You know the type, I’ll bet. The sort of person who has no problem sending a dish back to the kitchen three times. Or who insists on getting instant service, answers to questions, and so on. Or who absolutely must have the best in clothes, food, or wine (or all of the above). Yes, I’m talking about high-maintenance people. I’m sure we’ve all met folks like that.
High-maintenance people can be the bane of existence for anyone in any sort of service industry. And they don’t tend to endear themselves to others in personal life, either. But they can make for interesting fictional characters. And they can be a ‘gold mine’ of conflict and tension in a crime novel.
Agatha Christie included high maintenance characters in several of her novels. One of them is Timothy Abernethie, whom we meet in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). He’s the younger brother of patriarch Richard Abernethie, who, at the beginning of the novel, has just died. Timothy is a hypochondriac who really does seem to relish the attention he gets due to his ‘ill health.’ He’s demanding, querulous and petulant, too. When his brother’s will is read, Timothy naturally assumes that he should inherit everything (and it’s quite a fortune), and be trusted to look after the other members of the family. That’s not what happens, though. Instead, the money is divided more or less evenly amongst Richard Abernethie’s relatives, and this infuriates Timothy. But that turns out to be the least of his problems when a suspicion is raised that this death might have been a murder. And when the youngest Abernethie sister, Cora Lansquenet, is murdered, it looks as though someone is determined to get that fortune. The family lawyer, Mr. Entwhistle, asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. It turns out to be a very interesting psychological case.
Barbara Neely’s Blanche White has to deal with high maintenance people in more than one of her investigations. She’s a professional housekeeper whose clients often make assumptions about themselves and about her because of their different social classes. They also often make such assumptions because many of them are white, and Blanche is black. On the one hand, she’s learned to manoeuver in that environment. She’s also learned that in subtle but real ways, she’s the one in control. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean she’s immune to the very natural irritation that comes from being treated in a demanding, high-handed way. In Blanche on the Lam, for instance, she ends up taking a temporary housekeeping job with wealthy Grace and Everett. From the moment Blanche begins her new job, Grace treats her with at best, condescension and at worst, complete disrespect. Both Grace and Everett are demanding, high-handed and very particular. The fact that they’re high maintenance isn’t the reason for the two murders that occur in the novel. But it makes for an interesting layer of tension.
In Geraldine Evans’ Dead Before Morning, DI Joe Rafferty and DS Dafyd Llewellyn investigate the murder of a young woman whose body is found on the grounds of the exclusive Elmhurst Sanatorium. Its owner, Dr. Anthony Melville-Briggs, is extremely concerned lest anything happen to the facility’s reputation, and he wants the case solved as quickly as possible. Soon enough, the body is identified as that of a sex worker named Linda Wilks. Once she is identified, the two sleuths trace leads that may link her to her killer. One very good possibility is that Melville-Briggs himself may be responsible, and Rafferty would like nothing better. Melville-Briggs is high-handed, demanding, and rude. He’s also quite high maintenance in that he expects instant results, instant call returns, and so on. It’s actually Llewellyn who has to remind Rafferty that there are other possibilities.
Toronto PI Sasha Jackson doesn’t have it much easier in Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom. One day, she gets a visit from Christine Arvisais, who wants to hire Jackson to solve a murder case. It seems that Arvisais’ former fiancé, Gordon Hanes, was shot on the day that would have been their wedding day had the engagement not been broken off. Everyone thinks Arvisais is responsible, but she claims to be innocent. From the beginning, Jackson doesn’t care much at all for this client. She’s rude, overly pampered, snooty, and very high maintenance. In fact, she doesn’t want the case solved because she cares who shot Hanes. She only wants to prove she didn’t. Still, a fee is a fee, and Jackson is just getting started as a PI. So she takes the case and gets started looking for answers. She finds that Hanes’ murder is linked to another murder, and in the process, digs up some shady secrets.
Sometimes, high maintenance goes beyond just spoiled and petulant. For example, in Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel, we meet the very high maintenance Eve Moran. From the time she was a small child, Eve has always wanted to acquire. And she’s never let anything, not even murder, get between her and what she wants, whether it’s money, jewels, men, or something else. Her daughter Christine has been raised in this toxic environment, so she and her mother have a very dysfunctional relationship. The more time goes on, the more trapped Christine is in her mother’s web. Then, she sees that her little brother Ryan is at risk of being caught in the same trap. She decides that she’s going to have to free both herself and Ryan if she’s going to save them.
And I don’t think I’d be forgiven if I discussed high maintenance people in crime fiction without mentioning Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Fans will tell you that he’s demanding, extremely particular, high-handed and sometimes very condescending. He definitely insists that the world run by his rules. And his partner, Archie Goodwin, is not afraid to tell him so. Wolfe gets away with what he does because he happens to be a brilliant detective. But that doesn’t make him a delight to be around at times…
And that’s the thing about high maintenance people. They are sometimes most unpleasant, and they’re not popular as bosses, potential partners or customers/clients. But they’re also a part of life. And they can add some interesting tension to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Wham! ‘s Everything She Wants.