Most 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.