Some choices are easy enough to make. But some are very difficult, especially when both of the options involved lead to very negative consequences. Those ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ decisions can cause a lot of anxiety and tension. And that’s part of what makes them so effective in a story.
When a character is faced with one of those ‘no win’ choices, this can add a layer of character development. It can also add to the suspense, as the character works through the options and has to take a decision.
Honoria Bulstrode is faced with such a choice in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons. She is headmistress of Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. One summer term, the school is rocked by several tragedies. First, the new games mistress, Grace Springer, is murdered late one night. Then there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. As you can imagine, the students’ parents are upset and concerned for their daughters’ safety. Several of them have already pulled their children out of the school, and some have no intention of sending them there again. Now, Miss Bulstrode is faced with a very difficult choice. If she leaves the school open, and tries to run it as usual, she could very well lose all of her pupils. That’s not to mention the fact that she might be putting her students and staff at risk. If she closes the school, even for the term, there’s a good chance that parents might not send their daughters back next term. In the end, Miss Bulstrode decides that the safest and best thing to do is close the school for the rest of the term, and make sure that whoever is responsible for the events at the school is caught. Then, she can start over with assurances to all parents that the school is safe. In order to do that, she’ll need help finding out who the guilty person is. And for that, she has the expertise of Hercule Poirot…
Roderic Jeffries’ Mistakenly in Mallorca introduces his sleuth, Inspector Enrique Alvarez. In the novel, John Tatham is persuaded to spend some time in Mallorca after the murder of his fiancée. He’s hoping that a change of scenery, and some time with his Great-Aunt Elvina Woods, will help him move on with his life. He and Aunt Elvina find that they like each other, and she is very supportive of his dream of owning a successful farm. When she learns that her godfather is on the point of dying, she comes up with a plan. She is set to inherit a large fortune from him, and proposes to give that money to Tretham, to fund his farm. In fact, she’s planning to state those wishes in her will. One day, though, Tatham returns to the house he’s sharing with Aunt Elvina only to find that she has died from a fall off her balcony. Now he’s faced with a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ choice. If he reports the death to the police, he’ll lose his chance at the money, especially since he hasn’t gotten word yet that Aunt Elvina’s godfather has died. If he doesn’t report the death, then he’s potentially guilty of obstructing the course of justice, or at least interfering with an investigation. Tatham decides to hide the body – just for a few days – and wait until the news comes of the inheritance. His plan works at first. The body is found at just ‘the right’ time, and the death does look accidental. But then, Inspector Alvarez notices a few things amiss, and starts to ask more questions. Now, Tatham and Alvarez engage in a bit of ‘cat and mouse’ as Tatham tries to make his plan work, and Alvarez tries to find out the truth.
Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam introduces her sleuth, professional housekeeper Blanche White. She’s in court for writing bad checks (which she’s had to do to take care of her sister’s children). She’s about to get some jail time, and she can’t see taking care of her sister’s children from a jail cell. So, right from the beginning, she’s faced with a difficult choice. If she submits herself to the will of the court, she’ll be jailed, and the children won’t have the care they need, or the money needed to raise them. If she leaves, she’s a fugitive. Blance decides that she can better support the children financially if she’s not in jail, so she takes the chance, dodges the bailiff who’s supposed to be watching her, and leaves. In order to ‘lay low,’ she takes a temporary housekeeping job – and winds up mixed up in the murder of one of the family members.
William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev works for the Moscow Criminal Investigation Division (CID) just before World War II. During those years, Stalin is firmly in charge in the Soviet Union, and everyone knows the consequences for appearing to disagree with him, or the official Party viewpoint, in any way. Part of the Party dogma is that there is no crime in the workers’ paradise that is the Soviet Union. Of course, that’s not true, and Korolev knows it. But he has to investigate very carefully, especially when the trail leads to high places. And it puts him in a very difficult position. If he doesn’t investigate thoroughly, he’s not doing his job, and that could have terrible consequences for him. If he does investigate, that, too, could have terrible consequences, especially with the dreaded NKVD watching everything he does. Korolev’s choices are frequently not easy, and he has to be extremely careful.
And then there’s Blair Denholm’s Sold, which is the story of Gary Braswell. As the story opens, he is a sales representative for the Gold Coast’s Southport Euro Motors. He’s unfortunately gotten himself into debt to an illegal bookmaker named Duncan ‘Jocko’ Mackenzie, and he’s smart enough to know what will happen to him if he doesn’t pay. He thinks he finds a way out of the situation when a wealthy Russian property developer named Ivan Romashkin buys several cars. Baswell’s commission is enough to pay Mackenzie back, and it seems the problem is solved. But it’s not. In one plot thread, Mackenzie now says that Braswell has to go on a drugs-running trip to Bali, and bring the money back, or Braswell’s wife will suffer the consequences. Now, Braswell’s caught in a quandary. If he takes the trip, he’s a drugs-runner, and quite likely to be arrested, if he even survives. If he doesn’t take the trip, his wife is in peril. As the time gets closer for the trip, he’s going to have work out what he’s going to do.
Sometimes, people are faced with a situation where neither of two options is a good one. In those ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situations, it’s hard to find a way out. And that makes for interesting tension in a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Van McCoy.