I Betcha You Would Have Done the Same*

What Would I DoPart of the appeal of some crime novels is that they invite the reader to do some deeper thinking. For instance, I’d guess that we all want to think we’d do the right thing in a given situation. But what, exactly, is the right thing? It’s not always clear. Books that address those more difficult questions invite the reader to ask, ‘What would I have done in the same situation?’

There are certainly plenty of crime novels that raise that question. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed during a trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he works with M. Bouc, a director of the train company, and with fellow passenger Dr. Constantine, to find out who the killer is. The solution leaves Poirot, Bouc, and Constantine with a decision, and it’s interesting to ask what we might have done in the same situation.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood has received an extortion letter from book dealer Arthur Geiger. The letter makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen, and of course, Sternwood wants Geiger to leave the family alone. So he hires PI Philip Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him. By the time Marlowe tracks the man down, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Carmen Sternwood is in the same room, and was a witness to everything. But she’s either drugged or has had a mental breakdown, and isn’t able to be of help. Now Marlowe faces a decision: does he simply call the police, thereby putting Carmen at risk? Or does he help her escape, thereby possibly protecting someone involved in the murder? His decision to help Carmen gets him in far deeper than he’d planned…

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is a fictional re-telling of the real-life case of Maggie Heffernan. In 1900, she was imprisoned for the killing of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie is raised in rural Victoria, where she meets Jack Hardy, who’s in from Sydney for a visit with relatives. The two start seeing each other and become secretly engaged. Then, Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. When Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, she writes to Jack several times to let him know, but he doesn’t respond. Knowing that her family won’t accept her, Maggie heads to Melbourne and finds work in a Guest House. The baby is duly born and for a short time, he and Maggie live in a home for unwed mothers. Then she discovers that Jack is also in the Melbourne area. When she finally finds him, though, he rejects her utterly, even calling her ‘crazy.’ With nowhere else to go, Maggie tries to get lodgings for herself and her son, but is turned away from six different places. That’s when the tragedy occurs. The novel invites the reader to ask, ‘What would I have done?’ in several places.

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill does the same thing. Ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped by Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. There’s a sense of shock and outrage, and a great deal of sympathy for the Hailey family in the small Mississippi town where they live. Tonya’s father Carl Lee Hailey is determined that Cobb and Willard won’t get away with their crime. From his perspective, it’s not a given that they’ll be convicted, since they are White and he and his family are Black. So he lies in wait for them and shoots them as they go into the courtroom. Attorney Jake Brigance defends Hailey, and he’s up against considerable odds. Woven throughout this novel is the question of what any of us might do under the same circumstances.

Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos features a woman who’s recently been released from prison. Her only real companion is her Pit Bull Sully. At first, things aren’t too bad as she gets used to living in ‘the real world’ again. Then, a mother who uses the nearby day care facility lodges a complaint with the local council because Sully is a restricted breed. Forced to give Sully up, his owner plots her own kind of response. As the story goes on, we learn why she was in prison in the first place. It’s certainly not a straightforward case, and it leaves the reader wondering, ‘What might I have done?’

That’s also true in Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X. When Shinji Togashi is murdered, his ex-wife Yasuko Hanaoka comes under suspicion. But Detective Shunpei Kusanagi can’t find clear evidence against her. He gets help from Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa, who soon learns that he’s up against a formidable opponent. Mathematics teacher Tetsuya Ishigami lives in the same building as Hanaoka does; in fact, he’s fallen in love with her. He’ll do anything to protect her, and he’s smart and skilled. In this novel, there are several places where the question comes up of what any of us might do if we were in the same situation as Hanaoka and Ishigami.

One of the clearest examples of the ‘What might I do?’ sort of novel (at least for my money) is Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone. When four-year-old Amanda McCready goes missing, the police launch a massive effort to find her. They aren’t successful though; and the more time that goes by, the less chance there is that Amanda will be found alive. So her uncle and aunt, Lionel and Beatrice McCready, hire PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro to find the girl. At first the two are reluctant to take the case. For one thing, they’re still recovering from their last case. For another, they don’t see what they can do that dozens of Boston-area police can’t do. But they are finally persuaded to at least ask some questions. They begin their search for Amanda and soon find that there are several possibilities. In the end, Kenzie and Gennario find out the truth about the child. But this isn’t a simple instance of, ‘PIs find out what happened to little girl.’ It raises a very challenging set of questions.

