My Dear, We All Must Stay Alive*

Maslow's HierarchyNo one psychological theory explains why people do what they do. People are too complex for one theory to account for everything, and all sorts of factors impact what we do. That said, though, there are some really interesting ways of looking at the choices humans make, and putting them into perspective.

One of those theories is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s theory was that some of our needs are more important than others, and that we will meet those basic, lower-level needs before trying to meet higher-level needs. In the world of education, for instance, it implies that students aren’t going to be able to concentrate on learning if they haven’t eaten or if they’re being abused. Students from stable, loving homes, where they don’t have to worry about physical safety or being unloved, will be better able to concentrate on higher-level needs like cognitive development.

We see this hierarchy all through crime fiction, too. And although it certainly doesn’t explain everything characters do, I think it adds an interesting perspective. And it can help readers understand why a character might behave in a certain way.

The most basic needs we have, according to Maslow, are our ‘survival’ needs, like food, water, and shelter. They have to be met first, if a person is to meet other needs. In Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, for instance, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney works to clear the name of her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. When his partner, Nou, is killed, the police settle on Didi as the murderer. Later, he himself is killed in what police say was the tragic consequence of resisting arrest and threatening the officers who’d come to arrest him. Keeney doesn’t believe that explanation and goes in search of the truth. The truth about the murders has to do with the business of child trafficking and the sex trade, and Savage makes it clear that there are no easy answers to this problem. For many desperately poor rural families, this trade represents food in their stomachs and a place to live. Simply telling them how wrong it is to send their children to be trafficked isn’t going to feed them.

We also see this in one plot thread of Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. Two young girls, Preeti and Basanti, join India’s sex trade in exchange for money given to their families. The idea is that they’ll work in the trade for a few years, sending money back to their families, and then return to their villages. For those families, this represents a way to put food on the table, take care of sick children and so on. For the young girls, it’s even a sort of source of pride, since they are helping to feed their families. But things go horribly wrong when they are taken to Scotland and sold to some very dangerous people. When Basanti manages to escape the people holding her, she goes in search of Preeti, only to discover that her friend has disappeared and may be dead. So she asks for help from oceanographer Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill, who just may have the skills needed to find Preeti.

Timothy Hallinan addresses similar issues in his Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty novels. Rafferty is an ex-pat American who now lives in Bangkok with his wife, Rose and their adopted daughter, Miaow. Rose is a former bar girl who’s set up her own apartment-cleaning company; Miaow is a former street child. Both know all too well about being desperate for food and shelter. In fact, in The Queen of Patpong, we learn something about Rose’s personal history. At one point, there’s an interaction between her teacher, Teacher Suttikul, and her father. The teacher is trying to convince Rose’s father to let her stay in school, rather than leave school and get work:

‘‘You know, you have a very smart daughter.’
‘So what?’ her father says… ‘She’s a girl.’
‘There are lots of good jobs for girls these days. She’ll earn plenty of money if she stays in school.’
‘What good does that do anybody? If she makes any money, it’ll go to her husband’s parents, not us.’
… ‘She’ll always take care of you. And I know she can get a good job. Someday she – ’
‘Someday,’ her father says heavily, as though the words are in a foreign language. ‘Someday. My children need food now. The roof needs to be fixed before the next rain comes. We need money now.’’ 


That drive to meet the most important, basic needs leads those who have nothing to make choices that those of us with plenty can’t always understand.

Maslow believed that once those very basic needs are met, we move on to meeting our needs for safety and security. And we certainly see that in crime fiction! I’m sure I don’t have to list the many novels in which characters won’t talk to the police, for fear of what will happen if they do. And then there are characters who know about terrible crimes, even murder, but turn a blind eye. It’s not that they like the idea of murder, but they fear for their own safety and that of their families.

We see that need for safety come out in other ways, too. For example, Jassy Mackenzie’s Random Violence takes place in Johannesburg, where many people are concerned for their own physical safety. In that atmosphere, Superintendent David Patel of the Johannesburg Police investigates the murder of Annette Botha, whose death looks like a carjacking gone horribly wrong. But soon, little bits of evidence suggest that her murder might have been deliberate. Then, private investigator Dean Grobbelar is murdered. Then there’s a third murder. Now Patel has the task of linking these crimes to see who is responsible. In the meantime, PI Jade de Jong, the daughter of Patel’s former mentor, has returned to Johannesburg after a ten-year absence. Patel is glad for her help as the investigation gets both wider and deeper, but she has an agenda of her own. Throughout this novel, there’s a pervasive sense of fear, as ordinary people take extraordinary security measures:

‘Jade turned on all the lights and checked the cottage thoroughly. The front door was secure. The alarm was armed. The battery box that fed the electric fence was beeping quietly, its green light flashing.’

People hire personal bodyguards, live in tightly gated communities, and so on. There’s a real sense that everyone’s safety is at risk.

