It’s Like a Dream Come True*

Dreams and WishesMost of us have dreams and wishes. A lot of times they don’t come true, but that doesn’t stop people dreaming. After all, some dreams do happen. But an old saying goes,

‘Be careful what you wish for…’

and that’s not bad advice. Sometimes what seems like a dream come true doesn’t turn out to be that way at all.

There’s certainly plenty of that plot point in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Discovering that one’s dream job/home/partner is anything but can add solid suspense to a story. And that’s to say nothing of the motive it can provide for all sorts of things.

We see that, for instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League. Pawnbroker Jabez Wilson responded to an unusual job advertisement in a local newspaper, placed by the League of Red-Headed Men. The main qualification seemed to be that the successful applicant must have red hair. Wilson was told that the money was reasonable and the work easy, and he is certainly red-haired; so he decided to apply. Much to his surprise, he was selected and soon began his work. His duties were simple: to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. All went well at first, and seemed like a perfect way to add to his income. Everything changed one day, though, when he came to the league’s offices, only to find a sign indicating that the Red-Headed League was disbanded. Wilson wants to know what happened to the league, so he asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. As it turns out, the league was a cover for a nefarious plot to rob a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who poisoned Marie Marisot, a French moneylender whose business name was Madame Giselle. She was poisoned during a flight from Paris to London, so the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers. And it turns out that more than one of them had a motive. Madame Giselle’s business worked in an unusual way. She would lend money to people after she’d found out damaging or at least compromising, information about them. That information served as collateral, to be held over those who wouldn’t or couldn’t pay what they owed. Here’s what one of her clients has to say about it:

‘‘But later she lent you more?’ [Poirot]
‘Yes, as much as I wanted. It seemed like a miracle at the time.’’

That dream come true turns out to be a nightmare for this client, whose debt soon ran so high that it was impossible to pay it back. That was when Madame Giselle threatened to reveal some very uncomfortable truths…

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives begins as Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their two children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, the town seems like a dream come true – exactly what they’ve wanted. The taxes are low, the schools are good, the new house is just what they hoped for, and the children are settling in. Then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that there is something very wrong going on in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe Bobbie. But little by little, she comes to see that Bobbie was probably right. And the closer she gets to the truth of what’s going on, the more nightmarish it gets.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we are introduced to Mallory and Kate Lawson. Mallory’s become ‘burned out’ as a teacher/headmaster, and started to pull away from his family. Kate loves her husband, but can’t deny the strain in their family. Then, they get news that seems like a dream come true. Mallory’s Aunt Carey has died (of natural causes) and left her nephew and his family a large fortune. All they need to do is move into the home she left behind, and ensure that her longtime friend and companion Benny Frayle has a permanent home there. That’s little enough to ask, so the Lawsons take up their new residence and get to know Benny. Soon, they’ll be able to start up their own publishing company, something they’ve always wanted. Now it seems that they’ll be able to live out their dream. It all starts to go sour, though, when the Lawson’s daughter Polly decides to get out of major financial mess by taking her share of the money sooner than her great-aunt’s will stipulates. Her plan backfires badly, which is trouble enough. Then, the family’s financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed. On the surface of it, it looks like an accident. But Benny suspects that it was murder, and she determines that the police should investigate. Finally, after another death, DCI Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look into the matter closely, and discover who’s behind the deaths. It just goes to show that inheriting a lot of money doesn’t solve everything.

Librarian Israel Armstrong gets a wish to come true in Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books. He wants a career as a librarian, but so far, he’s only been able to find a job as a bookseller’s assistant. It’s a ‘nowhere’ job, and not what he wants. So when he sees an advertisement for a librarian’s position at the Tumdrum and District Library in Ireland, he applies. To his happy surprise, he gets the job and travels from his home in North London to Ireland. He’s expecting that this will be the stepping-stone to a fine career that may lead to a very important position at a university library or even the British Library. It doesn’t turn out to be that way though. For one thing, when he arrives, Armstrong finds out that he’s actually been hired to drive the local mobile library, which is a rattletrap bus. The district has very little money, but is required by law to make library books available all over the area. This is the solution they’ve found, and for the urban-dwelling Armstrong, that’s bad enough. His living conditions (a makeshift bed in a chicken coop) just make matters worse. Then he discovers that the books he’s supposed to make available have disappeared. He’s going to have to find them if he’s going to keep his job and reputation.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers. In one plot thread of that novel, television journalist Rebecca Thorne works on an exposé of dubious developer Denny Graham. His stock in trade is luring investors with lush advertisements that feature luxurious retirement properties. He then hosts parties where he sells those potential investors on his properties and gets them to buy into that ‘dream retirement.’ But there’ve been several allegations that Graham is dishonest. When Thorne visits one of his properties, she finds that it’s completely undeveloped. What’s more, she talks with several people who’ve been bilked out of their money and had to severely retrench their lifestyles because of it.

