As this is posted, it’s the 70th anniversary of the first staging of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Arguably, one of the important themes in the play is the inability to let go of illusions. Several characters in the play, including Willy Loman, have illusions about themselves and others, and it’s painful, even tragic, when they’re confronted with the reality.
That’s the way real life sometimes works, though. People may have illusions about their children (e.g. ‘My daughter’s just got a great job – she’s going to go to the top!’), or their own importance to their employer, or, or… Some of those illusions may be harmless enough; others are not. And when we are confronted with them, there can be any number of reactions.
It’s the same thing in crime fiction. And, because everyone’s different, an author has all sorts of options when it comes to weaving this theme into a novel. Certainly, it can add to character development as well as to the main plot.
There’s an Agatha Christie novel, for instance, in which someone’s quite illusory plans lead that person to commit more than one murder. No titles or sleuths, in the interest of spoiler-prevention. But Christie fans will know which novel I mean.
In Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, we are introduced to the Blackwood family: eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat,’ her older sister Constance, and their Uncle Julian. They live in a large, isolated house near a small New England town that considers them pariahs. And we soon learn the reason. Six years before the events of this novel, three other members of the Blackwood family died of what turned out to be poison. Although no-one was ever convicted, the locals are certain that one of the remaining Blackwoods is responsible. Despite this, the family lives peacefully enough, and Merricat (from whose point of view the story is told) has developed an entire set of illusions about her life, her family’s life, and the people in the town. Everything changes when a cousin, Charles Blackwood, comes to visit. His visit sets off a chain events that ends in more tragedy. Throughout the novel, we see just how strong some of Merricat’s illusions really are.
Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg, her husband, Henrik, and their son, Axel. Eva has always wanted the ‘white picket fence’ suburban dream, and she thinks she has it. She and Henrik have been happily married for fifteen years, and Axel is healthy and doing well. Then, Eva’s illusions are shattered. She discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Devastated by this news, Eva determines to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she sets in motion her own plan. In the meantime, we also meet Jonas Hansson, who has his own issues. One night, Eva goes to a pub where she happens to meet Jonas. The two start talking, and before they know it, things spiral out of control for both. And part of the reason is that Jonas has his share of illusions, too.
In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to Thea Farmer. She’s retired from her job as a school principal and moved to the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. There, she had a custom-made house built – her dream home. But bad luck and poor financial decision-making have meant that she’s had to put that home up for sale and move into the house next door. As if that’s not enough, Thea learns that a new couple, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, have bought the house she still considers hers. To add insult to injury, Frank’s niece, Kim, comes to live with them. Unexpectedly, Thea forms an awkward sort of friendship with the girl, though, and sees in her real promise as a writer. So, she’s very concerned when she begins to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim. When the police won’t do anything about it, she makes her own plan of action. Throughout this novel, we see how many illusions Thea has about her life, her reasons for leaving her job, her home, and much more. And those illusions play important roles in the choices that she makes.
Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy introduces successful São Paolo advertising executive Olavo Bettencourt, his ‘trophy wife,’ Mara, and their son, Olavinho. Bettencourt is very much in demand by companies that want to increase their visibility and sales. And, with Brazil’s laws about political campaigning undergoing change, Bettencourt also finds that several politicians, some of them powerful, also seek him out. This gives him a real illusion of his own importance and power. All of that changes when a gang decides to kidnap Olavinho. By accident, they abduct the wrong boy (they take the son of Bettencourt’s housekeeper), and are now caught in a dangerous web. In the meantime, Bettencourt has a serious dilemma. The more public he goes with the kidnapping situation, the more likely it is that some ugly truths about his business dealings will come out. And that could mean major legal trouble for him. But he can’t be seen to be doing nothing. As the story goes on, he learns the hard way that he doesn’t have nearly as much power as he thinks he does.
And that’s the thing about illusions. It can be very hard to let go of them, but it can be at least as dangerous not to do so. And illusions can serve some effective purposes in a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.