You Wear Smug So Very Well*

SmugnessMost of us know that no-one’s always right, and no-one has all of the answers. Still, there are some people who are so convinced of their own perspective that they’re unwilling to even consider the possibility that they may be wrong, or that there may be other perspectives out there. That sort of smugness can be grating for anyone who has to deal with a person like that. It’s limiting for the person who’s smug, too, if you think about it.

In crime fiction, smugness can even make a person vulnerable. After all, if the only ‘correct’ perspective is your own, you’re not willing to consider that you might have enemies that could get the better of you. Such a character can also add a nice dose of conflict to a series, so that human frailty can be a useful tool for the writer as well.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ten people accept an invitation to go to Indian Island. On the evening of their arrival, it becomes clear that their host, whoever she or he is, will not be there. That’s odd enough, but things take a darker turn when each person is accused of having been responsible for the death of at least one other person. One of the guests, Miss Emily Brewster, has been accused of being responsible for the suicide of a former housemaid. It comes out that when she discovered that the maid was what used to be called ‘in trouble,’ she fired her, leaving the young woman with no place to live and no options. In her smugness, Miss Brewster believes that she was correct, and that it wasn’t her fault if the maid had ‘loose morals.’ Miss Brewster ends up paying for her smug perspective when she becomes a victim to a killer who seems to be preying on all of the guests.

Louise Penny’s series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. In one story arc in this series, he is assigned a new member of the Sûreté, Yvette Nichol. On the one hand, when she first begins working with Gamache, she’s eager to make the best impression she can. On the other, she is smug. Because of this, she’s unwilling to learn from anyone else, and unwilling to take even the friendliest of advice. This makes for a host of problems for Gamache’s team. Not only does Nichol make mistakes (as we all do), but she isn’t willing to admit she’s wrong, watch and learn, or accept the fact that she doesn’t always know best. This is really limiting for her, as we see in the course of the series. She alienates people who might be real allies for her, and she’s not really welcome socially, either. It’s difficult for everyone.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma Precious Ramotswe takes on the case of a client who wants to make amends for wrongs he did years ago. In order to do that, he needs to locate his former landlady. That’s not going to be easy, but Mma Ramotswe thinks of a good starting place. The woman her client is looking for is the widow of a government worker, so it’s quite likely that her address and contact information can be found at the office that deals with government pensions. The clerk at that office is not helpful, though, and at first, refuses to give her any information. In fact, he’s quite smug about it:
 

‘‘But that is not the rule,’ said Mma Ramotswe. ‘…The rule says that you must not give the name of a pensioner. It says nothing about the address.’
The clerk shook his head. ‘I do not think you can be right, Mma. I am the one who knows the rules. You are the public.’’

 

Mma Ramotswe has to think quickly, since this clerk is really her only solid lead. But she comes up with a way to best the clerk, and ends up getting the information she needs.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow. As the novel begins, she seems to have the perfect life. She’s married to a successful attorney, she’s the mother of two healthy children, and she herself is both attractive and intelligent. Everything begins to fall apart, though, when a secret from Jodie’s past comes out. Her daughter, Hannah, is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years before, Jodie herself gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about this, but a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that the child was adopted, but the overcurious nurse can find no formal records. Now, questions begin to be asked, and before long, Jodie becomes a social pariah. Of no help at all is Jodie’s mother-in-law, Helen Garrow. She’s a ‘blueblood’ who wasn’t happy when her son married Jodie, and who certainly doesn’t befriend her very much. She does ‘damage control,’ as far as the media goes, but that’s only to preserve the Garrow reputation. She’s quite convinced she’s right about the kind of person Jodie is, and although she does help to take care of the children, her smugness alienates Jodie, just when Jodie needs support the most.

And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Arthur Jepson. Jepson is Madras Commissioner of Police in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai) during the British Raj. He’s not only very conscious of his position, but he’s absolutely convinced he’s right about the way to investigate. For instance, in The Pallampur Predicament, the Rajah of Pallampur is murdered. Jepson is sure that the victim was killed by disgruntled servants (Jepson is no fan of Indians). And that’s not an impossible explanation. But Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu (Stoddart’s protagonist) and his team believe that this is much more than just a ‘grudge murder.’ And they have more than one possible suspect. Still, Jepson is unwilling to listen to anyone else’s point of view. It all makes the case much more challenging for Le Fanu.