There’s also Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace, which introduces Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She’s dealing with the loss of her beloved husband Stefan, so although she’s functioning, she’s not exactly functional. Still, she’s making some progress. Then, she gets a letter that makes it clear that she’s being stalked. As if that’s not enough, someone seems to have gotten access to her private client information. Then, the body of one of those clients, Sara Matteus, is found in the water in Bergman’s property. There’s a suicide note that blames Bergman for the victim’s decision to kill herself. When the death is proved to be a murder, Berman is suspected, briefly, until it’s proven she is innocent. But having her name cleared isn’t enough to keep her safe. Bergman will have to find out who’s responsible for targeting her if she’s to stay alive. And it’s interesting to see how her focus changes from the higher-level need to succeed professionally and help her clients to the basic need to stay safe as the story goes on.

If Maslow was right (and I’ve not read any credible evidence that he wasn’t), then our needs are hierarchical. We have to satisfy our basic needs before we move on to higher-level needs like the need to be loved and to belong. And those needs drive quite a bit of what we do.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Lovely Ladies.


Filed under Angela Savage, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Jassy Mackenzie, Mark Douglas-Home, Timothy Hallinan

32 responses to “My Dear, We All Must Stay Alive*

  1. What an awesome assessment, Margot! I hadn’t thought of that hierarchy in the context of crime fiction before. Very cool!

  2. Maslow was so right! This is a great post thanks Margot and so many great points made here as to character motivation 🙂

    • Thanks, D.S. 🙂 – I think he was right, too. Certainly everything I’ve seen and read supports his points. And absolutely it makes for a very useful way to think about character motivation; you put that really well!

  3. 4 points:
    (1) Maslow was right, and crime writers would do well to know and embrace his schema / hierarchy.
    (2) readers will not be readers without having achieved at least some level beyond survival, but they will be sympathetic with characters struggling to get beyond the bottom level, and readers are not too likely to be sympathetic with characters comfortably at the highest level within Maslow’s schema.
    (3) yours truly, the meandering reader, as moved — — which means death and detection are my neighbors once again.
    (4) how on earth do you know and remember so much from crime fiction novels?

    • Thanks, Tim, for giving us your new blog site. Hey, folks, let’s check it out! As to Maslow, I agree with you. Maslow constructed a really credible theory, and it’s yet to be disproven. It also makes for a very effective way of thinking about characters’ motivations. And you have a point that readers are likely to have more sympathy for a character who’s trying to move through the lower levels of the hierarchy. And I think it’s easier to create a credible plot with such a character, anyway, to be honest.

    • Keishon

      (4) how on earth do you know and remember so much from crime fiction novels?

      Yes, Margot, tell us your secret! Admit it, you’re just good like that 😉

      Great post Margot and I enjoyed reading it.

  4. My only beef with Maslow is that he didn’t include books among the most basic needs 😉

    Very nice post, Margot, and thanks as always for the shout out. Your mention of the basic need for safety made me think of Jaye Ford’s new novel, Darkest Place, in which the protagonist believes a man is appearing in her bedroom at night. She suffers both from fearfulness and sleep deprivation as a result.

    Sleep is another of those fundamental human needs, and lack of sleep plays a part in a few crime novels. Perhaps the topic for a future post?

    • Thanks for the kind words, Angela; and believe me, it’s my pleasure to mention your work. I agree completely with you about where Maslow made his mistake, too. Books are definitely an essential. 🙂 And so is sleep. Funny how sleep deprivation is deeply woven into crime fiction, too, both in the way sleuths go about their work, and the way victims/suspects/witnesses/family members suffer. Perhaps I will tackle that at some point – I appreciate the inspiration.

      I’m also glad you mentioned Ford’s novel. I’ve heard about it, but haven’t really moved it to the ‘official’ radar yet. Perhaps I ought to do that, as it sounds intriguing.

  5. Kathy D.

    This is quite an interesting and challenging topic. I agree that people need sufficient, nutritious food, water and shelter before moving on to dealing with larger goals and topics.
    And, wow, was Behind the Night Bazaar an eye-opener for me. Although I know that the vast majority of those pulled into sex trafficking, do so out of economic desperation or criminal coercion, it still was shocking to learn that some families place their children into this situation for their own survival, to bring in necessary income. And there is no point in anyone moralizing about this if families are that impoverished.
    And that caused me to think: What kind of world do we live in where parents feel they must do this with their children to meet basic needs? Drastic changes have to be made so children don’t have to do this and women don’t either.
    The Sea Detective was good, too.
    And now that this post made me rattle up the gray matter a bit more, another thought: Oten people have to act in response to imminent danger, such as war, without having enough food or water. People in anti-colonialist movements, WWII Resistance fighters, those fleeing wars, not knowing their fates nor their children’s, have to act and without the basic essentials of life. Desperation, anger, commitment, feelings that they have nothing left to lose can push people to take action, even without food, water or shelter.

