And I Wish I Could Have All He Has Got*

Wistful ThinkingI’m sure you’ve seen those cheerful social media updates. People post when they win awards, graduate, marry, have (grand)children, travel to exotic places, and go to fabulous restaurants. Those updates sometimes make it seem that the people who post them have charmed lives where everything’s going beautifully. Of course, in our rational minds, we know very well that life isn’t perfect, not even for people who post ‘photos of themselves being toasted at a major awards banquet. There really is no such thing as a charmed life. But when we compare our lives to others’ lives, it can seem that way.

An evocative poem by Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about how that comparison can play out in fiction. That thread of wistfulness – even envy – that people sometimes feel when they look at others’ lives can make for an interesting layer of suspense in a story. It can add a layer of character development, too. And in a crime novel, it can create a motive for all kinds of things…

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we meet London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s had plenty of clients with the means to travel and enjoy life; and, although she’s not really what you’d call jealous, she’d like to play, too, as the saying goes:

‘So many of her ladies had been going to Le Pinet or just come back from Le Pinet. Jane – her clever fingers patting and manipulating the waves, her tongue uttering mechanically the usual clichés, ‘Let me see. How long is it since you had your perm, madam?… Your hair’s such an uncommon color, madam… What a wonderful summer it has been, hasn’t it, madam?’ – had thought to herself, ‘Why the devil can’t I go to Le Pinet?’

Jane gets her chance when she wins in the Irish Sweep. She’s returning by air from Le Pinet to London when a fellow passenger is poisoned. Since the only possible suspects are the other passengers in the cabin, Jane gets drawn into the investigation. Among other things, she learns that life among the ‘beautiful people’ is not charmed.

In one plot thread of Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s wedding. One of the events is to be a posh engagement-party weekend at the home of Mieka’s future in-laws. Then, Joanne gets an unexpected call. Christy Sinclair is the former girlfriend of Joanne’s son, Pete. She has a history of lying and being manipulative, so when she and Pete broke up, it seemed very much all for the better. Now Christy is back, and even says that she and Pete are getting back together. She wants to travel with the Kilbourns to the engagement party, where Pete is supposed to meet them, and Joanne reluctantly allows it. When Christy arrives the next day to join the family, she says,

“I’ve missed this family.’’

And it’s not just because of her relationship to Pete. When she is killed the next night in what looks like a drowning suicide (but isn’t!) we learn more about her history. She has a tragic background, and looked on the Kilbourns as almost a model of what she would like in a family. Fans of this series will know that Joanne and her family are not perfect, nor are their lives charmed. But that’s how it seems to Christy.

One of the main characters in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is Gates Hunt. When the story begins, in 1984, he is just moving into young adulthood in rural Patrick County, Virginia. He has a lot of natural athletic ability and the opportunity to parlay that into a successful career that can get him out of the poverty in which he grew up. He doesn’t make use of his talent, though, instead squandering everything. In fact, he lives on money from his mother Sadie Grace and from his girlfriend Denise’s Welfare payments. In the meantime, Gates’ younger brother Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity that comes his way. He’s worked hard and gotten a real chance at academic success. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. The argument ends for the moment; but later that night, the Hunt brothers run into Thompson again. More words are exchanged and before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots his rival. Out of filial loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime. The years go by, and Mason continues to be successful. He becomes a prosecuting attorney, marries a woman he loves, and with her, has a healthy child. Gates envies his brother, although it’s not the sort of resentful envy you might imagine. That is, not until Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and sentenced to a long prison term. He reaches out to Mason to help get him out of prison, but his brother refuses. Then Gates uses a powerful bargaining chip: he threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder if Mason won’t help him. Mason calls his brother’s bluff, as the saying goes, and Gates carries out his threat. Now Mason has to clear his name and avoid being convicted of a murder he didn’t commit.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets the opportunity to join a family cruise on a private yacht owned by wealthy business executive Charity Wiser. She’s hired Quant because she believes someone is trying to kill her, and she wants him to find out who it is. The idea is that if he goes on the cruise, he can ‘vet’ the various members of the family and identify the would-be murderer. Quant knows that even the wealthy don’t have a perfect, charmed life. But as Quant puts it,

‘I am generally a person with his feet planted firmly in reality, but I do love to dream…This case fit my dream perfectly. A swashbuckling adventure on the high seas.’

