The Pursuit of Happiness Just Seems a Bore*

Privileged Lives and LimitationsPlenty of people dream about what it might be like to have a lot of money and be a member of the upper class. After all, many of us can’t afford to travel whenever we want, buy what we want on a whim, or send our children to the ‘best’ schools. But if you think about it, the lives of those people who seem to ‘have it all’ can be just as restrictive.

Crime fiction shows us clearly that that lifestyle can be at least as limiting as the lifestyle most of us have – perhaps more so. And being among that group of people is absolutely no guarantee against tension, conflict and tragedy. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime gives a witty, but biting, look at the upper-class life. In that novel, Catalonia politician Lluís Font hires Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep ‘Pep’ (who goes by the name Borja) Martínez. Font believes that his wife Lídia is having an affair, and he wants to know if he’s right. It’s not just that Font wants to know if his wife has betrayed him; he’s also concerned that any scandal could threaten his political career (he represents the Catholic Conservative party). The Martínez brothers take the case, but a week of surveillance doesn’t turn up anything. It does, however, offer a look at the lives of people of that class. Lídia Font spends her days visiting hairstylists and salons, going shopping, and having coffees and lunches with friends and acquaintances. Her husband, of course, has his political reputation to uphold, so he makes the ‘right’ speeches, goes to the ‘right’ meetings and so on. Then one evening, Lídia dies of what turns out to be poison. The police suspect Font of killing his wife, so he asks the Martínez brothers to stay on the job and clear his name.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack also explores the lives of ‘people of a certain class.’ That novel takes place in 1970’s Buenos Aires, a time when the military is in full control. Speaking out on anything is a very dangerous thing to do, so few people dare it. One day, police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano gets an early-morning call about two bodies left by a riverbank. He goes to the scene and, sure enough, finds the bodies. The two people are victims of an Army ‘hit,’ and Lescano knows better than to ask too many questions about that. But then, he finds a third body. This victim, too, seems to bear the hallmarks of a ‘hit,’ but there are small pieces of evidence that suggest that this is a different kind of murder. Lescano starts to ask questions, and opens quite a proverbial can of worms. The victim is Elías Biterman, a successful pawnbroker and moneylender, who counted among his clients some very wealthy and powerful people. As we get to know some of those characters, we see how restrictive that upper-class life is. One is expected to be at the ‘right’ events, behave in the ‘right’ way and so on. And one is expected to have a great deal of money to do all of that.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows addresses what happens when that protective ‘bubble of money’ is taken away. That novel takes place at the end of the 1990s, in the exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club. Only the wealthy can afford to live there, and prospective residents are thoroughly ‘vetted’ before being accepted. The story begins one September evening in 2001, when a tragedy occurs at the home of El Tano Scaglia and his wife Teresa. Then the story takes readers back to where it all began, and tells the events that have led to that tragedy. As those events unfold, we learn about the lives of the people who live in Cascade Heights. The men have ‘the right kinds of jobs,’ as high-level business executives, bankers, attorneys and so on. The women shop at the ‘right’ exclusive places, raise money for the ‘correct’ causes, host expensive parties, get cosmetic surgery and send their children to the best schools. Some have careers (one, for instance, is a real estate professional). Everything changes with the economic downturn at the end of the 1990s. People can no longer rely on a steady supply of easy money. And this has devastating consequences for everyone.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, we are introduced to successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal and his wife. They live in an upmarket part of Delhi, have a beautiful home and a staff of servants. They also have a reputation and lifestyle to uphold, so the family’s good name is extremely important. Disaster strikes when Kasliwal is accused of raping and murdering a family servant, Mary Murmu. She disappeared a few months ago, and there’s been quite a lot of talk about her fate. He claims that he’s innocent, but the police arrest him. They don’t want to give the appearance of toadying to the rich and powerful, so it’s decided to make an example of this case. Kasliwal hires PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri to find out the truth about his servant’s disappearance, and clear his name. As we get to know the family, we see how limiting that upper-class status can be, despite the privilege associated with it.

And then there’s Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. It’s the late 1950s, and Evelyn ‘Eve’ Hobart has always been acquisitive. But she grew up with little money and no privilege. Things change when she meets Hank Moran at a college dance. He comes from a wealthier family with a reputation. Eve isn’t rich, but she is beautiful and seductive, and it’s not long before they’re married. Now she becomes a part of the ‘better class’ of Philadelphia-area society. Women of that class take day trips into the city to shop, spend money on their suburban homes, and belong to clubs and societies. For Eve, though, the real spark of life is getting and having things, especially taking things she hasn’t bought. It gets her in trouble more than once, and eventually, lands her in The Terraces, an expensive ‘special place’ where she can be ‘cured’ of her compulsions. But Eve remains completely dysfunctional and toxic, doing whatever it takes, including murder, to get what she wants, whether it’s clothing, jewels, or men. As her daughter Christine grows up, Eve draws her into that web, and Christine, being so dependent on her mother, can do little about it. As the years go by, that dysfunction continues to dominate their relationship until Christine notices that her younger brother Ryan is starting be drawn in to their mother’s life, too. Now, she decides she will have to rescue Ryan, and set herself free, too.

