A lot of us get tired of hearing about the doings of famous people. That’s understandable, when you consider the ways the media treats stories about celebrities. The truth is, famous people are, first and foremost, people. And sometimes stories about that side of them can be interesting, especially if they’re done well. Readers can certainly connect to a famous person if they see that person as, well, real.
The thing about famous people is that, like the rest of us, they often have family and friends. They have pasts, too, and often their own secrets. All of that can make for an interesting context for a crime novel, providing that the famous character is depicted as an authentic person.
We see the human side of famous actress Marina Gregg in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, Marina and her husband have just purchased Gossington Hall, in the village of St. Mary Mead. They decide to continue the tradition of an annual charity fête at the hall, and open their new home to the public. One of those most excited about this is Heather Badcock, who is one of Marina Gregg’s biggest fans. She goes to the big event, and actually gets the chance to meet her idol. Shortly afterwards, Heather becomes ill and then dies of what turns out to be poison. At first, it’s believed that the intended victim was Marina, and there are certainly are those who wish her harm in both her professional and personal lives. But Miss Marple deduces that Heather was actually meant to be the victim all along. With some help from her friend, Dolly Bantry, Miss Marple works out who would have wanted to kill Heather and why. As the novel goes on, we learn about the real person behind the famous Marina Gregg, and that side of her plays its role in the story.
In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts, we are introduced to famous actors Blythe Stuart and John Royle. They had a very public, very stormy romance that finally ended. Each married someone else and each now has an adult child. Magna Studios wants to do a biopic on the couple, and Ellery Queen’s working on the screenplay. No-one thinks that the two actors will consent to do the film, but to everyone’s surprise, they agree. What’s more, they re-kindle their romance and even decide to get married. Rather than let this sudden change of plans get in the way of the film, the studio decides to make the most of it and give the couple a Hollywood-style wedding. It’s to take place on an airstrip, and is to be followed by the couple and their children taking off for their honeymoon trip. The wedding comes off as planned, and the plane duly takes off. But when it lands, both newlyweds are dead of what turns out to be poison. Their children are the likely suspects, but each of them claims to be innocent. Queen investigates, and discovers that the truth can be found by seeing the couple as actual people, rather than as celebrities.
Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue begins as a group of people are waiting outside the Woofington Theatre to see the final performance of Didn’t You Know?, starring famous actress Ray Marcabel. The doors finally open and the crowd moves in. In the confusion, no-one notices at first that there’s been a stabbing and a man is dead. Inspector Alan Grant investigates; and, of course, one of his first questions is the man’s identity. It turns out that the victim was small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell. At first, it looks very much as though Sorrell’s roommate is guilty. Even Grant is convinced of this at first. But he soon begins to wonder whether he has the right man. So he goes back to the beginning of the case to find out the truth. And as he does, he learns more about the real person behind the famous Ray Marcabel, and that plays a part (pun intended) in the mystery.
Robert Crais’ Los Angeles-based PI Elvis Cole has had his share of encounters with famous people, and has learned what some of them are like behind their public personas. That’s what happens, for instance, in Lullaby Town. Famous director Peter Alan Nelson hires Cole to track down his ex-wife Karen Shipley, mostly so that Nelson will have a chance at a relationship with his twelve-year-old son, Toby. At first, Cole is reluctant to take the case, since it’s very likely that Karen doesn’t want to be found. But Nelson insists, saying that he really wants to be a father to his son. So Cole finally relents and starts asking questions. It doesn’t take him long to trace Karen and Toby to a small Connecticut town, but that’s only the start of Cole’s problems. It seems that Karen’s gotten mixed up with the Mob. She wants to get free of that connection, but that’s much easier said than done. Cole decides that he’ll have a better chance of getting Karen to talk to her ex-husband if she stays alive; and for that, he’ll need help from his PI partner, Joe Pike. In this novel, we don’t just see Nelson as a famous director; we see the human side of him, too.
Kalpana Swaminatham’s The Page Three Murders features a Mumbai house party being hosted by Dr. Hilla Driver, who’s just inherited a very upmarket home and wants to have a sort of housewarming. She also wants to celebrate the upcoming birthday of her niece, Ramona. So she arranges an elegant, ‘foodie’ weekend, with her chef, Tarok Ghosh, in charge of planning and preparing the menu. Several famous people are invited, including a model, a famous writer, a critic, an activist, and a socialite and her husband. All of them have both public and private personas. And it turns out that Ghosh has found out a lot about these guests’ personal lives. In fact, he drops hints about what he knows, and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. The next day, he’s found murdered. One of the house guests, Lalli, is a former police detective who immediately starts investigating. When there’s another murder, she knows she doesn’t have much time to catch the killer. Among other things, the novel gives an interesting look at the lives of Mumbai’s famous people when they’re not in front of cameras, as the saying goes.
And then there’s Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. Brighton and Hove Police Superintdent Roy Grace gets a new assignment when superstar Gaia Lafayette plans to come to town. She’s originally from Brighton, and is coming back to do a film. There’s already been an attempt on her life, and Grace and his team are expected to do what they can to provide security for her and her young son. In the meantime, they’re already investigating a murder, and there’s the usual work that police do, the team has quite a lot going on. But ‘no’ isn’t an option, so Grace and his team get to work to protect the star. As they do, we get to know a bit about what Gaia is like as a person – behind the cameras.
And that’s the thing. Major stars are just people, like the rest of us, despite their seemingly gilded lives. Seeing them as real people can be interesting.
ps. The ‘photo is of John Fogerty (on the right, holding a guitar) and his son Shane (to the left, also with a guitar). It’s a nice look at a famous person as just a person with a family.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedance Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son.