For him, it’s a chance to live, however briefly, the wealthy life. But as he finds out on this cruise, it can be as dangerous as it is enviable.

And, although it’s not really a crime novel, I couldn’t resist mentioning Monica McInerney’s Hello From the Gillespies. Angela Gillespie has spent more than thirty years sending out the sort of family newsletter that makes people resentful. You know the kind: perfect life, perfect children, success for all. But the reality is quite different for this family. They’re coping with everything from debt to career trouble to problematic retirement, and more. This year, for the first time, Angela tells the truth about her family:

‘It’s been a terrible year for the Gillespies. Everything has gone wrong for us.’

The trouble really starts when that letter gets sent accidentally to everyone on the newsletter list…

So as you see, you may get wistful or worse about your own life when you see those Facebook updates or get those holiday newsletters. When you do, it’s always good to remember that things are not usually what they seem. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop by Finding Time to Write? It’s a treasure trove of poetry, fine book reviews, and lovely ‘photos. Thanks for the inspiration, Marina Sofia.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ David Watts.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Gail Bowen, Martin Clark, Monica McInerney

31 responses to “And I Wish I Could Have All He Has Got*

  1. dkent

    “Richard Cory”

    Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
    We people on the pavement looked at him:
    He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
    Clean favored, and imperially slim.

    And he was always quietly arrayed,
    And he was always human when he talked;
    But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
    “Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

    And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
    And admirably schooled in every grace:
    In fine, we thought that he was everything
    To make us wish that we were in his place.

    So on we worked, and waited for the light,
    And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
    And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
    Went home and put a bullet through his head.


    Paul Simon also wrote a song based on this poem. I’ve always loved the irony of the refrain, “Oh, I wish I could be, oh, I wish I could be Richard Cory.”

    • Oh, that is exactly and precisely what I had in mind with this post! Thank you! I’ve always loved this poem – so poignant – and the song, too. I really appreciate your adding it in here! 🙂

  2. I don’t think I’ve read any of these novels, including Christie’s. You’ve fattened my reading list again, Margot.

  3. Thank you so much for the mention – and, my goodness, you are so quick at putting together a blog post – a real encyclopedia of crime fiction! Speaking of Facebook and other social media, one book I haven’t got around to reading yet but which seems to be all about that – and what happens when appearance and reality don’t match – is SJ Watson’s Second Life. Now that is of course online ‘identity fixing’ taken to an extreme, but it does make you wonder how much we edit for public consumption…

    • Oh, I agree, Marina Sofia. That Watson interests me for the same reason. In today’s world, it’s so easy to create an appearance that doesn’t at all resemble the reality. And that can lead in so many different directions. It’s a very effective context for a crime novel. If you do read the Watson before I get to it, I’ll be interested in what you think of it.
      And it is my great pleasure to mention your excellent blog and fine poetry. You capture that feeling of seeing those ‘happy’ posts so very well.

  4. Margot: In John Grisham’s book, The Firm, new law school graduate Mitch McDeere is lured to a tax firm where salaries are large and the perks extensive. It looks great until Mitch finds out that the firm is actually …… I actually liked both the book and the movie.

    Grisham has looked to the allure of big law and the disillusion of its reality in several of his subsequent books.

    • Yes, he has, indeed, Bill. And The Firm is one strong example of that. It shows how something can look quite appealing from the outside, but, well, not be so at all in reality. I’m glad you offered that example, as it’s a terrific one.

  5. Wow Margot that was a quick turnaround from Marina’s poem to a whole post! As I started reading your intro I immediately thought of Hello From The Gillespies which epitomises this type of behaviour. In Margaret Yorke’s The Small Hours of the Morning there is a strong element of this type of jealousy behind the murder.

