I Want More*

DissatisfactionOne of the less positive things about human nature is that people get dissatisfied, even when they seem to have everything. It’s not really greed so much as not seeing the value of what one already has. When we’re not content with what we have, this can lead to all sorts of bad decisions and worse. There’s a strong argument of course that setting goals and wanting to make more of ourselves is a good thing. But the opposite side of that proverbial coin is a sometimes very dangerous restlessness. And that can end up in disaster. Just a few quick examples from crime fiction should be enough to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie writes about that restlessness in several of her stories. I’ll just mention one. In The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we are introduced to Harley Street specialist John Christow, a man who really does seem to ‘have it all.’ He has a successful practice, a rich strand of research, and a stable home with a devoted wife and two healthy children. He even has a mistress who engages him intellectually as well as physically. And yet, he’s not satisfied. As the story begins, he puts that restlessness down to an odd nostalgia for an affair that ended fifteen years earlier and tries to shrug it off. He and his wife Gerda accept an invitation to spend the weekend in the country at the home of his friends Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. But his past catches up with him when Veronica Cray, his former love, comes back into his life. She’s taken a cottage not far from the Angkatells’ home, and drops in unexpectedly one evening. Now in a way more restless than ever, Christow ends up seeing her home. The next afternoon, he’s shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited to lunch, and arrives just in time to see the body and the person who seems to have killed Christow. At first it looks like a grotesque tableau. But Poirot soon sees that it’s all too real. And as he investigates, we see the force of wanting more even when one seems to ‘have it all.’ (I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile, Five Little Pigs and Sad Cypress).

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep introduces readers to the Sternwood family. Wealthy General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to solve a family problem. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that mentions Sternwood’s younger daughter Carmen. Marlowe’s job will be to make Geiger leave the family alone. He accepts the case and goes to see the book dealer. By the time he does, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been killed. Carmen is at the scene of the crime, but she’s either drugged or has had a mental breakdown, so she can’t be much help. Marlowe gets her out of the way and it seems the case ends there. But that’s only the beginning of his dealings with the Sternwood family. This family certainly seems to have ‘it all.’ The Sternwoods are wealthy and powerful, and both Carmen and her older sister Vivian are attractive, smart and healthy. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be happy with their lives. But the truth is quite different. As just one example, Vivian has a habit of gambling and a taste for ‘escorts.’ And her husband Rusty, who’d married a beautiful, wealthy woman, ended up running away with another woman. It’s interesting how no-one in that family is satisfied, although you’d think they have everything.

In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery investigate the murder of famous fashion designer Sheila Grey. She’s a woman who seemed to have everything: a highly successful career, money, intelligence and looks. In fact, at the time of her death, she had more than one admirer, so the Queens have several suspects. As they get to know the victim better, they (and readers) learn that she wasn’t content, although she was proud of her business. In her personal life, she certainly wasn’t the type to be happy forever with just one person. Here’s what she says about it to one partner:
 

‘‘I’m a one-man-at-a-time-gal, and right now that man can be you. But you must understand that while I’d be yours and yours only, I don’t know for how long. A week, a month, five years – maybe forever; how can either of us tell? You notify me when you want out, and I’ll do the same.’’
 

She’s not greedy in the sense of wanting more and more lovers. But she certainly isn’t what you’d call content.

Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes begins late one night when New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn stops a young woman who’s about to jump off a bridge. He persuades her to come with him and takes her to an all-night diner where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy and successful Harlan Reid. Until recently, life had been good for them. But everything’s changed. Not long ago, Harlan Reid took a business trip to San Francisco. The housemaid warned Jean of terrible danger if her father returned to New York on the date he’d originally planned. At first, Jean didn’t want to believe it was true, but enough of her wondered that she almost sent him a telegram. Then she discovered that the flight he was to take crashed with no survivors. Her father, however, escaped that fate because someone else sent him a telegram. When he returned safely, the two resolved to find out how the housemaid knew what would happen. That curiosity led to Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who, as he puts it, is cursed with knowing the future. Since that time, Harlan has become obsessed with knowing the future. Each time he’s visited Tompkins, he’s learned things that have made him richer and richer, but it’s not greed that has driven him. It’s more wanting to know the future and at the same time not wanting to know. Now, Tompkins has seen something shocking: Harlan Reid’s death. This has utterly devastated the Reids and it’s what’s led to Jean Reid’s attempt at suicide. Shawn decides to try to help her if he can, and finds himself drawn into a very strange case…

And then there’s A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife. Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert have been together for twenty years, although they’ve never legally married. Todd’s a real estate developer, and Jodi is a psychologists. They have a lovely Chicago home, a successful relationship – in short, everything. Yet Todd is restless. He has what most people think of as ‘it all,’ but he’s not really content. And to be fair, neither is Jodi, really. Todd begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his business partner. He’s strayed before; but this time, things are different: Natasha becomes pregnant. She wants to marry and have a family, and at first that’s what Todd says he wants as well. Jodi is devastated when she finds out, and it’s made even worse because Todd isn’t open with her. He’s trying to keep both doors open, if I can put it that way. The consequences of choices that both of them make turn out to be drastic.

