Wanna See My Picture on the Cover*

FameSeveral 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 CraigHickory 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Paddy Richardson, Riley Adams

34 responses to “Wanna See My Picture on the Cover*

  1. The Clara and Peter Morrow example in Louise Penny’s books is so sad, but very realistic, I might add. Another famous actress that comes to mind from Agatha Christie’s work is the glamorous (and haunted) Marina Gregg in ‘The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side’. Rather memorably played by Elizabeth Taylor in the film adaptation.

    • I really liked Elizabeth Taylor in that role too, Marina Sofia. And you have a good point about the character of Marina Gregg. She is definitely haunted, and it’s clear that her quest for fame has cost her dearly. As for the Morrows, I think you’re right; that situation is terribly sad, but I think it’s realistic too.

  2. Keishon

    Penelope Williamson wrote a couple of mysteries set in 1920’s New Orleans. She evokes the time period well, I might add. Anyway, one of the protagonist is an Hollywood actress named Remy Lelourie. She’s a movie star who has a overly obsessed fan stalking her. Her lover is Detective Damon Rourke and I know this gets outside of the mystery, but her career acts as a conflict in their relationship but also the stalker plot point never is really resolved to my satisfaction because the author never finished the series. The author only wrote two books: Mortal Sins and Wages of Sin and both are quite good. I can’t recall reading very many crime fiction novels that feature Hollywood as a backdrop with the exception of Williamson. At least nothing immediately comes to mind.

    I believe that Fred Vargas wrote about a once famous opera singer who finds a beech tree planted in her yard unbeknownst to her and is alarmed. I remember thinking did she have any crazy fans? The mystery turned out to be quite interesting with the culprit hiding in plain sight and with a motive that I didn’t see coming. Another good book.

    Yes, the price of fame and fortune can carry a pretty hefty price tag like you said, Margot. Thanks for the recommendations. I actually have the Agatha Christie book, The Hollow, after reading a review somewhere.

    • Oh, yes, Keishon, of course! The Three Evangelists! Thanks for reminding me of that Vargas novel. It’s a good reminder that the classical music world also has a ladder of fame, and that it’s very hard to get to the top. As for the Williamson novels, I’m glad that you mentioned them, too. I’ve heard of them, but admit that I’ve not (yet) read them. The context sounds interesting, though, and it certainly shows that being famous can make one very vulnerable. I know what you mean about story arcs not getting resolved, too. I can see how that could leave the reader ‘hanging.’ Still, I’ll probably try Williamson’s work at some point.

      • Keishon

        Yes and it’s actually a not so bad ending but with authors self-publishing these days, I wonder and hope if she’ll continue to write the series and release them herself but I understand that can be quite time-consuming and since it’s been some years since the last book, I guess the answer is no.

        I hope you give them a try. They are mysteries with some light, romance elements but what stands out is the setting. Some books just “say” they are set someplace but with Williamson, you never forget you’re in New Orleans.

        • I do like that strong sense of setting, Keishon. And you make an interesting point about self-published novels. It certainly makes it possible for authors to continue with series, even if their publishers have not picked a given series up. I’ve seen that happen in a few places. It’d be interesting to see if Williamson will do that. As a few years have gone by, you may be right that she won’t. But you never know.

  3. Margot: There is a long tradition in America of flamboyant lawyers – usually playing the role with great calculation – who seek fame. Two prominent reasons are to earn money and for prestige.

    On the lighter side Mickey Haller, the colourful L.A. lawyer created by Michael Connelly, uses big Lincoln Continental cars as his office to draw attention. It works well as he is known throughout L.A. as the Lincoln lawyer.

    On the darker side Paul Koffee, the prosecutor in The Confession by John Grisham, loves the attention he gains as the successful prosecutor of death penalty cases to the point he will even present false evidence.

    • Two excellent examples! I loved Lincoln Lawyer and have been dying to read The Confession. Sorry to intrude. *backs away* I couldn’t help myself. 😀

    • You’re quite right, Bill. There is indeed a long history of outspoken, flamboyant lawyers with distinctive court personas. And you’re right that those personas are often carefully cultivated. Part of the reason for the way they behave is to gain prestige and reputation. And you’ve given terrific examples of how that works with both Haller and Koffee. Actually, I think the topic of the way courtroom personas – of the attorneys and judges – is fascinating in and of itself.

