My guess is, if it came down to it, we would all like to think we would be touched, as Abraham Lincoln put it, by the better angels of our nature. We’d like to think we wouldn’t yield to pure selfishness, or worse. And yet, as we know all too well, that’s not the way humans always are.
And that’s one of the interesting roles that crime fiction can play. Crime fiction shows us humans who make choices we would hope we wouldn’t make. But wouldn’t we? In some crime fiction, the reader is invited to think a little more deeply (e.g. ‘I wouldn’t do that…would I?’). Those books can sometimes make us feel a little uncomfortable, because they show us sides of ourselves we might not want to see. At the same time, that’s part of what makes them memorable. There are certainly books that aren’t crime fiction that have the same effect. But, this is a crime-fictional blog, so….
There are several novels, for instance, in which readers are invited to ponder whether they might commit a murder under the circumstances laid out in the story. In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Hercule Poirot is on the famous Orient Express train, en route to London. On the second night of the three-day journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. Poirot’s asked to find the killer, so that that person can be handed over to the authorities at the next border crossing. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same car, so Poirot has a limited pool. And, when he discovers the truth, we see that this is a murder that plenty of people might have committed in the same situation. We don’t want to think we’d kill, but there are times when we have to admit we might.
That point is also raised in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. When ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is beaten, raped, and left for dead, her family is, understandably, devastated. Her father, Carl Lee, is especially impacted. The two men who are responsible are soon caught and jailed, but Hailey is not sure he and his family will get justice. They are black, while Tonya’s attackers are white, and this is small-town Mississippi. He is also infuriated, and wants to do what he can, however little it may be, to help his daughter. So, he gets a gun and lies in ambush as the two men accused of the attack are brought to the courthouse. There, he kills them and badly wounds a deputy sheriff who’s with them. Now he’s about to stand trial for a double murder. And, even though there’s a lot of local sympathy for him, he still needs an attorney and he has still killed two people and wounded a third. So, he asks attorney Jake Brigance to defend him, and Brigance agrees. It’s a tough case, though. We’d like to think we would let the law take its course, and I think we’d agree that vigilantism is wrong. But what if it were your daughter? I know, fans of William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw – there’s a similar sort of theme in that one, too.
It’s not just the taking of a life, either. In Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney goes to Chiang Mai to visit her friend, Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. During her visit, Didi’s partner, Nou, is murdered. Before long, the police settle on Didi as the suspect, and go to his home. During their visit, he, too, is killed. The police say that he resisted arrest and was so violent as to be a danger to them, so they had no choice but to kill him. But Keeney doesn’t believe that account. So, she starts asking questions. The trail leads to the Thai sex-trafficking and child-trafficking businesses. Those businesses are a lot more complex than they seem on the surface, and that’s one of the points in this novel. On the one hand, we deplore the idea of child trafficking, and with good reason. But, for many families, the only other option they see is starvation. If it comes down to a choice between having your child earn money in the sex trade, or you and your family dying of starvation, the answer to, ‘What would you do?’ isn’t perhaps quite so easy.
There’s also Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. That novel takes place mostly within an ultra-exclusive housing development called Cascade Heights Country Club, about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthiest can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted’ before being admitted. The people in the Heights, as the place is called, live in a safeguarded world, with a large wall to keep ‘others’ out, the finest houses, and so on. The novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of the 2000s, a time when Argentina’s economy begins to have serious problems. And those problems finally find their way into the Heights. Eventually, that leads to real tragedy. As we get to know the people in this development, we see the casual cruelty with which they treat anyone who’s not ‘one of us.’ And we see how hard they work to keep themselves away from ‘all of that.’ On the one hand, we might deplore that lack of compassion and unwillingness to see other people as equal humans. On the other, what if you had that much money, and that much stake in a very safe home for your children, the best education money can buy, and a comfortable life? The decision to give it up might not be so straightforward.
There are plenty of other crime fiction stories where characters do things we want to think we’d never do. But some of them invite to ask ourselves whether we really – no, really – wouldn’t do them. And those stories invite us to look at ourselves in new ways. They’re not always easy or comfortable, but they stay with us.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Summer, Highland Falls.