Let’s Begin Again*

ReformingIn Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas) Simeon Lee invites the members of his family to the family home, Gorston Hall, for Christmas. Lee is an unpleasant man and a tyrant, so no-one really wants to go. But at the same time, no-one dares refuse the invitation. Lee doesn’t exactly have a blameless past, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. Here’s what he says about it:

‘‘Ah, but I’ve been more wicked than most,’ Simeon laughed.
‘I don’t regret it, you know. No, I don’t regret anything.’’

In the end, you might say that Lee’s past comes back to haunt him when he is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area for the holiday, and works with the local police to catch the killer.

Lee may not regret his criminal activity, but a lot of former criminals do try to ‘go straight.’ And an interesting post from Col at Col’s Criminal Library has got me thinking about how difficult that can be. While it certainly happens in some crime fiction, there are a lot of obstacles in the path of someone who’s trying to reform, as the saying goes.

For one thing, just because former criminal want to ‘go straight’ doesn’t necessarily mean that their former ‘associates’ are eager to let go. That’s part of the plot line of Max Allan Collins’ Spree, which Col reviewed and which started me thinking about this topic. I admit I’ve not read that novel, but it’s an example of the struggle that former criminals face when people in their old lives want them to do one more job. And it’s a good time to suggest that you pay Col’s great blog a visit. It’s a great resource for book and TV/film reviews.

We see how difficult it is to reform in Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill. Former con man and burglar William Decker has ‘gone straight,’ mostly for the sake of his toddler son. But he’s really struggling financially, and there aren’t many options for him. One afternoon, he brings his little son into a bar where Spillane’s protagonist Mike Hammer is having a drink. He quickly downs a couple of drinks himself, says goodbye to his son, and leaves the bar. A moment later he’s shot down in the street and run over by the car that was carrying the shooter. Hammer rushes outside, but doesn’t get there in time to save Decker’s life. Still, he determines that he’s going to find out who’s responsible. It turns out that Decker’s decision to ‘go straight’ wasn’t as easy a decision as he’d hoped…

One of Walter Mosley’s sleuths is New York PI Leonid McGill. He is a former boxer; and in another life, he was involved in plenty of criminal activity. But he’s trying to make an honest living now. Still, he needs to pay the rent, too, so in The Long Fall, he agrees to take on a job for a very shady character. His new employer wants him to find four people; and the only information he has to go on is the street names they were known by during adolescence. Then, the people McGill is looking for start to turn up dead, and he begins to suspect that he’s actually been hired by a murderer, and he could very likely be the next victim. So McGill decides to do what he sees as the right thing and stop the killer.

Despite the difficulties of ‘going straight’ (and there are lots of other crime novels that depict that), there are also plenty of novels in which we see characters who’ve successfully made the change. And being a former criminal can certainly give a character some interesting layers, and some insight into the crimes others commit.

For example, when we meet G.K. Chesterton’s Hercule Flambeau, in The Blue Cross, he’s a notorious thief. In fact, that’s how he comes to the attention of Father Brown, who’s on his way to a gathering of priests. Father Brown has with him a valuable cross set with jewels, which is how he comes to Flambeau’s attention. As fans of these characters know, over time, the two become friends, and Flambeau leaves behind his criminal life. In fact, he becomes a private detective. And he often depends on advice and insight from Father Brown.

There’s also Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel. In that novel, artist Agatha Troy has been commissioned to do a portrait of Hilary Bill-Tasmin. So that she can do her work, he’s invited her to stay over the Christmas holidays at Halbards, the family home. Troy agrees and joins Bill-Tasmin’s house party. Her host is a strong believer in the redemptive power of work and purpose, and is convinced that former convicts can make new, productive lives for themselves. So every member of his staff has a prison record, but is trying to ‘go straight.’ Bill-Tasmin has planned a special event for Christmas Eve: his Uncle Fleason ‘Uncle Flea’ is slated to dress up as a Druid and pass out gifts to the local children. On the day of the party, Uncle Flea is taken ill, and can’t attend the party. So his valet/servant Alfred Moult volunteers to take his place as the Druid. The event goes off as scheduled, but right after his appearance as a Druid, Moult disappears. Later, he’s found dead. Troy’s husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, wants her to leave Halbards right away and let the local police handle the investigation. Instead, he’s persuaded to take part in it. And one of the questions he and the local police have to face is: are the members of Bill-Tasmin really living legitimate lives? Or is one of them guilty of murder?

It’s not a settled question whether someone can ‘go straight’ after having been a criminal. There are plenty of cases of people who do, and plenty of those who don’t. Either way, it makes for an interesting layer of character development and of tension in a crime novel. Thanks, Col, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from R.E.M.’s Begin the Begin.


Filed under Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Max Allan Collins, Mickey Spillane, Ngaio Marsh, Walter Mosley

18 responses to “Let’s Begin Again*

  1. You are genius at taking the germ of an idea and writing a full-blown post on it Margot! I like the sound of the Big Kill, I’m taking a guess that his associates objected?

  2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle agreed with you, I think, that going straight isn’t always easy. His poor characters never seemed to be able to escape their pasts. ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ is one example, and ‘The Five Orange Pips’ is similar, though I’m not sure in that one that the Colonel every really turned into a ‘good guy’ exactly.

    • Well, you’re quite right about that, FictionFan, and I wonder whether that was reflective of Conan Doyle’s view on the matter. Those two stories show it, and we see it in a way in The Five Orange Pips, too. Definitely a pattern…

  3. Col

    Margot thanks for the kind mention. I do like this kind of story line. Usually I’m rooting for the unwilling participant to get out from under so to speak. It can be quite tense and claustrophobic as their options diminish as either the day of the job approaches or the law close in.

    • It’s a pleasure to mention you and your blog, Col. And I know what you mean about the unwilling participant. There’s a real suspense as we see whether that person is going to get out from under it before it’s too late…

  4. Margot: Sam Parker, formerly Monty Haaviko, in An Ordinary Decent Criminal by Michael Van Rooy has been a career criminal. Trying to go straight he violently deals with a home invasion. His modest goal in life is an honest day’s work with the evening at home with his family.

  5. Margot, I think, there is a moral lesson about someone in crime fiction trying to “go straight,” which is “crime does not pay,” one way or the other. And I agree about Col’s blog being an inspiration — he reads books faster than I can turn the page!

    • You have a point about Col, Prashant. He’s a speed reader, and always has interesting insights on his blog. You also have a point about the theme of trying to redeem the self. One way or another, there are consequences for what you do.

  6. I’ve seen this type of thread in crime fic before, but wouldn’t have been able to come up with any examples! Great job here. And a nice reminder to read “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” again.

  7. Oh, geesh. I was halfway through reading today’s spotlight when I realized I didn’t leave a comment. Oops. Yes, peeling back the layers of the newly released criminal or ones that want to change their ways is fascinating indeed. Loved your examples, Margot!

  8. Lord Peter Wimsey has an old friend who was a burglar, now reformed and got religion, but willing to help out for the forces of good. He gives a ‘thick ranting book of hymns’ for a wedding present, to the disdain of Wimsey’s sister-in-law.

  9. I am interested in all of Walter Mosley’s series, and I did not know much about the Leonid McGill series. Thanks for the info on that.

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