You Just Recover When Another Belief is Betrayed*

TrustingOne of the ways crime fiction authors build suspense in their novels is by raising the issue of trust. In any investigation, real or fictional, the detective has to decide who’s trustworthy and who is trying to mislead. When that question is woven into a novel, it can draw the reader in (e.g. ‘Is he really on ____’s side? What if he’s trying to kill ___?’  Or ‘No!! Don’t trust her! She’s really working for ___!’).  We see a lot of this plot device in thrillers, but it can also be very effective other kinds of crime fiction too. Authors need to be careful with this plot tool though. First, a plot that’s too complicated, with too many hidden loyalties and motives, can be confusing for the reader. Second, if the characters aren’t well-drawn, then the question of, who can be trusted can make them almost cartoonish and can make the sleuth seem too gullible. But when it’s done well, the trust issue can ratchet up a story’s suspense and keep the reader turning or clicking pages.

Agatha Christie wrote several novels in which there’s a question of who’s trustworthy. I’ll just mention one of them. In The Man in the Brown Suit, we meet Anne Beddingfeld, whose father has recently died, leaving her with little money. For a short time after his death, Anne lives with her father’s solicitor Mr. Flemming and his family. They’re well-meaning but Anne finds them dull and has no wish to live like that. Then one day she happens to witness a tube accident in which a man falls or is pushed onto the tracks. As his body is being recovered, Ann spots a piece of paper which she picks up. The note written on the paper makes reference to an upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town and on impulse, Anne books a cabin. That decision draws her into a case of jewel theft, murder, faked identities and more. As the novel moves along, Anne has to decide whom she should trust. As she sorts this out, she gets closer and closer to the truth about a stolen fortune and a secret past that one of the characters is hiding. Since the story is written from Anne’s perspective, the reader follows along with her as she slowly finds out who is and who isn’t trustworthy.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch often has to decide whom he can and can’t trust. One of the themes in this series is corruption in the top echelons of the LAPD and hidden loyalties and agendas. We see that for instance in The Black Ice. In that novel, Bosch goes to the scene of what looks like a suicide. Fellow cop Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore has apparently taken his own life because, or so the official report says, he’d ‘gone dirty.’ But Bosch isn’t sure that’s what really happened. So he begins to ask questions about Moore’s life and death. He finds out that Moore was investigating the importation from Mexico of a new and very dangerous drug called Black Ice. That plus what he learns about Moore’s past lead Bosch to a small Mexican border town where a vicious drugs gang has a heavily fortressed operation. Bosch gets a lot of pressure from the top brass to leave the Moore case alone, but anyone who’s familiar with Harry Bosch will know that doesn’t stop him. As the story moves on and Bosch gets closer to the truth about Moore, he has to make some sometimes very quick decisions about who’s trustworthy and who isn’t and that adds to the tension.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa knows he has to be careful about trusting too easily. He’s a cop in Rio de Janeiro, where bribery is a way of life and police corruption is all too common. What’s more, as in many places, the rich and powerful often manipulate events and people to get what they want. In A Window in Copacabana for instance, Espinosa investigates the murders of three cops. At first, it looks as though someone has a vendetta against the police. But then, the mistress of one of the murdered officers is killed. Then another one dies. And the third disappears. The more that Espinosa learns about this case, the clearer it is that this is no vengeful cop-killer. This is a case of a web of corruption involving the victims and some very ruthless people. As Espinosa gets closer to the truth, he also knows that he can’t tell just anyone what he’s found. So he gathers a very small team of people he trusts to work with him. They keep things so secret that they don’t even discuss the case while they’re at the station. Even so, Espinosa learns that you sometimes don’t know whether someone can or cannot be trusted.

That’s also what Philip Margolin’s PI sleuth Dana Cutler needs to remember in Executive Privilege. Cutler is hired to follow nineteen-year-old Charlotte Walsh and report where she goes, what she does and whom she meets. Cutler isn’t told the name of her client; the arrangement is made through a third party, highly placed attorney Dale Perry. At first, the assignment isn’t all that interesting. Walsh’s patterns are more or less predictable and nothing much comes of watching her. But then one night she leaves her car at a local mall and is driven to a secluded safe house where, to Cutler’s shock, she meets with U.S. President Christopher Farrington. Cutler is sure now that she’s out of her league as the saying goes, and calls her anonymous client, saying that she’s dropping the case. But when Walsh is murdered Cutler herself becomes the target of some highly placed people who want all of the information she’s got about the victim. Cutler quickly goes into hiding and as she slowly gets closer to the truth about the murder, she finds that she has to be extremely careful about whom to trust. So does fledgling attorney Brad Miller, who is approaching the same case from a different angle. He’s been hired by a powerful Portland, Oregon law firm and hopes his career will get a boost when he takes on the case of serial killer Clarence Little. Little’s been convicted of several grisly murders, one of which is the killing of Laurie Erickson. Little claims that he was busy committing another murder when Erickson was killed, so he is not guilty of that crime. As Miller follows up on that case to see who might have killed Laurie Erickson, he finds himself getting closer to an extremely dangerous truth. He also finds that he can no longer be sure who is trustworthy.

