Hold No Grand Illusions*

no-illusionsIn yesterday’s post, I brought up the topic of fictional characters who deceive themselves. We all do a little of that, of course, but in some people, it can be taken too far. And that can lead to a great deal of trouble.

But there are also a lot of characters (just as there are a lot of people in real life) who are under no illusions about themselves (or at least, very few). They’re very clear-eyed about their skills, about the way others perceive them, and so on. In a sense, that can be quite liberating, as these characters are very often more comfortable in their own skins than they might be if they weren’t honest with themselves. At the same time, that sort of clear-eyed self-awareness doesn’t always make for an awful lot of optimism. Still, many people feel that it’s better not to lie to oneself.

One of the central figures in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, is famous painter Amyas Crale. Sixteen years before the events in the novel, he was poisoned. At the time, everyone assumed that the killer was his wife, Caroline. She had good motive, too, as he was having an affair. What’s more, the poison used to kill the victim was among her things. Based in part on that evidence, she was convicted, and died in prison a year later. Now, the Crales’ daughter, Carla Lemarchant, is about to get married. Before she does, she wants to clear her mother’s name. So, she hires Hercule Poirot to look into the matter again. Poirot agrees, and interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time. Through those interviews, and each witness’ written account, Poirot finds out what happened to Amyas Crale. As the novel goes on, we learn quite a lot about the victim. Among other things, Crale was honest with himself about both his talents and his failings. He was well aware that he couldn’t leave other women alone, that he couldn’t always be trusted, and so on, and made neither false promises nor excuses. In some ways, you could argue that that quality added to his character.

Peter Temple’s Melbourne PI Jack Irish is like that, too. When we first meet him, in Bad Debts, he’s just coming back to life, so to speak, after the murder of his wife, Isabel. Before her death, he was an attorney, and still keeps his license and does occasional legal work. But he’s very clear-eyed about the sort of person he is. He has no great ambition to climb to the top of the legal profession, and no illusions that he would be easily able to do that, anyway. He does PI work, but he doesn’t see himself as ‘the great detective,’ either. He doesn’t lie to himself about his faults and weaknesses. At the same time, he doesn’t wallow in self-pity. He’s straightforward with his clients, and (most of the time) quite honest with himself. It makes his character all the more down-to-earth and realistic.

Alexander McCall Smith’s PI Mma Precious Ramotswe is optimistic, and she’s aware that she’s intelligent. In that sense, she has confidence in her ability to solve the cases that come her way. But that doesn’t mean that she is under any real illusions about herself. For example, she is what’s called ‘traditionally built.’ She doesn’t try to hide her figure, and she doesn’t try to pretend she’s a sylph. In Blue Shoes and Happiness, she does start to go on a diet. But she isn’t a petite person, and all the dieting in the world won’t make her look like a stereotypical fashion model. It’s not long before she’s reminded of this, and returns to her custom of being really honest with herself about who she is and what makes her comfortable. She doesn’t have illusions about her skill as a detective, either. She promises her clients to do her best, and that’s what they get. But she is also aware that she can’t solve everything and find every answer. She tells clients that, too.

In Helen Fizgerald’s The Cry, we are introduced to Alexandra Donohue. She had to start life over again as a single mother after catching her husband, Alistair, with another woman, Joanna Lindsay. Now, she’s moved back to Melbourne from Scotland, and is raising her teenage daughter, Chloe, there. Alexandra has certainly had her problems coping with everything, but she also doesn’t cling to any illusions about Alistair or their life together. Things change dramatically when Alistair and Joanna come to the Melbourne area with their own nine-week-old baby, Noah. One of Alistair’s goals is to get custody of Chloe, and Alexandra has quite a bit of anxiety about that, particularly since she’s honest enough to admit that she wouldn’t qualify as a perfect parent. But when Noah goes missing, Alistair and Joanna are suddenly thrust into every caring parent’s worst nightmare. There’s a massive search, and even Chloe gets involved. Little by little, we find out the truth about what happened to Noah. As the story goes on, Alexandra becomes more and more clear-eyed and honest with herself and others. She even has an enlightening conversation with Joanna, in which we see how she’s developed. It all makes for some interesting layers of character development.

And then there’s Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. In that novel, Birmingham DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the death of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. When the team members discover that the victim was a commercial sex worker, they start to look among the people she interacted with, including her clients and her pimp, Charlie Hawes. Morriss suspects Hawes had something to do with the murder, even if he wasn’t directly responsible. But she finds it difficult to find anyone who’s willing to talk to her about him. One angle she takes is to talk to the other sex workers in the area. She discovers that most of them are quite realistic about what they do. On the one hand, they have no illusions that it’s a high-status occupation or that they’ll rise to the top of the most elite call girls. But on the other hand, most of them aren’t at all ashamed of what they do. And what’s really interesting is the equally honest perspective they have on their clients, many of whom are highly-placed. In fact, the sex workers likely have a more candid and accurate perspective on the men they meet than those men have on themselves.

