You’re So Vain*

EgotistsMost of us know, whether or not we admit it to others, that we’re not perfect. We’re wrong at times, and we make mistakes. And there are plenty of people who know more than we do and can do things better. But not everyone’s like that. There are certain people with very exaggerated senses of their own knowledge and importance. I’ll bet you’ve met people like that, yourself. Such people are sometimes very successful, if you define success as having a lot of money and/or power. And they can be personable, even charming. But they can be dangerous, too. And they can add an interesting texture to a crime story, even if they’re neither the victim nor the killer.

Agatha Christie created several egotistical characters in her novels. Some of them are obvious, and some less so. In Hickory Dickory Death, for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates some odd thefts and other disturbing incidents at a hostel for students. When one of the residents, Celia Austin, admits to some of the thefts, everyone thinks the matter is closed. Then, two nights later, she dies. At first glance it looks like a suicide, but very soon it’s proven to be murder. Now Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who the killer is. They start with the other hostel residents, one of whom is a law student named Elizabeth Johnston. After interviewing her, here is what Inspector Sharpe has to say:

 

‘‘That’s a very interesting girl who just went out. She’s got the ego of a Napoleon and I strongly suspect that she knows something.’’

 

As it turns out, all of the residents are keeping secrets that they aren’t particularly eager to share.

One of the very interesting things about Elizabeth Johnston is that she isn’t the stereotypical egomaniac, who’s impolite to others and who constantly talks about him or herself. Rather, she’s quiet, unassuming, even pleasant. It’s an effective way to show that not all of those with oversized egos are obvious about it.

That’s certainly not true of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. As fans of this series know, he is not in the least bit unassuming, and is positively arrogant in his estimation of his own ability. Stout uses the character of Archie Goodwin in part to serve as a foil to Wolfe. But even Goodwin accepts the fact that Wolfe is brilliant. He may have a Napoleonic ego, but he is very, very good at what he does. Is it really arrogance if you can back it up with success? Wolfe would probably say, ‘no.’ Or Pfui!

Some characters have been surrounded by sycophants and other hangers-on for so long that they’ve come to believe their own hype. This can make people all the more arrogant and convinced of their own worth and importance. Such a person is Kane ‘King’ Bendigo, whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead. He is the very powerful owner of a hugely successful munitions firm, so he has become quite wealthy. He, his wife Karla, and his two brothers, Abel and Judah, live on a private, heavily guarded island. When Bendigo begins to receive cryptic threats on his life, he doesn’t take them seriously at first. After all, the people on the island are loyal to him, and in any case, he’s carefully protected. You might say that he’s so convinced of his own hype that he can’t imagine anyone killing him. Abel, however, convinces him to take the threat seriously, so he arranges for Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery to travel from New York City to investigate the matter. The Queens are not exactly enthused about being summoned in that highhanded way, but they are convinced to go. They settle in and begin asking questions. Meanwhile, the threats continue, and get more and more specific about the date and time. It’s finally revealed that Bendigo will be shot on a certain Thursday at midnight. On that night, at that time, he is in his hermetically sealed office/study with his wife. There are no weapons in the office, and no-one can get in or out. Still, he is shot, just as was threatened. What’s even stranger is that the weapon used to shoot him was a gun that Judah fired at exactly midnight – in another room. Judah couldn’t have somehow gone to his brother’s office; he was with Ellery Queen. It’s a very tangled sort of ‘impossible, but not really’ crime.

In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, we are introduced to successful Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson. Like many Hollywood moguls, he’s been surrounded by eager hangers-on and sycophants for a very long time, and has come to have a high opinion of himself. More to the point for this novel, he believes that he can manipulate people and events to suit his whims. So when he decides that he’d like to get to know his twelve-year-old son Toby, he doesn’t see why that shouldn’t quickly happen. The only problem is, Toby lives with Nelson’s ex-wife Karen Shipley, and the two of them have disappeared. So Nelson hires L.A. PI Elvis Cole to find his family. At first, Cole demurs. He’s sure, as many people would be, that Nelson’s ex-wife had her own reasons – possibly very good ones – for going away without letting Nelson know. But Nelson insists. So Cole gets started on the case, and traces Shipley and Toby to a small town in Connecticut. He also discovers that Shipley has gotten tangled up with the Mob. Now he’s up against an arrogant director who insists on reuniting with his family, and a Mob group with an interest in that family. It’s going to be a tricky case for Cole and his partner Joe Pike.

And then there’s Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. When we first meet her in Still Life, she’s just been named to the Sûreté du Québec. Even better, she’s assigned to work with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who has the best reputation in the agency. It’s an understatement to say that Nichol isn’t perfect. She makes plenty of mistakes, and like anyone new at the job, she has a lot to learn. Fans of this series will know, too, that she turns out to be duplicitous, even malicious, and not trustworthy. Despite Gamache’s attempts to help her learn how to fit in and do her job well, Nichol refuses to take his advice. Part of the reason for that is that she is arrogant. She is convinced that she knows what she’s doing, and that any failures she has are the fault of others. In a sense, she becomes the victim of her own sense of self. What’s interesting about her character is that she combines this egotism with a desperate need to belong.