And that’s the thing about not appreciating what you have. Restlessness and wanting more can push a person into some very dark places…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Part of Your World.

 

20 Comments

Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Cornell Woolrich, Ellery Queen, Raymond Chandler

20 responses to “I Want More*

  1. Keishon

    GREED can definitely take some people down some dark paths and have. I remember watching the movie, A Simple Plan and how it wasn’t all that simple! Anyway, back to your post, I read The Big Sleep. Marlowe had some harsh words to say about the Sternwood family 😉

    • Yes, he did indeed, Keishon. And you’re right that greed can lead people disastrously astray. What’s interesting too is that it doesn’t even have to be greed per se That feeling of not being happy with what you have – that restlessness – can be just as damaging.

  2. You are so right, Margot, acquisitiveness is very damaging. And having too much can make some people unappreciative of what they have.

    Probably doesn’t really apply here, but Loot by Aaron Elkins is about looting art objects during World War II.

    • You have a good point about Loot. I don’t want to spoil it, but there are characters in that novel who are not satisfied with what they have. And that acquisitiveness defintely has dire consequences. Thanks for reminding me.

  3. A man falling for another woman and wanting rid of his wife, and perhaps less often the other way round, was a frequent plot point back in the good old days, when divorce was still frowned on, or sometimes when divorce would have lead to losing the spouse’s money. Now maybe it’s more often the reverse – the abandoned partner seeking revenge. Personally I think these plots that hang on human relationships are so much more interesting than ‘impersonal’ crime, like drugs gangs or serial killers. I’m with Poirot – it’s all down to the psychology of the crime…

    • It’s true, FictionFan. There were plenty of plots where the trouble lay in wanting someone other than one’s spouse in those older novels. I think it is different today when divorce is easier and doesn’t have the social stigma that it once did. And as you say, it is interesting to see the way human relationships work out (or don’t!). Those plots interest me a lot more than drugs, gangs, political plots, and so on. I think that’s where the real drama in life lies.

  4. You know, I can’t help but have some sympathy for those characters who are restless, although they seem to ‘have it all’. If the author has done a good job of portraying them, and they are not just one-dimensional, they often ‘have it all’ by other people’s definition of success and happiness, which they bought into unquestioningly but are perhaps starting to realise is not for them. So I pity them as well. It is sad, though, that this often hurts other people as well as themselves.

    • You have a point, Marina Sofia. A lot of times what seems like ‘it all’ on the outside isn’t what that person really wants or finds fulfilling (even if, as you say, it might have seemed so at the start). Hence, the restlessness. I think you’re right that the key is whether the fiction character is well-rounded and solidly-drawn, so that we can see more than just the ‘this isn’t enough’ side.

  5. A great post Margot. It seems that no matter what people have, they always seem unsettled with it. The grass is always greener syndrome.

    • That’s exactly it, Rebecca: The grass is always greener. And people do seem to be subject to that. It can make for a lot of unhappiness, I think. Thanks for the kind words 🙂

  6. Patti Abbott

    Greed must figure into more books than any other human impulse. And sadly, it only mirrors reality-like the Koch Brothers.

    • Oh, I think you’re right, Patti. That sort of ‘I want more’ is woven all throughout literature. And yes, it is, unfortunately quite common in the real world too. People who seem to have everything don’t find it to be enough.

  7. Daphne du Maurier’s heroines often have a restlessness, they’re looking for something, they want more from life. This is usually not a bad thing in this case, but it’s a great help with the plot! I think Mary Yellan from Jamaica Inn would be a good example. IN this case there are some very dark things going on -because of other people’s acquisitiveness.

    • That’s a well-taken point, Moira. Those characters don’t want more because they’re greedy. They want more out of life than their current roles allow them, if I can put it that way. And yes, it does help the plot along! You’ve reminded me I really must spotlight a du Maurier book!

  8. Another great post Margot and one that really appeals to me – I think it is human nature to strive for more and that can lead to people losing sight of the good things in their life. Also when it comes to relationships no-one really knows what life is like behind closed doors and how two personalities interact will always be a mystery because what could seem like a good life to one person e.g. having an attentive spouse who wants to do everything together may look like the ideal partnership but could lead to another person feeling smothered and trapped and in danger of losing their identity.

    • Cleo – Thanks for the kind words. And you make a very well-taken point about appearance v reality. We really never do know what goes on behind closed doors do we? People who seem to ‘have it all’ can have another life entirely when the shades are drawn, so to speak. And as you say, someone who’s living what seems to be the perfect life could indeed also be losing her or his identity. And then it is, I think, only natural to want more if we think we’re missing out on something.

  9. Col

    I think it’s human nature to strive for more, or perhaps how society has conditioned us maybe. How many people are truly content with their lot?

    • Good question, Col. Most of us do tend to want what we don’t have, even if what we do have is pretty terrific. Maybe we are conditioned to it; maybe it’s human nature. Either way I think it’s there.

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