For most of us, the reality is that we have to earn a living. That means that we have to work at something that’s going to pay the bills. And that, in turn, means that we sometimes have to balance, even compromise, our practical needs and our passions. Ask any writer who also has a full-time ‘day job.’ It’s not always easy to strike that balance.
We see that balance/compromise come up in crime fiction, just as it does in real life. Admittedly, it’s not always the reason for a murder, but it can add for a fascinating layer of character development. And it can make for a story arc, too.
Artist Alan Everard finds himself facing that challenge in Agatha Christie’s short story Within a Wall. He gains early notice and even acclaim for some top-quality work that has depth and insight. He is passionate about his art, and committed to doing the best work he can. Shortly after his career begins, he marries ‘well born’ Isobel Loring, who has her own plans for her new husband’s success. One afternoon, he and Isobel are hosting a tea party to unveil his latest work: a portrait of her. It’s technically an excellent piece of art. But he knows inside that it’s also flat and lifeless, without the passion of his other work. He gets a chance to compare the painting with his other work when one of the guests discovers a painting of his daughter’s godmother (and his muse) Jane Haworth. That contrast shows how much of an influence Jane has had on his life, and that has its consequences. While this isn’t really a crime story, it is an interesting psychological study of the dilemma Everard faces as he is torn between his wife’s desire for him to do lucrative society portraits, and his muse’s candor about the quality of his work.
In Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, we are introduced to Corinna Chapman. She is a former accountant who had a very promising career with a successful company. But she discovered that she didn’t really care very much about numbers and accounting. Instead, her real passion is baking. For her, bread is real:
‘I make bread, that’s what I do, that’s what I am.’
So she establishes her own bakery in the Melbourne building where she lives. She may not be wealthy, but she is doing what has real meaning for her.
Gail Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and retired academician. She is also the mother of three grown children and a teenager. Early in this series, her older daughter, Mieka, makes the choice to leave university and follow her passion: her own catering company. As she puts it:
‘‘Her [Mieka’s] voice was strong. ‘I want my chance. I know I may get flattened but I have to try.’’
Her mother has misgivings (as any parent might), but Mieka makes a go of it, and does what she dreams of dong.
Fans of John Grisham’s legal novels will know that he often addresses the dilemma that attorneys face when it comes to their work. Does the lawyer choose a well-paying position (often, but not always, in a large firm)? Such jobs often have the promise of advancement, good salary, and so on. But they don’t always allow the young attorney to work on cases of real interest and make a difference. Should the lawyer choose a low-paying job (often, but not always, in a smaller firm)? Such positions don’t always pay well. But legal aid and pro bono work can be richly rewarding in other ways, and even billable hours in a smaller firm can allow the attorney to follow a particular passion (e.g. the environment; child welfare, etc.). Of course, there’s more to the choice of job than just big or small firm. But attorneys are sometimes faced with the choice between going for a high salary, opportunity for partnership and so on, and handling the kinds of cases they want to handle. And although the focus of Grisham’s novels is the set of legal mysteries in them, there’s also often a sub-plot involving the attorney’s choice between money and particular legal interest.
Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who was much in demand in the academic world. He could have had his pick of just about any academic institution. And, although most university professors don’t get rich (trust me!), Shaw could have negotiated quite a glittering ‘hiring package’ for himself. Instead, he’s chosen to follow his passion, which is the history of the American South. He loves the South (he was brought up there) and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. What’s more, he’s not really interested in becoming a ‘celebrity academic.’ He wants peace, quiet, and the chance to explore his particular research interests. So Shaw has chosen a relatively small school, Kenan College, in North Carolina. The school has a very high-quality reputation, but if Shaw thought that living in small-town North Carolina and working for a small school would be peaceful, he’s quite wrong…
In a similar way, Martin Edward’s Daniel Kind has made the choice to follow his academic passion, rather than opt for a lot of money. Kind is an Oxford historian who’d become a celebrity. He got ‘burned out’ by that life, though, and, in The Coffin Trail, decides to take a home in a quiet part of the Lake District. He’s hoping to follow his own research interests and do some writing. But that’s not how things work out. He does do the research he wants, but his life is hardly peaceful. He works with Cumbria Constabulary’s DCI Hannah Scarlett on cold cases that her team investigates, and that can make his life anything but tranquil…
And then there’s M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. He is the village bobby for the town of Lochdubh, in the Scottish Highlands. He’s a skilled detective; and, if he wanted, he could rise through the ranks, earn more money, and perhaps have a higher status. But that’s not where Macbeth’s interest lies. He’s much more interested in a quiet life of fishing, occasional hunting, and spending time with his dog. The lure of money just doesn’t appeal to him.
We all have to make a living, and if we’re lucky, we get paid to do what we love. But sometimes, it’s not that simple. The choice between money and passion isn’t an easy one. But it can add a layer to a character and a thread to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Money or Love.