I Trusted You Till I Learned the Score*

AbuseofTrustOne of the worst kinds of crimes, at least in terms of the scars it leaves, is the sort of crime where those in positions of a lot of trust abuse that trust and take advantage of those who are vulnerable. We see lurid stories of that sort of thing in the newspaper, on television and the Internet when, for instance, a teacher or parent abuses children, or a shady ‘charity’ bilks honest donors and worse, those for whom those donations were intended. Abuse of trust is also a major theme in crime fiction and that makes sense. First, it happens in real life so it’s realistic to have it play a role in a novel. Second, abuses of trust are fairly often crimes, and even when they stay just this side of illegal, they can lead to a strong motive for murder.

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, what starts out as a normal summer term at exclusive Meadowbank School turns disastrous when games mistress Grace Springer is shot in the school’s new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s a kidnapping. And then there’s another murder. While Headmistress Honoria Bulstrode works hard to reassure parents that their daughters are safe, many of them feel that their trust in the school has been violated and they pull their daughters out. In the meantime, one of the pupils Julia Upjohn visits Hercule Poirot, who is an acquaintance of a friend of Julia’s mother. She tells him of the events at Meadowbank and he agrees to look into the matter. In the end, the murders and the kidnapping are all related to a revolution in a Middle East country and a cache of valuable gems. And many of the events in the story happen because Miss Bulstrode has put too much trust in someone – and made her school vulnerable.

There’s a chilling example of abuse of trust in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. When George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman as their housekeeper, it’s obvious that they trust her with their home and possessions. And although the new housekeeper is a little eccentric, all seems to go smoothly enough at first. She certainly does her job well enough. But as we soon learn, Parchman is keeping a secret from her employers and she’s desperate to prevent them from learning it. And although she’s afraid of them on that score, she also has her share of contempt for them. When George’s daughter Melinda accidentally discovers what the housekeeper’s secret is, the result is tragic. What makes it all the more tragic is that much of what happens could have been prevented if the Coverdales hadn’t trusted the wrong person.

Susan Wittig Albert’s Chile Death also has as one of its themes the abuse of trust. Former attorney China Bayles now owns and runs an herb and spice shop called Thyme and Seasons. Her partner police officer Mike McQuaid is in a nursing home recovering from a line-of-fire shooting incident that has left him paralysed. So now he’ll have to re-think his life and his identity. Then, there are allegations of abuse at the nursing home where McQuaid is staying. There are even reports that the manager may be skimming money from the residents. Then a nursing-home employee is fired for stealing, but claims that she was framed. In the meantime, McQuaid is dealing with the major changes in his life and so is Bayles. To take him out of himself so to speak, McQuaid’s persuaded to serve as a judge for an upcoming chili cook-off. He’s reluctant to appear in public but he finally agrees. On the day of the cook-off, fellow judge Jerry Jeff Cody, an insurance executive, is poisoned. Bayles looks into the murder and discovers how it’s related to the abuses and fraud at the nursing home.

In Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), Stockholm tax attorney Rebecca Martinsson returns to her home town of Kiruna when her former friend Sanna Strångard is accused of murder. Sanna found the body of her brother Viktor in a local church and alerted the authorities. That’s stressful enough for her but then it’s discovered that Sanna may have had a motive for killing her brother. She tells Martinsson that she’s innocent and asks Martinsson to defend her. Martinsson has her reasons for being reluctant but she agrees to take the case and begins to investigate. As she looks into the lives of the people in Viktor Strångard’s life, especially those involved in the church where his body was found, she finds quite a lot of abuse of the trust people often put in church leaders. And that strikes an all-too-familiar chord with Martinsson, whose reason for leaving Kiruna in the first place had to do with a breach of that trust.

Abuse of trust and taking advantage of those who are vulnerable plays a major role in Michael Connelly’s The Fifth Witness. Lisa Trammel’s mortgage is being held by WestLand Financial, part of WestLand National, an L.A.-based bank. When her husband Jeff leaves her, she’s no longer able to make payments on her home. The bank threatens foreclosure and she visits attorney Mickey Haller to get some help with her situation. Haller looks into the matter and finds some evidence that the bank may be engaging in fraudulent mortgage re-assignment, and he’s trying to use that abuse as the basis to re-negotiate his client’s loan and find a way to help her. Trammel has her own mental issues so instead of taking responsibility for her part in the foreclosure (she didn’t pay the mortgage or contact the bank to try to make some arrangement), she blames the bank entirely. In fact, she sets up a citizens’ action group and even pickets the bank, claiming its foreclosure policies are predatory and illegal. Then Mitchell Bondurant, the mortgage officer who was handling the Trammel account, is murdered in the bank’s parking lot. Trammel is accused of the murder and certainly she had motive. But as Haller looks into the case he finds that she wasn’t the only one. So now he has to look into the bank’s practices, Trammel’s claims of innocence and the personal relationships that Bondurant had at the bank to find out who is responsible for the murder.

