Most people weigh the consequences of what they’re going to do, at least a little, before they do it. And that’s what can make it so dangerous when people feel they have nothing to lose. That belief can push people to do some awfully dangerous and sometimes terrible things. In crime fiction, characters who feel they have nothing to lose can add to the suspense of a story, though.
For instance, in Donald Honig’s short story Come Ride With Me, a man named Gannon goes into the Quick Stop diner with a specific purpose in mind. He’s just committed a robbery that ended in a murder and now he needs to ‘borrow’ a getaway car. He waits at the diner until he sees exactly the kind of car he wants. The driver is Lee Carstairs, who’s doing well financially and who drives a fast, late-model car. Carstairs uses the telephone and while he’s doing so Gannon takes his chance and hides in the back seat of the car. But as he soon finds out, he’s picked the wrong car. As it turns out, Carstairs has other plans with his car and we learn that he has nothing to lose by carrying them out.
In Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors, we meet LAPD homicide cop Shane Scully. One night he gets a frantic call from Barbara Molar, wife of Scully’s former partner Ray Molar. Barbara says that Ray is trying to kill her and begs Scully to help. Scully races over to the Molar home in time to save Barbara, but Molar shoots at him. Scully shoots back to defend himself. Molar’s bullet misses; Scully’s hits its mark. At first Scully thinks that what happened will be dealt with in a routine Internal Affairs investigation. After all, it was a ‘clean’ hit. But soon Scully finds himself a pariah on the force, since Molar was a beloved cop. Then it becomes clear that this is not going to be a routine investigation. The Internal Affairs authorities are planning to take Scully’s badge and perhaps charge him with murder. Scully knows now that this is far bigger than just a questionable shooting. He starts to ask more questions and finds himself targeted by some very powerful and corrupt people. Now, with little left to lose professionally, Scully goes to great lengths to try to find out who is targeting him and why.
In Robin Cook’s Seizure, we are introduced to U.S. Senator Ashley Butler. He’s been a strong force against stem cell and other kinds of controversial medical procedures and research. But everything changes completely when he is diagnosed with Parkinson ’s disease. He knows that unless he gets some kind of medical miracle, he’ll never be able to achieve his goal of becoming president. In a professional sense he has much to lose. But he has nothing to lose at all by pursuing a cure and for that he contacts Dr. Daniel Lowell. Lowell’s been conducting promising research and has pioneered a controversial surgical procedure that may be exactly what Butler needs. So together, Butler and Lowell go to extraordinary (and very, very dangerous) lengths to perform the surgery. One of the dangers for instance is that the clinic chosen for the procedure is the Wingate Clinic, located in the Bahamas. The owners of that clinic are guilty of several legal and ethical violations and when Lowell and his co-worker Stephanie D’Agostino discover that, they also find that they are in real danger of their lives.
In C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, Travel Development Specialist Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa are the proud and happy adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. Everything changes though when they learn that Angelina’s biological father Garret Moreland never waived his parental rights. Now he wants to exercise them. The McGuanes are devastated by this news and they decide to do what they can to keep their daughter. They face difficult odds though. First, Moreland’s father is a powerful local judge who is determined that Angelina will be given to his son. In fact he starts off by basically trying to buy the McGuanes’ co-operation. When that doesn’t work he uses his authority and orders the McGuanes to relinquish custody of Angelina in 21 days. With nothing much to lose, Jack McGuane decides to do whatever it takes to keep his child. ‘Whatever it takes’ turns out to be more than either McGuane bargained for but to them, there is no real choice.
We also see get that sense of ‘nothing left to lose’ in Åsa Larsson’s The Blood Spilt. In that novel, Kiruna police inspector Anna-Maria Mella and her partner Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murder of local priest Mildred Nilsson. Attorney Rebecka Martinsson works with Nilsson’s widower to arrange for the return of their house to the Swedish Church so she gets involved in the investigation too. Nilsson had some controversial views and was not at all afraid to share them. So there’s more than one suspect in this case. But slowly, Martinsson and the police get to the truth. In this novel, the murderer is a person who has nothing left to lose, or so it seems to that person. That sense of desperation is part of what drives the killer on instead of stopping before the murder is committed.
Lindy Cameron’s Redback is the story of a crack team of Australian retrieval specialists called Redback. They’re called in when people need to be rescued from extremely dangerous situations and that’s exactly what happens on the Pacific island of Laui. The island is hosting the Pacific Tourism and Enviro-Trade Conference when a group of rebels disrupts the meeting and takes the delegates hostage. Team Redback, led by Bryn Gideon, is called in and rescues the conferees. It’s not long before that incident is connected to a terrible train explosion, two murders and an explosion on a U.S. military base. As it turns out, a shadowy group of terrorists is using a video game called Global WarTek to recruit members and give instructions. Several local terrorist groups with nothing to lose and a lot of fanaticism are only too happy to follow those instructions. So Gideon and her team have their proverbial work cut out for them as they go up against a group that’s not supposed to even exist.
Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace tells the story of Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She is dealing with the horrible trauma of having lost her beloved husband Stefan in a diving incident. Otherwise, though, she’s managing her life – more or less. Then one day she gets a chilling letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. Other incidents happen too, all of them designed to frighten and discredit her. Then one day she discovers the body of a patient Sara Matteus in the water near her home. As if that’s not bad enough, the death is made to look like a suicide for which Bergman is responsible. When the evidence shows that Matteus was murdered, the police even wonder whether Bergman might have committed the crime. In order to clear her name and save her own life, Bergman has to find out who is responsible for the murder and for stalking her. It turns out that the killer acted out of a sense of desperation and the belief that there was nothing to lose. While that’s not precisely the killer’s motive, it does drive the killer ‘over the edge.’
And that’s the thing about having nothing to lose. It can also mean one has nothing to keep one from pushing the limits and doing things that can turn tragic.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Incense and Peppermint.