There’s a certain phenomenon that seems to go along with having influence and power, or at least with having wealth. It’s what I call the culture of entitlement. Of course, there are plenty of self-entitled people who aren’t extremely wealthy or powerful. Teachers and university-level educators have rafts of stories about students and their parents who want ‘an exception made in my (or my child’s) case.’ And I’m quite certain that police officers in just about every country can give you long lists of examples of people they stopped who didn’t see why they should have to drive safely. But it often seems that the culture of entitlement is especially associated with those who have money, power or both. We can all think of lots of examples from real life. And perhaps that’s a bit of why people are often especially glad when the rich and powerful are held accountable for what they do (e.g. ‘See? You have to live by the rules just like the rest of us do!’). There are plenty of cases of the culture of entitlement in crime fiction too. Here are a very few examples.
In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), French moneylender Madame Giselle is en route from Paris to London when she suddenly dies. At first it looks as though she had heart failure resulting from an allergic reaction to a wasp sting. But it’s soon shown that she was poisoned. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on that flight, so Hercule Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp concentrate on those people. As it turns out, several of them could have had a very good motive for the murder. One of the suspects is Cecily Horbury, a former chorus dancer who married Lord Stephen Horbury and is therefore now a member of the ‘upper class.’ When she and the rest of the passengers are informed that they’ll have to wait at the airport after landing so that they can be interviewed, she takes a very self-entitled attitude. She’s incensed at being expected to wait like everyone else, and even asks the all too common question,
‘Don’t you know who I am?’
Lady Horbury’s self-entitlement isn’t the reason for the murder, but it reflects that view clearly. Christie addresses this in other stories too (I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs, Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express).
We also see the culture of entitlement in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. Crown Minister Sir Paul Berowne and a local tramp Harry Mack are murdered one night in a church. Given his position, Berowne’s murder is likely to attract a lot of media attention, so a special team is dispatched to investigate the case. The team consists of Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin. One of the first places they look for motive and suspects is of course within the Berowne family. There’s plenty of history and several secrets to be found there too. But the team doesn’t unearth them very easily. This is a wealthy and powerful family, and several members of it see no reason why they should have to co-operate with a police investigation the way everyone else does. That entitlement is also reflected in the high-handed way they treat the investigation team. The family attitude doesn’t stop the team finding out the truth, though…
In Peter Corris’ The Dying Trade, insurance investigator-turned-PI Cliff Hardy takes a case for wealthy and powerful Bryn Gutteridge. He and his twin sister Susan are the children of a wealthy business tycoon, so they’ve been insulated more or less from having to wait their turns like everyone else, so to speak. And that self-entitlement comes through from the very beginning, when Gutteridge first calls Hardy. Instead of asking Hardy to meet to discuss the case, Gutteridge summons him. Needless to say, that’s not exactly to Hardy’s taste, but a fee is a fee. So Hardy goes to the Gutteridge home to learn more about the case. Gutteridge tells him that his sister is being harassed and threatened, and he wants it stopped. Hardy doesn’t care much for his client, but he goes to work. Throughout this novel, we see how the culture of self-entitlement has impacted Bryn and Susan Gutteridge. Their family may have some dark secrets in the past, but they’ve never been held to the same standards as ‘the rest of us.’
Neither have the members of the powerful Miletti family, whom we meet in Michael Dibdin’s Ratking. When family patriarch Ruggerio Miletti is abducted, the Perugia police are notified, but don’t seem able to make much progress in finding out who is responsible. Aurelio Zen, who’s been working in the Ministry of the Interior in Rome, is seconded to Perugia to help out in the case. It’s going to be difficult too. The abductors have told the Milettis not to involve the police in any way. And they have enough power and influence that the police are inclined to stay out of their way. On the other hand, it won’t look good if the police appear to be in the family’s pay. So Zen has to negotiate a very difficult situation. Little by little, as he gets more information about what happened and what the reality of life in Perugia is, Zen learns just how entitled the Milettis really are. They are, all of them, accustomed to having the rules laid aside when it’s convenient. It doesn’t mean that any of them is happy, but it’s a fact of their lives.
In Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, Superintendent Roy Grace has a difficult situation on his hands. Along with other cases he’s investigating, he’s told that superstar Gaia Lafayette will be spending time in her home town of Brighton to do a film that’s being shot there. There’s already been an attempt on her life, so there’s a lot of concern for her safety. What’s more, the Powers That Be have no interest in the bad publicity that would result if anything happened to her. So Grace is told that he will be responsible for ensuring her safety. On the one hand, Grace certainly doesn’t wish the star any harm. On the other, he has to face the reality of limited budgets and staff. Still, he’s been given an assignment and intends to meet his obligations. There are several examples of the self-entitlement of ‘superstars’ in the novel. Here are just two. In more than one scene there’s a discussion of the differences between firearms laws in the US and firearms laws in the UK. And several members of Gaia Lafayette’s entourage simply don’t see why they should have to abide by UK laws. Also, there’s a negotiation about how to arrange for the superstar’s safety. Given the logistics, the Brighton people want her to stay at the hotel, where they can arrange for careful monitoring. But that’s not how she and her people see it. She wants to visit the city, take her son out for pizza and so on. The cost of providing all of that extra protection is more than the Brighton team can afford, so they insist that the star pay for it. Her top people though see no reason why she should. She, after all, is Gaia Lafayette, the famous singer/actress. She’s doing Brighton a big service by ‘coming home.’ That self entitlement runs throughout the novel.
And I don’t think I could do justice to a post on the culture of entitlement without mentioning the work of Donna Leon, who explores that in several of her novels. Her sleuth Commissario Guido Brunetti lives and works in Venice. In several of the cases he investigates, it turns out that people who are rich, powerful and influential have committed crimes including murder. Brunetti’s boss, vice-questore Giuseppe Patta is quite happy to go along with the culture of entitlement. He’s a toady to those with influence, as he wants to advance his own career. Brunetti doesn’t let that stop him, though. He’s willing to take risks to solve cases, even if the culprit turns out to be someone who is self-entitled.
I’m sure you’ve met up with plenty of self-entitled people in your own life. They’re out there. And they make realistic and sometimes interesting characters in crime fiction too. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must make a few ‘phone calls. It seems there’s this ridiculous policy about where I can park my car and someone left a ticket on it. I don’t see why I can’t park where I want. I shouldn’t have to pay a fine! ;-)
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Daryll Hall and John Oates’ Rich Girl