Betty Webb makes use of that ‘who can be trusted’ plot point in Desert Wives, which features her sleuth PI Lena Jones. Jones rescues thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from a polygamous group called Purity, and returns the girl to her mother Esther. During the rescue, Jones sees that group leader Solomon Royal has been shot and badly wounded. So as soon as Rebecca is safe, Jones calls the police to report the shooting. The next day she learns that Royal has been murdered. What’s worse, Esther Corbett is suspected. If she’s arrested, it’s very likely that Rebecca will be taken from her and returned to Purity, where her father Abel is a member. So Esther is desperate to clear her name. Jones agrees to help and ends up infiltrating Purity in the guise of the newest wife of disaffected group member Saul Berkhauser. As Jones begins to take up her ‘new life’ at Purity, she slowly meets the different members of the community. Very soon Jones learns just how much danger there is for her. She discovers to her shock that the group is not the peaceful, happy community it seems on the surface. There are many instances of domestic abuse of both wives and children. There’s also child molestation and the forced marriage of girls as young as thirteen. To make matters worse, there’s so much intermarriage that there are many cases of severe birth defects. And the powerful group leaders (and even some locals who have their own power) are not eager to have those truths made public. Jones needs to keep her ‘cover’ to protect herself from those people. She also needs to keep in mind that someone in the group is a murderer who doesn’t want to be discovered. And it’s not at all clear at first which group members can be trusted and which ones cannot. Even Jones’ ‘husband’ Saul comes in for his share of suspicion since he had a motive for murdering Royal. That question of who is trustworthy adds a taut layer of suspense to this novel.

And then there’s T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell, which is the story of London lawyer Jill Shadow. Shadow’s managed to get past a poor and very dysfunctional childhood to go to law school and get her legal credentials. Along the way, she had a relationship with Jimmy Briscoe, father of her daughter Hannah. Jimmy’s been in prison for several years on drugs charges and Shadow’s had to make a life for herself and Hannah. Everything’s going well enough though until Shadow takes on the pro bono case of Bella Kiss. Originally from Hungary, Bella’s lived in London for a couple of years. She’s just been arrested though for drugs smuggling on her return from a trip. She admits she had the drugs in question with her when she came into the country, but she refuses to say anything about where she got the drugs or who paid or convinced her to bring the drugs in. It soon becomes obvious that she’s trying to protect someone. Shadow knows that she can do little to help her client without knowing everything about the case, but Bella remains stubbornly uncooperative. Then Jimmy Briscoe comes back into her life. He’s finished his sentence and claims that he’s made a fresh start. But at the same time, he seems to know too much about Bella Kiss’ situation. What’s more, he has a very poor ‘track record’ with Shadow. As if that weren’t enough, Shadow begins to uncover other truths about this case. Bella seems to be a pawn in a very high-stakes and high-level game of drugs and politics, and the more she finds out about this case, the less sure Shadow is of exactly what or whom to believe. Then one of the key people involved in the case is murdered. In the meantime, there’s been another murder. Then, Shadow herself becomes a possible target. Throughout this novel, the question of whom Shadow should trust adds a strong dose of tension and interest. And since the story is told from her point of view, the reader doesn’t always know who is trustworthy either.

It’s certainly possible to overdo the theme of ‘Who can be trusted?’ But when that plot point is used carefully and the characters are well-developed, it can add much to a story and give readers an added reason to invest themselves in what happens in the novel.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s A Matter of Trust.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Michael Connelly, Philip Margolin

16 responses to “You Just Recover When Another Belief is Betrayed*

  1. I think the point you make Margot about distinguishing the effect this strategy can have in a thriller as opposed to more traditional detective story is very well made. It certainly led to genuine narrative exhaustion on the spy genre! After all, our instinct (as readers and as people) is to want to commit to a belief and marry that to a person (sic), given the lonely and paranoia alternative – but there are those that will exploit that to con you. So, great for fiction, really soul destroying in real life.

