Most of us don’t want to appear weak in front of others. That’s arguably why people often don’t tell their troubles to a lot of people or admit their mistakes. That desire to appear strong and brave is also part of the reason people take dares and bets. Backing out of a dare or challenge can be seen as cowardly, so people go through with sometimes foolish and dangerous dares and bets to avoid that label. I’m sure you’ve seen it in real life, and that plot point runs through crime fiction too.
For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, we are introduced to Violet Smith, who’s taken a position as piano teacher/governness at Chiltern Grange. During the week, she stays there. At the weekend, she goes to London to visit her mother. Lately, she’s noticed that a strange man on a bicycle has been following her on the way to and from the train station. He’s never threatened her or even spoken to her. But she’s beginning to worry for her safety. She’s also curious about who the man is and what he wants. So she engages Sherlock Holmes to get to the bottom of the mystery. He and Dr. Watson investigate, and they soon find that Violet Smith is in great danger. Unbeknownst to her, she’s a pawn in a very high-stakes game, as the saying goes. And it all started because of the need to appear strong and not back down from a challenge, in this case, a card game.
John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook is the first in his Gideon Fell series. In this novel, Tad Rampole has recently been graduated from university, and has come to England at the suggestion of his mentor, who knows Fell. Rampole is on the way to Chatterham, where Fell lives, when he meets Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten with her, so he takes a special interest when Fell tells him about the mysterious history of the Starberth family. For two generations, the Starberths were Governers of the now-disused Chatterham Prison. Even though the prison has been abandoned for a hundred years, the Starberths are still associated with it through a family ritual. Each Starberth heir spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During the evening, the heir opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions inside it. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy’s brother Martin. He’s not particularly eager to take on this challenge; the Starberth heirs have a habit of dying suddenly and violently. But he doesn’t want to back down and appear a coward. So he goes along with the ritual. During the night he stays in the prison, Martin Starberth dies of what looks like a tragic accident. But Fell is able to prove that the death was quite purposeful.
Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) features a group of residents who live in a hostel for students. The hostel is managed by Mrs. Hubbard, whose sister Felicity Lemon is, as fans will know, Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly competent secretary. Mrs. Hubbard’s concerned about a series of odd and seemingly meaningless petty thefts going on at the hostel, so Miss Lemon asks her employer to look into the matter. This he agrees to do, and he pays a visit to the hostel. That evening, one of the residents Celia Austin confesses to the thefts, so it seems that the matter is settled. But when she dies two nights later, it’s clear that there’s more going on here than thievery. Poirot and Inspector Sharpe establish that Celia was murdered, and begin to investigate. As they do, they discover that just about everyone in the hostel is hiding something. One of the things they find out, for instance, is that a few of the residents got involved in what seemed like a harmless bet. They were joking around about being able to commit murder without being caught. Jokes led to a bet, which led to poisons being in the hostel at the time of Celia Austin’s death. And no, that’s not a spoiler, ‘though it may seem to be…
Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body is the story of the murder of Sister Mary St. Anne, who was a part of the community at the Convent of St. Anselm. When her body is discovered at the foot of the convent’s basement stairs, Berebury Police Inspector C.D. Sloan and his assistant Constable William Crosby investigate. Their first interest is of course, the network of relationshps at the convent, and they interview all of the people who live and work there. But they don’t neglect other possibilities. For example, there’s Sister Anne’s family. Also, close to the convent is an Agricultural Institute. It wouldn’t seem that anyone there would have a reason to kill Sister Anne, but on Guy Fawkes day, some of the students follow the college’s tradition of burning a guy. This time, though, the guy is dressed in a nun’s habit and what turn out to be Sister Anne’s spectacles. So it’s very clear that someone at the school was at the convent. Sloan and Crosby find that that element of the mystery has to do with a prank and some students’ desire to take on a challenge.
And then there’s Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black. On New Year’s Eve, Sally Henry and Catherine Ross are on their way home from a party when they pass by the house of Magnus Tait, who’s generally regarded as a misfit and a strange person. Catherine dares her friend to knock on the door and although she’s reluctant, Sally doesn’t want to appear cowardly. So she agrees and the two go to the house. Tait invites them in, and finds himself accused of murder when Catherine is killed a few days later. Inspector Jimmy Perez is assigned to the case and interviews the people in Catherine’s life, including Tait. There is evidence against him, but Tait claims that he’s innocent, and Perez comes to believe him. It’s interesting in this novel to see how that simple dare gets Tait mixed up in the girls’ lives.
Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s short story Trick or Treat begins as a young boy goes up to the door of Crow House, which has a creepy reputation. He’s been dared to knock on the door and of course, he doesn’t want to back down, so he knocks. When he’s admitted, he finds a trick he couldn’t have imagined…
Most of don’t want to seem weak, so it’s only natural not to want to back down from dares, bets and challenges. But as crime fiction shows us, it might just be safer all round to risk that…
ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Go ahead, pick a card. Dare ya! You’re not afraid, are you???
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of song by Tom Petty.