I got an email today from an acquaintance. The email contained a link and invited me to click on it. I didn’t click on the link because the email looked suspiciously like spam. Sure enough, a short time later I got another email from the same person, who explained that the email account had been hacked and that link was a ‘hack’ link. I didn’t automatically assume the email was legitimate because I’ve learned not to implicitly trust email. After all, are there really that many incredibly wealthy people out there who have died and named me their sole heir? If you’ve ever gotten spam like that, you know what I mean.
What’s interesting is that people didn’t used to be that way about email. We used to open it, read it and act on it, often without thinking. Today we’ve learned to be a lot less trusting because too many people have taken advantage of that trust. And that example of email is really just one of many that show that we may not trust as much as we did in the past. Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery got me thinking about this very issue in an interesting comment exchange. Before I go on about it, I’ll wait a moment while you go check out her excellent crime fiction blog and follow it if you’re not. G’head – you’ll be glad you did.
Back now? Thanks. If you look at classic and Golden Age detective fiction for instance, you see quite a few examples of trust that today we would likely not consider. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes relies for information on a group of young street boys he calls the Baker Street Irregulars. They’re led by a boy named Wiggins who is their liaison with Holmes. Holmes trusts them with surveillance, messages and other assignments and they provide him a great deal of useful information. But if you think about it for a moment, and put it into today’s terms, consider how much trust that involves. He really doesn’t know these boys (except perhaps Wiggins). But he trusts that they won’t gang up on him and rob him. He trusts that they won’t extort him or commit other crimes. Could we say the same of our feelings about today’s ‘street kids?’
Let’s look for instance at Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa and group of young people he encounters in December Heat. In that novel, a fellow cop Vieira is implicated when his girlfriend Lucimar, who calls herself Magali, is killed. Vieira was very drunk on the night of the murder, so he doesn’t remember much about what happened. And his belt was found in Magali’s apartment. What’s more, his wallet and police ID have gone missing. He asks his friend Espinosa to look into the crime and help clear his name. As Espinosa starts looking into the case, he begins to try to trace the wallet. As it turns out, a street boy took it when it fell out of Vieira’s pocket. But trying to find out anything from the ‘street kids’ of Rio de Janeiro is not a simple matter. They know from bitter experience not to trust cops. Ever. They also know that anyone at any time could steal the little they have. And Espinosa is no fool either. He knows how dangerous gangs of young people can be. The story of how he gradually approaches these young people and slowly gets the information he needs is an interesting sub-plot in this novel and it reflects how much less trust is depicted here than in the Conan Doyle stories.
In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Doyle is on a honeymoon cruise of the Nile with her new husband Simon. One of the other passengers is her American trustee Andrew Pennington. Now that Linnet is married, all of the considerable wealth she’s inherited comes to her directly and Pennington has brought along a raft of papers related to this. Simon trusts Pennington and is happy to have Linnet sign whatever papers are put in front of her and his attitude may not be unusual for the times. But Linnet wants to read each document carefully before she signs it. What’s interesting here is that her attitude is considered unusually sound, especially for a woman. Today of course, we are all encouraged to read carefully anything we sign before we do so. In fact I’d bet that many of us wonder at people who sign papers without knowing what they’re signing. In this novel, Linett’s caution turns out to be well-founded as Pennington becomes a suspect when she is murdered. Hercule Poirot, who is on the same cruise and investigates the murder, hears the story of those papers and it alerts him to the possibility that Pennington may have been mishandling his client’s money.
In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, PI Jayne Keeney travels from Bangkok, where she lives and works, to the small town of Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck. Maryanne was a volunteer at an orphanage/child care facility when she allegedly committed suicide. But her father Jim doesn’t think his daughter killed herself and hires Keeney to find out the truth. One of Keeney’s useful contacts in this case is the head of the Bangkok Tourist Police Major General Wichit. His job is to make Bangkok appealing and safe for tourists but instead of getting shocked at the stories they tell him, he gets frustrated with them for what he sees as their gullibility. For instance, they exchange money outside an official currency exchange booth instead of being wary of strange offers. Then they find that the ‘currency’ they’ve bought is worthless fake money. In fact, Wichit,
‘…almost longed for his countrymen to show a little more ingenuity in the scams they pulled.’
The central plot threads in this novel aren’t focused on the idea that we trust less now than we used to do. But throughout the story, attitudes such as Wichit’s are common. Instead of a lot of sympathy for those who are swindled, there’s a general feeling that everyone ought to know that you can’t trust anyone, so people shouldn’t fall for scam artists.
In Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Mervyn Bunter are stranded near the village of Fenchurch St. Paul in East Anglia. The Two men head towards the village where they’re rescued by Rector Theodore Venables. Not only does he bring them in out of the cold but he offers them lodging while their car is repaired. While they’re there, Lady Thorpe, the local squire’s wife, dies of influenza and Wimsey and Bunter stay on for her funeral. Six months later, they hear from Venables again when Lady Thorpe’s husband Sir Henry dies. The gravediggers were preparing for the funeral when they found another corpse in the place prepared for Sir Henry. Venables asks Wimsey to return and investigate and Wimsey agrees. It turns out that the unknown dead man is connected to a long-ago jewel robbery. Although Venables’ generosity is laudable and Wimsey turns out to be a ‘safe bet,’ letting two unknown men into your home for the night is something a lot of us might think twice about today.
And in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils we see a completely different attitude. In that novel, Robert Dell is riding with his wife Rosie and their two children when they are ambushed and their car sent off the road into a gorge. Dell survives and tries to flag down help. And in fact it’s not long before another car comes along. But the family in this car doesn’t stop to help. It’s not because the driver is a ‘bad person’ or unfeeling. But there are too many stories of innocent drivers being carjacked or worse when they stop to help a supposedly stranded person. Dell manages to get back to Cape Town though, only to find himself accused of killing his family members. He’s ‘railroaded’ into prison and thinks that his fate is sealed. Then, unexpectedly, his father Bobby Goodbread, from whom he’s been estranged for years, arranges his escape. Each for different reasons, Dell and Goodbread go in search of the person who killed Dell’s wife and children.
So, are we less trusting today than we were? Possibly. If so, there could be a number of reasons why. It may be that where one lives (safe area vs an area where a lot of crime has been reported, for instance) plays a role. Or it could be that although there’ve always been scams and worse, we’re better informed now. Media and technology have seen to that. Most of us have heard horror stories of financial scams. We’ve read about ways that criminals have found to catch their victims unaware. If we trust less it could be that the stories of what happens when we trust too much have gotten round better. But what do you think about this? Do you think we’re less trusting? Do you think it depends? On what? If we are less trusting, is that just as well? Or have we maybe become too hardened?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I just got an email from the Nigerian Lottery Commission saying I’ve just won millions and millions of dollars! Lucky lucky me! All I have to do is respond with my bank account details so my winnings can be promptly deposited into my account… ;-)
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the great Motown writing team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland, Jr and made famous by The Supremes.