Was I So Unwise*

Unwise ChoicesI’m sure you’ve had those moments. Someone you know, who’s otherwise an intelligent person, is doing something really foolish. You may even think (or say), ‘How can you be so stupid?’

There are lots of reasons why smart people do stupid things. All sorts of factors (denial, greed, and fear being a few) play roles in what we do; intelligence is only one of them. We all have those ‘blind spots’ though. And in crime fiction, when smart people make foolish choices, the result can bring real trouble. This sort of plot thread has to be done carefully; otherwise, it takes away from a character’s credibility, and can pull a reader out of a story. Still, when it’s done well, it can make for a solid layer of suspense and character development.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, we are introduced to pawn shop owner Mr. Jabez Wilson. One day he visits Sherlock Holmes, bringing with him an unusual story. His assistant showed him a newspaper advertisement placed by the Red-Headed League, inviting red-headed men to apply for membership in the group, and for a job. Wilson went along to apply, and was chosen for the job. It turned the work was easy, too: copying the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The only stipulation was that he was not to leave his work during ‘office hours.’ Then one day, Wilson went to his new job only to find the building locked and a sign indicating that the Red-Headed League was disbanded. He wants Holmes to help him solve the mysteries behind these weird occurrences, and Holmes agrees. Wilson isn’t a particularly stupid person (although he could be accused of being a bit credulous). But he seems to have had a sort of ‘blind spot’ about this job, which turns out to be connected to a gang of robbers who wanted to use his pawn shop to tunnel into a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot retires (or so he thinks) to the village of King’s Abbot. He is soon drawn into a case of murder, though, when retired manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. The most likely suspect is his stepson Ralph Paton. Not only had the two quarreled about money, but also, Paton went missing shortly after the murder and hasn’t been seen since. But Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t believe he’s guilty, and she asks Poirot to investigate. Ackroyd was a wealthy man, so there are plenty of suspects, one of whom is his widowed sister-in-law (and Flora’s mother). It turns out that each of these suspects is hiding something, and in the case of Mrs. Ackroyd, it’s a stupid decision on the part of an otherwise smart enough woman. She was eager for money, and Ackroyd wasn’t exactly a generous person. She ran up bills she couldn’t afford to pay, and became a victim of some unscrupulous moneylenders.

There’s a chilling example of smart people doing very unwise things in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. George and Jacqueline Coverdale are well off and well educated. You wouldn’t think they’d do a lot of foolish things. But when they decide to hire a housekeeper, Jacqueline does a very stupid thing indeed. She hires Eunice Parchman without doing any real checking into her background, her previous experience, or much of anything else. Still, Eunice settles in and at first, all goes well enough. But Eunice has a secret – one she will go to any lengths to keep from her employers. When that secret accidentally comes out one day, the result is tragic for everyone. And it all might have been prevented if Jacqueline had done a little background checking before making her hiring decision.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, we meet science fiction writer Zack Walker and his journalist wife Sarah. Walker is concerned about the family’s safety, and decides that they’d be better off moving from the city to a safer, suburban home. The cost of living is lower, the amenities are better, and so he convinces his wife to make the move. All goes well enough at the very beginning, although the children aren’t happy. But then one day, Walker goes to the main sales office of their new housing development to complain about some needed repairs to the home. During his visit, he witnesses an argument between one of the sales executives and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body in a nearby creek. He calls the police, who interview him – a wise enough decision. But then, one day during a shopping trip with his wife, Walker accidentally discovers a handbag left in a supermarket cart. He thinks it belongs to his wife, and takes it, only later discovering that it doesn’t belong to her. Instead of taking it back to the supermarket or to the police, Walker keeps it, hoping to return it to the owner himself. And that gets him more and more deeply involved in a tangled case of fraud and murder. In the end, his family gets in much more danger in the suburbs than they ever did in the city.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief. In one plot thread of that novel, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello has gotten concerned about his aunt, Zia Anita. An otherwise intelligent woman, she’s been behaving oddly lately. For one thing, she’s taken what Vianello thinks is an unhealthy interest in astrology. As if that’s not enough, she’s been withdrawing money from the family business and giving it to a man called Stefano Gorini. The money is hers to do with as she wishes, so she’s not stealing it. But the family is worried about the choices she’s making. Vianello asks his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to look into the matter, and Brunetti agrees. He does some background checking on Gorini, and finds that the man has been in trouble with the law before. In fact, he lost his medical license. Now he’s back in business again, promising ‘miracle’ cures that he can’t deliver. In this case, Zia Anita wants so badly to believe in Gorini that she’s made some very unwise choices.

And that’s the thing. Even the smartest of us sometimes have ‘blind spots,’ and make some very foolish choices. The consequences aren’t always drastic, although they can be embarrassing. But sometimes, they’re devastating.

ps. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the many crime novels in which otherwise intelligent people make really stupid romantic choices. Too easy.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ The Night Before.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Linwood Barclay, Ruth Rendell

23 responses to “Was I So Unwise*

  1. Poor Eunice Parchman. I actually felt sorry for her. Weird, huh?

  2. Ah, goodness, there are so many silly mistakes we’ve all made from time to time and kicked ourselves for afterwards – luckily, mostly without the consequences one might expect in crime fiction. A classic one is when someone gets a little greedy and decides to keep some money they have come across – only to be hunted down for it or blackmailed for it later. The book I was reading just today had two police officers tempted to ‘hide’ the money they found in the boot of a car they stopped – Denise Mina’s ‘Gods and Beasts’.