Characters who don’t deceive themselves can sometimes seem cynical or pessimistic. But the fact is, many of them are simply realistic about themselves. And they can add real authenticity to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Streetlife Serenader.    


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Helen Fitzgerald, Maureen Carter, Peter Temple

38 responses to “Hold No Grand Illusions*

  1. Nice post Margot. I think, for me, Hastings is a very simple and honest fellow. I think that’s a lot of the reason why Poirot respects him and their relationship works well as Hasting’s allows for Poirot’s ego by not encroaching with his own.

    • Thanks, D.S. Glad you enjoyed the post. And you make a very good point about Hastings. He truly respects Poirot, but has no illusions about Poirot being perfect. And he’s fairly clear-eyed about his own skills, most of the time. Here and there he overreaches, but as you say, he’s both honest and simple (in the sense of uncomplicated).

  2. Margot: Lawyers need to be realistic about their skills if they are to best represent clients. In the Solomon and Lord series by Paul Levine each of the duo recognize their strengths. Steve Solomon is the quick witted wing it guy who adjusts instantly to the surprises that are inevitable in court. Victoria Lord is the carefully prepared well researched lawyer who develops litigation plans that present the facts and law clearly for the judge and jury. They are a formidable pair but ill-suited to working together.

    • I hadn’t thought about the legal profession, specifically, when I was preparing this post, Bill. But you’re right, of course, that lawyers need to be very clear-eyed about their skills and weak areas to do their jobs well. Lawyers who play to their own strengths are more likely to serve their clients’ needs better than those who don’t assess themselves accurately. And thanks for mentioning Levine’s duo. They are, as you say, two very different sorts of attorneys; each has important, but very different strengths. And yes, that does make it hard for them to work together, even if they complement each other so well.

  3. Once again some great examples although I’m not able to add to them today, I obviously read far more about yesterday’s type of people!

    • Thanks, Cleo. And now you’ve got me wondering whether there might, in fact, be more fictional characters who deceive themselves than there are people who don’t. Hmm…..interesting!

  4. Margot, I wonder if Arkady Renko in Martin Cruz Smith’s GORKY PARK might not fit the bill. There is also Xavier March, an investigator for Kripo, the criminal police in Nazi Germany, in Robert Harris’ FATHERLAND. The book is an alternate history and set in 1960s after Hitler’s triumph in WW2. March, who doesn’t care for the Nazis, is so realistic and cynical about his fate and his life that he comes out looking good. Of course, he is the hero of the novel but it’s not easy to be in his shoes and feel the way he does.

    • That’s really interesting, Prashant. I hadn’t thought of Renko, but you have a very well-taken point! I admit I’ve not (yet) read Fatherland. But I’ve heard good things about it, and March certainly sounds like clear-eyed character who’s honest with himself.

  5. Great examples, Margot. I like characters who are honest about themselves (at least to themselves). I think you’re right that it does add to the character.

    • Thanks, Mason.And you bring up something important. Sometimes, characters aren’t completely honest with others, but they are with themselves. And I agree: that does add to the character.

  6. Interesting topic…I think you’re right about it adding a certain cynical or pessimistic feel for the character. Maybe a little quirkiness (which was definitely appropriate for the artist in 5 Little Pigs).

  7. I think Christie does moments of self-knowledge well in other books too, with characters like Megan in Moving Finger, and even someone quite minor like Raymond Starr, the dance professional in Body in the Library: his final lines always amuse me ‘after all that trouble I took… dance little man, dance.’ or words to that effect. And Angus the near-suicide in Towards Zero….

    • Those are all terrific examples, Moira. And I think you’re right about what they show. Christie did do characters better than she is sometimes given credit for doing. And that includes those moments of self-awareness.

  8. Pingback: Hold No Grand Illusions* | e. michael helms

  9. Another wonderful post, Margot. You continue to amaze me with the breadth of your knowledge (how about them $10 words!). Seriously, your reading must be expansive. I don’t know how you do it time and again!

    For some reason I’m no longer receiving your newsletter notices via email. Not sure what’s happened. I’ll keep searching for a solution. 🙂

    • Thanks, Michael, for the kind words. I really appreciate it! I’m glad you enjoy what you find here. I’m sorry that you’re not getting notices about new posts. I hope you’ll be able to figure it out.

