A Few of Your Buddies, They Sure Look Shady*

The late Steve Irwin is credited with a really interesting comment about humans:

‘Crocodiles are easy. They try to kill and eat you. People are harder. Sometimes they try to be your friend first.’

If you’ve ever had the experience of being badly hurt by someone you thought was a friend, you’ll probably agree with Irwin.

That plot point has become an important part of many crime fiction novels; and, if you think about it, it’s a natural fit for the genre. Sadly, it’s an all-too-realistic scenario. And it can make for suspense and tension in a plot.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock introduces Celia Austin, who lives in a hostel for students. When some troubling events happen at the hostel, Hercule Poirot investigates. At first, it looks as though the solution is easy. Celia admits to being responsible for some of what’s happened, and everyone thinks the matter is closed. Then, two nights later, she dies. It’s soon proven that she was murdered. And Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who was responsible. It turns out that Celia made the tragic mistake of trusting that someone at the hostel was a friend, and paid a very high price for that. Christie uses that in several of her other stories, too (right, fans of Death on the Nile?).

In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, insurance representative Walter Huff is drawn into a web of deceit and murder by someone he thinks he can trust. He happens to be in the Hollywood area one day, and decides to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, who lives nearby. He arrives at the house to find that Nirdlinger isn’t home. His wife, Phyllis, is, though, and she and Huff strike up a conversation. Soon enough, Huff falls for her, and she does nothing to discourage him. Before he knows it, he’s so besotted that he falls in with her plan to kill her husband for his life insurance money. Huff even writes up the sort of policy that she needs. The murder goes as planned – at first. Then it hits Huff that he has actually been responsible for killing someone – because of someone he thought was more than a friend. And things spiral out of control from there.

They do in Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger, too. In that novel, Fabien Delorme is distressed to learn that that his wife, Sylvie, has been killed in a car accident. He’s even more upset to learn that she wasn’t alone in the car. Unbeknownst to him, she had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, and that bothers him even more than does the fact that she is dead. Delorme finds out that his rival left a widow, Martine, and becomes unhealthily obsessed with her. He stalks her, and finally gets to meet her. They begin a relationship which spins completely out of control and ends up in ugly tragedy all around. I don’t want to give away too much, but I can say that, like most noir stories, there’s plenty of betrayal and hurt from people who seem trustworthy at first.

T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton introduces readers to solicitor Jim Harwood. He gets a very difficult case when a young man named Elton Spears is accused of murder. According to the prosecution, Spears killed an enigmatic woman named Sarena Gunasekera, and threw her body off a cliff at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. He was seen in the area, and it’s already well-known that he’s a troubled person. What’s more, he’s had brushes with the law before because of inappropriate contact with girls and women. Harwood knows Spears, and agrees to take the case. Together with barrister Harry Douglas, Harwood sets out to prove that Elton Spears is innocent. If he is, then someone else must be guilty. It turns out that that someone had seemed to be a person Spears could trust…

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? Yvonne Mulhern and her husband, Gerry, have recently moved from London to Dublin with their newborn daughter, Róisín. It’s a major disruption, but it means that Gerry can take advantage of an important career opportunity, and that means a great deal more money for the family. Everyone settles in as best they can, and Gerry digs into his new job. Yvonne is exhausted, as new parents tend to be. What’s more, she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, so she feels isolated. Then she discovers an online forum for new mums called Netmammy. She joins the group and soon feels much of the camaraderie and support that she’s been missing. She gets to know the other members, too, and feels a real sense of friendship with them. And that’s why, when one of them seems to go ‘off the grid,’ Yvonne gets concerned. She’s worried enough to go to the police, but there’s not much they can do. Then, the body of an unidentified young woman turns up in an abandoned apartment. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle, herself an expectant mother, investigates the death. The victim’s profile is similar enough to Yvonne’s missing friend that it could be the same person. If it is, then that has frightening implications for Netmammy. Little by little, and each in a different way, the two women find out the truth. Throughout this novel, there’s a strong thread of people one thinks are friends, who turn out to be anything but…

And that’s the thing. There are people who seem to be friends, but aren’t at all to be trusted. And when they show themselves for what they are, it can change everything.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leon Huff, Gene McFadden, and John Whitehead’s Back Stabbers.