    • That’s quite true, Kathy. There are times when staying alive means acting in ways that don’t let a person plan for food, water and so on. Maslow would probably have that a survival need, too, really. And we certainly see that in crime fiction. You’re right, too, that there’s no point in talking about the morality of something like trafficking when families would otherwise starve. When it comes to that, people will do anything to be able to eat. You make a point that the real issues are the underlying situations that put families in the position where they need to make choices like that. Lots of people think that’s what our real focus should be.

  6. Kathy D.

    Oh, yes, to the addition of sleep and books as essentials.

  7. Janet Fearnley

    Excellent post.

  8. What an interesting take. Margot, you have an amazing way of looking at crime fiction through such unique ways. You can take one story and show me at least a dozen different ways to appreciate it and for that I’m most grateful to you.

  9. A.M. Pietroschek

    Kudos for Margot Kinberg, but I am repeating myself, as our host always comes up with solid work and detailed background knowledge.

    If we take this article into consideration, does it make sense to individualize the motives & needs of all figures involved in stories we write, and what is your estimation of how to balance their fascination to the readers with the needs of the story?

    • Thank you, André. You bring up a really interesting aspect of this discussion of character motivation and Maslow’s hierarchy. Readers certainly want to see characters as believable people; and that means (assuming Maslow was right) people who meet their most basic needs, and only then concentrate on higher level needs. As you point out, each of us is different, though, and we all have different needs. Folding that into character development takes up space in a story. And if it’s not done well, it can indeed detract from the main plot line. So what’s the balance? In my opinion, writers can weave character development into a story in ways that serve that story. As an example, in the Angela Savage novel I mention in the post, the needs of some of the characters in the story are a part of the plot. They help answer some of the plot questions. So they fit in without detracting from the story.

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        Thanks for the elaboration. So in example a drug dealer and a junkie would know & distrust each other due drugs (income for one, addiction for the other) which would help explain why they glare and snarl at each other in a later scene or why they deny to give a witness report, even when uninvolved in the murder of a Casino Boss…

        • That’s an interesting scenario, André, and I think you have a solid explanation for what their motives might be in terms of Maslow’s theory. Both the junkie and the dealer depend on the drug for what they see as survival. So they aren’t very likely to give it all up to give a witness report. And since each depends on the drug, they could easily mistrust one another. The junkie doesn’t necessarily trust the dealer to provide a good supply, and in any case, is giving up money to get the drug. The dealer doesn’t trust the junkie either, especially if the junkie is a little slow to pay. And especially if the dealer is in debt to someone more powerful (and potentially more dangerous).

        • A.M. Pietroschek

          What a Mafia Donna was lost, when you decided to do Crime Fiction instead… No disrespect meant with that. More of a compliment!

  10. While reading I was immediately reminded of Motivation-Reaction Units in structuring believable scenes. There is a hierarchy involved in that a character’s initial reaction must follow the motivation (i.e. a bystander witnessing a crime scene), then we can layer the reactions as they would normally occur. Your examples prove Dominique Swain’s theory of MRUs as a solid element of storytelling.

    • Oh, that’s really interesting, Sue!! I’ll be honest, I hadn’t thought of MRU as a structure, but it sure makes a lot of sense! Thanks for sharing and giving me another way to think about this.

  11. What a thoughtful post and what interests me most about crime fiction is how it really does mirror how we all behave, that isn’t to say all crime fiction readers are criminals, clearly not!t, but given the right set of circumstances (like lack of those basic needs) I wonder how long it would take, and how far we would go, to meet them? Reading novels I often wonder how (honestly) I would act in similar circumstances, which is when our value setting comes into play I would think?

    • I think so, too, Cleo. And that’s one of the things that has always fascinated me about crime fiction. When it’s well-written, a crime novel invites the reader to ask, ‘what would I do in that situation?’ And sometimes, the answer isn’t particularly comforting. But at the same time, I think it does help show us, as you say, how we behave and how we might under certain circumstances.

  12. Fascinating ideas. I have recently been reading (non-crime) about young women in 19th c England and France, those without family support. Apparently it was almost impossible for them to earn enough in a normal job to make ends meet – hard skilled work as eg a seamstress, or in a shop, simply didn’t pay enough. Unless there was some element of accommodation included in the job (eg being in service, a housemaid) they couldn’t survive, and that is why so many became sex workers. I found this economic analysis chilling.

    • That book sounds really interesting, Moira, and yes, a chilling analysis. The realities of being a working-class woman at that time, with no support, must have been awful in terms of the hours, the low pay, the low social regard, and the hard choices.

  13. I have always thought that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was very interesting, but never thought of it in the context of crime or mystery fiction. Very interesting topic, Margot.

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