    • You’re so right, Marina Sofia. So often we do foolish things, even though we’re smart enough to know better. As you say, a bit of greed, a bit of misplaced trust, and there you are. And Gods and Beasts is a good example of that. I’ll be keen to know what you think of that one once you’ve finished it; I think Mina is a really talented writer.

  3. Margot: In The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson set in Mississippi in 1946 the book opens with African American Lt. Joe Howard Wilson, riding the in the back of a bus home, refuses to give up his seat to a white German prisoner of war as directed by a white police officer. The consequences are predictable. Is it foolish or stupid to assert your human rights in a situation where they will not be respected?

    • Oh, that is such a good question, Bill! And that situation – the one you describe – shows that dilemma so well. I’m glad you’ve brought this up, actually. Besides being relevant to this post, and an interesting question, it raises another question. At what point is that sort of gesture helpful and ultimately successful, and at what point might it be tilting at proverbial windmills? We can all name actions such as that one that are arguably important and lead to positive social change. But what about the ones people might say are futile? Lots of ‘food for thought’ here, for which thanks.

  4. Bad Move sounds really good. When done well a stupid move can add a believable layer to characterization. This layer is easily relatable, too, since we’ve all done stupid things at one point or another. Unfortunately I’ve also seen this done badly, where it was merely done so the author had an easy out. Excellent examples, Margot. Shouldn’t there be a Crime Fiction News Break soon? *hint hint*

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sue. And you have a point about smart characters who do stupid things. We all do such things at one time or another, and we can identify with a character who is human. I think you’d like Bad Move, by the way. Barclay is a talented writer, and this particular novel has what I think is an effective blend of tension and wit. As to Crime Fiction News Break, I’m glad you enjoy that feature. Hopefully one will be coming up soon.

  5. I think if there are circumstances around the unwise choice it can help show why the character acted so out of character for what readers may expect. One book springs to mind for me with unwise choices is Mary Kubica’s Pretty Baby. The decision the main character takes really does have repercussions for everyone concerned.

    • That’s a well-taken point, Rebecca. Once the reader understands why a character makes a certain choice, the story seems more credible, and so does the character. And thanks for mentioning Pretty Baby. One of these times, I must put one of Kubica’s novels in the spotlight.

  6. Col

    I have shouted at the page before – Nooo – don’t do that!….but they rarely listen! Looking forward to the Rendell book, sometime in the next 10 years or so!

    • Oh, I’ve done that, too, Col! And the characters don’t listen to me, either… As to the Rendell, I do hope you get the chance to read that one. It’s an excellent novel, in my opinion, with one of the strongest first lines I’ve read.

  7. Margot, in PRESUMPTION OF DEATH by Perri O’Shaughnessy — the pen name of two sisters, Mary and Pamela O’Shaughnessy, a young man is suspected of murdering his best friend during an ill-fated trip to investigate a forest fire and catch the culprits in the act. The young man should have known better than to accompany his dubious friend to the arson site, especially since he knew what sort of fellow he was. Our young man is defended by a lawyer, the protagonist, and her boyfriend, a PI. I’m currently reading this book and will be reviewing it soon.

    • Oh, I look forward to your review, Prashant. I like the ‘Perri O’Shaugnessy’ writing duo’s work very much. And this is exactly the sort of decision I had in mind when I planned this post. It’s a great example, for which thanks.

  8. Reblogged this on Ms M's Bookshelf and commented:
    Being a mystery buff, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist is a blog I follow regularly for its insight, humour, and sometimes the suggestion of a book I haven’t read yet that sounds great. Margot’s blog never disappoints me. I hope you enjoy my Sunday reblog!

  9. Pingback: Was I So Unwise* | Ms M's Bookshelf

  10. Oh I’m so pleased A Judgement in Stone gets a mention here – I think the problem is even intelligent people don’t tend to be good at everything and as you say when emotions kick in that can cause ‘blind spots’ I have a good memory and am generally not considered stupid but I have no sense of direction at all which can cause problems and, if people only saw me coming out of shops and wondering which way to walk would probably form the opposite opinion! – probably why I’m best suited to living on a small island haha.

    • Isn’t A Judgement in Stone a great story, Cleo? It really does show how smart can people can do sometimes very unwise things. And you’re right; even intelligent people aren’t good at everything. You should see me try to parallel park, for instance – talk about blind spots…. As you say, when you add in other factors, it does make sense that people would do things that seem so foolish, even when they’re smart.

  11. Count me another Judgment in Stone fan – and even Rendell addresses her characters and says ‘ring back and check on her’ to prevent the tragedy, and ‘stay away from the house’ and live on and have a happy life… it’s a really odd writing manner (and not at all usual for RR) but works well and is tremendously affecting, even on repeated readings.

    • It really is affecting, isn’t it, Moira? As you say, it’s not what Rendell usually did in her novels, but here, it really works effectively. You feel even more drawn into the story because she tries to warn the characters – she makes you care that they aren’t listening. It would have prevented so much sadness if they had just listened…

  12. I really want to try some of the Linwood Barclay books. Bad Move sounds interesting.

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