He’s Adept at Adaptation*

AdaptingWe all have to adapt to new circumstances. If you get a new job, you need to learn the way your new employer does things. When you move to a new place, you have to find out where the library, the grocery store and the banks are. You also need to learn the local culture and fit in, if you want to settle in. The fact is, humans are a social species, so most of us want to be part of a group. The way to do that is…adapt.

Some adaptation makes a lot of sense. New employees need to learn company policies. Moving in with a new partner or spouse means that both parties have to adapt if the relationship is going to be successful. But how far does adaptation go before it means giving up too much? It’s not always an easy question, and crime fiction makes that clear. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to add lots more than I could.

Some adaptations aren’t really all that difficult. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we meet Jane Grey. She’s a hairdresser’s assistant in an upmarket London salon. She isn’t what you’d call poor, but she’s certainly not well-off. When she has a very unexpected win in a lottery, Jane decides to have a taste of ‘the good life.’ She takes a holiday at Le Pinet, as many of her clients have done. It’s not the fantasy trip it might have seemed, as she has quite a losing streak. But Jane is practical, and never really expected to spend the rest of her life in the lap of luxury. She does have to make some adaptations, so as to mix effectively with those who can go to Le Pinet whenever they want:

‘Jane, like most London girls employed in smart places, could produce a miraculous effect of fashion for a ridiculously small outlay. Nails, make-up, and hair were beyond reproach.’

The efforts that Jane goes to don’t cost her that much. But they do get her involved in a murder investigation when a fellow passenger is murdered on the flight back from France to London. I know, I know, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Adaptation (and lack thereof) takes on a more deadly cast in Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal. Horace Croydon is an up-and-coming bank official who is neat, quiet, and utterly respectable in every way. He’s always led a rather staid life, and as he moves up the bank’s proverbial ladder, he makes sure to only hire people who, like him, are completely respectable, preferably quiet, and with no hint of scandal anywhere in their families. Then one day, he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. When they first meet, she strikes him as quiet and respectable, just as he is. After a tasteful amount of time, they begin seeing each other seriously. Finally they’re married. That’s when Horace begins to see that Althea is not the person he thought he’d married. From his point of view, she is not a meticulous enough housekeeper, she has sloppy habits (she even shops without a list!) and is too ebullient for good taste. He keeps hoping she’ll adapt if he ‘corrects’ her, but she doesn’t. Then one day, she destroys a set of ciphers he was trying to work. They’re his passion, so this pushes him too far. Now Horace decides there’s really only one way to solve his problem. In this story we might very well ask, ‘who didn’t adapt?’

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Walter and Joanna Eberhart move with their two children from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. They’re looking forward to more space, lower taxes, and good schooling for the children. From the very first, Joanna finds it a bit difficult to adapt. She’s a semi-professional photographer and a feminist who’s now living in a town where all of the women seem preoccupied by their homes and taking care of their families. In one scene, for instance, she’s in the supermarket, and notices that,
…they even fill their carts neatly!’

She tries to adapt, but finds it difficult to be,

‘…deeply concerned about whether pink soap pads are better than blue ones or vice versa…’

After a short time, she makes a friend in Bobbie Markowe, who shares Joanna’s frustrations. Neither of them wants to make the adaptations that it seems they’re expected to make. And that has consequences for both.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces us to Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. She meets Bill King, a junior investigator for the district attorney, and the two fall in love. Bill’s sister Lora, a Pasadena teacher, is not at all impressed with Alice, and becomes concerned for her brother. But even she understands that it might just be a bit of jealousy on her part. So she doesn’t interfere when Bill and Alice get married. Alice soon settles into married life in the suburbs, and adapts very quickly. She becomes the social leader among their friends, and Lora tries to be friendly with her, mostly for Bill’s sake. But Lora wonders just how much Alice has adapted. The more she learns about Alice’s past, the more she wonders just who Alice really is. As she finds out, Lora is repelled, but at the same time drawn in, by Alice’s world. Then there’s a murder, and a good chance that Alice might be mixed up in it. So Lora starts asking questions, mostly (as she tells herself) to protect her brother. That choice turns out to have real consequences for everyone.

The question of how much you give up of yourself when you adapt comes up in Betty Webb’s Desert Wives. PI Lena Jones and her business partner Jimmy Sisiwan investigate the murder of Solomon Lord, leader of a very reclusive polygamist sect living on a compound called Purity. The members of the community are not willing to talk to ‘outsiders,’ so it’s decided that Jones will go undercover as a new member of the community. To do so, she has to make a lot of adaptations. It’s not just a matter of dressing in a particular way, either. Everyone’s activities are circumscribed, even non-verbals such as eye contact. Every new member has to make those adaptations, and they can be difficult. Jones does discover who killed the victim; she also uncovers other very dark secrets at Purity. But doing so requires almost more adaptation than she finds possible.