  10. I just started listening to the audiobook version of The ABC Murders last night and was laughing at the exchange between Poirot and Hastings regarding how Poirot’s hair seemed to be getting darker rather than greyer. I loved the way Christie shows him as vain enough to dye his hair but honest enough to admit to it. And though he’s equally vain about his detective skills, he also occasionally admits to his fallibility there too…

    • He does, indeed, FictionFan. And I like that about him. I’m so glad you reminded me, too, of that delightful exchange between Poirot and Hastings about the hair dye. It’s priceless. And I think it does show that Poirot is clear-sighted about himself, even if he is, as you say, occasionally vain about things (I’m also thinking of his moustache…)

    • Poirot shows more of his humanity and vulnerability at certain points in some of the stories. For example, in Death In The Clouds Poirot isn’t a fan of flying which has quite a nauseous effect on his “estomac”. He also admitted to failing to solve a case in “The Chocolate Box” when he was once a police detective in Brussels.

  11. I find novels where the protagonist is unaware of their own foibles and foolishness to be very hard to read.They aren’t normally folks that I want to spend much time with. But as I search my memory I realize that two of my favorite novels had protagonists who were blind to their own truth. In The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, the butler protagonist is so profoundly unaware of what is happening around him, it is almost excruciating. When he finally gets it – we all heave a sigh of relief. Or the title character in The Quiet American by Graham Greene, Pyle – who is completely obtuse to the dogma he believes in and its real impact on the Vietnam people. The Quiet American remains my favorite book of all time. Of course the narrator, Fowler, might be aware of Pyle’s idiosyncrasies, but he has his own blind spots. Thanks for an interesting post.

    • And thank you, Jan, both for your thoughts on the topic and for your mention of those novels. I think both of them show that it’s possible to have a protagonist who is blind to her/his own faults, and still create a powerful story. At the same time, you do have a really well-taken point. In real life, people who aren’t aware of their own foibles and faults can be difficult. I think being aware of, accepting, and understanding one’s own faults is a part of understanding that no-one’s perfect.

  12. Reblogged this on .

  13. tracybham

    I still haven’t read Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, which is on my TBR. I am also interested in Maureen Carter’s Working Girls.

    • I’m always happy to recommend Peter Temple’s work, Tracy. I think he’s a truly gifted writer. Working Girls is also well-written, with a really authentic sense of place and local culture.

  14. Lena from Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series. She’s rough around the edges, but comfortable in her own skin. Her attitude is take it or leave it; no apologies for who she is. And I love that about her!

    • That is a really refreshing quality, isn’t it, Sue? She is, as you say, exactly who she is, and no apologies. On the one hand, that can have its negative aspects. But it also makes a person, in a sense, much easier to be around, because, as the saying goes, you know what you’re getting. And it is a sign of maturity to be comfortable in one’s own skin.

  15. I’m going to go with the obvious here…Fight Club! What a better example of a character who deceives himself? Although, I suppose you could make the argument that deception due to mental illness is a whole other ballgame!

  16. kathy d

    Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski is another character who is who she is, take it or leave it. She is very honest with others and with herself, even though she often ends up on the wrong end of a punch or nearly drowned because she is so determined and bold and doesn’t think of herself as vulnerable at all.
    Guido Brunetti of Donna Leon’s series set in Venice knows his strengths and weaknesses. He gets Vianello or another cop to help him when he needs muscle. And he knows his limitations with technology, so he asks Elettra Zorzi to do all the computer investigating he needs.

    • That’s true, Kathy. Both of those characters are honest with themselves about what they’re like. I think that adds to their appeal as characters, and I’m glad you mentioned them.

  17. kathy d

    I meant to say also that Mma Precious Ramotswe is the epitome of an honest, direct, yet tactful person. She knows what she can do and when she needs help, she knows who to ask for it.
    She is probably one of the most honest characters not only in crime fiction, but in fiction. She is always honest with herself and with others, although she knows how to be diplomatic.

    • She certainly is both honest with herself, and honest with others, Kathy. And yet, as you say, she does know how to be diplomatic. She has no desire to be rude or unpleasant. And, in fact, her tact comes in very handy. I’m glad you mentioned her.

  18. Interesting post, Margot.You bring up a good point about characters being true to themselves. It’s really what makes them unique. Helen Fizgerald’s The Cry seems like the kind of crime novel I’ll like, although all the others you pointed out also seem like great character studies.:)

    • I think you might like The Cry, too, Carol. There are all sorts of opportunities there to explore the characters and think about the eternal ‘What would I do’ question. And the story has quite a bit of effective suspense, too. And I agree: characters who are true to themselves really are much more singular. Thanks for the kind words.

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