You Had One Eye In the Mirror*

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to help her persuade her husband, 4th Baron Edgware, to give her a divorce. Poirot doesn’t usually take on this sort of case, so at first, he demurs. Then, she says,

‘‘You’d like me to be happy, wouldn’t you?’’…
‘I should like everybody to be happy,’ said Poirot cautiously.
‘Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of everybody. I was thinking of just me.’’

And that’s quite true. As we learn in the novel, Jane Wilkinson is thoroughly self-absorbed. She’s not cruel about it, or even particularly rude. But it’s obvious that her only concern is herself. In the course of the story, Poirot pays a visit to Edgware, who says he has no objection to granting a divorce. That night, Edgware is murdered. His widow is, of course, the most likely suspect. But several witnesses are willing to testify that she was at a dinner party in another part of London. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look for other suspects. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Jane’s self-absorption shows in her character.

She’s hardly the only self-absorbed crime-fictional character, though, and that’s not surprising. Characters who are completely self-absorbed can bring disaster on themselves and others. And they’re often vulnerable in ways that we don’t see in those who are concerned about others.

In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, we are introduced to Phyllis Nirdlinger. She’s completely self-absorbed, but she’s so attractive that when insurance agent Walter Huff meets her, he’s soon besotted with her. In fact, it doesn’t take long for him to agree to a plan she has to get rid of her husband, in order to get the money from his insurance policy. Huff writes the double-indemnity policy she has in mind, and when the time comes, the murder is carried off as planned. That’s when it really occurs to Huff what he’s done: participated in a murder to get a woman. As if that’s not enough, there are questions both from the police and from Huff’s employer about the policy. What’s worst, though, is that Huff slowly learns just what sort of person Phyllis really is. As things spin out of control, Huff sees that he’s going to have to take some drastic action.

Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat introduces readers to Oxford Professor Belville-Smith. He’s doing a lecture tour of Australia, and has consented to give a few talks at Drummondale University. From the start, things go badly. For one thing, Belville-Smith isn’t accustomed to life in Australia, and adjusting isn’t easy. He’s also getting older, and not as scintillating as he used to be. In fact, he’s given the same lectures so many times that he drones them. He even mixes up two lectures at one point, beginning with one and ending with the other. What’s worst, though, is that he’s self-absorbed. Others’ views and reactions to what he says don’t occur to him. So, he is also insufferable. Then, Belville-Smith is found murdered in his hotel room on the morning after a ‘greet the guest’ party. Inspector Bert Royle has never investigated a murder before, but he’s going to have to do just that now. And it turns out there’s more than one very good possibility.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is the story of brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They’ve grown up in the same abusive home, but they’re quite different. Mason takes advantage of every opportunity he can, and gets a scholarship to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his considerable athletic talent, and ends up living on money from his mother and from his girlfriend. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. The argument ends, but not the rancor. Later that night, the Hunt brothers are on their way home from a night out. They encounter Thompson again, and the argument resumes. Almost before anyone knows it, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime. Years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s convicted and given a long prison sentence. He reaches out to his brother, who’s now a county prosecutor, for help getting out of prison. This time, Mason refuses. Then, Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. When Mason still refuses, Gates carries out his threat, leaving his brother to face a murder charge for a crime he didn’t commit. Throughout the novel, we see how self-absorbed Gates is. He has no real concern for his girlfriend, his brother, their mother, or anyone else. And that impacts the course of the novel.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine is his first novel to feature Shanghai Chief Inspector Chen Cao. In the novel, the body of an unknown woman is pulled from a canal not far from Shanghai. She is soon identified as Guan Hongying, a national model worker. Because of her celebrity, this is going to be a delicate case. Chen and his assistant, Yu Guangming, are all too aware of the ramifications of a case that leads to high places. That’ll be especially true if the killer turns out to be a Party member. Still, they persevere, and slowly trace the victim’s last days and weeks. As they do, we learn quite a lot about the lifestyles of those who are high-ranking Party members – the High Cadre – and their families. Several of them are self-absorbed, and see things only from their own point of view. Without giving away too much, I can say that this self-absorption plays its role in the novel.

And then there’s Eve Moran, whom we meet in Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. Since childhood, Eve has been preoccupied with what she wants. And she’s had no trouble manipulating people and situations to acquire, whether it’s jewelry, clothes, or other things. She’s had the same view when it comes to men. She stops at nothing, including murder, if that’s what it takes. Eve doesn’t even really consider the needs of her daughter, Christine. She’s raised Christine in a very toxic environment, so that relationship is quite dysfunctional. Then, Christine begins to see the same thing happening to her three-year-old brother, Ryan. Now, she’ll have to find a way to free both herself and her brother if there’s to be a chance for either of them.

