We Love to Cut You Down to Size*

Tallest PoppyAgatha Christie’s Death on the Nile begins with a conversation between Mr. Burnaby, landlord of the Three Crowns, and a friend of his. They’re talking about wealthy and beautiful Linnet Doyle, who’s just bought nearby Wode Hall. At the end of the conversation, Mr. Burnaby’s friend says,

‘Got everything, that girl has. Doesn’t seem fair…’

And she does. Linnet is intelligent, stunning-looking, and one of the richest young women in England. Those ‘pluses’ don’t save her, though, when she’s shot on the second night of her honeymoon cruise of the Nile. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he and Colonel Race, who is also aboard, look among the various other passengers and crew members to see who would have had a motive for murder. Among other things, one of the elements we see more than once in this novel is a sense of resentment because Linnet ‘has it all.’ She’s smart in business, attractive, and very well-off. This makes more than one person speculate on how unfair it is; you can even call it an example of the ‘tallest poppy’ syndrome, the urge to cut down those who do well.

We see that element in a lot of other crime fiction, too. For example, in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau investigates when the body of an unknown woman is found in a canal. The victim turns out to be Guang Hongying, a national model worker and, therefore, somewhat of a celebrity. Ironically, she’s become a celebrity because she’s not a ‘tall poppy.’ She works as many extra shifts as needed, she lives as humbly as any other worker does, and so on. In the 1990s Shanghai culture in which this novel takes place, there’s a great deal of social pressure not to stand out or have a lot of personal possessions or wealth. Those outward signs of success aren’t really welcome. And there’s a lot of private resentment against the members of the High Cadre – the top members of the Party – and their families, in part because they have a lot of success. We see that again in Enigma of China, in which Chen and his team investigate a supposed suicide. It turns out that the victim was under investigation for corruption, and part of the evidence against him comes from photographs of the outward signs of his success.

In Peter May’s The Blackhouse, Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod returns to his family home on the Isle of Lewis. He’s been seconded there after the discovery of the body of Angel Macritchie, whose death bears a striking resemblance to a murder MacLeod is investigating in Edinburgh. It’s thought that this second murder might have been committed by the same person. MacLeod grew up with the people of Lewis; in their eyes, he’s a local ‘made good.’ And that, for some, is a problem. Here, for instance, is what his old friend Artair says:

‘And you’d…escaped…the island, everything. And here was me, stuck looking after a mother who needed to be fed through a straw…’

Artair has a lot of resentment against his old friend, and part of the reason for that is that MacLeod’s ‘made good.’

Tarquin Hall’s The Missing Servant introduces readers to Delhi private investigator VIshwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Most of his business comes from ‘vetting’ prospective spouses for their future families-in-law; but one day, he gets another sort of client. Successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal has been accused of the rape and murder of a household servant, Mary Murmu. She disappeared a few months earlier, and no trace of her has been found. There’s reason to suspect Kasliwal, and the police are under pressure to make an example of him, so as to show that they do not toady to the rich and well-placed. Kasliwal claims that he is innocent, and hires Puri to find out the truth about his missing servant. This Puri agrees to do, although he’s not exactly drawn to this client. As news of the case gets out, there are many people who are pleased to see Kasliwal in a lot of trouble, and part of the reason is that he’s wealthy and successful. They’re only too happy to see him ‘brought down to size.’ So, among other things, Puri has to go up against this popular dislike as he searches for the truth.

We see that sort of resentment in Wendy James’ The Mistake, too. Jodie Evans Garrow has what seems to be an idyllic life. Although she was raised on the proverbial wrong side of town, she’s done well for herself. She’s married to a successful attorney, and is the mother of two healthy children who have solid futures. She herself is smart and attractive, too. Everything begins to fall apart when it’s discovered that years earlier, she gave birth to another child – a child even her husband didn’t know existed. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but there are no formal records of that. Now, the questions begin, and before long, people begin to suspect openly that Jodie might have had something to do with her baby’s disappearance. Soon, she becomes a social pariah. It’s all made even worse by the fact that Jodie’s mother Jeannie very publicly sides against her. Here’s what she says in one letter to an editor:

‘She is a social climber who couldn’t wait to get away from her background and who has always been ashamed of her parents and her family.’ 

Now that Jodie’s found some success, her mother is very quick to try to cut her down, and her comments become quite popular in the media and in the public’s opinion.

There are a lot of other examples, too, of that ‘tallest poppy’ syndrome. Many people do feel resentful when someone of their group ‘makes good,’ shows skill, or has real success. Whether it’s jealousy or something else, it can bring out the almost irresistible urge to cut that person down. It may not be the most appealing of human traits, but it does make for solid conflict and tension in a novel.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don Henley’s Dirty Laundry.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Peter May, Qiu Xiaolong, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

16 responses to “We Love to Cut You Down to Size*

  1. Tim

    I think the “golden age” was an especially dangerous time for well-to-do would-be victims; after all, we as readers — ordinary folks — can share in the gloating, but we might have too much sympathy for an impoverished (ordinary folk) victim. We get some sort of aesthetic distance and vicarious satisfaction at the same time when the flower is mowed down. Yes, we’re vicious, aren’t we? (I’m channeling the cynicism of Rumpole — featured at my blog today — for my comments; moreover, I’m adding to my reading list with your highlighted titles, so thanks!)

    • You have an interesting point, Tim. It’s quite possible that ‘ordinary people’ can identify with the ‘regular’ people in those GA novels. I’d suppose that’s particularly true when the one who’s ‘cut down’ is tyrannical or in other ways obnoxious. Cynical or not, I think it’s a fair assessment of a lot of people.

  2. Col

    It seems to be quite the thing over here with the press especially building celebrities and stars up, before knocking them back down with an expose of an indiscretion.

  3. I hear so much of that envy at times that I am tempted to ask people when they will start living their own lives instead of looking at other people’s… Excellent motives for murder, theft, framing someone for a crime and all sorts of delightful things!

    • Oh, absolutely, Marina Sofia! But it is disconcerting in real life, isn’t it? And it’s so often the cause for so much deep unhappiness. As you say, one’s much better off living one’s own life.

  4. Margot, it is said people are inherently good. I find that hard to believe. They can be really nasty when they want to and it has nothing to do with their adverse circumstances. We have a saying which goes, “I can’t dance because the floor is crooked.” I find envy in an office environment particularly distasteful. It exposes their weaknesses and their frustrations at their inability to change their lives for the better.

    • I like that saying, Prashant – thanks for sharing. It expresses that kind of attitude very well. You’re right, too; envy in the office really is nasty, isn’t it? When people resent others’ success, that can poison the entire work environment.

  5. Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First had a clever and perceptive look at two very different young women, coming from dissimilar backgrounds. One seemed to have everything, the other nothing. You’d think one would have an easy life and the other would face a struggle. But actually it all turns out to be much more complicated than that. A very clever book.

  6. Kathy D.

    Ah, schadenfreude as a motive for murder … a good one. It can go far enough so as to lead to criminal acts, Envy, then commission of a terrible act against those one is jealous of, they fall or die, then the culprit is joyous at the misfortune.
    So, Sue Grafton’s “s” book could have been entitled, “S is for Schadenfreude.”

    • You have a well-taken point, Kathy. That feeling of wanting to cut someone down because of envy or resentment is definitely a good motive for conflict…or worse.

  7. Keishon

    Great post. This brings to mind Tana French’s book, Faithful Place. One of my favorite books by her.

  8. Another interesting topic, Margot. And you have mentioned some books I would like to get to soon. I do have Death of a Red Heroine and The Blackhouse, so I will move those up on the list.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s