There’s Still Time to Change the Road You’re On*

Going Back or NotA lot of murders, both real and fictional, come about because of a sort of cascade of events. Looking back later, we can point to several places where the buildup, if you will, could have been stopped, and the murder thus prevented. Of course, that wouldn’t leave very much plot for a crime novel, but it’s interesting to take a look at how sometimes small decisions can spiral out of control and result in disaster.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, for example, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway seems to have it all. And it seems like a godsend to her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort when Linnet is willing to hire Jackie’s fiancé Simon Doyle as her land agent. But then Linnet finds herself attracted to Simon. Instead of turning back from that, as you might say, she pursues him and it’s not long before they’re married. Their honeymoon trip includes a trip to Egypt and a cruise of the Nile; to Linnet’s dismay, Jackie turns up at the hotel, as she has everywhere they’ve been. Linnet approaches Hercule Poirot, who’s at the same hotel, to ask him to make Jackie stop. He gently points out to her that she had the chance to prevent all this in the first place. Later, he talks to Jackie and asks her to turn back and leave the couple alone before it’s too late. Neither woman really listens to him, and Jackie goes along on the cruise. On the second night, Linnet is shot. Jackie is the first suspect, but it’s soon proven that she could not have killed the victim, so Poirot and Colonel Race have to look elsewhere for the killer. Throughout the novel, there are other examples, too, of points where people make choices that end up cascading out of control.

In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, Ystad Inspector Kurt Wallander and his team are faced with the brutal murders of local farmer Johannes Lövgren and his wife Maria. The victims seemed to have no enemies, and they weren’t known to be wealthy. So there seems no motive for the murders. Even a look into their family background doesn’t really reveal anything that points to the killer. There is one possibility though. Just before she died, Maria said the word foreign. A lot of people have taken this to mean that the killers were foreigners. At this point, matters could be controlled somewhat, but the media gets hold of the story and it sets a spark to the already-simmering local prejudice against immigrants. When the story gets into the news, it sets off a backlash, which has its own consequences. And as we find out later, the murder itself might have been prevented, but for someone’s choice not to let matters go.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. Eva very much wants the peaceful suburban lifestyle, complete with white picket fence, for herself, her husband and their son Axel. So when she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful, Eva is devastated. At that point, she might choose to leave her husband or forgive him; many people do one of those things. Instead, she determines to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she sets in motion a chain of events that spins out of control. One night, she goes to a pub for a drink. There, she meets Jonas Hansson, a man with his own issues. She has the opportunity at that point to flirt with Jonas and make something of the evening, or to go home. Her decision to spend the night with Jonas has consequences that neither of them imagined. In this case, you could argue that a lot of what happens might have been prevented at several key points in the story.

That’s also true of Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit.  Mason and Gates Hunt are siblings with a terrible background including alcoholism and abuse. Mason chooses to take advantage of every opportunity that comes his way to get out of his situation. He excels in school and gets a scholarship to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his natural athletic ability and ends up living on money he gets from their mother, and from his girlfriend’s Welfare benefits. One afternoon, Gates’ romantic rival Wayne Thompson comes by, and the two get into an argument. Thompson leaves and the whole matter might have rested there. But later that night, the Hunt brothers are returning home from a night out. They run into Thomspon again and the argument starts anew. Instead of letting it all go, both men get angrier and angrier until, before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of filial duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and time goes by. Years later, Mason is a commonwealth prosecutor. Gates has been convicted of cocaine trafficking. Gates begs his brother to get him out of prison, but this time Mason refuses. Instead of letting matters go, Gates threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder unless he co-operates. Now matters spin even more out of control until Mason finds himself indicted for a murder he didn’t commit. Now he’ll have to find some way to clear his name before his brother is released from prison.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger makes quite a bit of use of those moments where people might turn back, but don’t. It begins when the police inform Fabien Delorme that his wife Sylvie has died in a car crash. Their marriage hadn’t been a loving one for a long time, but he still feels a sense of loss. He’s even more upset to discover that Sylvie wasn’t alone in the car. She had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, who died in the crash as well. Instead of leaving matters alone and getting on with his life, Delorme takes an interest in Arnoult’s widow Martine. His interest soon leads to obsession and he begins to follow her. He even books a holiday in the same place on Majorca where Martine and her friend Madeleine go. Delorme’s decision to give in to his obsession has all sorts of dark and tragic consequences. And you could argue that it could all have been prevented if he had let the matter of Sylvie’s lover go and got on with the business of living.

