The ‘photo is of some of the cloth totes I use to do my grocery shopping. Last year, the voters of California, where I live, elected to ban single-use plastic bags, such as the ones that are often provided by grocery stores. On the one hand, using cloth totes, or using a personal trolley, certainly cuts down on the number of plastic bags that end up in landfills. This is, overall, good for the environment. And it’s no more difficult to fill a cloth tote or trolley than it is to put one’s groceries in single-use plastic bags. There are other benefits, too, to choosing cloth over plastic. What’s more, companies spend less when consumers provide their own bags. It’s a way, if you think about it, for them to save money without cutting down on the quality of what they sell.
But there have been some unintended consequences of this law. To take just one example, I recently attended a conference. Another delegate needed to do a bit of shopping; and, since I had my car at this conference, I offered to do the transportation. But a problem arose. Where was this delegate supposed to put the purchase? It couldn’t be left in my car. And taking everything through the conference venue wasn’t practicable. We managed by using my conference tote, which I’d brought with me by chance. But it would have been so much easier with plastic bags.
There’ve been other consequences, too. People who used those bags for lining trash cans, picking up after pets, wrapping things for the freezer, or other kinds of storage can’t do that now. Does this mean the law is wrong? No, not necessarily. It does mean there are a lot of unplanned consequences.
We certainly see that happen in a great deal of crime fiction. Something may be done for a laudable reason, but have all sorts of unintended consequences. For instance, in Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, Dr. Duca Lamberti is hired by wealthy engineer Pietro Auseri. He wants Lamberti to help his son, Davide, who’s developed severe depression and a serious drinking problem in the last year. Nothing seems to have been helpful, and Lamberti isn’t sure that he can do much good. But he agrees to try. And before long, he learns Davide’s story. It seems that, a year earlier, Davide had met a young woman, Alberta Radelli He gave her a lift, and they had spent a pleasant day together. Then, when the day ended, she begged him to let her stay with him. When he refused, she threatened to commit suicide. Not long afterwards, her body was found in a field, and it looked as though she made good on her threat. Now, Davide feels responsible for her death. Lamberti knows that the only way to help Davide is to find out what really happened to Alberta, so he decides to do just that. In this story, the unintended consequence of giving a young woman a lift turned out to be much more serious than it seemed at the time.
Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn is all about unintended consequences. Crime writer Martin Canning is waiting for a ticket to an afternoon radio comedy show in Edinburgh. As he waits, he sees a blue Honda hit the back of a silver Peugeot. The two drivers get out of their cars and begin to argue. Then, the Honda driver brandishes a bat and begins to attack the Peugeot driver, a man named Paul Bradley. Almost by instinct, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. On the one hand, that has very positive consequences. On the other, though, it draws Canning into a web of deception and murder that he hadn’t imagined.
Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move begins as science fiction writer Zack Walker moves his family from the city to a new suburban development, Valley Forest Estates. The new home is bigger and has more amenities than the city home that Walker and his family currently have. What’s more, it’s in a safer area, and the family will have more property. So, on the one hand, it’s a wise move. But it has unintended consequences. For one thing, Walker gets drawn into a couple of murders that take place in the new development, and the danger reaches to his family. For another, his two children are miserable, and don’t fit in at all in their new school. It’s a clear case of something that seems positive on the surface, but causes all sorts of unexpected trouble.
In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the murder of a fifteen-year-old sex worker named Michelle Lucas. Morriss wants to find out as much as she can about the victim, and for that, she turns to Michelle’s friends. Michelle’s best friend was Vicki Flinn, also in the business. She starts off by being willing to help, but then goes missing. Then, another friend, Cassandra Swain, is badly beaten. Morriss does find out who killed Michelle and why. But as it turns out, taking what seems like the right step – connecting with the victim’s circle – has some very unpleasant unintended consequences.
And then there’s Eleanor Kuhns’ Cradle to Grave. It’s 1797 Maine, and itinerant weaver Will Rees has recently married Lydia Farrell, a former member of the Shaker community. One day, Lydia gets a letter from an old friend, Hannah ‘Mouse’ Moore, who’s still living with the Shaker community in upstate New York. Mouse is concerned about a group of children who live with their mother, Maggie Whitney. It seems that the children may be neglected, even abused. So, for their own safety, Mouse has taken them to the Shaker community. On the one hand, that means they’re safe. On the other, it gets Mouse into serious trouble for kidnapping, and casts a bad light on the Shakers. The Reeses go to New York to see what they can do to help, and with their intercession, the children are returned to their mother. Mouse will be disciplined, but allowed to remain in the community. And, at least she won’t be prosecuted and imprisoned. Then, Maggie Whitney is murdered. Mouse is, as you can imagine, the most likely suspect, but she claims to be innocent. The Reeses return to New York to try to clear their friend’s name if they can. In this case, all of Mouse’s attempts to help the children have had all sorts of negative consequences.
And that’s the thing about even very positive things. Everything has consequences, and sometimes, those consequences are both unexpected and negative. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Robert Cray’s Consequences.