    • What can I say, Cleo – Marina Sofia’s post was inspirational. I agree with you, too, about Hello From the Gillespies. It may not really be crime fiction, but it certainly does reflect that sort of ‘happy’ update people post and send out, regardless of what the reality may be. And thanks for mentioning The Small Hours of the Morning. I always think Margaret Yorke explored psychology so effectively in her work.

  6. Col

    I’ll have to give Martin Clark another chance. Your example sounds much better than the one I tried.

  7. Sue

    I loved Hello from the Gillespies – a wonderfully entertaining book. It will resonate with anybody who has received those Christmas letters extolling family achievements and feels absolutely lowered by comparison.
    What is that saying – comparison is the enemy of happiness?

    • I like that saying, Sue, very much. I need to remember it, And you’re right; Hello From the Gillespies really does resonate if you’ve ever had one of those holiday letters. It certainly takes a look at the letter vs the reality.

  8. I think this is a fascinating topic, Margot. I’m very interested in people who try to get close to a person whose life seems enviable from the outside – or even – as happens in one of my novels – decide that they want to be that person and begin to take on their identity.

    • That’s certainly a rich layer to add to a story, as you did, Christine. At what point does wistfulness or even envy turn into that sort of obsession? And when it does, what are the consequences?

  9. Margot, the theme of your post reminds me of a story I often heard in my childhood. A young man is so unhappy with his life and envious of other people’s that he begs God to do something about it. The Lord grants him his wish and literally puts him in other people’s shoes — which is when he realises that he is better off than most others whose lives he experiences. He then pleads for his own life. The grass is seldom greener on the other side.

    • Thanks for sharing this story, Prashant. I hadn’t heard it before, and it’s a fine reminder that wanting other people’s lives is not really productive. No-one’s life is as perfect as it may seem on the surface.

  10. Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First I found both entertaining and memorable – it has a complex plot about two young women with very different lives, one apparently a lot more privileged than the other.. The one we follow has no real understanding of how the other one lives, but she has to get up to speed very fast because of the strange and intriguing plot.
    I like the sound of the Gillespies book!

    • Hello From the Gillespies is really an innovative book, Moira. If you do read it, I’ll be keen to know what you think about it. It certainly highlights the difference between what life may seem like on the surface, and what it really is. And Kiss Me First sounds that way, too. Thanks for suggesting it.

  11. Beware of what you wish for comes to mind. Marina is a fab poetess and blogger and I loved the poem mentioned at the start, never read it before.

  12. I’ve never thought about this before in crime fiction. Your examples are excellent. I can see how it can add an intriguing layer, as well as help to show the three dimensions of characters. Even perhaps, aid in the overall arc.

    • Thanks, Sue. I think it can add a layer of character development, too, as well as a thread of tension. And the thing is, it’s very human. It’s something with which readers can identify.

  13. I just finished one of Patricia Moyes novels that had some element of this theme in it: Season of Snows and Sins. A friend of the Tibbetts moves to Switzerland and gets involved with a set of people who are rich and powerful and is sucked into their lifestyle, in a sense.

  14. Great post. Oops! dkent beat me to the punch: I’m reminded of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem and later Simon & Garfunkel song ‘Richard Cory’, both from decidedly pre-Facebook eras. But the principle still applies.
    Because we lead supposedly glamorous lives, are we writers even more susceptible to the I-sure-hope-other-peoples’-lives-are-more-exciting-than-mine syndrome?
    Anyway, the emotions of greed and envy sure are great fodder for the mystery story, and to me seemed based on two fallacies: that the caper, or crime, whatever, can be pulled off, and even if done so, will lead to that illusory state of nirvana.

    • You make a good point, Bryan. And those fallacies drive so much negative emotion and worse. They do make for effective sources of tension in a story; and I think that part of the reason for that is that it’s such a human reaction. I think both the poem and the song express it all eloquently.

      Interesting question about writers, too. I wonder if we are more susceptible. I’ll have to think about that…

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