And then there’s Tonino Benacquista’s Badellas, which introduces readers to Fred and Maggie Blake and their children, who move from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. The family finds it a challenge to make the adaptations they have to make to fit in in their new home; there are cultural differences, language differences, and food differences. Matters aren’t made any easier by the very high stakes involved.  Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against the group. Now he and his family are in the US Federal Witness Protection Program, with new names and identities, and many adjustments they have to make. And when word of their whereabouts gets back to New Jersey, life gets even more complicated for them…

Adapting is often challenging, especially when it involves major adjustments. And those changes can be highly stressful. But they are part of life for a lot of people. And they can make for interesting plot points in a novel.


ps. There is little better adapted for life in the semi-arid climate where I live than a cactus. Unless it’s a lizard, but they’re harder to photograph…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Digital Man.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Ira Levin, Megan Abbott, Talmage Powell, Tonino Benacquista

20 responses to “He’s Adept at Adaptation*

  1. I think I might like to read the Setpford Wives – I possibly have seen the film or parts of it, I can recall some parts, but it sounds like the book is terrific and worth a read…sometime… 🙂

  2. I think many of us are a bit disappointed in the ending of Margery Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds, when fashion designer Val – a strong independent businesswoman – accepts a proposal of marriage. Her suitor has made it clear that all the adaptation in this partnership is going to come from the female side…

    • That’s a well-taken point, Moira. And now you’ve put me in mind of Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, where we see that Rosamund Darnley is likely to do the same thing. I was a bit disappointed in that, to be honest.

  3. I laughed at the detective in Belinda Bauer’s ‘The Shut Eye’ who liked to look over autopsy pictures over dinner, much to the horror of his new girlfriend. Well, why not? He’d always done it when he was single! I felt he hadn’t really mastered the whole ‘adapting’ thing…

    • 😆 No, he hadn’t indeed, FictionFan! It’s amazing, isn’t it, how easily irritated people can be by little things like autopsy pictures at the dinner table! 😉

  4. Margot, I enjoyed the movie “The Stepford Movies” and your mention of Ira Levin’s book, on which it is based, is a reminder for me to read the book. I also plan to read Megan Abbott’s novels in near future.

    • I thought the 1975 film was quite good, Prashant. In my opinion, the book was better (as is so often the case). I hope that, if you get the chance to read it, you’ll enjoy it.

  5. Col

    Witness protection strikes a chord, Jess Walter’s Citizen Vince strikes a chord. As does the as yet unread Badfellas.

    • Oh, I hope you’ll like Badfellas if you get the chance to read it, Col. I think you’d like it. And thanks for the mention of Citizen Vince – something I’ve not (yet) read, but probably should…

  6. Kathy D.

    Ah, yes, adapting to another person living in your space! One of the zaniest is when one person is a neatnik, the other a “slob.” Socks can end up in the weirdest places.
    But I must say that this scene took the cake: Watching the Swedish/Danish version of The Bridge knocked me for a loop when the female police detective from Malmo is looking at autopsy pictures in bed in the middle of the night. He is shocked, says nice knowing you and departs.
    That’s an adaptation many people might not be able to make.
    Dirty socks, the toothpaste tube not being closed, kitchen sink (and elsewhere) full of dirty dishes and pots are one thing. Autopsy photos are quite another.

    • There is a big difference, isn’t there, Kathy, between leaving the cap off the toothpaste tube and looking at autopsy pictures in bed. The latter really is quite an adjustment. You’re right, though, that couples always have to make some adaptations, however minor. And thanks for mentioning The Bridge – a good example.

  7. Kathy D.

    I meant to say that the suitor of the female detective is shocked at 3 a.m.

    I just resaw Three Days of the Condor. Did not read book, but the movie is well worth rewatching … and Robert Redford. Enough said.

  8. I would love to read The Stepford Wives, but I think it will be too creepy for me. Also want to read Megan Abbott’s Die a Little.

    • Die a little is a great example of modern historical noir, Tracy. It’s a fine, fine novel, in my opinion. And you know, The Stepford Wives really felt eerie to me the first time I read it. It’s a creepy theme…

  9. Kathy D.

    On a jag about Robert Redford, also resaw Havana, also a terrific film. And my kudos to the late, terrific director Sydney Pollack.

  10. Sometimes adaption can make life easier, in a sense. I’m thinking of the cases where the dismissed insurance investigator or policeman/DA assistant makes the lateral move to private detective. In the new profession he doesn’t have to deal with legalistic niceties so much.

    • You have a very well-taken point, Bryan. Sometimes needing to adapt means that the sleuth gets a whole new lease on life. And where would the genre be without PIs who used to be coppers, insurance investigators or some such thing?

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