When I Was Down, You Just Stood There Grinning*

For some reason (not being a psychologist I don’t have an educated answer as to why), some people get satisfaction from others’ discomfort. This phenomenon – often called Schadenfreude – is part of why practical jokes are popular. It’s also part of why certain kinds of films and television series are popular too. Schadenfreude seems to be especially common when the person feeling the discomfort is someone we don’t like or someone we feel needs to come down a notch, as the saying goes. But even if that’s not the case it’s interesting to see how many people get a laugh out of others’ literally or figuratively slipping on a banana peel. And of course, since good crime fiction reflects life, we see Schadenfreude there too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing murder of Paul Renauld, a Canadian who’d emigrated to France. Also involved in the investigation is Monsieur Giraud of the Sûreté. He’s rude, arrogant and condescending and won’t listen to any of Poirot’s ideas about the case. Because of his unwillingness to consider any point of view but his own Giraud ends up arresting the wrong person. Poirot of course is not one to take such treatment kindly so in a moment of anger he bets Giraud 500 francs that he can solve the case before Giraud does. Even though Poirot doesn’t normally take any satisfaction in others’ misfortune he is very happy at Giraud’s discomfort at losing the bet.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad, wealthy landowner Colonel Halburton-Smythe and his wife Mary invite several house guests for a gathering in honour of up-and-coming playwright Henry Withering. Withering has been seeing the Halburton-Smythes’ daughter Priscilla and there’s talk of an engagement, so this is also a “meet the family” gathering. One morning houseguest Captain Peter Bartlett is found dead in what looks like a terrible shooting accident. Local constable Hamish Macbeth wants to look into the matter but Halburton-Smythe dislikes Macbeth intensely because of Macbeth’s friendship with Priscilla. He thinks Priscilla is far too good for the likes of the village bobby. So when DCI Blair and his team arrive, Halburton-Smythe is eager to defer to Blair’s judgement. Blair dislikes Macbeth too and he isn’t eager to annoy powerful landowners like Halburton-Smythe. So he quickly calls Bartlett’s death an accident. Blair is both pompous and rude, especially to Macbeth, so when Macbeth finds irrefutable evidence that Bartlett was murdered he takes great pleasure in Blair’s discomfort at being proven wrong publicly.

In Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly, Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate the death of Giorgio Tassini, night watchman at a glass-blowing factory. Tassini had been vocal in his concerns about toxic dumping by the glass blowing industry, so it’s not long before Brunetti suspects that Tassini’s death was not an accident. Brunetti’s supervisor Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta has the well-deserved reputation of being a toady to the wealthy and powerful so when Brunetti starts asking too many questions about the factory owners Patta tries to stall the investigation mostly by claiming that Brunetti doesn’t have the clear evidence he needs to catch the guilty person. Brunetti finds the concrete proof he needs and is only too happy to make Patta uncomfortable about it. Here’s what Brunetti says about telling Patta about the evidence:

“‘…as a matter of fact,’ Brunetti said with the beginnings of a smile, ‘I think I’m going to ruin the Vice-Questore’s lunch.'”

Fans of this series will appreciate Brunetti’s pleasure in making his boss squirm.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, writer Erica Falck has returned to her family home in Fjällbacka after her parents’ death. She’s not there long when she is drawn into the murder of a former friend Alexandra “Alex” Wijkner. In the meantime Falck has other worries. Her sister Anna’s abusive and controlling husband Lucas Maxwell wants to sell the family home. Falck doesn’t want to do so and she knows Anna will go along with Lucas because of his domineering nature and his willingness to abuse Anna. Falck despises Maxwell and wants nothing more than for Anna to leave him. Since Lucas won’t give up his demand that the house be sold, Falck thinks of her own way to take Maxwell down a notch. One day Maxwell comes to the house with a house agent. Here is what Falck says to the house agent:

“Yes, unfortunately the windows are not properly sealed, so when the least wind blows you have to make sure you’re wearing your warmest woolen socks. But it’s nothing that replacing all the windows couldn’t fix.”

Needless to say, Maxwell is humiliated and angered and the house sale doesn’t go through.

I have to say that one of my favourite examples of Schadenfreude is in Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip. In that novel, marine biologist Chaz Perrone discovers a way to alter water samples so that it appears they’re “clean” even if the water is polluted. That suits Perrone’s employer Samuel Johnson “Red” Hammernut’s book quite well. Hammernut’s commercial farm is a flagrant polluter and he wants to keep doing “business as usual.” Then Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect that something’s not right about what Perrone is doing. Afraid she might tell the wrong people, Perrone throws his wife overboard during a cruise of the Everglades. The only problem with Perrone’s plan is that Joey doesn’t drown. She’s rescued by former cop Mick Stranahan. Together they hatch a plot to make Perrone think someone saw him throw his wife overboard and is blackmailing him. You can well imagine Joey’s satisfaction as Perrone gets more and more nervous and unstable and therefore of greater concern both to Hammernut and to the police.