  4. In Elizabeth Little’s, Dear Daughter, LA It girl, Janie Jenkins is famous ‘just because’ as some people are and this gets her in more trouble than she expected. She’s imprisoned for her mother’s murder and when she’s released she finds it really difficult to go about looking for the truth when the press are constantly trying to find her. It’s a great book for showing just how obsessed society is with following and wanting to know the every move of ‘famous’.

    • Oh, yes, Rebecca, I remember your discussion of Dear Daughter on your own blog. I think you’re exactly right that one of the prices of fame is that you can’t go anywhere or do much of anything without cameras following you. And of course every word you say gets repeated and printed everywhere. If you add to that the inevitable gossip about having been in prison, it’s all that much worse.

  5. I promise to read your post but first I need to comment on the song title! Dr. Hook is coming to North West River to our Beach Festival! Just so you know, NWR has a population of 500 folk on a fat day. Not sure how wonderful it will be (I hear he’s lived pretty hard on the circuit) but just to see him will be a treat. I’ll take photos.

  6. Fame! In the Buddhist teachings we learn not to yearn for it. The Buddha said, “People cleave to their worldly possessions and selfish passions so blindly as to sacrifice their own lives for them. They are like a child who tries to eat a little honey smeared on the edge of a knife. The amount is by no means sufficient to appease his appetite, but he runs the risk of wounding the tongue.”
    The story of Peter and Clara is so interesting and winds through so many of the books in Louise Penney’s series. I have a not-so-secret desire for fame so am glad to be reminded of its burning qualities.

    • You know, Jan, I thought of Buddhism and the Buddhist way of looking at fame when I was writing this post. I’m glad you shared that quote. There is definitely a great deal of truth to the fact that fame can be just as dangerous as it is seductive. I think a lot of people do want to be famous, even if only for a short time; it’s healthy to remember that getting overly attached to anything – including fame – is risky.

  7. Peter May’s latest book ‘Runaway’ concentrates on a group of young boys who run off to London at the height of the Swinging Sixties to seek fame for their band. Inevitably things don’t quite work out the way they hope…

    • Oh, I love that example, FictionFan. I’d guess that there are a lot of musicians who’ve done a similar thing and headed to the ‘bright lights’ to make their names. Even when there’s not crime involved, it seldom turns out the way they think it will.

  8. Such an interesting topic and comment thread. Loving it. The quest for fame and fortune breeds all sorts of emotions within those who seek and those who ultimately possess it. It can be very unpleasant to encounter and experience close up….and I have done. Apart from in my short story, Dreamer, (In A Word: Murder) it has, so far, not culminated in Murder. However, I have seen it wreck lives and drive others almost to the verge of suicide. The hunger to succeed and the lengths people will go to achieve their aims and ambitions is a quite shocking thing to behold. I love to read about it in fiction, but sadly it is no fun close up and personal. I love the Lincoln Lawyer too. 🙂

  9. Memory tweak! I think I’ll go downstairs and listen to my Dr. Hook CD …
    And then there are the folks who commit horrible crimes simply to get their names known around the world and never forgotten. But I guess that’s a blog post for another day…..

    • Dr. Hook’s done some great stuff, I think, Pat. 🙂 – You’re absolutely right, too, about the kinds of people who try to become famous by committing awful crimes. There’s certainly a list in real life, and I’ll have to think about doing a post on that. Thanks for the idea.

  10. I’ve just read a book where unwanted fame (or infamy) in the internet age provides a cautionary tale so this post chimes with some of my own thoughts – personally I can’t think of anything worse which is probably why I find it fascinating!

    • It is fascinating, Cleo, to think about what it would be like to be that famous. At the same time, there are definitely negative consequences to it. Even if there isn’t a murder, etc., one has to be ‘on guard’ in so many ways. It can indeed make for a good cautionary tale..

  11. I was not a fan of last year’s worldwide bestseller, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker: one of the reasons was that it contains two serious, literary authors who are so famous that they can’t walk down the street without being accosted by fans, mothers pimp out their daughters to them, waitresses in cafes ask for their autographs. I thought this was hilarious but totally unconvincing! If only good writers were as famous as moviestars…

    • I know what you mean, Moira. I very much doubt that well-regarded authors have difficulty walking down the street. I can imagine that aspect of the novel was funny, but it certainly isn’t realistic…

  12. Col

    No examples to add I’m afraid, blank memory! I’m sure there’s something lurking somewhere though. Enjoyed the post, cheers

  13. I like the idea of mystery’s set around a beauty pageant. A closed community like that is always interesting, plus the dynamics between the characters would provide lots of tension.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s