Everybody Needs a Passion or They Cash in While They Can*

FollowingPassionsFor 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, John Grisham, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Martin Edwards, Sarah R. Shaber

24 responses to “Everybody Needs a Passion or They Cash in While They Can*

  1. It’s certainly an interesting internal conflict for a character and one that can often show us a lot about them without telling. An interetsing subject Margot and another great post, thank you 🙂

  2. One of my favourite Grisham books addresses exactly that – The Litigators, when the young hero walks out of his junior position in a top law firm and ends up working in a tiny firm of ‘ambulance chasers’. I always enjoy when Grisham goes for the lighter side and there’s loads of humour in this one as we see the more precarious side of the legal profession – but for all the lack of income, David is much happier working in a role where he feels he can make his own choices and maybe even real differences to his clients’ lives.

    • That’s such a great example, FictionFan, of exactly what I had in mind with this post. There’s a guy who gives up a promising position in a high-powered law firm to be more empowered and to make a difference. I think Grisham does that quite well, actually.

  3. Col

    I think Grisham’s the only author I’m familiar with and I haven’t read too much by him, yet!

  4. I do love Hamish! 🙂 For him, a job is really just a means to an end. I’ll have to check out the Christie short story…unfamiliar with it.

    • Hamish is great, isn’t he, Elizabeth? I think he’s a terrific character. The Christie story is really interesting. It’s not really a crime story, but psychologically fascinating.

  5. Margot, I have enjoyed Grisham’s legal thrillers too. I don’t think you can write a lot of legal novels without focusing on pro bono as he does in his books. I mean, you want your lawyer protagonists to fight for the underdog who can’t afford a lawyer. If I remember correctly, legal fees are not the highlight in some Perry Mason novels too, especially where he is fighting cases for honest clients who don’t have the money to pay him.

    • I think you’re right about Perry Mason, Prashant. I’m glad you mentioned that, because he, too, takes up cases that interest him, rather than thinking only of how much he’ll be paid. And you’re right that it’d be hard to write as many legal novels as Grisham has without exploring the pro bono cases.

  6. Margot: I appreciate that Grisham addresses money in his legal mysteries. Law being a business as well as a profession requires every lawyer in private practice to daily consider where the money will come from to pay the overhead and then an income to the lawyer. Too few other legal mysteries take into account that pressure. From personal bias I long for the day Grisham writes a book on a lawyer in rural practice conducting a prominent case of national significance.

    • I’d love to see that too, Bill, And you’re right that Grisham takes up that topic of money. When you’re in private practice, whether it’s law or something else, you do need to plan for where the money will come from for all of those expenses. That can mean some hard choices and yes, a lot of pressure.

  7. And, of course, Sherlock Holmes retires to take up bee-keeping – cases still come his way, though!

  8. Great post and topic. I’m reminded of Morse’s passion for classical music, especially Mozart. Then there’s those bad guys and their orchid collections:-), though, alas, I can’t think of any specific examples right now.

    • Thanks, Bryan. And you know, I didn’t focus here on sleuths’ passions, but you’re absolutely right that they have them. Morse wouldn’t be Morse without his crossword puzzles. And Wolfe wouldn’t be Wolfe without his orchids…

  9. I’ve been reading Ariana Franklin’s books set in 12th century Europe – her heroine/detective is a very able and well-trained doctor, but her problem is that people won’t accept that in a woman, so she has to pretend to be merely an assistant: so her longing is to be accepted for what she is, and to be true to her talents.

    • You’re absolutely right about Adelia Aguilar, Moira. She wants to be accepted as the medical expert that she is. In her society, though, that’s not possible. So as you say, she has to earn a living and fit in by pretending to be an assistant. I’m glad you’re reading this series; I think it’s a terrific historical series.

  10. I think it is interesting that so many protagonists in crime fiction are following their passion. I haven’t read much Grisham, but I need to read some next year. Starting with A Time to Kill.

    • Oh, I hope you’ll like A Time to Kill, Tracy. I think it’s a powerful novel. And it is really interesting, isn’t it, to see how many fictional sleuths follow their passion…

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