There’s also Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. Luke Murray is riding a bus one day when three young people get on and soon begin to bully him. At one point, another passenger, Jason Barnes, intervenes and tells the group to stop. For a short time they do. But then Luke gets off the bus, and so do the bullies. So does Jason. Instead of leaving the matter, the bullies start up again and this time the fight escalates. It goes on all the way to Jason’s yard, where he is fatally stabbed. Luke is left gravely wounded. As we follow the story, we see that there are several places where the whole thing might have been stopped, but for people’s choices. Other than Jason, the people on the bus don’t do anything to stop the bullying. The bullies don’t stop either, and neither do Jason and Luke. It’s a clear example of the consquences when things spin out of control.

And that’s what happens sometimes. One decision, one choice not to hold back or back down, and situations can go completely wrong in very tragic ways.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Henning Mankell, Karin Alvtegen, Martin Clark, Pascal Garnier

29 responses to “There’s Still Time to Change the Road You’re On*

  1. What great examples of those crucial moments when we might have reacted one way but instead took the wrong? fatal? more dangerous? decision. There are quite a few of those types of moments in Nicci French novels too (I mean the earlier standalones rather than the more recent series) – I was always fascinated by the question: ‘What would I have done in that situation?’

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia. I agree, too, that it is absolutely fascinating to consider what we would do as we see characters take one decision or another. It adds to reader involvement in a story, I always think. Thanks for mentioning Nicci French’s work too. Talk about your ‘dynamic duo…’

  2. I am fascinated by books that illustrate where a chain of events is set in motion. I have a recent example in All The Little Pieces which by Jiliane Hoffman where the protagonist left a party with her child and while lost refused to help a girl in trouble… further bad decisions followed! Loving your examples and I have a copy of Betrayal sat on my bookshelf still to be read.

  3. Excellent analysis as always Margot, thanks

  4. Patti Abbott

    I really admire the way Mankell takes on social issues and still manages to make his stories riveting. So few writers do this well.

  5. Ah, Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin – arguably one of the best tracks ever. The real DJ’s give it the full thirteen minutes. Perhaps best listened to with a little glass of something as the sun goes down. Thanks Margot for a post on life’s rocky path full of split second decisions.

    • No doubt about it, Harry, Stairway to Heaven is an absolutely classic track. It just simply is. Put it together with a good glass of something and sunset and yes, you definitely have a winning combination. And please don’t get me started on DJs who play truncated versions of a songs. I was a college DJ, and I know that it’s entirely possible to avoid that. Grates on my very last nerve when it happens.

  6. Terrific post, Margot. I remember when I was studying criminology years ago being surprised to learn that most murders happen in the heat of the moment, as a result of escalating events, and are not premeditated at all. If memory serves me well, most perpetrators are appalled by their actions and are unlikely to reoffend in the same way. Of course, this was all back in the days before drugs like ice messed with people’s inhibitions…

    • Thanks, Angela. And thanks for sharing what you learned in your crim. class. I think most murderers probably are appalled at what they’ve done. Most of us really aren’t killers by nature. As you say, it all escalates from one incident/remark/real or perceived slight/etc. and goes from there. So many of those incidents probably could’ve been prevented if someone had put the proverbial brakes on.

  7. I think on the whole that books like this, where one thing leads to another until everything gets out of control, are more believable than the tightly plotted pre-meditated kind of murder, though I must admit to a fondness for those. Gillian White’s ‘Copycat’ tells of two women – we know from the first page that one murders the other but we don’t know who’s the killer and who the victim. Their first meeting takes place in the maternity ward when the experienced mother takes pity on the first-time mother… ah, if only she’d known what a chain of events she’d be starting!

