Why is it Always a Fight?*

Own Worst EnemyThere’s something to the old expression about people being their own worst enemies. It’s such a common human experience that ‘war against self’ is one of the basic conflicts that we find in literature. That’s just as true of crime fiction as it is of any other sort of fiction.

The ‘war against self’ can take many forms, too. It can be a matter of conquering a fear, overcoming a self-destructive habit, or even learning a new (but difficult) skill. You’ll notice as I go on today that I won’t be mentioning the all-too-common version of this where a dysfunctional sleuth battles the bottle and can’t keep a relationship. There are many such characters, and I’m sure you could name more than I could. The reality is, though there are plenty of other ways to portray this ‘war against self.’

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, we are introduced to Len Bateson. He’s a London medical student with St. Catherine’s Hospital, who lives in a student hostel. Bateson’s a friendly enough person, who enjoys a good laugh. But in several ways, he’s his own worst enemy. For one thing, he has a temper that sometimes gets in the way of his judgement. For another, he has a secret – one that holds him back, at least in his own mind. He gets drawn into a strange mystery when his stethoscope disappears, along with other odd things (a shoe, some light bulbs, and a cookery book, among other things). Matters take a murderous turn when a fellow resident, Celia Austin, dies in what looks at first like a suicide. When it’s proven that she was murdered, Inspector Sharpe investigates. Also involved is Hercule Poirot, mostly at the request of the hostel’s manager Mrs. Hubbard, the sister of Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, Felicity Lemon. As Sharpe and Poirot look into the death, they find that several people in the hostel are hiding things, and some are not what they seem to be. Admittedly, Bateson’s struggle with himself is not the major plot point in this novel, but it adds to one plot thread.

Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone tells the story of Eunice Parchman. When the wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family hires her as housekeeper, she’s glad of the job. But she is keeping a secret – one that truly has held her back. She’s very much her own worst enemy in that she doesn’t really take any positive steps towards dealing with that secret. Rather, she’s desperate that no-one will find out the truth, and goes to great length to prevent that. As fans of the story can tell you, that leads to terrible tragedy. One thing that makes this story all the more tragic is that there are several points along the way where it all might have been avoided.

Fans of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series will know that in many ways, he’s his own worst enemy. Certainly he is when it comes to his health He knows very well that he doesn’t eat well, doesn’t take care of himself, and so on. He’s not particularly good, either, at reaching out for help or at the social glue that holds relationships together. He’s intelligent, too, so he’s aware that he’s often his own greatest obstacle. But as I’m sure we can all attest, knowing something doesn’t always translate to making better (or at any rate, more healthful) choices.

Jassy Mackenzie’s PI/bodyguard protagonist Jade de Jong is also arguably her own worst enemy. When we first meet her in Random Violence, she’s just returned to her native Johannesburg after being away for ten years. Many people would say that, as the saying goes, her heart’s in the right place. But she faces plenty of battles with her own demons. She has a dark past, and is trying to come to terms with it. What’s more, she’s coping with the fact that her father was murdered. As the novels go on, she becomes a little more mature, and slightly less alienated. But that doesn’t mean things magically become easier for her.

We might say a similar thing about Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint. She’s a police detective who has her share of personal issues. She has some real darkness in her past, and finds it difficult (at least at first) to trust anyone. That’s one of several reasons that she doesn’t reach out when she might be better served by doing so. And although she’s not what you’d call a stereotypical ‘maverick,’ she does go out on her own without always thinking of her own safety or the consequences. She finds trust quite difficult in her personal life, too, which certainly doesn’t make life easier. On the one hand, Flint is not a demon-haunted sleuth who can’t stay away from the bottle, and can’t care about anyone else. On the other, she often has to overcome herself, if I can put it that way. And it’s interesting to see how she’s doing that as the series goes on.

And then there’s Peter May’s Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod, whom we first meet in The Blackhouse. MacLeod is an Edinburgh police detective who returns to his home on the Isle of Lewis when a murder there looks suspiciously like another murder he’s investigating. Fin’s past plays a major role in his interactions with the other characters, and in the actual case he’s working. In many ways, that past holds him back. Facing it and dealing with it are hard to do, but that’s the battle with himself that Fin faces.

And that’s the thing about being our own worst enemies. Sometimes people spend more time throwing up obstacles themselves than they do getting past hurdles anyone else sets up. It’s a common human tendency, so it’s little wonder we see it as much as we do in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Man on Mulberry Street.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Henning Mankell, Jassy Mackenzie, Peter May, Ruth Rendell, Sharon Bolton

34 responses to “Why is it Always a Fight?*

  1. One of the best examples of that kind of “war against self” has to be the intense claustrophobia that plagues Inspector Alan Grant in Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands. For many, that fear of small enclosed spaces can be paralyzing, and a main thread of Tey’s mystery is in Grant’s struggle to overcome that paralysis. It certainly adds a great deal to that book.

    • Oh, great example, Les! Thank you. As if that weren’t a terrific example in itself, I really have to say that I like the Inspector Grant novels. He’s a well-drawn character; and that just shows that he has weaknesses, as we all do, but isn’t a dysfunctional stereotype.

  2. Tim

    Conflicted sleuths add to the complexity of the agon (the struggle) against the criminals. Hey, no one is perfect! Perfect people are boring, melodramatic, romanticized heroes. Want two great conflicted sleuths for the record books? Oedipus and Hamlet. (Note: we are all not far removed from either of those fellows. Ponder that one! Hint — truth is a dangerous thing!)

