Just Take Your Best Shot and Don’t Blow It*

For most of us, the chance to make good is really exciting. It’s human nature to want to ‘make it’ and do well, and when that opportunity comes along, it’s natural to be thrilled about it. It’s also natural to be anxious. Every opportunity is, after all, an opportunity for making a mistake. And that risk can be especially anxiety-producing when it’s a public risk. That combination of exhilaration and anxiety can make for an interesting layer of tension in a crime novel, and it can add to a character. Readers can understand how a character who’s finally gotten a chance to make good can be both excited and anxious at the same time, and that makes a character more human.

We meet a character like that in Agatha Christie’s  After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are  Fatal). The Abernethie family gathers when their patriarch Richard Abernethie suddenly dies. During that gathering Abernethie’s youngest sister Cora Lansquenet says that her brother was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up and even Cora admits that she has a habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. But everyone privately begins to wonder if she was right. Those suspicions seem justified when Cora herself is brutally murdered the next day. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. One of the suspects in both murders is Susan Banks, niece to both victims. She has plans to open her own beauty shop and needs her share of her uncle’s fortune to do so. As we get to know Susan, we learn that she’s ambitious and excited about going ahead with her plans. In fact Entwhistle sees a slightly ruthless side to her. But at the same time, we can see that she’s also anxious. She spends a good deal of time going over her plans, taking time over the details of what the shop will be like and so on. She may not admit it even to herself, but there is a hint of anxiety about failure in the way she goes about planning, however bold her plans are. That aspect of her character makes her more human.

We also see a bit of that combination of anxiety and excitement – that chance to make good – in Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche. Former Saskatoon police officer Russell Quant has hung out his PI shingle and started to take cases. Most of them haven’t been exciting, but they’ve paid the bills. Then he gets the chance at a much bigger case. Wealthy entrepreneur Harold Chavell hires Quant to find his missing partner Tom Osborne. The two had planned to marry and even had their honeymoon trip to France arranged. When Osborne disappears right before the wedding, Chavell believes he’s taken the honeymoon trip by himself. So Chavell asks Quant to go to France and track Osborne down. Quant hasn’t done anything like that before but he agrees and begins his search for the missing man. The trip to France yields only a strong message from Tom to leave the whole thing alone and not try to find him. When Chavell hears this, he calls off the search and Quant returns to Saskatoon. Not long afterwards Tom Osborne’s body is discovered. At the same time as he is excited about this case and determined to see it through, Quant is also a little anxious. This is now a murder case and his client could very well be guilty. That mix of optimism and anxiety adds to Quant’s character and (in my opinion anyway) makes him more likeable.

In Vicki Delany’s In The Shadow of the Glacier we are introduced to Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith who lives and works in the small British Columbia town of Trafalgar. She’s a recent graduate of the police academy and is trying to find her place as a cop in the same town where she grew up. She’s determined to make good as a police officer and so far, she’s managed at least not to embarrass herself. Then she gets the opportunity that many young constables dream of: the chance to work on an important murder case. One night during her regular rounds, Smith finds the body of wealthy developer Reginald Montgomery lying in an alley. Determined to do the right thing but anxious that she won’t, she contacts her superiors and soon Sergeant John Winters arrives to take over the investigation. Winters’ usual assistant Detective Lopez is out of town, so Chief Constable Kelly assigns Smith to work with Winters. Smith has seldom been more anxious or more excited in her life when she gets this major opportunity. As the story evolves, we see how Smith very slowly begins to build some confidence in herself. Delany doesn’t make the mistake of letting Smith do everything right; that would be too unrealistic. Instead, Smith learns from her mistakes and we see how that balance of eagerness to make good and insecurity affect her.

That balance is also clear in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Rebecca Thorne has already carved out a place for herself as a well-regarded New Zealand television journalist. She is co-host of the popular Saturday Night. But she’s begun to be anxious lately; the show’s ratings are slipping and there’s a new network ‘darling’ coming right behind her as the saying goes. Then Thorne hears about a story that could make her career. Connor Bligh has been in prison for several years for the brutal triple murder of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. The only survivor of that attack was their daughter Katy, who wasn’t at home at the time. Everyone’s always been convinced that Bligh was responsible but lately there’ve been hints that he may be innocent. If so, Thorne’s got the chance at a real story. So she begins to ask questions and investigate. On the one hand, she is eager to find out the truth about the Dickson family murders – one might even say overeager. On the other, she knows the risks she’s taking and gets more and more insecure about both her job and her personal life as both seem to fall apart.