By the way, it was a conversation with Patti Abbott that got me thinking about this topic. Thanks for the inspiration!

On the outside, the life of those who have a privileged existence can seem very alluring. But it really is as limiting as any other life. And it can be at least as deadly.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper.


Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Ernesto Mallo, Patricia Abbott, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana

25 responses to “The Pursuit of Happiness Just Seems a Bore*

  1. It’s always fun to have a bird’s eye view of the rich and famous and equally as fun to know that they don’t necessarily have it all! 🙂

    • I agree, Carol. It’s always interesting to see how ‘the other half’ lives, and to know that lives full of shopping, pampering and so on aren’t necessarily perfect…

  2. I have always liked mysteries set in wealthy communities or featuring wealthy families. I loved Concrete Angel, as you know. I have not read the others but I do have the novel by Claudia Piñeiro. And I want to someday read books by Mallo and Solana.

    • Wasn’t Concrete Angel great, Tracy? Folks, do read it if you get the chance. And I hope you’ll get the chance to read both Mallo and Solana. Very different books and styles, but both give some really interesting insights into the privilege and limitations of being wealthy.

  3. In Herman Koch’s ‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’ the narrator is a general practitioner to the rich and famous. They may be celebrities to the outside world, but to Marc they’re mainly just ugly, diseased bodies… I loved Marc’s very cruel commentary on his patients – great black humour!

    I’d still quite like to try the whole being rich thing, though… 😉

    • Yeah, I know what you mean, FictionFan! I wouldn’t say ‘no,’ myself. 😉 At least for a bit… And thanks for mentioning Summer House With Swimming Pool. It’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post. Koch is great at that very biting commentary. He does that in The Dinner, too.

  4. And how lovely to set a topic into motion. I am going to get my hands on that Thursday Club book. The subject is fascinating. And thanks for including mine and I thank Tracy for mentioning it too.

    • Thanks for the inspiration, Patti 🙂 – And it’s a pleasure to mention Concrete Angel. I do hope you get the chance to read Thursday Night Widows. It’s a fine read, I think.

  5. Col

    You keep mentioning that Mallo book, I’ll have to give in soon and read it!

  6. I would certainly add Barnard’s SKELETON IN THE GRASS of the one I have read recently on this theme, but then I’m a Marxist of the old school! Really nice mixture fo examples – thanks Margot.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sergio. And thanks for reminding us of Skeleton in the Grass. That’s a great example of the contrast between ‘people of a certain class’ and the rest of us.

  7. Kathy D.

    Oh, Thursday Night Widows was very good, about exactly what is being discussed here.
    I know I’m not cut from the same cloth as the aspiring rich and famous. A good mystery, tea and chocolate is my panacea for a happy time.

    • Sounds like a good panacea, Kathy. And you’re right about Thursday Night Widows. Such an uncompromising look at the attitudes and lifestyles of people in that social class.

  8. Oh yes, the other half, I do so love reading about them. I know a few and they are something else. Thanks Patti for inspiring this. 🙂

  9. So, money is the root of all evil? Say it ain’t so!

  10. Margot, I hope to read Patti’s debut novel this year. I know I’m going to be in for a treat.

  11. I feel I fit this book to so many of your topics (but then I know you love it too so don’t mind!): I’m going to mention Linnet Doyle, the richest girl in England, in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. We (and Poirot, and AC and everyone in the book) are rather lacking in sympathy for her, and she does behave badly, but she also gets a raw deal. Imagine never knowing if you really have the love and affection of either boyfriends or friends, because maybe they are just after your money.

    • That’s quite true, Moira. Linnet may be extremely rich (and beautiful and smart), but she is nonetheless limited. She has to be careful of her friends, she has to watch out for everything on the business end (because who knows who may be cheating her?), and so on. As you say, she’s not particularly sympathetic. But you do get the sense that her life is not what others may imagine it to be. And no, I don’t mind you mentioning this book at all, however often. 🙂

  12. Kathy D.

    I think the O’Jays were right: Money is the root of all evil. For the love of money, people will do anything.
    I’ll add, even commit murder, robbery, arson, fraud, larceny, etc.

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