There is Good and Bad in Everyone*

DualNatureThere’s an old Cherokee story (you can read it here) in which a grandfather explains human nature to his grandson. He portrays it as a battle between our own good and evil tendencies, and claims that the side that wins is, as he puts it, ‘the one you feed.’

There’s a lot to that perspective if you think about it. We can look at human nature and good and evil from several points of view (philosophical, religious, anthropological, etc.). But, I’m not a philosopher, a member of the clergy, or an anthropologist. And besides, it’s a very large topic, and this is a very small blog. But even keeping the focus on crime fiction, we see plenty of examples of characters who ‘feed’ their ‘better angels’ as well as those who do just the opposite. In both cases, there are consequences.

G.K. Chesterton’s Hercule Flambeau begins as a notorious thief. In fact, in the short story The Blue Cross, we learn that he has gone from France to England, and is on his way to steal a valuable religious artifact. Flambeau has bested many people, including the French police. But Father Brown proves to be more than a match for him. Flambeau then chooses to ‘feed’ the better side of his nature. He gives up his larcenous career and becomes a private investigator. He doesn’t start going to religious services, and he enjoys a good wine as much as the next person. It’s not those outer trappings of what some people think of as ‘morality’ that change. Rather, it’s his decision to nurture the ethical side of his nature.

We see that sort of conversation and struggle in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, too. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Among the other hotel guests are famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall; her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall; and Marshall’s teenaged daughter Linda. It’s soon hotel gossip that Arlena is having a not-very-well-hidden affair with another guest, Patrick Redfern. So, when she is found murdered one day, her husband Kenneth comes under suspicion. He has a solid alibi, though, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. One of the people they talk to is Linda Marshall. As it turns out, she hated her stepmother, and cannot be ruled out as the killer. At one point, she and Poirot have an interesting conversation about the difference between the urge to kill someone and actually going through with the act. That conversation, and one other one, suggests that, while Poirot is not naïve about the existence of evil, he does believe that people can choose to ‘feed’ their better natures, too. I see you, fans of Death on the Nile.

In Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, we are introduced to fourteen-year-old Adam Vander. He’s finally managed to escape his abusive father, Joe. But Adam has been kept locked away for many years, so he has little knowledge of the world and no good skills to survive in it. Fortunately, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who’s at the house when Adam makes his escape, and who becomes his ally. The two spend the next week together, and Billy provides Adam with a great deal of ‘street knowledge,’ as well as basics like a place to stay, clothes, and food. As they spend time together, the two also become friends, and begin to confide in each other. It turns out that both of them are haunted by the past, and by their connections to the tragic disappearance of a small boy from a crowded market ten years earlier. As the story evolves, both Adam and Billy learn something about ‘feeding one’s better nature,’ and about starting over, if I can put it that way.

Of course, people sometimes ‘feed’ their worse – even evil – side as well. After all, where would crime fiction be if they didn’t? And when they do, the result can be disastrous.

In Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair, we are introduced to Gilbert Hand, who works for a publishing firm. He’s recently moved to a very respectable London hotel, where he’s hoping to start over after the tragic death of his wife. Shortly after his arrival, he makes a bizarre discovery: in the davenport in his room, he finds a long coil of dark hair, wrapped in a scarf. Hand gets curious about the room’s former occupant and soon learns that it was man named Freddie Doyle. Now he’s even more curious, especially when Doyle pays him a visit to ask for the coil of hair (which request Hand refuses). Little by little, Hand becomes obsessed with Doyle, at the same repulsed and fascinated by him. He imagines a sort of ‘chess game’ between them. As his obsession grows, Hand starts to ‘feed’ his darker side, and the result leads to real tragedy.

A similar thing happens in Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down. Mix Cellini takes a flat in a home owned by Gwendolyn Chawcer. They don’t really like each other, but it’s a business arrangement; and on that level, it works. Through his profession (he repairs exercise equipment), Cellini meets supermodel Merissa Nash. He’s immediately smitten, and soon goes beyond that to obsession. At the same time, he learns about the life of notorious killer Richard Christie. The more he reads, the more obsessed Cellini becomes with Christie, too. Little by little, he starts to ‘feed’ his darker side, and the end result, as you’d expect, is disastrous.

It does in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, too. Dr. Everett Seeley has lost his medical license due to his drug problems. He decides to go to Mexico to start over; but until he gets settled, he doesn’t want to bring his wife Marion with him. So he establishes her in a Phoenix apartment, and sets her up with a job as a file clerk in the exclusive Werden Clinic. At first, all goes well enough. Marion even makes two friends: Louise Mercer (a nurse at the clinic) and Louise’s roommate Ginny Hoyt. It’s not long before Marion starts spending more time with them, and getting more and more involved in their edgy, even dangerous, lifestyle of wild parties, drugs and drinking. As time goes on, Marion begins to ‘feed’ her own darker and more dangerous side. The end result is an awful tragedy that impacts everyone involved.

Oh, and speaking of Abbotts, you’ll also want to check out Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel as a really interesting example of making choices between which side of our nature we ‘feed.’ Eve Moran has always nurtured her selfish side, letting nothing – not even someone’s life – get in the way of what she wants. Her daughter Christine’s been brought up with this influence, and has been caught in her mother’s web, so their relationship is truly dysfunctional. But everything changes when Christine sees that her little brother Ryan is at risk. Now she’s going to have to find a way to free herself and her brother from their mother’s influence.

