One 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.