What I Am is What I Am*

Nature and NurtureIn Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer was her rather unpleasant lodger James Bentley, but Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence has come to believe that Bentley is innocent. One evening, Poirot is invited to a party and later, joins a group of people who’ve gathered at the home of one of the characters, Laura Upward. During a discussion about the care and breeding of Irish Wolfhounds, Mrs. Upward says,

‘Environment can give a veneer – no more. It’s what’s bred in people that counts.’

Without spoiling the story, I can say that this question of ‘nature vs nurture’ is one of the elements in this novel.

And it’s not surprising. The question of what impacts us the most, our environment or heredity, has fascinated people for centuries. It’s been the driving force behind countless studies.

The answer to the question, of course, is quite complicated. People are complex, and impacted by many factors. Heredity is one, and so is environment. So are other forces as well. But despite the fact that we know it’s not as simple as ‘nature or nurture,’ people still debate that issue, and explore it in writing.

Certainly it’s there in crime fiction. Christie discussed it in several of her stories (I’m thinking, for instance, of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, of Appointment With Death, and of The Murder on the Links). There are lots of other examples, too.

Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City takes up the topic of nature and nurture and what it all means, too. In that novel, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly inoffensive elderly man named Holberg. At first the case looks like a robbery gone very wrong. But there are a few clues that suggest that this was a deliberate killing. So the next step is to look at the people in the victim’s current life, as well as those in his past. And as it turns out, Holberg was quite possibly not as harmless and innocent as he seemed. As the police team digs into his background, they find some ugly allegations of rape and attempted rape. There’s even a possibly-related case of suicide that seems to have had its roots in Holberg’s past. Among other things, it’s an interesting exploration of the environment/heredity issue.

The ‘Nicci French’ writing team raises the question of nature v nurture in Blue Monday. In that novel, London psychologist Frieda Klein gets a new client, Alan Dekker. He has all sorts of emotional and other issues, one of which is his dream of having his own son – a boy who looks just like him. He and his wife, Carrie, haven’t had any children, and Dekker doesn’t want to adopt. So he and Klein start the difficult work of exploring his past, his feelings about adoption, and his beliefs about heredity and environment. Then comes the disturbing news that four-year-old Matthew Farady has gone missing. DI Malcom Karlsson and his team begin the investigation immediately, but nothing turns up. When Klein hears of the boy’s disappearance, she begins to worry, first subconsciously and then actively, that it might be connected in some way with the work she’s doing with Dekker. It’s risky from the perspective of professional ethics, but Klein lets Karlsson know of her concerns. They begin to look more deeply into the case and, little by little, each in a different way, they find out the truth. They also find out how it relates to another disappearance from twenty years earlier.

Gail Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, is a political scientist and academician. She is also the adoptive mother of Taylor, who is a gifted artist. Taylor’s birth mother Sally Love was also a gifted artist, and Taylor has had her issues in coming to terms with her own talent and what that means about her connection to her birth mother. She’s been raised in the Kilbourn/Shreve home for almost all of her life, so she certainly is impacted by the influence from that experience, too. One of the challenges she faces as she begins the journey to adulthood is to sort out her personal self and reconcile her heredity and the environment in which she’s lived.

And then there’s Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. That novel explores the relationship between Eve Moran and her daughter Christine. Eve has always been both seductive and manipulative, able to get anything. And she’s not above doing whatever it takes, including murder, to go after what she wants. On one level, Christine has always known what her mother was like. But she’s been raised in that environment, and has a complicated relationship with Eve. Everything changes, though, when Christine notices that her three-year-old brother Ryan is beginning to be drawn into the same dangerous web. Now she has to come to terms with the person Eve is and the person she herself has become, and find a way a way to free herself and Ryan. Among other things, this novel shows just how intermingled and ‘muddy’ the relationship between heredity and environment can really be.

A lot of research shows that we are products of both our heredity and our environment in a lot of complicated and integrated ways. So it’s really not sufficient to say that one or the other is the most important factor in what we are. Still, many people find that question absolutely fascinating, and there are certainly a lot of stories that address it. I’ve not mentioned some of those I had in mind, for fear of giving away spoilers. But I’ll bet you know of plenty yourself.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Edie Brickell’s What I Am.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Gail Bowen, Nicci French, Patricia Abbott

25 responses to “What I Am is What I Am*

  1. Well, now you’ve done it! You send me scurrying back to Christie and Indridason (one of my all time favorites) with a different perspective. You raise an interest point: nature v. nurture. I suspect Golden Age writers, more concerned with social dynamics, are different from contemporaries (sometimes more concerned with pathologies rather than environments), but that might be an unreasonable generalization.

    • I think you’re probably right, Tim, that GA writers had a very different perception of the whole nature/nurture issue than modern writers do. As you say, their focus was different. The research to which they had access was different as well. That said, I find it fascinating to see how the different writers have looked at that question over time. Oh, and I agree with you: Arnaldur Indriðason is an excellent writer!

  2. Something that has always fascinated me. JAR CITY must go down as one of the best debut novels.

  3. This is a topic I always find interesting. I still haven’t read Jar City. I have read Concrete Angel and loved it.

    • Isn’t Concrete Angel great, Tracy? It’s very well-written book. So, by the way, is Jar City, at least in my opinion. I hope that if you get a chance to read it, you’ll like it.

  4. I think we do tend to think that environment is the biggest influence nowadays, but I was reading a news story only yesterday about two sets of twins who got mixed up in hospital so that each grew up with a boy who was not in fact his brother. When they finally all met up, it was remarkable how similar in personality both sets of genetic twins were, and how different each set was from the other.

    • Oh, that is a fascinating story, FictionFan! I’ve read other stories too, of twins who were separated at birth, but grew up to be remarkably similar, despite being raised in different environments. I think environment plays a powerful role in what we turn out to be, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest it certainly doesn’t operate alone. The blend of factors is just really interesting.