    • I hadn’t thought about it quite that way, FictionFan, but you have a well-taken point. Most real-life murders happen because there’s a building up of tension from escalating events. One thing really does lead to another and before you know it, you have a murder. I think in those cases, it really is a matter of people not stopping and taking another decision – to de-escalate. But as you say, the pre-meditated murder can make for great reading, even if it’s not quite as realistic. Thanks too for mentioning Copycat. I’ve not (yet) read it, I’m afraid (why is there never enough time to read what I want to read!), but it’s a great example of what I had in mind.

  8. Margot: Ben Solomon, in Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balsom, sixty years after the end of WW II wants to prove Chicago insurance magnate, Elliot Rosenzweig, was actually a Nazi war criminal. When a direct confrontation fails he looks for a lawyer to take on a civil suit against Rosenzweig. History is changed when he finds a lawyer.

    In real life Hans Litten, a courageous German lawyer, managed to get Hitler on the witness stand and cross-examine him about the S.A. in Crossing Hitler by Benjamin Carter Hett. History could have been much different if Hitler had been charged with perjury as he deserved.

  9. Kathy D.

    Charging Hitler with perjury? That sounds a tad mild. How about mass murder?
    This is an interesting topic and I’m interested to learn that most murders are committed in the spur of the moment. But to read mysteries one would think that they are mostly premeditated, including for financial gain.
    I would add alcohol as another factor leading to unintended murders, probably more manslaughter. People get into bar fights; one person knocks another to the floor or hits someone in the head — and all of a sudden, someone is dead.
    I am so glad that you listed Split Second, a harrowing, yet excellent book. Someone had principles and acted on them and paid the price. It’s a good instinct but one has to be careful.

    • That’s true, Kathy, both about acting on principles and about Split Second. And I’m glad you mentioned alcohol as another factor in unpremeditated murders. Things can get out of control so quickly when the drink starts flowing. In that way, it’s similar to the drugs that Angela mentioned. Both can alter perceptions completely. You’re right too that most real-life murders are unplanned; they’re the end result of a series of things that spin out of control. But in a lot of books, they’re planned.

  10. Col

    You can’t beat a bit of Garnier! I hope Clark’s Legal Limit proves a bit more entertaining than another one of his – The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living!

    • I hope you’ll like The Legal Limit, Col. It hasn’t got a breakneck pace, and it’s not a thriller in the usual sense of the word. But there are lots of interesting legal and moral issues in it, and some interesting characters.

  11. Margot, I liked the books you chose for this interesting theme and I’m particularly intrigued by your review of Martin Clark’s “The Legal Limit,” not to mention the other authors who with the exception of Christie are new to me.

    • Thank you, Prashant. The Legal Limit is a well-written book, almost literary in some ways. It’s certainly a strong character study in my opinion. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  12. In Sayers’ Unnatural Death, it’s a small and almost unnoticed change in the law that sets off a string of unhappy incidents. And, as Lord Peter is honest enough to admit, if he hadn’t come sleuthing, much of the later horrors would never have happened.

    • Trust you, Moira, to think of the perfect example from this series. You’re quite right that one small change, changes everything. And it’s interesting that thought of Wimsey’s too. He has a similar sort of, ‘if only’ moment about some of the events in The Nine Tailors.

  13. tracybham

    Again you have added to my list of books and authors I want to read. I have read Faceless Killers, but that is the only one on this list. Interesting topic, Margot.

  14. So true, and I can think of so many real life situations where one intervention could have saved lives. In fiction, it’s even more evident. My first thought was of suspense novel The Girl on the Train. So many missed opportunities, most of which were revealed in backstory.

    • You put that very well, Pat. So often, there are dozens of opportunities where a life (or lives) could have been saved by one different choice or intervention. And it’s certainly there in fiction. I’m glad you mentioned The Girl on the Train, too. I’m planning to to read that, after the buzz about it dies down.

  15. Fascinating topic, Margot. It is years since I read it, but I remember Ruth Rendell’s The Face of Trepass being that kind of novel: an accumulation of mistakes and poor decisions, some harmless enough in themselves, leading the protagonist into terrible trouble . . .

    • Thanks, Christine. And thanks for mentioning The Face of Trespass. I think Rendell was very skilled at showing what happens when there’s an accumulation of poor choices. She certainly knew how to build up the suspense using that strategy.

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