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.