Self-perception plays a critical role in the way we live our lives. It impacts the way we dress, behave, speak, and interact. Often (not always) our view of ourselves is also affected by the way others treat us. And it’s fascinating to think about how much can change when our self-perception does.
In crime fiction, of course, that evolution of self-perception can have positive or negative (sometimes even tragic) consequences. And it’s interesting to see how it all plays out in terms of character development. Changes in self-perception can even form part of a plot line.
In Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, we meet Jerry and Joanna Burton, siblings who move to the village of Lymstock so that Jerry can recover from injuries he sustained in a plane crash. Soon after their arrival, they receive an ugly anonymous letter that suggests that they’re not brother and sister, but lovers. They quickly learn that they’re not the only targets, either. Someone’s sending vicious letters to several of the village’s residents. Then, there’s a suicide. And another death. The police look into the matter, but the local vicar’s wife thinks that Miss Marple will find out the truth more quickly. She knows the area and the people, and as she herself puts it, she knows human nature. In the end, Miss Marple discovers who’s behind what happens in Lymstock. One of Lymstock’s residents is the local solicitor’s stepdaughter, twenty-year-old Megan Hunter. She’s intelligent and interesting, but she is also awkward and unsophisticated. Certainly her self-perception isn’t very positive. Jerry, though, finds himself falling in love with her. In one scene of the novel, he goes to London and decides to take Megan along. While they’re in London, he arranges for her to have a makeover. Just those steps encourage Megan to begin to re-think the way she sees herself, and that ends up making a major difference in her. I know, I know, fans of The ABC Murders.
Stan Jones’ Nathan Active is an Alaska State Trooper. He is also Inupiaq. When we first meet him in White Sky, Black Ice, he has recently been assigned to the small town of Chukchi. Although Active knows that he is Inupiaq, he was raised in Anchorage by white adoptive parents. So he has little connection to his people, and no real self-perception as one of them. One of the story arcs in this series concerns the evolution of his view of himself as an Inupiaq, and his learning of what that means in terms of language and culture.
Many of Louise Penny’s novels take place in Three Pines, a small town in rural Québec. Several of the regular characters in this series are residents of that town. Two of those residents are artist Clara Morrow and her husband, Peter. As the series begins, Peter is acknowledged as the one with the real talent. Clara sees herself as being less talented and certainly less accomplished than her husband. But as the series moves on, Clara finds her artistic voice. She begins to get some notice, and her art begins to evolve. Now, she has to re-think her self-perception and see herself as the truly talented artist that she is. In some ways, it’s really empowering for Clara to see herself in that new way. But it also has serious unintended consequences.
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and works in a large, Roman-style building called Insula. When the series begins, she does the baking by herself, and has the assistance of Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge in the shop itself. But then she meets Jason Wallace, a fifteen-year-old who’s just recently stopped using heroin. One day, he shows up at her bakery door asking for any work she might have. At first, he mops floors and does other cleaning tasks. He’s a tough street kid who doesn’t really see himself as having a place anywhere else. But before long, both he and Corinna notice something: he’s a natural baker. He’s got an innate sense of what goes into a good loaf of bread, a cake, and, especially, a muffin. In fact, he’s so good that before long, he’s put in charge of creating new varieties of muffins for the bakery. One of Corinna’s nicknames for him is the Muffin Man. As he begins to perceive himself in a new way, Jason starts to change. He becomes reliable, often getting to work in the bakery before his boss does. He takes pride in his work, and begins to see a future for himself.
Of course, the way we see ourselves can sometimes get us into trouble. Just ask Lewis Winter, whom we meet in Malcom Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. He’s a small-time Glasgow drug dealer who’s never really ‘played with the big boys,’ as the saying goes. But he’s ambitious in his way, and sees himself as a soon-to-be major player in the underworld. On the one hand, that self-perception is empowering, and he begins have some influence. On the other, he also attracts the notice of Peter Jamieson and John Young, who are getting annoyed by Winters’ attempts to rival them. So they hire professional killer Callum MacLean to take care of the problem. MacLean is very good at what he does; and in the end, Winter’s self-perception as a dominant underworld figure turns out to have disastrous consequences.
Sometimes, even a title can make a difference in one’s self-perception. In Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District, for instance, brothel owner Candace Curtis hires Toronto PI Sasha Jackson. One of Curtis’ employees, Mary Carmen Santamaria, has gone missing, and Curtis is worried about. One of the things Jackson needs to do, of course, is get a sense of the business. Here’s a short bit of a conversation she has with her new client about it:
‘‘You have a database of hookers?’… [Jackson]
‘Please, don’t call them hookers. Most of the girls use the term intimacy consultant, though some call themselves relaxation therapists. I know they’re euphemisms, but they’re important to the girls’ self esteem.’
‘Consultants. Right. Got it.’’
Curtis knows that self-perception is an important aspect of success, and she wants her employees to have a sense of empowerment.
And that’s the thing about the way we see ourselves. It really does impact a lot about what we do. Everything from dress, to language, to interaction style is affected by the way we view ourselves. And when that view changes, so does everything else.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Fredrick Loewe’s Without You.