Everything She Wants is Everything She Sees*

High MaintenanceYou 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Geraldine Evans, Jill Edmondson, Patricia Abbott, Rex Stout

24 responses to “Everything She Wants is Everything She Sees*

  1. kathyd

    Yup, high-maintenance people around whom the world turns. Hard to deal with. Nero Wolfe is a good example. Everything has to be done his way, even the number of juniper berries put into a stew. His poor long-suffering chef, Fritz, has to put up with Wolfe’s demands and tantrums. Archie has ot put up with a lot, too, and sometimes he quits — only to come back.
    But Wolfe is not only a brilliant detective, but his habits and quirks are interesting: his yellow pajamas, his insistence on working in his orchid green room at certain hours, his culinary and alcoholic preferences, etc.
    He likes to call the shots and have Archie, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, do the legwork, bring in the suspects and evidence — and then he’ll summon everyone involved in the case and solve it.
    So, even the police officials have to listen to him because he’s always right!
    Salvo Montalbano is also high-maintenance in his own way: his dinners have to be pesce and pasta at home or in his favorite trattoria in Vigata, and made exactly as he wants them. His staff has to do what he tells them to do, and he wants reports given as he demands. And the older he gets, the louder he yells. But he’s a smart detective, too.

    • You make a well-taken point, Kathy, The fact that both Montalbano and Wolfe are interesting characters is a good bit of what makes them appealing. We accept their high-maintenance qualities because they’re brilliant, and they are good at detection. And they’re fascinating characters.

  2. Margot, I’m hoping to read Patti’s novels soon. I think “Concrete Angel” is particularly intense.

  3. When I started reading your post, I thought immediately of all the high maintenance characters who end up as *victims*. But you bring up a good point that they’re also great for just general conflict (additional tension) in a story.

  4. Just reading a Stout book, after not reading one in thirty years, and boy, he does get on my nerves. Poor Archie. Thanks for the mention, Margot. You know how much your opinions mean to me.

  5. High maintenance people make such interesting characters. Great post, Margot.

  6. Tim

    Margot, in some significant ways, don’t you think, Poirot is also “high maintenance,” mostly because of his ego, but I guess all egocentric people require too much energy from the rest of us. There is probably more irony that I realize in that statement. People who expend energy dealing with me would recognize the ironies.

    • You make an interesting point about Poirot, Tim. Certainly he is capable of caring about others and of considering their needs. But in terms of his ego, yes, I’d agree he’s high maintenance. He even admits that he likes to be right and to have an audience to amaze.

  7. kathyd

    Wolfe and Poirot both want audiences. They round up all of the suspects in one room and then ask questions, posit culprits and then — voila: The murderer is revealed in front of many people so the detective geniuses can be the hero and get accolades and recognition.
    Oy vey. In real life, this is annoying and we all know people like this. But we mystery fans love it — on the pages, that is, or on the screen.

    • You’re right, Kathy. We may find such people quite annoying in real life. But in fiction, they certainly do have their appeal, don’t they? Well, Wolfe and Poirot certainly do.

  8. Concrete Angels does sound very good. I’m surprised that we have so many high maintenance perpetrators here – you’d think they would be far more likely to be victims!

    • You know, you have a point, Cleo. You would think they’d be victims. But there are plenty of other high maintenance characters in crime fiction. And I do recommend Concrete Angel when you get the chance. It’s an excellent psychological study, in my opinion.

  9. Ooh, Concrete Angel sounds rife with conflict. I’ll have to check it out. Back in the real world, when a high maintenance patron sends back their meal I’m always so embarrassed for the rest of their party, even if I don’t know them. They usually complain about the tiniest things, too. My husband and I encountered the worst kind of high maintenance person the other night…filthy rich and trying to impress friends. He sent the poor waitress back and forth about three times. On the way out, we tipped her extra for putting up with his crap. At least we made her laugh; she was near tears from his verbal abuse.

    • Oh, I feel for that waitress, Sue! I’ve seen that sort of thing, too, and I always feel so bad for the server. Yours was lucky that she had you there to try to make things just a little better. And I agree; situations like that are embarrassing for the person who’s with the high maintenance person.

      As to Concrete Angel, there are indeed all sorts of conflicts and psychological depths in it. I do recommend it, Sue.

  10. Agatha Christie is VERY good on a certain kind of passive-aggressive, whiney, high maintenance person: ‘oh, don’t worry about ME, I only wanted a little thing, MY comfort is less important than your convenience’ etc – like the one you mention above. I always wondered if there was someone in her life like that, because she reproduces it so well. In fact none of her immediate family sound like that at all from the biog and autobiog, but maybe there was someone….

    • There may have been, Moira. There’s no doubt that Christie created some memorable and well-drawn characters like that. She had a wonderful imagination, but one can’t help wondering whether that particular type was inspired by someone real.

  11. Col

    Nothing to add regarding examples – I’m looking forward to reading some of the Neely-Blanche books at some point!

  12. tracybham

    Same here, Margot. Thanks for the reminder for the series by Barbara Neely. I keep meaning to read that series. Someday. I think I say that whenever she is mentioned.

    • The Barbara Neely series really is a good one, I think, Tracy. I hope you get the chance to read it at some point. But believe me, I know just what you mean about not getting to books you’d like to read. That happens to me all too often.

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