We all know of course that life isn’t perfect. But the illusion that it could be is very appealing. That illusion of a perfect setting/life/society/etc. can be very powerful. It’s what sells all sorts of products from ‘the perfect getaway holiday’ to ‘the perfect hairstyle’ to just about anything else. Just look at the ‘photo, for instance. It’s a picture of the famous Las Vegas Strip, where nearly everything is a carefully-crafted illusion of perfection. That ideal of perfection is also arguably part of what drives people to keep up appearances (e.g. ‘Yes, I have the perfect family.’)
But as I say, life doesn’t work that way. Before you know it, that perfect pair of shoes gets a scratch in it, or new people move onto the perfect street and start throwing loud parties and leaving trash everywhere. Those reminders that nothing’s perfect can be hard to take, because the illusion that it could be is so easy to accept. And that can add quite a lot of tension and suspense to a crime novel. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more examples than I could. Here are a few to get started…
In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Linnet Ridgeway seems to have it all. She’s beautiful, wealthy and intelligent. And she’s accustomed to getting what she wants. She’s not deliberately spiteful or destructive, but she is used to arranging her life in exactly the way she decides. As the novel begins, for instance, she’s working on creating the perfect home at Wode Hall, which she’s recently purchased and is having renovated. She’s even trying to tear down a group of local cottages and relocate the people who live in them so that she can have the perfect view. When she meets Simon Doyle, who is engaged to marry her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, she finds herself attracted to him and before long, he too is part of the perfect world she’s trying to create. She and Simon marry and take a cruise of the Nile as part of their honeymoon trip. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet finds out tragically that the world won’t always work her way when she’s shot. The most likely suspect is Jackie, who is also on the cruise. But it’s soon proven that she could not possibly be the murderer. So Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race, who are also aboard, have to search elsewhere for the killer. Interestingly, Poirot tries to warn Linnet that the world cannot be ‘made to order,’ but Linnet doesn’t listen…
The search for the perfect place to live motivates Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their children to move to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. The move seems successful and the family slowly settles in. At first, Stepford seems like an idyllic place to live: good schools, low taxes, friendly people and so on. But Joanna’s friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something dangerous may be going on in Stepford. At first Joanna doesn’t agree, and having just moved there, she’s not overly eager to sell their new house and move again. But after a time, she starts to believe that Bobbie may be right. The closer she gets to the truth, the more she sees that there is no such thing as the perfect place to live. Even beautiful small towns can have their dark secrets.
Glenn Hadlock thinks he’s found the perfect job in Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary. He answers an employment advertisement for a bodyguard/escort position and finds that his prospective employer is wealthy Victor Scofield, who is disabled and in need of a chauffeur/escort for his wife Eileen. The pay and benefits are excellent, and Hadlock accepts right away when the job is offered to him. At first it seems like an ideal situation for him. Scofield is not exactly a pleasant person, but he is fair and generous, and Hadlock gets a nice place to live, a good wardrobe and plenty of spending money. He also gets to spend time with Eileen Scofield, and that becomes a serious problem when he finds himself attracted to her. Scofield has told Hadlock that his relationship with Eileen must be strictly professional. As Hadlock finds that employment condition harder and hard to accept, he also finds that his perfect job arrangement…isn’t.
Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces us to Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. She works hard to create the illusion that she’s the perfect girlfriend, and then the perfect wife, to police officer Bill King. And she succeeds too, at least at first. She’s beautiful, smart, witty, and friendly. Her parties are perfectly arranged, the food is always beautifully presented and delicious, and she and Bill are the most popular hosts among their group of friends. But Bill’s sister Lora gradually begins to suspect that Alice is not the person she seems to be. First it’s a matter of little inconsistencies in what Alice says about herself. Then Lora begins to wonder just what kind of secrets Alice has. The more she learns about Alice’s life, the more she is at the same time repelled by and drawn to it. And she’s a little worried for Bill, to whom she’s always felt close. To her, Bill is too eager to believe that Alice is the perfect wife that he thinks she is. Then there’s a tragic murder, and Lora thinks Alice may be involved in it. If so, this could be dangerous for Bill. So Lora has to decide how she’ll go about finding out the truth and what she’ll do when she does find out.
In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we meet Eva Wirenström-Berg, her husband Henrik and their son Axel. Eva has worked very hard to create the perfect home, complete with white picket fence, and the perfect family life. She’s arranged everything as best she can to make everything idyllic. But of course, life isn’t that way. One day Eva finds out that Henrik has been unfaithful. She knew he’d been unhappy for a while (ironically, a lot of that had to do with her own attempts to make everything perfect). But this discovery devastates her. One night she goes out to a pub, where she meets Jonas Hansson, who has his own troubles. That meeting soon leads to both of their lives spinning out of control. And (again ironically), the more they try to make things perfect, the less perfect things get.
Qiu Xiaolong addresses the issue of the ‘perfect society’ in Enigma of China. In that novel, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police is assigned to investigate what seems to be a straightforward case of suicide. Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, had come under investigation for corruption. It’s widely believed he killed himself rather than go through the humiliation that a full investigation plus trial and imprisonment would bring. But Chen isn’t completely sure this was a suicide and in any case, his job as a detective is to investigate fully. So he and his assistant Detective Yu look more deeply into the case. It turns out that the original allegations of corruption came from an Internet ‘grass roots’ group that posted some of the evidence. The Chinese government doesn’t want such groups to post, as that would put the lie to the illusion of a harmonious society that the government wants to create. At the same time, the government used that very group’s evidence against Zhou. It’s a very delicate situation, and in the novel there are several interesting discussions of the way the Internet is now used both for dissent and for factual information, since the official government outlets support only the appearance of societal stability and harmony.
People do want to believe illusions at times, because they can be so appealing. But sometimes, the cost of creating and maintaining an illusion can be awfully high. Maybe it’s just better to acknowledge that life’s not perfect…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s The Grand Illusion.