    • Those are definitely find examples from classic writing! You’re right, too, that conflicted protagonists are a lot more interesting. And it goes to show, too, that crime fiction can take many forms…even classic form…

  3. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    More food for thought from mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg. Check it out!

  4. My protagonist PI flirts with the bottle, but that’s not his real problem. He’s a retired Marine with a lot of combat service. His real fight is with PTSD. Right now he’s in denial, but somewhere down the line. . . .
    Very interesting post, Margot!

    • Thanks, Michael. And I think you do a great job with Dinger, as far as that goes. He’s a fine example of the sort of character who has a battle with himself. Hey, folks, if you haven’t yet ‘met’ Dinger, you should. You can find a short story ‘starring’ Dinger right here. And here.

  5. I like your reference to ” Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, Felicity Lemon.” It’s that frighteningly efficient that made me smile, i.e, it is SO true! I wanted to ask you – how do come up with your ideas for these essays/posts? I think they are remarkably clever and analytical. What a brain you must have! 🙂 I really am curious as HOW you come up with your topics. Here how other people get their ideas is REALLY USEFUL. Keep it up!

  6. kathyd

    Harumph! No examples of sleuths who o.d. on chocolate, like so many of us do in the real world! Or even those who o.d. on reading crime fiction and will sacrifice going somewhere if we’re into a really good book.
    Lacey Flint really doesn’t deal too well with the world; she lives on a houseboat and is alone much of the time, ruminating about her circumstances. She seems lost.
    Now, Fin MacLeod is a good example of someone who is held back by his past and is struggling with resolving past mistakes, while involved in current investigations. What a character! Just raced through book 2 in this series, The Lewis Man. Can’t wait to read book 3. Then I’ll have post-good-book slump. I can’t stop reading about their settings, the Isle of Lewis/Harris in the Outer Hebrides off Scotland’s west coast.
    Of course, MacLeod’s creator, Peter May, describes the islands beautifully, and also explains the difficult lives of many of their residents as they have struggled to earn a living.

    • I agree with you, Kathy. Peter May does a superb job of evoking place and lifestyle and so on. It’s one of his real talents as an author. And as far as OD-ing on chocolate and crime fiction goes? There is no cure. There is no sense if battling the inner chocolate demon or the book demon. You will lose every time. It is hopeless. 😉

  7. kathyd

    Yes, but I’d like to be able to limit it when the pounds creep up or other deadlines or tasks are calling for my time.

  8. Being our own worst enemy seems to be a universal condition for humans. The darker history, the better, as far as good mysteries are concerned…although I must say I’m a little tired of recovering alcoholic cops. I like the stories that have non-cop main characters with pasts that come back to haunt them.

    You’ve piqued my interest in Lacey Flint — I’m adding Bolton’s books to my TBR list.

    • I know what you mean, Pat, about recovering alcoholic cops. I think the genre’s quite full enough of them, thank you. But it is interesting to see how a protagonist’s pass comes back to haunt her or him. And I think you’d like the Lacey Flint series. Among many other things, it’s a fascinating look at the impact of the past, with a great London setting.

  9. Margot, as evident from your post, the past is probably one’s worst enemy. Police detectives and private sleuths are constantly at war against themselves. Baggage they can’t leave behind and forget. But then, who can?!

    • You’ve got a well-taken point, Prashant. We can’t really change our pasts. So they do often stay with us and make it hard for us to move on. We see that a lot in crime fiction.

  10. kathyd

    Talking about self-torment, Wallender is portrayed a bit differently by the actors who portray him. Kenneth Branaugh is much more tortured than the Wallender of Kirster Hendricksson, who is contemplative, but more inclined to act than ruminate.

  11. In a sense all novels, crime fiction or otherwise, is a fight against one’s self. In that the protagonist must fight their inner demons along their way through the quest. Of course, as you beautifully demonstrated, some novels focus more on it than others.

    • You’ve got a well-taken point, Sue. In a certain sense, all novels do include those fights against self. That’s arguably part of character development and depth, and such conflicts can make a novel stronger.

  12. So many of my favourite books in one post Margot – Hickory Dickory, Lacey Flint, The Lewis Trilogy and of course the wonderful A Judgement in Stone! I think it is precisely when the authors get the tone write in the war against self that they create truly realistic and memorable characters – I prefer books where characters are conflicted because for me it seems more likely than outright ‘good’ or ‘bad’

    • I think so, too, Cleo.. We all have battles against ourselves, if only on a minor level. So I think we can relate to characters such as Lacey Flint and some of the rest of these characters. They are, as you say, more realistic. And I think they’re more accessible.

  13. I nominate Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway – not for her war against weight, but for being unable to move on from her relationship with Nelson. She knows it’s probably never going to work out and isn’t even totally sure she wants it too, but she lets it hold her back from forming other realtionships that stand a better chance…

    • Oh, that’s a great example, FictionFan! As you say, she knows that there’s very little chance, if any, of that relationship working out. But part of her is still invested in it. She can’t get beyond that, so, as you say, it does hold her back.

  14. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…6/28/16 – Where Worlds Collide

  15. Another Christie example is the accused in Mrs McGinty’s Dead – Poirot is trying to prove his innocence, but James Bentley is no help at all, seems to have given up. The character interactions are nicely done.

  16. Col

    I’ve been meaning to read the Rendell book for a couple of years now – one of these days!

  17. tracybham

    The Blackhouse is one of those highly recommended books that I have been meaning to read for years. Someday I have to get to it.

    • I know just what you mean, Tracy, about books one keeps meaning to read but doesn’t. I’ve got a long list of ’em, myself, *sigh.* I do recommend The Blackhouse when you get to it.

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