And then there’s William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev, whom we meet in The Holy Thief, which takes place in the Stalinist years just before World War II. Korolev is a member of the Moscow CID and has dealt with crime, including murder, before. But then a case comes along that could have real repercussions. The body of a young woman is found in a former church that’s now being used for social and political gatherings. Korolev has just begun the investigation when there’s another murder. And another. Korolev discovers that these murders could be connected to the notorious Moscow Thieves. As if that weren’t enough to make him anxious, he also learns that the equally-dreaded NKVD is taking a particular interest in this case.  On the one hand he is eager to solve the murders, especially because if he doesn’t, his career and possibly much more is at risk. On the other, he’s anxious too. One wrong move and he could attract unwelcome attention from the Thieves, the NKVD or both. In this novel, that chance to make good with all its accompanying risks adds a real level of suspense to the story.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer features young attorney Catherine Monsigny’s big chance to make good in legal circles. She’s given the opportunity to defend Myriam Villetreix, who’s been charged with poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston. Myriam claims that she’s innocent. Gaston’s cousins though claim otherwise. And there’s some circumstantial evidence against the accused so this isn’t what you’d call an ‘open-and-shut’ matter. Monsigny is eager to take this case, eager to be a successful attorney and eager to make her mark as the saying goes. At the same time, she is anxious about it. She prepares obsessively, she worries over details such as what to wear and how to attract reporters’ attention without seeming self-important. She goes over and over the relevant laws too. Her insecurity about the case isn’t helped by the fact that she’s also involved in a personal struggle. Her mother was murdered at a place not far from the site of the murder and trial. Being in that place again re-awakens Monsigny’s memories of that day and, haunted by those memories, she begins to ask questions about her mother’s murder, too. As Granotier follows the two threads of this story, we see how Monsigny is affected by that mix of being eager to ‘make it’ and anxious that she won’t.

It’s only natural to want success and strive for it while at the same time being a little afraid. So when characters go through that, it can make them seem all the more real. I’ve only mentioned a few examples; I’ll bet you can think of lots more.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Fooling Yourself.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Paddy Richardson, Sylvie Granotier, Vicki Delany, William Ryan

6 responses to “Just Take Your Best Shot and Don’t Blow It*

  1. Margot, one detective to whom that need to succeed is critical is Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, of the Queensland, Australia, police. As a man of mixed race – child of a white father and an Aboriginal mother – Bony says repeatedly that he has never failed, as he puts it, to “finalize” a case. Failure, in his mind, would shatter his pride and, he says, drive him back to the bush. This theme recurs in many of the Bony novels and is one of the keys to understanding Bony’s character.

    • Les – Right indeed you are about Bony. He is burdened, whether or not he has cause to be, with his background so you’re right; it’s extremely important that he solve his cases. I’m glad you mentioned him, as his whole psyche is affected by that I think.

  2. Margot: Every litigator has a first “big” case. No lawyer is ever truly ready for that initial “big” case. You only know if you can conduct such cases when you have to make the decisions on a “big” case.

    Arthur Beauchamp, created by William Deverell, in I’ll See You in My Dreams goes back to his first murder trial 50 years ago. He knows he is not ready but cannot resist taking on the case.

    John Grisham in The Rainmaker had new lawyer, Rudy Baylor, conduct a major insurance bad faith case. I enjoyed both the book and the movie.

    • Bill – Thank you for your perspective, both on that first big case and on those two novels. I would imagine that law school, intern/externships and other experiences can only go so far in preparing one for the realities of being involved in a major case. My guess is that you learn to deal with those bigger cases by….dealing with them.

  3. Interesting post Margot. I agree that it’s in human nature to want to better yourself although I’m not sure I could have come up with all the examples you managed. I wonder where Tom Ropley would come? In one sense he is trying to better himself but most of society would reject his methods. And he by and large succeeds.

    • Sarah – Thank you 🙂 – And thanks also for the example of Tom Ripley. I hadn’t thought of him when I was preparing this post but now you mention it, I do see what you mean. As you say, he does try to to better himself – to make good. But no, most people probably would repudiate what he does to achieve his goals. It’s part of what makes him a unique sort of character I think.

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