Ambition is a fascinating human trait. On the one hand, it can push people to reach important goals that they might not otherwise attempt. Ambition is what gets a person through difficult exams, grueling work hours, and so on. But, like other human traits, it has its negative side, too. In fact, too much ambition can lead to disaster.
It’s interesting the way we view people who are ambitious. We may dislike what seems to be ruthlessness. But at the same time, we may admire those who have ‘made it.’ They’ve succeeded. At the very least, many people respect the drive that ambitious people have.
In crime fiction, ambition can make for a fascinating layer of character development. Since it can be both a fault and a strength, ambition can make for a more well-rounded character. And that’s to say nothing for what ambition can add in terms of suspense and even motive for murder.
Agatha Christie created several ambitious sorts of characters. One of them is Thora Grey, whom we meet in The ABC Murders. She serves as assistant to retired throat specialist Sir Carmichael Clarke. One of Clarke’s passions is Chinese art, and Grey helps him to catalogue his findings, sort out his display room, search out new finds, and so on. One night, Clarke is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But his death is soon linked to two other deaths. Each body is found with an ABC railway guide nearby. And, each death is preceded by a cryptic warning note sent to Hercule Poirot. He and Captain Hastings work with the police to try to find out who is committing the murders. As he gets to know Grey a little better, he sees that she’s not really the mild-mannered, willing secretary/assistant that she seems to be on the surface. In fact, she’s quite ambitious. As Poirot puts it, she is
‘…a type of young woman “on the make.’’
Grey’s ambitions are not really the reason for which her employer is murdered. But they play their role in the story.
In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Alice Steele. She’s a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant who’s had to scratch and scrabble for a living. In fact, she’s gotten involved with some disreputable people, and done things most people would think are sordid, especially in the 1950’s, when this story takes place. She gets her chance at a better life when she meets Bill King. He’s a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office, and has a real chance at some success. He falls in love with Alice, and it seems that the feeling is mutual. Despite the reservations that Bill’s sister, Lora, has about the match, the two get married. At first, Lora tries hard to develop a positive relationship with her new sister-in-law. But soon, little things about Alice don’t seem to add up. And the better she gets to know Alice, the more repelled she is by Alice’s life. At the same time, she is drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice just might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s doing so to protect her brother, Lora starts asking questions. That choice draws her even more into Alice’s past.
Robin Cook’s Seizure features Dr. Daniel Lowell. He’s been conducting promising stem cell research, and is hoping for both professional support and funding to pursue his interests. He’s not ambitious in the sense of being greedy, but he does want to make his name as a world-class researcher. He’s also, of course, interested in science and in what medicine can do. He’s concerned because the US Congress, in particular, Senator Ashley Butler, is proposing a ban on the sort of research he’s conducting. So, it’s a real shock when Butler contacts him with a proposal. It turns out Butler has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He’ll never be able to fulfill his own ambition of becoming president of the US if word of this gets out. So, he offers Lowell a deal. Butler will withdraw his objection to the research, in exchange for which Lowell will perform his controversial surgical procedure on Butler. Lowell agrees, and the two go to a private clinic in the Bahamas, to preserve secrecy. It turns out that ambition carries both men to extraordinary and dangerous lengths.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, Mma Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Mma Holonga. It seems that Mma Holonga is the successful owner of a chain of hair salons. She’s doing well professionally, but hasn’t taken the time to find someone to marry. Now she feels the time has come, and she wants Mma Ramotswe to help her choose among four suitors. One of them is Mopedi Bobologo. On the surface of it, he seems a fine enough choice for a husband, if a bit dull. He’s a well-regarded teacher, and he runs House of Hope, which is a home for troubled young girls. Mma Ramotswe soon finds, though, that underneath the surface, Mr. Bobologo is quite ambitious. In fact, he may even be marrying Mma Holonga for her money. When Mma Ramotswe tells her client what she’s found, though, she gets a surprising reaction. In this novel, it’s interesting to see how ambition can be hidden beneath a very mild-mannered sort of exterior.
And then there’s Rachel da Silva, whom we meet in John Daniell’s The Fixer. She writes for a Brazilian magazine, and wants to move ahead in her career. She gets her chance when she is sent to France to do an in-depth piece on rugby, its popularity, and the rugby life. One of the players on the team she visits is former New Zealand All-Blacks star Mark Stevens. Stevens is getting closer to the end of his career, but he’s not quite ready to end his playing days. So, he’s spending a few years on a French professional team. Rachel is attractive, smart, and interesting, so Stevens has no problem agreeing to an interview. That interview gives access to the rest of the team, and it leads to a relationship between the two. It turns out, though, that Rachel has other ambitions. Soon enough, she tells Stevens about a friend of hers named Philip, who’s made a lot of money betting on rugby. Before he knows it, Stevens is drawn into a web of inside information. It makes Stevens uncomfortable, but it also means money that he needs for his retirement and for his family. Things change, though, when match-fixing is proposed. Stevens doesn’t want to cheat his teammates or ruin his reputation. But by now, he’s in deep. If he’s going to extricate himself, he’ll have to be very, very careful. In this novel, we see how ambition can drive people to do things, even illegal things, that they otherwise wouldn’t do.
And that’s the thing. Ambition is a positive quality in some ways. But it’s also got a very dangerous side. Like everything else, it needs to be tempered.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Eva and Magaldi/Eva Beware of the City.