Writers notice things about human nature; that’s how believable characters come to life. The writer can take a given trait and make it work in any number of ways in a story, too. Just as an example, let’s consider a trait that I admire in people – human generosity. Many people are happy to donate their time, talent or money for a good cause or to help each other. That’s one aspect of human nature that gives me cause for hope. I think we need it and I think we’re better as a species when we nurture it.
If we look at some of the ways crime fiction authors explore this trait, we see how it can be used to further a story, too, even if the story is about murder. It’s really a matter of tapping into something humans do and are in real life and using that to serve the story. Exploitative? Maybe a little. But that’s part of the way the author adds credibility to characters.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), famous actress Marina Gregg and her husband Justin Rudd have purchased Gossington Hall in St. Mary Mead. In part to win over the locals, the new owners decide to carry on the Gossington Hall tradition of an annual charity fête. Nobody could be happier about this than Heather Badcock, who is a fan of Marina Gregg’s, and is very excited to see her idol. On the day of the fête, everyone gathers at Gossington Hall to support a good cause and of course, to see the house, the grounds, and their famous owners. Heather gets the chance to actually speak to Marina Gregg and she’s delighted. But soon afterwards she gets terribly ill and later dies from what turns out to be a poisoned drink. At first it’s believed that Marina Gregg was the intended victim and there are certainly suspects if that’s the case. But soon enough, we learn that Heather was the intended victim all along. Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry work together to find out who killed the victim and why.
Rex Stout’s Champagne For One features another charity event, this time a dinner/dance to benefit the women of Grantham Hall, a home for unwed mothers and their babies. Part of the agenda for this annual event is that some of these young ladies will be introduced to life among ‘the better classes’ and perhaps even meet young men. It’s been hosted for quite a while by wealthy socialite Louise Robilotti, and this year’s dinner/dance promises to be as much of a success as the others have been. A very reluctant Archie Goodwin is persuaded to take a friend’s place at the event, so he’s on the scene when one of the guests Faith Usher suddenly dies of cyanide poisoning. Goodwin was told earlier in the evening that Faith had brought cyanide with her, and had planned to commit suicide. So there’s every reason at first to believe that she carried out her threat. Goodwin doesn’t believe it though. So despite a great deal of pressure to leave the case alone, Goodwin begins to ask questions. In this case, we see how the busy setting of a charity event can be an effective setting for a murder. And it’s also interesting to see how this benefit is perceived by the young women themselves.
In Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), we meet CC de Poitiers, who’s become famous as a lifestyle guru. In her personal life though, she’s abusive and unpleasant, so she quickly alienates everyone when she moves with her family to the rural Québec town of Three Pines not long before Christmas. The local custom is an annual holiday pancake breakfast and curling match event in aid of the local hospital and de Poitiers and her family attend. During the curling match, she suddenly dies of what turns out to be electrocution. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team investigate the case, and they soon discover that there are several people who could have wanted the victim dead. Before they find out who the killer is, the team members will have to find out how the murderer got to the victim in full view of everyone at the event. Penny explores the human desire to help others and be charitable in other ways too in this novel, but I don’t want to give away spoilers.
Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide also features an important benefit event. This time it’s a charity dinner and art auction hosted by socialite and beauty-pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. She may be hosting a benefit event, but Tristan is certainly not a kind, generous person. She’s malicious and vindictive, and the event certainly isn’t motivated by genuine altruism. Still, a lot of people show up for the dinner and art auction. One of the featured artists is Sara Taylor, who’s had a serious argument with Tristan about one particular painting. When Sara’s mother-in-law Lulu discovers Tristan’s body during the big event, both she and Sara come under suspicion. In order to clear their names, Lulu looks into the case to find out who else would have wanted to commit the murder, and it turns out that there are several possibilities. The human tendency to want to give to and help others plays a role in this story (no spoilers) that goes beyond just the benefit, and it’s interesting to see how it’s worked in.
A high-profile charity art auction forms an important element in Gail Bowen’s The Gifted. In one plot thread of this novel, former academic and political expert Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack are involved with the Racette-Hunter Centre. That’s a community building intended as the central focus of a redevelopment project for North Regina. As a part of this effort, fundraising Chair Lauren Treadgold and her husband Vince have planned a gilt-edged fundraising art auction. Joanne and Zack’s fourteen-year-old daughter Taylor has had two of her paintings chosen for the auction. On the one hand, this is a real coup for Taylor, who is both truly gifted and truly passionate about her art. On the other, her parents are concerned. They don’t want her to grow up too fast, and the recognition that she’ll get as a result of the auction will, as one character says, ‘change everything’ for Taylor. Still, Taylor’s work is included in the auction. Her parents have seen one of her pieces, but not the other. On the night of the big event, the other piece of art is revealed, and that has drastic consequences for many of the people involved.
Of course, not all charity and fundraising events end that way. For instance, in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, local orphanage director Mma. Silvia Potokwane plans a benefit event in aid of the orphanage. One of the things that will be featured is a parachute jump. Mma. Potokwane has a way of getting people to do what she wants, so against his better judgement, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni agrees to do the parachute jump. After all, it’s for a very good cause. The closer the event gets though, the more uncertain he is about going through with the jump. Still, he doesn’t want to let Mma. Potokwane down. Finally, with help from Mma. Precious Ramotswe, he comes up with a solution. One of his assistants is persuaded to take his place. The assistant is all too happy to get his name in the paper and get some attention (mostly from girls). Mma. Potokwane will get the funds the orphanage needs. And Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni won’t have to actually do the parachute jump himself.
The trait of being willing to give to others and be generous is an important way that we keep moving on. I’m glad it’s part of who we are as humans. It’s also a fascinating trait to explore in crime fiction. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. I’ll bet you can think of lots more than I ever could.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Los Lonely Boys’ Believe.