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.