Be Careful What You Wish For*

In John Burdett’s Bangkok Tattoo, Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a dedicated Buddhist, has this to say:

‘To the evolved mind of the Gautama Buddha, any desire was an obscene distortion…’

And one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that the cause of all human suffering is desire, in some form or another.

The whole concept of wanting things (or a particular outcome, or…) is seen differently in non-Buddhist cultures. But even so, we’ve all been warned against greed. There’s even the old expression, ‘Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.’ And there’s something to that. Getting what we think we want may come with all sorts of consequences. Don’t believe me? Just take a quick look at crime fiction, and you’ll see what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode, who owns and runs an exclusive girls’ school called Meadowbank. It’s been a great success and has a gilt-edged reputation. In fact, things are going so well that Miss Bulstrode feels that it’s all gotten a bit dull. Some of the spark has gone out of her work, and she’d like to feel passionate about it all again. All thoughts of dullness go away when the new Games Mistress, Grace Springer, is shot late one night in the new Sports Pavilion. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Now, parents start removing their daughters from the school, and there’s a real chance that the school might have to close. Hercule Poirot works to find out who or what is behind all that’s going on at the school. He finds that it’s all connected to some valuable gems and a revolution in a faraway place. Miss Bulstrode might have wanted things to be less dull, but she certainly didn’t want the havoc that’s wreaked on her school…

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity features insurance agent Walter Huff. When he goes to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, he meets the man’s wife, Phyllis, instead. He’s immediately attracted to her, and she does nothing to discourage him. Before long, they’re having an affair. Phyllis tells her lover about a plan she has to kill her husband. She even persuades him to write the double-indemnity policy she needs to benefit from his death the way she wants to benefit. The two plan the murder, which is duly carried out. Now, it really hits Huff that he’s committed a murder because he wanted Phyllis Nirdlinger. As he gets drawn further and further into the web, he learns what can happen when you get what you think you want.

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, we meet Walter and Joanna Eberhart. They’ve just moved from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. Their goal was a nice home in an affordable place with low taxes and good schools. And they think they’ve found it. In fact, Stepford seems to be an ideal place. Then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe starts to suspect that something might be very wrong with Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe it. Everything Bobbie mentions seems to have a logical explanation. Besides, Joanna doesn’t want to move again so soon after moving to Stepford. Then, other things begin to happen, and Joanna learns that what she thought she wanted has turned out very differently.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red features Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s been doing very well, but she knows that there are younger, hungry journalists right behind her. What she would really like is the story that could cement her position at the top of New Zealand journalism. And she gets that chance when she hears about the case of Connor Bligh. He’s been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t at home at the time of the killings. There are little hints now that Bligh might not have committed the crimes. If he is innocent, then this could be the story Thorne’s been wanting. She starts to ask questions, and soon finds herself getting much closer to everything than she should. And she discovers that getting that perfect story isn’t all it may seem on the surface.

And then there’s Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. Wally and Darren Keefe are both cricket-mad. As children, they play it in the backyard of their Melbourne home, and both of them want to be famous cricketers. Their mother wants that for them, too. It’s not out of the question, either, because both are quite talented. As time goes on, their talent is honed, and they both get what they want: cricket stardom. They have very different personalities, though, and that impacts what happens to them. Wally is the disciplined one. He works very hard and is driven to be the best. Darren has rare talent – the once-in-a-generation kind – but is more impulsive and less disciplined. When he’s at his best, he is superb. But he doesn’t have his brother’s focus. And these differences play an important role in both lives as the two brothers learn the hard way that what they thought they wanted isn’t at all what they imagined. It all leads to real tragedy.

And that’s the thing about getting what you think you want. Sometimes, it works out really well. Other times…it doesn’t. And that can have all sorts of consequences.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a song by Doug Adair.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, James M. Cain, Jock Serong, John Burdett, Paddy Richardson

16 responses to “Be Careful What You Wish For*

  1. Oh, indeed, greed and stupidity are the two things that get us all into trouble, in so many ways, Margot. And never more so than in crime fiction. I’m also hankering after reading The Rules of Backyard Cricket having heard many good things about it.

    • I do recommend that one, Alex. It is a tough, gritty novel, and it does not have a happy ending (I can say that without spoiling the story). But, in my opinion, it’s very well-written, draws the reader in, and really is distinctively Australian in its feel. And it definitely shows what happens when we are blindly determined to get what we think we want. It almost never turns out the way we imagine it should…

  2. It’s the fact that it’s gritty, set in Australia, and offers a look at life elsewhere (good and bad) that appeals to me, Margot. I think that’s why I enjoyed Jane Harper’s The Dry so much.

  3. Sorry, no chance of a helpful comment from me (in this context).

  4. Poor old Mrs Bunting in Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger! Desperate for money, how thrilled she was to finally get a well-paying lodger. Just what she wanted! But then it all began to go horribly wrong… 😉

    • Ah, now that’s a great example of a character who gets just what she thinks she wants, FictionFan. Poor woman thought she and her husband would be set up with a ‘good’ lodger like that. But it certainly didn’t turn out that way, did it? 😉 Thanks for adding that example in; it’s spot on.

  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on the concept of wishing for things in crime fiction

  6. Reblogged this on Where Genres Collide and commented:
    Stepford Wives is still chilling to this day, the idea that your other half would want to remake you into their ideal.

  7. Oh dear – (I’m wording this carefully) – one of the victims in Agatha Christie’s Body in the Library, a teenage girl, thinks something wonderful is happening to her. She couldn’t be more wrong – she’s just a sad by-product of another crime…

    • You did put that quite well, Moira – better than I would have. In fact, that’s one reason I didn’t use that example (so I’m grateful that you did!). It’s hard to discuss, isn’t it? But it really is a fitting example of what I had in mind.

  8. tracybham

    Greed and ambition seems to show up a lot in crime fiction, Margot.

  9. Col

    Thanks for the reminder of the Serong book, I’ll have to get to it some time.

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