Self-absorption can be more than just an annoying character trait. It can lead to disastrous choices and dysfunctional relationships. Little wonder we see it in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Martin Clark, Patricia Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Barnard

24 responses to “You Had One Eye In the Mirror*

  1. Turning your premise inside out, I point out Sherlock Holmes: he is certainly self-absorbed, and his sleuthing has little or nothing to do with helping people or solving crimes (and improving conditions in society); his motivation is nothing more than showcasing his genius and stroking his own ego.

    • Interesting point, Tim. Holmes is certainly self-absorbed, and little concerned with others’ opinions. That said, though, he can be compassionate, and in cases such as The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, and The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, he does show concern for another’s welfare.

  2. Another interesting subject! The only example I can think of to add is another Agatha Christie – The Mirror Crack’d, where to avoid spoilers I’ll only say that the victim’s self-absorption plays a part. Not that the murderer is much better…

    • You’re right about that, FictionFan. I’m very glad you mentioned that one, because it is a good example of what I had in mind with this post. In both cases (murderer and victim), we see a lack of concern for the effect of one’s actions on others…

  3. I enjoyed seeing all these titles. While reading mysteries does not exactly require critical reading, but you and your followers might find my new blog (Critical Reading in Digital Times) of interest. I enjoy reading your notes. Here’s another mystery worth a look: Deb Pines’ In the Shadow of Death, set at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. Enjoy!

    • Thanks very much, Alice, for the kind words. I’m glad you like what you find here. And thanks for suggesting In the Shadow of Death. I’ll look out for it. Folks, let’s check out Alice’s blog, too. Critical reading is of value no matter the genre.

  4. Col

    There’s a few mentioned that I have on the pile – Xiaolong’s and the Martin Clark book……one day I’ll get to them.

  5. Margot: Among the self-absorbed I would put Nero Wolfe ahead of Sherlock Holmes. It would be hard to find a more self-absorbed person than Wolfe.

    • He’s very self-absorbed, indeed, Bill. I’m glad you mentioned him. He serves as a good reminder that a detective doesn’t have to be perfect to be brilliant…

  6. A trait I don’t much like in real life, but it makes for very good crime writing and reading, doesn’t it?

  7. For me, when I’m reading self-absorption is one of those character traits that causes me to want to strangle the character. In a way it makes me pull for the other character that much more (usually talking out loud to them like I can encourage them to see what’s happening and change). An interesting post, Margot.

    • Thanks, Mason. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I think it’s really interesting how self-absorption can make a character unpleasant enough so that the reader sides against that character. I’ve had that happen to me, too.

  8. Thanks for the inclusion, Margot. And I would add Mildred Pierce’s daughter, Veda, who destroyed anyone who got in her way.

    • A pleasure, Patti. And so happy for you that Shot in the Dark‘s in line for an Anthony! You’re right, too, about Veda. That’s a textbook case of pure self-absorption taken to unhealthy limits.

  9. I have to say I love the title of this one Margot so I’m humming as I write which is quite hard to do! Love your examples and the comments and I agree with some of the sleuths being as self-absorbed as the other characters – I’d never really considered how much this trait can add to a mystery possibly because I’m often too busy being disgusted with the actions!

    • I love that song, too, Cleo. In fact, I was singing it as I was posting this! Thanks for the kind words; so glad you enjoyed the post. And I agree completely about self-absorbed people, both in real life and in fiction. They may be interesting characters, and they can add to a story. But that doesn’t mean I like that trait!

  10. Keishon

    Great post. For the second or third time, I have nothing to add. Will look up some titles. Have you read _all_ of Agatha Christie’s books, Margot or even 90% of them? Not sure I will ever but I have some titles lined up to read later this summer. Was just curious because her backlist is so vast and I’m only talking about her fiction novels.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Keishon. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. About Agatha Christie? I’ll confess I’ve not read her novels written under the name of Mary Westmacott. And I know there are some of her short stories I’ve not read. I’m sure there are some others, too. She was so prolific that I think it’s a challenge for anyone to read them all; I wouldn’t worry if you don’t.

  11. I can think of several culprits in mystery novels who are very self-absorbed but they hide it well and you don’t know it until they are revealed. So to talk about them would be a spoiler. But I think it often happens that a killer will be that personality type. Another interesting topic, Margot

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