Angela Savage’s PI sleuth Jayne Keeney looks into a case of abuse of trust in The Half Child. Frank Delbeck has hired Keeney to look into the death of his daughter Maryanne, who fell (or jumped, or was pushed) from the roof of the hotel where she was living. The official police report classified the death as a suicide but Delbeck doesn’t think his daughter killed herself. So Keeney travels to the town of Pattaya, where Maryanne Delbeck was a volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre. New Life is an orphanage that also has a facility for what are called ‘boarders.’ Those are children whose mothers or fathers have not yet given them up for adoption but are unable to care for them. The idea is that the children will stay there until their parents either relinquish them or get into circumstances where they can take care of them. As Keeney begins to investigate Maryanne’s death, she discovers some evidence that there may be some serious abuses of trust going on at New Life. There are hints that parents may be being illegally coerced into releasing their ‘boarder’ children for adoption. There is even the possibility that some of the ‘boarders’ are being stolen from their parents and given to unwitting adoptive families. Did Maryanne know or suspect what was going on? If so is that why she was killed? Or did Maryanne’s personal life (which also contained secrets) have something to do with her death? As Keeney sorts out this case, we see through the eyes of some of the mothers of the ‘boarders,’ as well as through the eyes of adoptive parents, what happens when the trust we put in official institutions is abused.

Abuses of trust are perhaps all the more serious because those who are victims are often vulnerable at the start. That’s in part why they make us so angry when they happen in real life. That’s also why they can resonate so much in crime fiction.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lefty Frizzell’s I Don’t Trust You Anymore.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Åsa Larsson, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Susan Wittig Albert

21 responses to “I Trusted You Till I Learned the Score*

  1. It is a sad thing that it is much harder to trust nowadays. (Or at least it seems that way to me.)

    I am planning to read the first of Angela Savage’s novels later this year after they come out in paperback here. Discovering too many new (to me) authors.

    • Tracy – You make an interesting point about today’s level of trust as opposed to the way we used to feel. I’ll have to think about that – you may be on to something. As to Angela Savage’s work, I think it’s well worth looking out for and reading. Her stories address some serious social issues without making light of them, so they’re not what you’d call light reading. But Jayne Keeney is an interesting character and the stories are well-written with solid plots.

  2. A difficult subject for many, abuse of trust which is why it does make for a very emotive subject within crime fiction.

    • Rebecca – I couldn’t agree more. For most of us, abusive of trust really does resonate deeply. Anyone who’s ever had to go through it understands how it huts. So yes it’s not easy to deal with but it is emotive.

  3. Very interesting points – and Cat Among the Pigeons, which is one of my favourite Christies. As I’ve said before (and I think it’s a liking we share) I do love a mystery with an academic setting. Which would nearly always bring up issues of trust – and some writers will make a lot of that, while others ignore it – an interesting division?

    • Moira – An interesting division indeed. I wonder if that’s because some writers are concerned about touching on a very difficult issue like that. Others face it more head-on as the saying goes. And that makes sense as writers, like people, vary a lot. You’re quite right too that we share a liking for academic settings. That’s part of the reason I set my stories in that context. And I’ve always loved that aspect (among many others) of Cat Among the Pigeons.

  4. Hi! What a great blog! I’ve been out of reading mysteries for many years and have no idea where to start. Reading some of your plot summaries gives me some idea where I can find a good read. I appreciate it! Cheers!

  5. Margot: Your post brought to mind a real life Canadian case on breach of trust from over 80 years ago. Elizabeth Bethune Campbell, after the death of her mother, finds her uncle, William Drummond Hogg, has mishandled her mother’s investments and cannot provide a proper accounting. What makes the case fascinating is that after losing in the Canadian courts Mrs. Campbell appealed the case on her own to the Privy Council in England and became the first woman to argue a case before the Court. A book, The Heiress vs The Establishment by Constance Backhouse and Nancy L. Backhouse, has been written about the case. I could go on further but do not want to make this comment longer than it is at this time. Instead, while I do not usually provide a link to a review in my blog in a comment I hope you do not mind the following link to the review this time. It is http://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.ca/2013/01/the-heiress-vs-establishment-by.html

    • Bill – I don’t mind the link at all! You are always welcome to share your posts on my blog. Thanks for sharing this fascinating story too. What a great case in point that breaches in trust are sometimes found out and those who commit them are held responsible. I definitely want to read the book as it sounds like a fascinating story. Hey, folks, do visit Bill’s blog – You won’t regret it.

  6. kathy d.