    • Sergio – Thanks – And you bring up something really important I think. The spy genre has seen more than its share of this particular plot strategy and I think ‘narrative exhaustion’ is a very effective way to describe it. Interesting too that we have this desire to to trust, whether it’s as a reader or a person. As you say, in real life to have that taken advantage of is devastating. In fiction it can be highly effective. Wonder what it is about crime fiction writers that makes them willing to take that extra step and experiment with things that really would be soul-searing in real life. But that’s another question entirely…

  2. I’m so glad to be reminded of Man in the Brown Suit – it’s rather an untypical Christie, but one of my very favourites. When I was very young, I loved the idea of adventurous Anne going off on her trip, and thought the man in the case the most romantic person ever. Nowadays I appreciate that it’s a very funny book, I love her travelling companion (Chloe? Claudine?, no but something beginnging with C), and I adore the diary entries by SIr Eustace!

    • Moira – How funny! I thought that Anne’s adventure was very romantic and exciting when I first read it too. Interesting isn’t it how our perceptions change as we get older. And thanks for reminding me of Suzanne Blair. She’s an absolutely delightful character and turns out to be very helpful to Anne. And yes, Sir Eustace’s diary entries are great additions to the story. A lot of people don’t think it’s Christie at her best at all, but I always liked it a lot.

      • Suzanne! Of course. Very nearly starts with a C… I’m pretty sure that I adopted from her an expression that I use often and have done so since reading the book more than 30 years ago: Suzanne writes a telegram to her husband, and thrifty poverty-stricken Anne points out that she could cut the cost by removing several words. Suzanne, far from taking her advice, adds three more words: ‘enjoying myself hugely’ – and that’s been my key phrase for expressing joy and enthusiasm ever since…

        • Moira – I love that phrase too! And I especially like the reason Suzanne uses it – just to annoy her husband Clarence as he’ll have to pay. I thought that was very funny, and I’m grateful you reminded me of it.

  3. It does make an interesting comparison, Margot, to look at the use of trust in spy/thriller fiction as against the traditional mystery. I am mindful, for example, of the way John Dickson Carr, in a couple of his better books, starts out by telling the reader exactly which narrator/witnesses can be trusted. It added to the gamesmanship, with the author on one side and the reader on the other. Agatha Christie also plays with the reliable narrator question – I won’t mention specific books to avoid spoilers, but that certainly includes more than one of her best-known books!

    • Les – I’ve always thought Christie did a fine job with the unreliable narrator plot point. It’s hard to write about that in a post without giving away too much, but maybe sometime I’ll try. Right you are about Carr, too. And what always gets me is that despite the fact that Carr straight-out tells the reader who and isn’t trustworthy, he can still outwit the reader. At least this one. I choose not to reflect on what that says about me…

  4. Margot: When I read crime fiction I trust no one. Mentally I call out to characters you cannot trust anyone!

  5. Is that you Margot in the picture with a knife behind your back? Like Bill, I tend not to trust any characters that I read in crime fiction. I think it;s a legacy from reading lots of Christie when I was a teenager. Everyone was suspect – even the narrator.

    • Sarah – I know what you mean. I’ve read a lot of Christie myself, and you do learn doing that never to trust anyone. Not the narrator, not the sweetest-seeming suspect – nobody. And yeah, that’s me in the ‘photo. See? Can’t even trust a blogger. 😉

  6. kathy d.

    I’ve hated the evil narrator plot device. Here I am, merrily rolling along reading along with the narrator. Then, all of a sudden he is suspect and probably the murderer. Then he is the murderer. (I say “he” as I haven’t read books with a female killer narrator). Or else one is reading and finds out horrible things about the narrator, who isn’t a killer, but one would rather not know his/her psychopathology. That happened in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, which I wish I had not read.

    • Kathy – I’ll grant you, the unreliable narrator who turns out to be ‘the bad guy’ has to be done very, very deftly or it simply doesn’t work. As you say, the reader gets absorbed in the book only to find out s/he’s been backing the wrong proverbial horse. Sometimes it works well…sometimes not.

  7. “The Man in the Brown Suit” is next on my Agatha Christie pile and I am waiting to read it in the context of the point you have made. Anne Beddingfield sounds like a brave woman and trust, or the lack of it, seems to be the only thing she can rely upon to get to the bottom of the mystery. I think when it comes to trust sleuths are guided by its close relation, instinct, or the lack of it.

    • Prashant – I hope you’ll enjoy The Man in the Brown Suit. I like it very much and part of the reason is the character of Anne Beddingfield. Interesting point you make too about the close relationship between trust and instinct. In a way, you could argue that instinct is the sleuth’s trust in herself or himself.

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