Have you ever known an enabler? You know the kind of person I mean; I’m sure you do. Parents who make excuses for their child’s mistakes instead of helping that child to be responsible are arguably enabling. So are people who cover for friends who are habitually late to work, or who drink too much. What’s interesting is that most enablers aren’t that way out of malice. Some aren’t even really aware that they’re enabling. I don’t have a background in psychology, but my guess is that a lot of enablers simply don’t want to accept that their friend or loved one has a problem. It’s a form of denial if you want to put it that way. Other enablers (especially parents and partners) see others’ problems as a reflection on themselves in a way (e.g. ‘If my child lies to a teacher, that means I’m a bad parent.’). There are also people who enable because it benefits them in some way. For instance, authorities who look the other way when it comes to smuggling or human trafficking are enablers of that sort.
There are lots of enablers among crime-fictional characters, and that makes sense. A lot of the things that lead to crime are made a lot easier if one’s enabled in some way. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
There are several examples of enablers in Agatha Christie’s novels, and discussing most of them would give away spoilers. But I can mention one in particular without giving away too much. In Death on the Nile, we meet Salome Otterbourne. She is a once-successful novelist whose work has faded in popularity. Rather than try to adapt to changing tastes, she continues to believe that her work is misunderstood and that it’s only a matter of time before it once again gets the acclaim it deserves. Still, the drop in sales has depressed her and she’s turned to drink. She and her daughter Rosalie take a cruise of the Nile, although to Rosalie,
‘One place is much like another.’
At first, all goes well enough. Everything changes though when fellow passenger Linnet Doyle is shot one night. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he and Colonel Race investigate. In the process, Poirot gets to know both Otterbournes, and he discovers how Mrs. Otterbourne’s drinking has been enabled.
In Donna Leon’s Fatal Remedies, university professor Paola Falier discovers that a Venice travel agency owned by powerful Paolo Mitri has been enabling the Thai child sex trade. The agency earns quite a lot of money from people who want to prey on children and are willing to pay well to do so. One morning, Paola is arrested for throwing stones through the window of the agency to call attention to their ‘side business.’ Matters are made complicated by the fact that her husband is Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice questura. Having his own wife arrested makes things quite difficult for Brunetti, and the fact that Mitri has strong connections to some very influential people just makes things worse. In fact, Brunetti ends up placed on administrative leave because of this situation. Paola isn’t proud of that, but she is equally determined not to allow the travel agency to continue to enable child predators.
C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye tells the story of Jack and Melissa McGuane. He’s a Travel Development Specialist for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau; she works at a local hotel. They are also the proud adoptive parents of a beautiful baby Angelina. All goes well until they discover to their shock that Angelina’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, never legally waived his parental rights. Now he’s come forward to exercise those rights, and he wants the McGuanes to relinquish custody of Angelina. As you can imagine, they refuse. Then Garrett and his powerful father Judge John Moreland pay the McGaunes a visit. During the visit, the McGuanes discover what a truly unpleasant person Garrett Moreland is. They also discover that his father is an enabler on many levels. Just to give one example, he makes it clear that if the McGuanes will do what his son wants, he will see that they get the funding and court approvals to adopt another child. In other words, it’s a thinly concealed offer to ‘buy back’ Angelina. This the McGuanes also refuse, and that’s when the real trouble begins…
And then there’s Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. In that novel, small-time gangster and drug dealer Lewis Winter has become a problem for some bigger players in Glasgow’s underworld. He wants to climb up the proverbial ladder to keep his girlfriend Zara Cope but instead, he’s been marked for death. Twenty-nine-year-old freelance hit man Calum MacLean has been hired to do the job. MacLean is a professional and does his job well, and part of the reason for that is that he’s got more than one enabler in his life. There’s his brother William, who has his concerns about Calum’s line of work, but still helps him out with transportation. There’s also the runner from whom MacLean gets the guns he and his accomplice George will use to do the job. This runner acquires and re-sells all sorts of guns, and can be trusted not to ask too many questions about his customers. The runner is very well aware of what the guns are used for, but enables the business because it benefits him. On the night of the planned hit, the two hit men go to Winter’s home to do the job, and the result has powerful consequences for everyone involved.
Herman Koch’s The Dinner focuses on two couples; Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s older brother Serge and his wife Babette. One night the four of them meet for dinner at an excusive Amsterdam restaurant. As the dinner moves from course to course, so does the narrative. We learn about the backstories of these couples, about their family lives, and about a very dark secret they’ve been keeping. These are very dysfunctional people, and as the story unfolds, we see how that dysfunction has played out in disastrous ways. The more we learn about the real reason for the dinner, the more we see how enabling has played an important role in what’s happened.
Enabling takes on many forms, and it’s often (‘though of course, not always) counter-productive – sometimes outright destructive. There’s only been space here to mention a few instances from crime fiction. So, please, fill in the gaps I’ve left…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steely Dan’s Dirty Work.