And that’s the thing about human nature. People generally aren’t all good or all bad. The choices we make – the side of our nature that we ‘feed’ – plays a major role in what we do. And those choices can have far-reaching consequences.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s Ebony and Ivory.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte Jay, G.K. Chesterton, Honey Brown, Megan Abbott, Patricia Abbott, Ruth Rendell

26 responses to “There is Good and Bad in Everyone*

  1. Pingback: A blogger discusses human nature – milesandwhitingmysteryauthors

  2. This made me think of Hitchcock’s film ‘Rope’, where two young men with every advantage deliberately choose to take an evil path purely to experience it. But it doesn’t turn out quite the way they expect. Of course, the chilling thing about that particular film is that it’s based on a true story. And that has just reminded me of another film, Heavenly Creatures, based on the Parker-Hulme case, which is another example of girls, this time, choosing to ‘feed’ their evil side.

    • Oh, Rope is a great example, FictionFan, so thanks. I’ll admit I haven’t seen Heavenly Creatures, but I do know of the Parker/Hulme case. Such a deeply disturbing case of ‘feeding’ the evil side, and it shows just what the terrible consequences can be of doing that. And the thing about film is, everything can be made very immediate and powerful, just because of the medium.

  3. Nice post, Margot. And I love the two wolves within story. It reminds me of something Alice Walker wrote in the afterword to ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’ – words to the effect that there is compassion to equal cruelty in this world and it’s up to each of us to tilt the balance. Makes a lot of sense to me.

    • Thanks, Angela. And I agree with you about Alice Walker’s comment. It’s interesting to me how many disparate people across time and place have come to the same conclusion. To me, there’s something to it when you have that much consensus.

  4. One of the most fascinating things about people is the not all good or bad – the old saying honour amongst thieves which conjures up aspects of loyalty to others. I did enjoy Charlotte James book A Hank of Hair too – the growing obsession was very well illustrated.

    • I thought it was, too, Cleo. And you’re right about people. Most of us aren’t all good or all bad. We may do good or bad things, but at our core, most of us aren’t all one way or the other.

  5. Col

    I find the “darker” side appeals more than the “light” most of the time when I’m reading. I ought to read something by Megan Abbott one of these years, if I can find the time!

  6. A.M. Pietroschek

    An interesting approach to the ‘behind the facades’ of Crime Fiction, dear Margot.

    On the Cherokee saying I stated that we ain’t zoo workers and hence shouldn’t feed wolves. But the shamanic-psychological aspects of needing a mind arranging ourselves to the ways of society, even IF we inwardly disagree, does not really belong here.

    The Father Brown example was a good one, and so was the ‘feeding of the dark side’. Star Wars has a Force, vampires have longevity, but pure Crime Fiction really focuses on the personal aspect of making the decision in some knowledge of human nature.

    I remember the ‘many shades of gray’ view most vividly from Clarence Starling and Dr. Hannibal L.; As pacts with the other side are often seen as treason or corrupting oneself, too.

    • It’s interesting that you would bring up the Star Wars example, André. It’s not, of course, crime fiction, but it certainly illustrates the capacity people have for darkness and light.

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        Yes, but the point I attempted was that ‘fantastical’ fiction needs a kinda superpower, where Crime Fiction shows us that the core of the choice, good or bad, is actually a very human factor. I think readers can relate more to crime fiction in this point, as fantasy & sci fi really work differently, and sometimes even less intelligent. 😉

  7. Interesting post, Margot. I just finished listening to the audio of THE SECOND LIFE OF NICK MASON by Steve Hamilton that deals with the protagonist being in prison but really wanting to turn his life around when he gets out. Long story short, he tries to feed his good side when he’s released, but he’s bound by actions that continue to feed his bad side.

    • Oh, that does sound really interesting, Mason! And it shows, too, that sometimes, circumstances, as well as the ‘ghosts’ of past mistakes, can feed our dark side, even if that’s not what we want.

  8. Margot, I have read that Cherokee story with “The one you feed” moral end many times that I should carry it in the community-specific spiritual newsletter I bring out every month. I plan to read Patti and Megan Abbott’s fiction and I know I’m in for a treat.

    • I think you’ll enjoy those novels, Prashant. Both are very talented writers. And I’m glad you know that story; it has a powerful message. It’s a good fit for a spiritual newsletter.

  9. I love Ebony and Ivory, Margot. Stevie Wonder is one of my favorite singers.

    I will be getting to some of Megan Abbot’s books also. Queenpin is the only one I have so far.

  10. In Dorothy L Sayers Unnatural Death, a young woman goes down a slippery slope – from a not unreasonable attempt to secure a deserved inheritance, to much worse things. A chilling portrait I always thought.

    • That is a great example, Moira! You’re right about the way Sayers portrays it, too. It’s eerie, and part of the reason it has such an effect, I think is that Sayers doesn’t go overboard.

  11. Interesting legend and way of looking at things!!

  12. Immediately I thought of the classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Also, a while back I read Deadly Messengers by Susan May, which, if I remember correctly, touched on this subject. Unfortunately, I figured out the “answer” way too early in the book, but that’s all I can say without ruining it for someone else.

    • I know what you mean, Sue. Sometimes, a person does figure out the truth a little too soon. It doesn’t always ruin a story, but it does sometimes. And thanks for mentioning both the May and of course Dr. Jekyll…. That’s classic and a creepy example of humans’ dual nature.

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