None of us is perfect. We all know that in the abstract, but it doesn’t stop us wanting to appear to ‘have it all together’ in front of others. That’s a very natural desire, really. Who wants to come across as incompetent? But for some people, it goes further than that. For those people, it leads to strong feelings of self-doubt and fear that others will find out about real and perceived weaknesses. And that can result in what’s often called Imposter Syndrome.
People with Imposter Syndrome are convinced that they’re not really competent or successful, no matter how much evidence there might be to the contrary. Because of this, they sometimes feel fraudulent; that can lead to even more feelings of unworthiness or worse.
There are certainly people like that in real life, and we see such characters in crime fiction, too. They can add sub-plots, story arcs, and more to a story or series; and such characters can resonate, since there are plenty of readers who can relate.
In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Hercule Poirot is invited to a cocktail party hosted by famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Among the other guests is Oliver Manders, a young man who’s just getting started in his career. Manders is an insecure and unhappy young man; but of course, he doesn’t want anyone to know that. So he pretends to be bored and jaded, and pretends to a lot of self-confidence that he doesn’t really have. Unfortunately, because of that superficial attitude, he doesn’t make the best of first impressions. Still, he thinks that, as the saying goes, he has everyone fooled. At the cocktail party, another guest, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Manders is shaken up, as all of the guests are, but continues to put on a façade of sneering contempt. It’s not until there’s a second murder, and the possibility that he may be blamed for it, that Manders is willing to admit his insecurities. When he does, Poirot turns out to be quite helpful to him.
It’s not unusual for young people to be vulnerable to Imposter Syndrome; they’re trying to fit in, and they often don’t have the confidence in themselves that they’ll develop later in life. That’s arguably the case with Christy Sinclair, whom we first meet in Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel. In one sub-plot of that novel, we learn that Christy is dating Peter Kilbourn, the son of Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn. In the next novel, The Wandering Soul Murders, it’s revealed that Christy and Peter have broken up, and that Joanne is just as well pleased about that. Then, Christy comes back into the Kilbourns’ lives, even saying that she and Peter are getting back together. Not long afterwards, Christy dies in what seems at first to be a suicide by drowning. It’s not that simple, though, and as Joanne looks into the matter, she finds that Christy had quite a lot of insecurity, and a sense of not being ‘good enough.’ Partly that came from her background (she grew up on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks). But there are other reasons, too, and they form part of this plot thread.
Natsuo Kirino’s Real World takes us into the lives of five Tokyo teenagers. When one of them, Ryo, is suspected of killing his mother, he goes on the run. Each in a different way, the other four teens, all of whom are in the same social group, interact with Ryo. The situation begins to spin out of control for all of them, but instead of getting the adult help they need, they decide to try to manage it themselves. None of them even speaks to a parent about what’s really going on. In part, that’s because they don’t want to be suspected of being complicit in a murder. But there’s also the strong sense that they don’t want to appear helpless and unable to cope. They’d rather be caught in a dangerous and frightening mess than show just how incompetent they really think they are. And in the end, that choice has tragic consequences.
Plenty of new parents feel a sense of the Impostor Syndrome. Advertisements, some television characters, and so on make parenting a brand-new infant look easy. It’s not. There’s the set of hormonal changes, there’s chronic sleep deprivation, and there’s the never-ending demand for feedings, changings, changings, changings… And that’s not to mention infants’ occasional illnesses or issues such as colic. And yet, plenty of new parents buy into the myth that they should do it all and do it well. And that can go on for a long time (‘If I were a good parent, my child would ____,’ or, ‘If I ask for help with ____, everyone’ll know what a horrible parent I am.’).
We see that sort of Impostor Syndrome reflected in a lot of crime fiction. I’m sure you can name plenty of examples. One of the more recent ones is Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? Like many new mothers, Yvonne struggles with the demands and societal expectations for new parents. Matters aren’t made any easier by the fact that she’s recently moved from Ireland to London, so she hasn’t made a lot of friends – not friends that she can really trust. So, she turns to NetMammy, an online community of new mothers, for support. And that’s what she finds at first. Then, one of the other members all of sudden goes ‘off the grid.’ Anyone can take a break from online activity, but Yvonne begins to suspect that something is very wrong. And then a body is discovered…
No-one likes to appear weak or incompetent. And sometimes, those feelings of inadequacy, and the myth that everyone else has it right, can lead to a real sense of self-doubt. And that can lead in all sorts of directions, especially in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ I’m a Loser.