Several cultures place a premium on fame. Perhaps that’s at least in part because fame is often seen as a mark of individual achievement. Name recognition is often a status symbol, too. There’s also the fact that fame can open proverbial doors for a person; and it can mean lots of money. It’s little wonder then that plenty of people want very much to be famous. That goal can push people to work harder, do better, and so on. It can also lead to conflict and much worse. But even when it doesn’t, the desire for fame can add an interesting layer of character development, and it can add tension to a story.
In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we are introduced to actress Veronica Cray. She’s becoming quite famous; and her goal is to get to the top rung of the acting ladder. When her former lover John Christow is shot, she becomes a suspect in the murder. For one thing, she wanted very much to resume the relationship, although Christow had gotten beyond it. In fact, they had a bitter argument about it. For another, she’s staying in a getaway cottage near the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, where Christow was a house guest. She had easy access to the part of the property where Christow was killed. Hercule Poirot also has a nearby cottage, and in fact, is at the Angkatell home on the day of the shooting. So he works with Inspector Grange and his team to find out who killed Christow. Here’s what Veronica says about herself at one point:
‘You mean that I haven’t got to the top of the tree. I shall! I shall!’
She’s not just egotistical; she’s determined to get to the top.
Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth is in part the story of aspiring actress Kerrie Shawn. She’s hoping for fame and success in Hollywood; but so far, she’s not found much of either. She and her friend Violet ‘Vi’ Day share a dingy place and scrape by the best they can. She’s worked very hard, and she has ambition. Still, there are a lot of people who want to make it in the acting world; Kerrie has a lot of competition. Everything changes when eccentric millionaire Cadmus Cole returns from years at sea. He wants to track down his relatives so that they’ll be able to inherit when he dies. So he hires the PI firm that Ellery Queen has just opened with his friend Beau Rummell. There’s a hefty commission at stake, so even after Queen is laid up with illness, Rummell continues to search. As it turns out, Kerrie Shawn is related to Cole. When Rummell finds her, she is shocked at her good fortune. After Cole’s death, she and her friend pull up stakes and move into the Cole mansion on the Hudson River (that’s one of the conditions Cole laid down in his will). The other heir is Margo Cole, who’s been living in France. She, too, moves into the mansion, and, not surprisingly, conflict soon comes up. When Margo is shot, Kerrie is the natural suspect. Then, there’s what seems to be an attempt on her life, too. Now, with Queen’s guidance, Rummell has to find out whether Kerrie engineered that attempt, or whether someone else has targeted both young women.
In Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red, the focus is on television fame. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne is the successful host of Saturday Night. But she’s reached more or less a crossroads in her career. She’s very well aware that there are other ambitious people coming up behind her, as the saying goes, and she wants to ensure her place at the top. In fact, up-and-comers such as Janet Beardsley, the darling of the network, are already making their mark. So Thorne needs the story – a story that will make her career. And that just may be the case of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. Thorne learns that there are pieces of evidence that suggest Bligh may not be guilty. If he’s innocent, that story could be Thorne’s breakthrough. So she starts to pursue it. And one of the story elements is the reality of television ambition and the search for fame.
Kylie Manners and Gossamer Judge, whom we meet in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, are also out for television fame. It’s not so much that they’re egotistical. They are, however, both determined to ‘make it’ on ‘the soapies.’ By day, they work in Chapman’s bakery. But they also go to every audition they can; and when they do get parts, Chapman cuts back on their hours (without firing them) so they can do their television work. They’re young enough to have the energy to carry the load of two jobs, as it were. And they’re ambitious enough to do what they have to do.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls, Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, gets a new client. Mr. Pulani runs a very famous and popular Botswana beauty pageant. Now he wants Mma. Makutsi to help him find the best candidate to win the Miss Beauty and Integrity contest. It’s an odd request, but Mma. Makutsi agrees, and begins to meet the top candidates. She doesn’t have a lot of time to make her choice, but she soon gets to know enough about these young women to decide which one best embodies the pageant’s ideals. It’s an interesting look at the drive to win pageant fame. So, by the way, is Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide, which goes ‘behind the scenes’ of the beauty pageant circuit.
Then there’s the interesting case of Clara and Peter Morrow, whom Louise Penny fans will know as residents of the small Québec town of Three Pines. The Morrows are both artists, and when we first meet them in Still Life, Peter is widely acknowledged to be the one with the greater talent, and certainly more recognition. In one story arc, though, Clara finds her own artistic voice and begins to get some attention and notice of her own. She’s really not what you’d call greedy or overly ambitious. But it is interesting to see what happens to the dynamic between the Morrows as Clara begins to get noticed. I won’t spoil the arc for those who don’t know it. I can say, though, that it’s a case of up-and-coming fame changing a lot.
On the outside, anyway, fame seems to offer a great deal. So it’s little wonder so many people dream of it. But as any crime fiction fan knows, that ambition can carry a hefty price tag…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Shel Silverstein’s The Cover of the Rolling Stone made famous by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. Yes, that Shel Silverstein.