. We’ll have to think of one.

  5. What a great summary of what makes believable characters and a good story – which is people just being people ( easier said than done, of course!). great examples too and I’m looking forward to reading White Heat :)

    • Marianne – Thank you. Glad you enjoyed the post. And you’re right. It really is a case of people being…well, human. Which is what we all are. I hope that if you read White Heat you’ll enjoy it.

  6. I just finished White Heat this evening (not in time for Crime Book Club, alas), and the characters of Edie and Derek were so well done. I haven’t read the other books you mentioned in this post so I can’t comment on the rest– more for the TBR list!

  7. kathy d.

    Always check Abe Books line, which offers a lot of used, and sometimes new books. Both White Heat and Web of Deceit are available there, and for reasonable prices. Traces of Red is there, too, but at a whopping high price. A lot of books from Australia and New Zealand are hard to get, and cost a king-s ransom over here.
    I suggest poisoning the chocolate almonds for use in a story or causing someone to choke, while eating them.
    And who among us doesn’t do things that aren’t good for us — and may cause more dental visits or buying the next pants size?
    And what about murder? In all of crime fiction, the perpetrators do something that ultimately isn’t good for them.

    • Kathy – That’s quite true. Murder itself has a very negative effect on a person, and I don’t just mean the fact of being arrested. It’s worth a separate post in and of itself, but to put it succinctly, yes, murdering someone is very hard on the killer. You’re right too that almost all of us do things that aren’t exactly good for us. But…we still do them.
      Thanks too for the mention of ABE books. That’s a very good resource. Oh and about the dark chocolate almonds? Yes, they could be very useful in a murder story…

  8. I burst out laughing when I read Patricia Stoltey’s comment. :)

    Crime novels do depend a lot on ‘fatal attraction’, don’t they?

    • Neeru – They do indeed. In just about every crime novel, there is that sense of ‘fatal attraction.’ And I agree completely; Patricia’s comment was priceless. :-)

  9. Some great examples there Margot, and I’m especially Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri as I can definitely relate! Thanks (I think).

    • Sergio – Thanks – glad you enjoyed the post. And about diet? Well..I’m not immune either from the lure of delicious food even it it’s not exactly good for me *sigh.*

  10. Personally, I’d rather have the extra piece of cake than the doomed affair…but maybe that’s an age thing! ;)

    • FictionFan – LOL! Well, the effects of the extra piece of cake won’t last as long anyway, so long as one takes a long walk or goes to the gym or something… ;-)

  11. In a sense every novel is about vices, desires, addictions. I can’t think of one that is not about the weaknesses of human beings.

  12. A lot of books in the crime fiction area do deal with problems with alcohol, don’t they? And especially when policemen are involved. Which is understandable, given the context. I want to read the M. J. McGrath books and continue on the Katherine Howell books.

    • Tracy – You’ve got a well-taken point. The stress and pressure of being a police detective is incredibly difficult to deal with, so it’s not, when you think of it, surprising that we see a lot of stories where cops have their share of booze, even if they’re not what you would call addicted. I do hope you enjoy the McGrath novels – a great sense of setting! And I really enjoy Katherine Howell’s work. You don’t have to sell me very hard on keeping up with it.

  13. Margot – a great post on a topic integral to all crime fiction. And following up Patti’s comment, and as you point out with examples in your post, one might say all crime fiction – the good stuff anyway – is about the sleuth’s weaknesses, desires, etc., as well as the villain’s, and how the detective is able to transcend these and (usually) win in the end.

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. And you’re quite right. Good crime fiction is all about the way both sleuths and villains deal with those human urges, both the healthy ones and the unhealthy ones. It’s one of the reasons I love crime fiction; it is the story of what it is to be human.

  14. Col

    McGrath’s book sounds interesting I’ll put it on the ever-increasing wishlist!

  15. What a great title for a song. I should have guessed it was Billy Joel. I’ve just finished Hakan Nesser’s ‘The Strangler’s Honeymoon’ which is all about women being punished for giving into their desires. And excellent and creepy read I have to say.

    • Sarah – Yeah, that’s me. If there’s a really Billy Joel song for something, it’s probably rattling round my head somewhere… And I’m glad you enjoyed the Nesser. I think Nesser is very good at evoking that kind of creepy feeling; he uses solid but spare prose and builds the tension well.

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