Little to Win and Nothing to Lose*

Nothing to LoseMost 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.


Filed under Åsa Larsson, Åsa Träff, C.J. Box, Camilla Grebe, Donald Honig, Lindy Cameron, Robin Cook, Stephen J. Cannell

28 responses to “Little to Win and Nothing to Lose*

  1. Gosh Margot. Plenty of books I haven’t read here. I’m impressed.
    I know he isn’t often mentioned in crime fic comments but what I enjoyed in the early Jack Reacher books was the fact that the hero clearly had nothing else to lose. I’m afraid I’m completely behind with the books now but I enjoyed the early ones. And I intend to go and see the film. By myself as my husband laughs when I suggest it.

    • Sarah – Honestly, the early Reacher novels were good (anyway in my opinion). I don’t blame you for having liked them. After the first few though…. And the film might have interested me, but I have to say it. Tom Cruise as Reacher? Ummmm…sorry, no. But I won’t laugh at you. I hope you enjoy the film.

  2. As I sit here and look at the Pacific, I am forced to admit, I am way behind on these writers. Usually I have read one of the ones you mention, but today none.

    • Patti – I’m so glad you made it to the West Coast 🙂 – I’ll be in touch soon. And believe me I understand all about being behind on one’s writers. *sigh*

  3. Great post Margot. We’re you tempted to use Bob Dylan’s line, ‘When you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose for this post?
    Where do I get hold of Donald Honig’s short story? It sounds intriguing.

  4. Skywatcher

    I remember reading the first adventure of the pulp hero THE SHADOW. It starts of with the POV character Harry Vincent. In a pretty uncompromisingly bleak scene he is deciding whether or not to commit suicide. It is the Great Depression era, and he has lost his job, his girl, and his last cent. He is about to step off a high bridge in New York City when The Shadow grabs him, bundles him into a car, and drives him away. The mysterious figure offers him money, a job, and a noble purpose in life. He also tells him that if he accepts, he will be putting his life at risk. When Vincent asks what the alternative is, he is told “I can drive you back to the bridge.” The rest of the story doesn’t really live up to that opening (although the series improved in leaps and bounds as it progressed) but I still remember that opening.

    • Skywatcher – Oh, that story is an absolutely fantastic example of what I had in mind with this post. Vincent is indeed the kind of character who really has nothing to lose. And I hadn’t thought of The Shadow in a long, long time.

  5. Add me to the list of commenters who haven’t read many of these. I think I should try some CJ Box.

  6. PeterReynard

    The Jack Reacher discussion reminds me of how Lee Child was laid off and had nothing to lose by writing a book.

  7. An interesting topic as usual Margot. I’ve been reflecting on why I like the things I like in my reading (following reading a blog post last week) and I’m not sure I like this “nothing to lose” element – I think it’s one of the reasons I don’t like noir as much as other sub genres as so many people have nothing to lose and therefore everything seems a bit inevitable rather than suspenseful. That said though I do like several of the books you’ve mentioned here…and am reading something you recommended last week…THE LAST POLICEMAN…in which all of humanity has nothing to lose as the world is due to end in a few months – but someone has murdered a chap anyway. I am enjoying the book as it’s an interesting premise and so far it’s being explored intelligently. I can’t yet see what would lead someone to murder during their last few months of existance but am looking forward to finding out.

    • Bernadette – Thank you 🙂 – I respect you for stepping back and looking at your reading with a longer view like that. I hadn’t really connected the kind of character who has nothing to lose with the way many noir books are, but you really do have a point. I wonder if that adds to the overall bleakness of some noir novels as well as (and I think you’re right about this) the inevitability. I’ll have to think about that. I’m very glad you’re enjoying The Last Policeman. I always have so much respect for authors who take novel approaches to their topics as Winters does in this one. Please post a review when you get to it; I’ll be really interested in what you think.

  8. This makes a great plot tool for suspense novels, especially when the threat is against someone in the main character’s family. We’re less sympathetic when the character is protecting his reputation or wealth.

    • Pat – That’s very true about what makes a character have nothing to lose. When it’s protecting a family or friend, etc., we can cheer for that character. If it’s a different kind of motive, we don’t always. I hadn’t thought about that, so thanks.

  9. Margot: As a series the Travis McGee mysteries of John D. Macdonald are premised on the clients have nothing to lose by hiring salvage expert McGee, who will keep one-half of what he recovers, for they have exhausted all other means of recovery.

    In L.R. Wright’s book, The Suspect, there is a far different “nothing to lose” than the average mystery. George Wilcox decides not to confess to killing his neighbour as he has nothing to lose by waiting to see if the RCMP can figure out he was the killer.

    • Bill – Thanks for mentioning the Travis McGee mysteries. You’re absolutely right that many of McGee’s clients have absolutely nothing to lose by getting McGee’s help even if it costs them half of whatever he recovers. What an astute observation. And thanks for reminding me that I must read The Suspect very soon. I’ve been wanting to for a while and simply haven’t yet.

  10. Enjoyable and informative as usual Margot and I am now writing a list of authors and books to read as a result. Thanks once again for being the source of enlightenment. I had forgotten all about Strawberry Alarm Clock and have just phoned my husband to mention them (well, and other stuff) and he went on for so long I had to bring the call to an end. International charges and all that. Wonderful stuff. Thanks again.

    • Jane – How kind of you – thank you 🙂 Erm – sorry about the international charges, though. Glad you enjoyed the post.

      • No problems re the International phone charges….I get 1p (penny) per minute on a special card. Otherwise it would be snail mail only. Remember Tangerine dream? My husband’s band was named for a food which was also a Joe Cocker song…..spelled same way!! Anyway the cost of the call was worth it. x

        • Jane – Yes indeed I do remember Tangerine Dream. It’s good to hear you have a prepaid card. Otherwise international calls do get expensive don’t they? Wise of you to use that card.

  11. I have Three Weeks To Say Goodbye on my Kindle. I really do need to read it, it sounds great!

  12. Add me to the list of people who hadn’t read any of these! Very interesting post Margot, I hadn’t thought of this as a particular strand, but you make a very convincing case.

    • Moira – Thank you very much – that’s kind of you. I was surprised myself at how often it turns up in crime fiction, but I suppose I needn’t have been. It is a good strategy for increasing suspense.

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