It’s Better to Burn Out Than it is to Rust*

burning-the-candle-at-both-endsEdna St. Vincent Millay’s First Fig goes like this:

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).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Margaret Millar, Natsuo Kirino, Wendy James

28 responses to “It’s Better to Burn Out Than it is to Rust*

  1. Tim

    This is one that impressed me:
    Moral of the story: sometimes people just need to slow down and be themselves in life!

  2. Can’t remember if I have read any books with this type of character, but some of these books sound very interesting. Three Little Pigs sounds very good (but hard to get?). I have read one of Millar’s books that feature Tom Aragon, so I am sure I would like Mermaid.

    • If you like Tom Aragon, then I think you’d like this one, Tracy. In some ways, it’s disturbing, as Millar’s work can be. But I think it’s well-written. As to Three Little Pigs, I’m sorry to say that it is hard to get in the US. You can, if you want to, get it directly from the publisher, right here. I hope that helps!

  3. Well I need to add Mermaid to my list of books to read if only because of the victim’s name haha – I’ve not tried any of Millar’s books before. As for The Lost Girls, that’s already on the wishlist having being added following a previous recommendation by you no doubt Margot!

    • I really do think you’ll enjoy both, Cleo. And yes, there is something about that name, isn’t there? 😉 – In both cases, there’s an exploration of character that I think you might find interesting.

  4. I bought myself a chunky 5 novels in one volume of Margaret Millar before the holidays, but sadly Mermaid is not one of the ones featured there. Still, I’m sure I’ll have a good time with the others.
    As for life in the fast lane, one that has really stayed with me is from Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Arlena Marshall seems to be the woman who cannot say no to anything that brings her enjoyment in life, but other people’s desire to enjoy the good things in life put a stop to her in the end.

    • Oh, that is a good example, Marina Sofia. Thanks! That was a gap that needed to be filled. And I hope you’ll enjoy the Margaret Millar novels. I think she really was skilled at exploring psychology without neglecting pacing, timing and the like. A really talented writer, albeit one for those who prefer not-so-light novels…

  5. I’m adding The Lost Girls to my TBR list. Thanks for mentioning Wendy James.

  6. Some people do have that spirit of wanting to live life to its fullest. For a character, at this moment my mind draws a blank.

    • You’re right, Acacialane, that those people exist in real life. I think that’s a bit of why they can work so well in fiction, too. They’re familiar, if I can put it that way.

  7. I’m about to dive into my Christmas present, ‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives’, which will include my first taste of Margaret Millar among others – long overdue!

    • I think you’ll enjoy her work, Angela. She really explores a lot of family dynamics and psychological issues very effectively. I hope you’ll post a review when you’ve had the chance to read it.

  8. Bess Sedgwick from Agatha Christie’s “At Bertram’s Hotel” is a great example of such a character who lived life to the fullest, lived life at the edge, and was her own worst enemy. Bess Sedgwick is an adventuress, rebellious, carefree, has been married up to three times and enjoys men, drives fast cars. . . . she is quite the character! I love one of the last scenes from the book when she says, “Catch me if you can!” A very memorable moment in the Christie canon.

    • And who can forget that scene in “At Bertram’s Hotel” with Bess Sedgwick and the donut? It’s the little things in life Bess revels in. A perfect example of living life to the fullest:

      As she watched, Bess Sedgwick stubbed out her cigarette in her saucer, lifted a doughnut and took an immense bite. Rich red real strawberry jam gushed out over her chin. Bess threw back her head and laughed, one of the loudest and gayest sounds to have been heard in the lounge of Bertram’s Hotel for some time.
      Henry was immediately beside her, a small delicate napkin proffered. She took it, scrubbed her chin with the vigour of a schoolboy, exclaiming: “That’s what I call a real doughnut. Gorgeous.”

      • Oh, that is a fabulous scene, Sbrnseay1! I’m really glad you shared it. It certainly shows just how full of life and energy Bess is. What an alive character she is, and you’ve chosen a terrific scene to show that.

    • You know, Sbrnseay1, you have a very well-taken point about Bess. She does want to live life to its fullest, doesn’t she? And what I like about her is that she’s got so much energy, too. I’m so glad that you brought her up; that filled in that gap.

  9. A character that burns the candle at both ends seems very realistic to me. Interesting take, Margot.

  10. I’m drawing a blank, but I enjoyed your examples. 🙂

  11. neeru

    Seems to me these characters are not only self-destructive but cause a lot of havoc and tragedy in the lives of others too. But then I am getting old…

    • I think you have a strong point, Neeru. Such people (and characters) can, indeed, wreak havoc on others’ lives. Sometimes that occurs to them, and sometimes it doesn’t.

  12. You’ve made Mermaid sound very appealing, and I already had Three Little Pigs on my radar. Alas for New Year resolutions about not getting more books…

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