Egotists aren’t all rich and powerful. But, more or less, they all have an overinflated sense of their worth and importance. That can make life miserable for those around them, but even when it doesn’t, such characters can add to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Carly Simon song. Did you know Carly Simon has a literary connection? That’s right. Her father, Richard Simon, was a co-founder of Simon and Schuster.

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Robert Crais

28 responses to “You’re So Vain*

  1. Tim

    I should read more carefully, but I think you gloss over too quickly the vanity of Hercule Poirot, which is the ironic heart-and-soul of his charm (although he does occasionally berate himself for his shortcomings, which I do not recall happening to Nero Wolfe).

    • You make a well-taken point about Poirot, Tim. You’re quite right that I didn’t mention him, and he certainly does have an ego when it comes to solving crime. He claims he doesn’t, but, well, we know…

  2. I enjoy cocky, sometimes arrogant, characters in novels, but not in real life. As you say, they can add a great deal to the story, especially with their often comical one-liners.

    I had no idea Carly Simon’s father was the co-founder of Simon & Schuster. Fascinating!

    • I thought that was really interesting, too, Sue. And you’re right; those truly egotistical, arrogant characters can add to a story. But that doesn’t mean I value that trait in real life…

  3. Howard

    “certain people with very exaggerated senses of their own knowledge and importance… are sometimes very successful, if you define success as having a lot of money and/or power. And they can be personable, even charming. But they can be dangerous, too”

    Ha, Donald Trump for sure.

  4. Margot, I always thought that Yvette Nichol was definitely on the autism spectrum, compounded by a very dysfunctional family of whom we get just a glimpse. For me, the larger pleasure in reading Penny is not the particular case but the “bigger story” of Gamache’s fight with the corrupt powers-that-be. I think Yvette’s arc in this is very interesting; she ultimately redeems herself, despite her egocentric nature.

    • I think Yvette Nichol’s story arc is interesting too, BK. You’ve got a point, too, that she could very well have a spectrum issue. I hadn’t thought about it quite that way, but it makes sense. And I agree that Penny does a very effective job of showing how Gamache goes up against higher powers, so to speak, but without taking attention away from the stories at hand in each novel. That takes skill.

  5. Poirot was the one who immediately sprang to my mind too. I always felt Hastings should have taken him up on the offer to whisper ‘chocolate box’ whenever he was getting too big for his boots!

  6. Margot: Michael Connelly, in The Scarecrow, has Wesley Carver as the Scarecrow of a huge data farm scaring off hackers attempting to steal some of the crops of data being stored. Carver has an enormous frightening ego.

    Lincoln Rhyme in the series by Jeffery Deaver may be a quadriplegic but his ego is unbounded.

    • Those are two excellent examples, Bill, of the way arrogance and egotism can play roles in crime fiction. As you say, Rhyme has, to say the least, a good opinion of himself. And you’re quite right about Wesley Carver – a very ego-driven person.

  7. Col

    Howard beat me to the punch!

  8. Margot I strongly recommend to you “The Life of I” Anen Manne – all about narcissism when you read this you really do see how vile acts can happen.

  9. Well as always I’ve learnt something new; I didn’t know Carly Simon’s father was the Simon in Simon & Schuster! I did like how Agatha Christie made the case in Hickory Dickory Dock look so clear cut and then revealed so many other secrets harboured by the lodgers in the boarding house – you hit the nail on the head about the egotistical characters not always having quite so much to be egotistical about as we often assume.

    • Thank you, Cleo. I think that’s the thing about egotistical people, whether they are real or not. They don’t always have so much to be egotistical about as we might think… I agree about Hickory Dickory Dock, too. There are several layers to some of those characters, and that (in my opinion) keeps the story interesting.

  10. I’m happily reading Nelson DeMille’s John Corey series of mystery/thrillers, so it was Corey who jumped into my mind immediately after reading your post. He has a hugely inflated ego and a confidence in his own instincts that constantly has him in trouble with his superiors because he doesn’t follow orders. The thing is, he tends to be right most of the time, so he gets a pass in the end. He’s become one of my favorite series characters in crime fiction.

  11. Margot, I like the way private and police detectives are drawn in hardboiled crime fiction, their chutzpah, brazen attitude, and bold defiance that often forces the reader to suspend disbelief. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer comes to my mind.

    • You have a well-taken point, Prashant. Sometimes PIs (police detectives, too) need that kind of presence to solve crimes. And Mike Hammer is a great examle of it.

  12. I’m with your commenter above – I love these characters in books, though I think they’d drive me mad in real life.

  13. Wolfe is my favorite example, of course. I haven’t read enough of the Poirot books to be an expert, but he does not seem to be as blatant as Wolfe. How does Sherlock Holmes fit into this?

    • Wolfe is a great example, isn’t he, Tracy? And that’s an interesting question about Holmes. I think he certainly shows that when he’s talking about the British police. And his deductive skills…

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