And that’s the thing about smug characters. I’ll bet we’ve all met people like that, and they have a way of making everything more difficult. Such people can be downright annoying in real life, but in crime fiction, characters like that can add interesting layers to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Poliça’s Smug.

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Brian Stoddart, Louise Penny, Wendy James

24 responses to “You Wear Smug So Very Well*

  1. How about the office where Bernard Samson works in Len Deighton’s triple trilogy? Bernard considers all his superiors to be smug idiots; he thinks he is the only one with any sense. (I think we’ve all known colleagues with that kind of grumpy confidence, whether justified or not)

    • Oh, wonderful example, Moira!! I love it. Trust you to fill in the gap so neatly and effectively. Yes, indeed, Sansom sees his superiors as smug idiots, and that adds a nice layer of conflict and character development. Oh, and that reminds me of Carl Mørck’s view of his superiors (and some colleagues) in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s series. Same sort of interesting perspective and character development. Thanks.

  2. I will never feel smug about acing one of your quizes ever again 🙂

  3. What great examples, particularly that in Then There Were None – Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine used this type of character in a fair few of her books; I’m particularly thinking of Vera in A Dark Adapted Eye. And this post has finally pushed me into buying a copy of The Mistake which I’ve mentioned I want to read each time you feature it.

    • Oh, I do hope you’ll enjoy The Mistake, Cleo! It’s an excellent, excellent book, I think. And you know, I hadn’t thought of Vera when I was putting this post together – thank you. It’s a perfect fit for this topic, so I appreciate your bringing her character up.

  4. Great post and topic. I really enjoyed reading it. It’s definitely something interesting to use for a story.

  5. This is a great post! 🙂 I think I have another edition of And Then There Were None, in which Emily Brewster is named Emily Brent.

    • Oh, thank you, Regulus98. I think that Christie used very similar names in a lot of her books, and in, I think, Dumb Witness, uses two different surnames for the same character.

  6. Ha, I think I’ve met more than my share of smug people in real life, and they do make excellent characters in crime fiction – I wonder if this was the crime author’s roundabout way of taking revenge on them?
    I may be committing a huge, huge iconoclastic shocker here, but I do feel that Poirot and Miss Marple both veer dangerously close to smug territory, when they can figure out things and others can’t, and they show up the police in a bad light…

    • Oh, I don’t think that’s far off the mark, Marina Sofia. Poirot and Miss Marple both do enjoy it very much when they solve the case and best the police. And some people would definitely call that smug. And you’re not alone about meeting smug people, too; I think most of us have met our share. They do make terrific crime-fictional characters, too, I agree. And who knows? it very well could be the author’s way of getting a bit of revenge…

  7. Col

    Great example quoted with Arthur Jepson. Stoddart’s skill as a writer even has you feeling a smidgeon of sympathy for Jepson by the end of the book – something I hadn’t believed possible earlier on.

    • I agree, Col, about Stoddart’s writing. Jepson is a terrific character, and he has more than one dimension – not easy to pull off. Oh, and I have it on good authority that he will be back in the next Le Fanu mystery.

  8. In some cases, those characters that are so smug are the ones we love to hate. Great topic and an interesting twists, Margot.

  9. Nice theme, Margot. I’m going to buy myself a couple of Brian Stoddart’s novels.

  10. kathyd

    Oy vey, Smugness is not a trait I like, but it’s all around me. And, yes, it comes up in crime fiction, especially within a police team. There is always one person, usually a man who is smug, and usually not the best team player. I would say arrogance is part of being smug.

    • You’ve got an interesting point, Kathy. Smugness and arrogance certainly go hand in hand, don’t they? I’m not particularly fond of smugness, myself, but it certainly shows up a lot in crime fiction. And it can add a solid layer of conflict to a story.

  11. kathyd

    Hercule Poirot and Nero Wolfe get a bit of a pass on smugness and arrogance – because they are both brilliant and entertaining. One laughs when Wolfe opens his mouth and puts suspects and police officials in their place. But then again they are always right, even if smug and arrogant.
    And do we ever enjoy these characters!

  12. KathyD picked the perfect example: Nero Wolfe. What about Sherlock Holmes? I have not read much at all about Sherlock, but the movies and TV series I have seen certainly portray him that way.

    • Holmes is certainly smug when it comes to the police, Tracy. He’s not, perhaps, as obviously smug as Wolfe is (and I agree with Kathy about him, too!). But it’s there if you look.

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