My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
I’m sure we’ve all known people like that. They live life to the absolute fullest, and sometimes, they burn out. Characters like that can add a lot to a crime story (or any story, really). They can add zest to a plot, and they can be interesting in and of themselves.
In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, we are introduced to Anthony Marston. Young, good-looking, and fond of driving fast and living life to the utmost, he is one of ten people who are invited for a stay at Indian Island, off the Devon coast. Like the others, Marston accepts the invitation. Oddly enough, when the guests arrive, they find that their host isn’t there to greet them. Still, they settle in and dinner that night is both successful and delicious. Everything changes after that, though. Each guest is accused of having been responsible for the death of at least one other person. Then, Marston suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night, there’s another death. It’s soon clear that someone is targeting all of the guests. So, the survivors have to find out who the killer is if they’re to stay alive.
Margaret Millar’s Mermaid features attorney Tom Aragon. One day, he gets an unusual visitor. Twenty-two-year-old Cleo Jaspar wants to ask him about her rights. It’s soon clear that she’s got special needs, although she is high-functioning. As she tells Aragon, she attends an exclusive special school, and lives with her much-older brother, Hilton. According to Cleo, her life is far too conscripted, and she never gets to do what she wants. Aragon can’t help her much, and she soon takes her leave. Not long afterwards, Aragon learns that Cleo went missing not long after her visit, and that her brother is trying to find her. In fact, Hilton wants Aragon to find his sister and persuade her to return. Aragon agrees, and starts to ask questions. As he tries to trace her whereabouts, Aragon slowly builds a picture of Cleo. And he learns that she wanted very much to experience life to the fullest. She was quite well aware that there’s a big world out there, as the saying goes, and wanted to see it. That aspect of her personality plays an important role in what happens in the story.
Natsuo Kirino’s Real World features five teens who are caught up in a tragedy when one of them, Ryo, is accused of killing his mother, and goes on the run. Toshiko, who lives next door, hears a crash at the time of the murder, and is, therefore, a witness. But she chooses not to tell the police what she knows. Among her reasons for not cooperating with the police is that she’s afraid she’ll be considered an accomplice. She’s even more drawn into the case when she learns that Ryo has stolen her bicycle and her telephone. Then, he begins to contact her other three best friends, Kazuko, Yuzan, and Kirari. Each in a different way, this group of friends gets involved in what’s happened, and no-one discusses the matter with the police, or with any other adult. Before long, things spin out of control for all of the characters, and the end result is tragedy. The murder isn’t committed because of ‘burning the candle at both ends.’ But for one character in particular, the desire to experience life – to really live – plays an important role in the story. And for all of the teen characters, there’s at least some feeling of restlessness, and of wanting to see all that life has to offer.
That’s also the case with Niccolo ‘Nick’ Franco, whom we meet in Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. This novel tells the story of the Franco family, who emigrated from Italy in the first years of the 20th Century. Patriarch Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco made a success of the shoe repair and sales business, and the family started to live out what’s sometimes been called ‘the American dream.’ One night, though, Ben got into a bar fight, and ended up killing Luigi Lupo, son of notorious mobster Tonio Lupo. Ben was imprisoned, but that wasn’t enough for Lupo, who cursed the family. He visited Ben in prison, and promised that each of his three sons would die at the age of forty-two – the same age Luigi was at his death. The story goes on relate what happened to those sons, one of whom is Nick. As it happens, Nick is attractive enough, and star-struck enough, to go to Hollywood and get started on a film career. For a while, his career goes very well, as he slowly gets bigger and bigger parts. It doesn’t last, though, especially after the advent of ‘the talkies.’ He doesn’t have as much talent as he thinks he does, but he is convinced that he’s going to make a comeback as a great actor. And he wants to experience the exciting ‘Hollywood life.’ And for him, that involves women and drugs. That personality trait – wanting to live ‘on the edge’ – turns out to be disastrous for Nick.
And then there’s fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan, whom we get to know in Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. It’s 1978/1979, and Angela is spending the summer with her aunt and uncle, Barbara and Doug Griffin, who live not far from Sydney. There’s not much to do there, so Angela, her cousin Mick, and Mick’s friends, spend quite a lot of time playing pinball at the local drugstore. One day, Angela goes missing, and is later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, the police focus on Mick and his friends, as well as Mick’s family. But a few months later, another young girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor, is also found dead, also with a scarf around her head. Now, the police begin to believe that there’s a serial killer out there, someone the press has dubbed the Sydney Strangler. The cases remain unsolved, and life goes on as best possible. Years later, a documentary filmmaker, Erin Fury, decides to do a film about the families of murder victims, and asks to work with the Griffin family. Little by little, the truth about the Angela’s death comes out as Fury puts the film together. And readers learn what Angela was like. She wanted some excitement out of life – to live as much as she could. And that plays a role, both in how she’s treated and in what happens to her.
Characters who burn the proverbial candle at both ends can be self-destructive. But they can also be fascinating, and can add leaven to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).