Filed under Agatha Christie, James M. Cain, Pascal Garnier, Sinéad Crowley, T.J. Cooke

16 responses to “A Few of Your Buddies, They Sure Look Shady*

  1. Oh yes, I am very familiar. It is reflected in my novel. (You’ll see 🙂 ) Trust issues dominate a lot of stories and so many can relate.

    • I’m already discovering, Lesley 🙂 – And you’re right. Trust issues are an important thread in lots of books and films. And that’s logical, because, as you say, so many people can relate.

  2. This is a great device to keep in mind when writing mysteries. I’ve seen it recently in the books I’m reading by Kay Hooper and Lee Child. Someone the reader doesn’t suspect is the actual killer. It’s a great device, and I’m going to try to use it in my stories.

    • Thanks for mentioning Hooper and Child, Julie. Both have written excellent examples of books where a character trusts someone who shouldn’t be trusted. It is, as you say, a really effective device for building suspense and tension. And it serves as a great plot point, too.

  3. That is a very incisive observation from Irwin.

    I’m currently reading Shari Lapena’s A Stranger In the House for my book club and it also features a friendship that isn’t what it seems – alas the people being harmed don’t know it yet but the author hasn’t done too good a job of hiding the untrustworthy person’s real intent. I’m just hoping she gets what she deserves before too much more harm is done.

    • I think Irwin’s observation is great, too, Bernadette. ‘Food for thought,’ that’s for sure.

      And A Stranger in the House sounds interesting. I hope it proves to be a good read, even if you have worked out who the untrustworthy person is. If you post a review, I’ll be interested to know what you think of it.

  4. I enjoyed Double Indemnity much more than I thought I would. For the examples of that kind of story I can think of, it would be revealing too much to even mention them. This type of situation does often come up in spy fiction, where spies have to insinuate themselves into a group of people.

    • That’s true, Tracy (about spy fiction). That’s one thing that spies have to learn how to do well. And it’s interesting you had trouble thinking of examples that wouldn’t give away spoilers. I struggled with that one, too – a lot.

  5. This could be why “Trust No One” must be one of the most popular book titles ever – a quick search on Goodreads brings up 931 results! Not all that exact title, but variations on the theme…

    • Yikes! I knew there were plenty of books with that title, FictionFan, but not that many! You’re probably right as to why, too. It really can be an effective trope. I’m just going to have to remind myself never to use that (or any variation thereof) as a title on anything I write…

  6. Sad but true. Nothing stings more than someone you thought was a friend betrays you. I loved Steve Irwin. What a bizarre, heartbreaking loss of an amazing human being.

    Not post-related, but I thought of you yesterday while listening to the audiobook, The Thirst by Jim Nesbo. Have you read it? It’s my first-ever audiobook. I much prefer reading than listening (my mind tends to wander with audio) but it’s a story I thought you’d enjoy.

    • Some of Nesbø’s work is really excellent, Sue; I’m glad you’re having the chance to explore it. I’ve not (yet) read The Thirst, but I’ve heard good things about it. It’s good to hear you like it. And you’re right about Steve Irwin. He was an exceptional person.

  7. John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the great spy novels, and one of the memorable things is the way that the national betrayal, the lost secrets and lost lives, were very important – but in the end it was the betrayal of a friend that seems most shocking, and brings the case to its final resolution.

    • That’s true, Moira. And that’s a perfect example of how that trope is woven so well into some spy stories. Yes, there are other factors in that story, too, but that betrayal is the one that’s the real ‘punch in the gut.’

  8. Col

    Interesting post. I never had Irwin pegged as a philosopher. I think you mentioned the Garnier book recently in another post – I still love it.

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