    Very good issue to examine in crime fiction. Abuse of trust is certainly a factor in murders from different sides, either by the person abusing the trust or by someone who gets back at an abuser of trust.
    Banks and mortgage companies are rife with fraudulent practices. One only has to read the newspapers to see this goes on all of the time. However, most protests stay within the bounds of socially acceptable protests, even when they’re civil disobedience actions. Think Thoreau and Dr. Martin Luther King. However, it’s when people cross the line and commit murder that it gets juicy in a mystery.
    And Jayne Keeney’s exploits. I found myself thinking twice about her decisions in The Half-Child. Another detective (or real human being) might have made a different decision based on the immorality and violence of the perpetrators of fraud. There are at least two sides to that story, probably three or four: the adoptive parents, the workers at the “foster care/boarding agency,” the biological mother’s and Jane’s. What one thinks of in strict morality and what’s legal gets skewed when children are concerned and when there’s poverty. What is “in the best interests of the child?” What does one accept as okay? I have heard debates on this that made my hair curl. An issue at bottom is severe poverty and inequality that affects so many decisions. I would not have wanted to be in Jayne Keeney’s place in that story near the end.

    • Kathy – Nor would I. You’re right that not everyone would have chosen what Jayne Keeney did. But the novel (Folks, do read The Half Child – It’s compelling!) raises some important complex issues about foreign adoptions. And there are many, many issues of trust here. Adoptive parents’ trust that their baby is legally theirs, the biological mother’s trust that she’s doing the right thing, and more.
      As to banks and mortgage loan companies? Yes of course borrowers must act responsibly. If you borrow money you need to pay it back. But there really are so many stories of fraud and illegal activity among those companies. As you say, the industry is rife with them. But yes, most protesters don’t disobey the law. I hope they keep speaking up though if I may say so. The industry must be held accountable for its policies and actions.
      I think one of the reasons abuse of trust is such a strong issue in crime fiction is that it’s one of those things that can spark deep emotion. I don’t wish a betrayal of trust on anyone but if you’ve ever had it happen, you can understand what a powerful reaction it sparks. So there is indeed a lot of inspiration for crime fiction.

  7. ‘A Judgement in Stone’ is a great book but very difficult to read. The central character is very creepy indeed.
    As a sub-theme, there is a motif when we as readers feel betrayed by what goes on in a book. I don’t mean just an unreliable narrator, but also when you have invested emotionally in a character, and assume all will turn out well in the end. And this isn’t always the case.
    An example of this (not crime fiction!) is Severus Snape in Harry Potter. I sat down and watched all 8 films with my 9 year old twin nephews over the summer. About half way through I asked – is he really bad or is he pretending? Yes they answered – he is bad. As an adult I could see the subtly in the character and the portrayal but at the end…. It is difficult not to feel betrayed.

    • Sarah – I hadn’t thought about that issue of feeling betrayed by the outcome of a book but you’re right of course that that happens. We get caught up in a character and yes, we want all to be well. And when it doesn’t turn out that way we do feel a sense of betrayal. We’ve put our time, effort and emotional energy into caring about those characters and then..
      Snape is a good example too. And you bring up another interesting point when you mention his character. Adults see the subtlety of it and get a sense of what is really happening. It is harder isn’t it for children to do that.

  8. I find abuse of trust, especially at an individual level, very disturbing. Strangely, I find it equally unsettling in fiction, to the extent that I often put away the book for a while. I tell myself that it’s only a story but then I think of the victims and what they are about to go through. You wish you could warn them somehow. If this is what abuse in fiction can do, imagine what it can do in real life. I see it happening all the time in the many westerns I read. Fine examples, Ms. Kinberg! For me, a gentle nudge in the ribs that I ought to read more crime-fiction.

    • Prashant – Abuse of trust is a very difficult thing to cope with so I don’t blame you for finding it unsettling. It is a betrayal. And when a story is powerful enough sometimes one does have to remind oneself that it’s just a story. And I know just what you mean when you say you want to call out a warning to a character. I’ve had that feeling too. And it can be an emotionally draining enough experience that one needs to take a break from a book. I think abuse of trust just runs deep enough that it strikes a chord with readers so that they feel that strongly about a story.

  9. Great post! I’ve read a couple of the books here, but not “Half Child.” Sounds intriguing…I’ll put it on my TBR list. Abuse of trust does make for a powerful element in mysteries.

    • Elizabeth – Thanks! I think it’s because abuse of trust is such a betrayal that it’s hard to cope with in real life. I think that’s why it resonates so powerfully when we see it in crime fiction. And I hope you’ll like The Half Child if you get a chance to read it. It is a well-written novel.

  10. Pingback: Where Did Our Love Go?* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

  11. These situations are so sad and do make good stories, but I try to avoid the ones involving children. Violating trust in financial matters, however, is the theme of several excellent thrillers. Christopher Reich’s “Numbered Account” comes to mind.

    • Pat – Situations of violating trust really are awfully sad and it’s especially tragic as you say when they involve children. I find those very hard to read and generally don’t unless it’s really, really worth the emotional effort. Which doesn’t happen often. Thanks for mentioning Numbered Account Breaches of financial trust are also very interesting fodder for stories.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s