In 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.