And that’s the thing about novels that invite the reader to ask, ‘What would I do?’ The best ones tell a well-written, cohesive story. But they also raise issues that make us wonder how we might act in a similar situation. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Cell Block Tango.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Dennis Lehane, John Grisham, Keigo Higashino, Raymond Chandler, Wendy James

30 responses to “I Betcha You Would Have Done the Same*

  1. Kay

    Murder on the Orient Express – yes, I know exactly what you mean about the decision. I love that book! Did not actually like the David Suchet adaptation and I had been waiting for that one for a really long time. Did you see that one and didn’t Poirot seem very angry and oddly religious?

    • Kay – I think Murder on the Orient Express is a terrific novel. Among other things, it shows that Christie could take ‘the rules’ for detective novels and – erm – adjust them for her own purposes. I did see the adaptation with David Suchet and, like you, wasn’t keen on it. I was especially disappointed because Suchet is my top Poirot. To me, he is Poirot. But the storyline wasn’t true to the novel. I didn’t like the way some of the other characters were portrayed either, to be honest.

  2. I am particularly fond of books that allow me to wonder what I would do in a situation, so this post really appeals to me. I think Poirot made an excellent decision in Murder on The Orient Express and, as you know, I was deeply moved by Out of the Silence… I now need to read Gone Baby Gone which you’ve made sound incredibly appealing.

    • I thought Out of the Silence was a powerful book, too, Cleo. And it shows how easy it is to judge others without really knowing what we might do in a similar situation. And I liked Poirot’s decision-making in Murder on the Orient Express too. Gone, Baby, Gone is a gritty, powerful story. And in some places it’s quite hard-hitting. More to the point, it raises some really important issues and ‘What would I do?’ questions. I recommend it; if you do read it, I hope you’ll be glad you did.

  3. That was one thing I particularly liked about ‘A Time to Kill’ – that Grisham laid out both sides of a couple of ethical questions and left the reader to decide. I think that’s what makes it his best novel for me.

    • I love that about A Time to Kill too, FictionFan. He really does lay everything out in all of its ambiguity, doesn’t he? I think that shows a) his awareness that these are not easy issues, and his willingness to tackle them; and b) his respect for the reader. It all adds a lot of depth to this novel in my opinion.

  4. Have you ever heard of the Texan defense — Your honor, he needed killing.


  5. What a timely post Margot – I have just finished reading Humber Boy B – a book that pricks at your social conscience and asks who could have helped/made a difference, intervened? Who is to blame?

  6. The best novels, both crime and otherwise, force you to consider the dilemma posed. Great topic.

  7. This is a good post. Donald Maass suggests having the main character want two things that are at odds. Looking at this post, it seems he’s right.

    • Thanks very much, A.M. That’s a really interesting concept, too – having the protagonist want two conflicting things. I think most of us are in that situation at least once in a while. We are torn between two choices that are, as you say, at odds. That can make for terrific tension in a story. Thanks for the fine ‘food for though.’

  8. Glad you mentioned Gone, Baby, Gone which I think has the most compelling dilemma of them all at the end of it. In a number of murder stories, the sleuth finds out whodunit, but it is suggested that a blind eye should be turned, because of the importance of the culprit, or because of corruption/career implications, or for other reasons. Of course the good sleuth never agrees… I’m thinking of another title by Christie, and one of PD James, and a few more….

    • Right you are, Moira, both on the Christie and the James. There are, as you say, others, too. And it’s interesting to see how the different writers handle that plot point. I couldn’t agree more that Gone, Baby, Gone really brings up a wrenching dilemma. I think Lehane handles it very well, too. It’s very powerful without being melodramatic.

  9. In A Time To Kill I can’t say I wouldn’t have wanted to do the same thing. What a powerful story that was.

  10. For a couple of these I have seen the movie but not read the book. I am looking forward to reading A Time to Kill, but haven’t yet decided if I will read Gone Baby Gone.

    • Tracy – I think A Time to Kill is a really powerful story. I’m a purist, so I’m biased. In my opinion, the book’s better than the film. But you may think differently. And Gone, Baby, Gone is in some ways a very difficult book to read. It certainly cuts deep.

  11. Col

    I did like the Lehane book and the questions the author asks of the readers stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. I think I have the Grisham somewhere for a read in the future

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