And then there’s Lindy Cameron’s Redback, in which Dr. Jana Rossi and several other delegates are attending a conference on the Pacific island of Laui. When they are taken hostage by a group of local rebels, Rossi is trapped with journalist Alan Wagner, a condescending, sexist and self-important thorn in Rossi’s side. In fact, one of the few things that keep her from succumbing to fear when the group is taken hostage is the hope that one of them will hurt Wagner – or worse. The delegates are rescued by Redback, a secret team of crack Australian retrieval specialists led by Bryn Gideon. When the team discovers that the hostage-taking is part of a larger terrorist plan, the members of the team prepare to go up against this new enemy. Later in the novel, Rossi spots Wagner following up on the story and tries to warn Gideon that he may reveal the team’s existence. Gideon’s already aware of what’s going on and she and her team deal with the “associates” Wagner is cultivating. It’s no small satisfaction to have Alan Wagner unceremoniously stripped of his big story and whisked away with his tail between his legs, so to speak.

Schadenfreude may not be the most appealing of human traits but it’s certainly a real one. Little wonder we see it in crime fiction…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Positively 4th Street.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Carl Hiaasen, Donna Leon, Lindy Cameron, M.C. Beaton

12 responses to “When I Was Down, You Just Stood There Grinning*

  1. Skywatcher

    I always felt that part of the appeal of COLUMBO was Schadenfreude. Some of the best stories had actors like Jack Cassidy or Nicol Williamson. They were brilliant at portraying supremely arrogant, unpleasant, patronising characters who would collapse into sweating, panicky wrecks by the end of the story. When they made the murderers too sympathetic it was never as much fun for the audience to watch them fall apart. It was somewhat similar to the original MISSION IMPOSSIBLE in this respect. The producers invited some of the guest stars playing the team’s ‘victims’ back several time to play different characters because they knew that thozs actors were good at making the audience hate them very quickly. Unless you felt that they thoroughly deserved their fate, it could become very uncomfortable to watch.

    • Skywatcher – Oh, you’ve mentioned one of my favourite series; I always liked Columbo very much. And you’ve a very good point that Schadenfreude was successful there because the ‘bad guy’ was usually a cocksure, unpleasant character. I always liked the way that the antagonist would start by underestimating Columbo with his ‘Gee, whiz’ attitude, when all the while he was busily getting the evidence. A fun, great series. And you’re right about Mission:Impossible too, ‘though I admit I didn’t watch that as often as I watched Columbo.

  2. Rebecca Bradley

    I love the sound of Skinny Dip. A real mind bending book. I can really imagine the husbands mental pain and anguish being played out in that one.

    Human behaviour is such an amazing thing and goes to so many extremes. It’s why I love crime fiction. I wish it was only in the fiction that people took pleasure in other peoples hurt though.

    • Rebecca – Oh Skinny Dip is terrific that way. And there’s a great deal of humour in the novel too, which I found very enjoyable. I do recommend this one.
      I agree with you that crime fiction offers a unique way to look at human behaviour and human interaction. That’s part of the reason I love the genre too. Of course as you say, not all human traits are exactly pleasant ones and there are several, including this one, that I’d just as soon weren’t present in real humans…

  3. This is truly of the most unpleasant qualities a person can have. I have few regrets when they get their due.

  4. Sarah

    Nice reference to ‘Murder on the Links’ Margot. In the tv series Poirot bets his moustache which I thought was a nice touch.

    • Sarah – Thank you 🙂 – I always did like that little glimpse of Poirot’s humanity in that novel. He really does get annoyed at Giraud’s behaviour and attitude and that makes him more human in my opinion. I admit I didn’t see this episode on the TV series but of course Poirot fans would know what betting his moustache would mean to him.

  5. kathy d.

    Skinny Dip is so funny that I’m laughing just thinking about it. Some parts of it are hilarious — and some characters.
    I’m so glad whenever Giuseppi Patta gets his comeuppance from Guido Brunetti, Lorenzo Vianello and Elettra Zorzi. He is one character who deserves every ounce of schadenfreude he gets. Brunetti is often low-key about getting the evidence to nail a suspect when Patta is against pursuing that line of investigation or interviewing particular people. He doesn’t celebrate his victory as he should — with champagne toasts — or grappa, I should say.. This is one instance where schadenfreude is deserved — and hoped for by the readers — and we love to see it.
    And about practical jokes, now I’m remembering when I worked at a non-profit law office and kept a tin of salted cashews on my desk. When someone unscrewed the top, out popped a fake snake. Everyone laughed and I did, too, every time. Schadenfreude or just fun?

    • Kathy – You’re right about Skinny Dip. It’s such a funny, funny story and yet it also has a solid plot. You make a well-taken point too about Giuseppe Patta. He’s self-interested and pompous enough that readers always like it when Brunetti, Vianello and Zorzi manage to get round him to solve the case. That’s the sort of case where one doesn’t mind so much taking pleasure in someone else’s discomfort. And yet you’re right and it’s interesting that Brunetti doesn’t generally make much fuss about it when he does manage to get past Patta as you might say. He just does his job and doesn’t spend a lot of time gloating. And the fake snake? Interesting question as to whether that was just fun or Schadenfreude. Most people would say just a little fun.

  6. I haven’t heard that word before but I see it a lot in crime fiction and can be a bonus when the authors use it correctly. I don’t always like to see characters squirm but it’s true, it does up the fiction a great deal and that element can take your novel from comfortable to real.

    • Clarissa – Now that’s a very well-taken point! I dislike Schadenfreude in real life but it does turn up the suspense in fiction doesn’t it? When it’s done well it can add a real layer of tension.

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