  5. Growing up in a socialist country, we were obliged to give credit purely to social environment and ignore the genetic component completely. I remember I got into trouble for daring to suggest that Mozart was an innate genius, and that his sister Nannerl, although she had the same environment and also performed as a child star, never quite made it as a composer. But you are absolutely right, it’s a complex combination of factors.

    • That’s a really fascinating piece of evidence for the influence of genetics, Marina Sofia. But of course, it wouldn’t have been acceptable to argue for it at that time in that place. Still, I find it so very interesting. You put it very well by saying that what we are as people is a complex combination of factors. I don’t think we can really say that we owe ourselves to only one thing.

  6. This is a truly fascinating subject and as you say one that doesn’t have a simple answer – thank you for reminding me about Jar City which is languishing on the TBR… I need to get around to reading that one.

    • Oh, I hope you’ll enjoy Jar City, Cleo. It’s a well-written novel that’s part of a really excellent series. And you’re right; there is no easy answer to the question of what makes us what we are. There are a number of factors involved, I think.

  7. Yes, it’s a never-endingly fascinatingly topic. I always wonder about Agatha Christie – she was quite a one for talking about what we’d now call genetic background, and there’s a lot of ‘he’s a bad un from birth’ and inherited madness in her stories. But she is SO unpindownable – I always wonder if she just used those ideas to add tension, to build up a weak motive etc, and that perhaps she didn’t think like that at all…

    • I wonder that, too, Moira. One the one hand, there are several stories that suggest her belief in the power of genetics and heredity. And yet, there are so many stories where she seems to see things the other way. Or at the very least, she seems to suggest that heredity and genetics are not insurmountable. I wouldn’t put it past her to have used those ideas to build tension. Hmm…..

  8. Col

    It’s been a few years since I read the Indridason book and can’t remember too much about it, other than it was enjoyed. Personally I don’t think the topic has troubled me too much when I read. I kind of dwell on it more in real life, when I’ve read about individuals after they have committed horrendous crimes.

    • I know what you mean, Col. When you see some of those cases on the news, or read about them, it does make you wonder. And certainly the media is very quick to go into those factors in reports on those kinds of stories. As to books…the Inspector Erlendur series is, I think, a really well-written one. Worth a re-read if there’s ever time.

  9. How interesting. I do think both have bearing on a person and who they turn out to be. You wonder if one little thing had been done differently, would they have gone over the edge like they did?

    • Oh, now that’s an interesting question, Traci! You’re right, I think, that both heredity/ genetics and environment play a role in what people are. And it does make you wonder what might happen if one thing changed…

  10. Kathy D.

    I agree that both heredity and environment impact on a person’s behavior and personality. If one twin grew up in a small town with no diverse population and had little education, how much would s/he have in common with a twin who grew up in a privileged family, with an excellent education, and in a multi-cultural environment? What would be the same, what would differ?
    I say this after speaking to a friend with a teen-age daughter; he says her mannerisms are exactly like her grandmother’s. He was surprised these can be inherited.
    And I mention genetics in that my mother was a fantastic pianist and had a lovely soprano voice. My sister sings classical music beautifully and is extremely musical, has a great ear for music, languages and accents.
    I can carry a tune and sing a bit, but I don’t have their talents. So this trait is somewhat inherited, but my sister worked hard at developing her musical skills.
    Mysteries sometimes feature a good twin and an evil twin. Were they raised together in the same family or separately? Why are they so different?
    Lisa Scottoline is one author who used this plot device.
    It can be very far-fetched and has to be done well.

    • Thanks for sharing those stories, Kathy. A lot of people do believe that talents (such as your mother’s and sister’s) are hereditary. And I’ve known a lot of people who have mannerisms, tone of voice and so on that are just like their parents’ or children’s. I think we really are a mix of our genetic inheritance and our environment. And you make an interesting point about twins in crime fiction. That’s a whole other topic in and of itself; I may do a post on it sometime. As you say, if that sort of plot is going to work well, it’s got to be done carefully and credibly.

  11. Margot, I’m looking forward to reading Patti’s “Concrete Angel” this year. I’m also curious about “Jar City” by Arnaldur Indriðason. There is an intensity to Scandivanian (including Icelandic) fiction that I gather from merely reading book reviews.

    • I agree with you, Prashant. There really is an intensity to some Scandinavian crime fiction that makes those novels especially absorbing. And I hope you’ll get the chance to read Concrete Angel. I think it’s very well done.

  12. Kathy D.

    On heredity, I have a friend who’s a math genius, became a tenured math/computer professor. Lo and behold! One of his sons was interested in numbers when quite young and he majored in math and computers in college and has a job lined up at a top tech company. Another son also has a math aptitude and wants to teach. I definitely think that these traits were somewhat innate, but the parents encouraged them to think about math at young ages. Years ago, when I asked the future tech employee, then five-year-old, what two minus two equaled, he looked at me in disgust and said, “That’s nothing!” And then he started memorizing the first 100 digits of pi. So, now he’s all about math and computers.
    If the skills weren’t encouraged at home and math discussed a lot, would two of the sons have developed these skills? It’s a combination.
    My sister and I, despite my lack of a classically trained voice, do have
    mannerisms and voices that are very similar in accent, tone,
    fluctuation, vocabulary — even our bleeped words are the same.

    • That’s a really interesting couple of examples, Kathy, to show that heredity and environment both play important roles in what we’re like as adults. I know a lot of people who have mannerisms and so on exactly like a sibling/parent. I know others who are quite different. I think we’re all packages (in different quantities) of what we are innately and what we experience.

  13. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…1/11/16 | Traci Kenworth

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