So maybe there is some truth that old saying about being careful what you wish for. These are just a few examples. I haven’t even touched the numerous novels in which a dream marriage turns nightmarish – too easy. Over to you.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s Peg.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Ian Sansom, Ira Levin, Paddy Richardson

28 responses to “It’s Like a Dream Come True*

  1. Well, without citing examples, I think all crime/detective/mystery fiction is centered upon the idea of a person (or persons) seeking a better life through crime; no matter how you slice it, the criminal always — yes, always — commits the crime believing life will be better after the theft, the assault, the kidnapping, the murder, etc., etc., etc. I could be quite wrong, but I cannot think any criminal (either in fiction or in life) who does not believe crime = fulfilment of a wish = improvement of life. Only accidental crimes are exempt, and those are not really crimes . . . or are they?

    • That’s a compelling idea, Tim. Whether a crime is committed in the heat of the moment, as the saying goes, or is pre-planned, just about all of the crime I know anything about is committed for some kind of anticipated ‘payoff.’ It may be monetary, relief from an intolerable situation, safety, or something else. But I think you have a point that people usually don’t commit crime ‘just because.’ Hmmm…one could even argue that so-called ‘thrill kills’ are done for the anticipated ‘rush.’ That’s a very intriguing idea, for which thanks.

  2. I’m being very careful with wishes and so there won’t be a New Year’s resolution. Too risky.

  3. In Dwayne Alexander Smith’s Forty Acres, struggling black lawyer Martin Grey is thrilled when he’s befriended by a hugely successful lawyer, who in turn introduces Martin to his circle of rich and powerful black men. When Martin gets invited to stay at luxurious and exclusive Forty Acres, a kind of club-house for the group, he thinks his dreams have come true. But when he finds out that the group have an agenda that involves all kinds of law-breaking and worse, Martin realises his dream has become a nightmare…

    • Oh, what a great example, FictionFan! It fits perfectly with what I had in mind with this post. And I’m especially glad you mentioned it, because I am fairly kicking myself (hard!) for not having read it yet. It’s been on the radar and wish list for a long time, but I still haven’t got to it. Shame on me!! I’m lucky to have folks like you to fill in the gaps.

  4. I’m with Col in that many crimes are planned with the view that life will be better in some way afterwards. In Margaret Yorke’s The Small Hours of the Morning one of the characters think that he’s hit on a sure fire way to escape the small town that he lives in – let’s just say it doesn’t quite work out as he planned!

    • I’m not surprised that it doesn’t, Cleo. That’s the thing about Yorke, isn’t it? She was always quite good at creating situations where things start out well, but spiral out of control… And I agree that a lot of criminals commit their crimes because of some benefit they think will come from it.

  5. Col

    I don’t think I quite enjoyed the Sansom book as much as you, but the Levin book is a classic.

  6. Kay

    Death In The Clouds is one of my favorite Poirot books. I think part of what I like is the vivid description of air travel at that time. And I’ve thought about reading The Stepford Wives, but never gotten around to it. Might be a good project. We’ve all used that word ‘Stepford’ to describe so many things, right?

    • ‘Stepford’ has definitely become part of our culture, Kay. It’s a handy word that telescopes it all quite neatly, I think. And I do recommend The Stepford Wives on just that score alone. I agree with you, too, about Death in the Clouds; it’s a great portrayal of air travel at the time.

  7. I think reading murder stories makes us more aware of the possibilities of things going wrong – we are warned not to believe in those dreams…

  8. It’s never a dream come true in a mystery–and that sometimes makes for great reading!!

  9. Kathy D.

    Everything does go wrong eventually in crime fiction when people focus on getting rich quickly by committing a crime or joining others in doing so.
    I remember a book by Donald Westlake when a group of guys go to rob a wealthy family, and they get into the door of their mansion — when the rich guys rob them! Hilarious. A crime gone horribly wrong, but funny.
    My New Year’s resolutions: Read more crime fiction, at least a book a week since my yearly total decreased last year, try to eat less sugar (!) and learn the Electric Slide.

    • I think it’d be fun to learn the Electric Slide, Kathy! And it’s true; when people do think they can get rich quickly, especially in fiction, it never really works out that way, does it? Thanks for the mention of Westlake; that’s an author I need to spotlight at some point.

  10. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…1/25/16 – Traci Kenworth

  11. Taking shortcuts to wealth never seems to work out in crime fiction, does it? 🙂 And, I guess, characters in crime fiction should also be careful what they wish for–a dream come true rarely is, in a mystery!

  12. Your post brought to mind the saying: if it seems too good to be true it probably is.
    Have a great weekend. 🙂

  13. Well, better late than never. I did read Ghost in the Machine by Graham, but I don’t remember it at all and it could not have been that long ago. I will have to read it again. I have been wanting to read.Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books.

    • There’s no such thing as ‘late’ here, Tracy. The party never stops. I’ve always liked Caroline Graham’s Tom Barnaby series very much, so as far as I’m concerned, a reread is a good thing. And I hope you’ll like the Sansom when you get to it. It’s a well-written story with an interesting look at culture clash.

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