There’s something to the old expression about people being their own worst enemies. It’s such a common human experience that ‘war against self’ is one of the basic conflicts that we find in literature. That’s just as true of crime fiction as it is of any other sort of fiction.
The ‘war against self’ can take many forms, too. It can be a matter of conquering a fear, overcoming a self-destructive habit, or even learning a new (but difficult) skill. You’ll notice as I go on today that I won’t be mentioning the all-too-common version of this where a dysfunctional sleuth battles the bottle and can’t keep a relationship. There are many such characters, and I’m sure you could name more than I could. The reality is, though there are plenty of other ways to portray this ‘war against self.’
In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, we are introduced to Len Bateson. He’s a London medical student with St. Catherine’s Hospital, who lives in a student hostel. Bateson’s a friendly enough person, who enjoys a good laugh. But in several ways, he’s his own worst enemy. For one thing, he has a temper that sometimes gets in the way of his judgement. For another, he has a secret – one that holds him back, at least in his own mind. He gets drawn into a strange mystery when his stethoscope disappears, along with other odd things (a shoe, some light bulbs, and a cookery book, among other things). Matters take a murderous turn when a fellow resident, Celia Austin, dies in what looks at first like a suicide. When it’s proven that she was murdered, Inspector Sharpe investigates. Also involved is Hercule Poirot, mostly at the request of the hostel’s manager Mrs. Hubbard, the sister of Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, Felicity Lemon. As Sharpe and Poirot look into the death, they find that several people in the hostel are hiding things, and some are not what they seem to be. Admittedly, Bateson’s struggle with himself is not the major plot point in this novel, but it adds to one plot thread.
Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone tells the story of Eunice Parchman. When the wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family hires her as housekeeper, she’s glad of the job. But she is keeping a secret – one that truly has held her back. She’s very much her own worst enemy in that she doesn’t really take any positive steps towards dealing with that secret. Rather, she’s desperate that no-one will find out the truth, and goes to great length to prevent that. As fans of the story can tell you, that leads to terrible tragedy. One thing that makes this story all the more tragic is that there are several points along the way where it all might have been avoided.
Fans of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series will know that in many ways, he’s his own worst enemy. Certainly he is when it comes to his health He knows very well that he doesn’t eat well, doesn’t take care of himself, and so on. He’s not particularly good, either, at reaching out for help or at the social glue that holds relationships together. He’s intelligent, too, so he’s aware that he’s often his own greatest obstacle. But as I’m sure we can all attest, knowing something doesn’t always translate to making better (or at any rate, more healthful) choices.
Jassy Mackenzie’s PI/bodyguard protagonist Jade de Jong is also arguably her own worst enemy. When we first meet her in Random Violence, she’s just returned to her native Johannesburg after being away for ten years. Many people would say that, as the saying goes, her heart’s in the right place. But she faces plenty of battles with her own demons. She has a dark past, and is trying to come to terms with it. What’s more, she’s coping with the fact that her father was murdered. As the novels go on, she becomes a little more mature, and slightly less alienated. But that doesn’t mean things magically become easier for her.
We might say a similar thing about Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint. She’s a police detective who has her share of personal issues. She has some real darkness in her past, and finds it difficult (at least at first) to trust anyone. That’s one of several reasons that she doesn’t reach out when she might be better served by doing so. And although she’s not what you’d call a stereotypical ‘maverick,’ she does go out on her own without always thinking of her own safety or the consequences. She finds trust quite difficult in her personal life, too, which certainly doesn’t make life easier. On the one hand, Flint is not a demon-haunted sleuth who can’t stay away from the bottle, and can’t care about anyone else. On the other, she often has to overcome herself, if I can put it that way. And it’s interesting to see how she’s doing that as the series goes on.
And then there’s Peter May’s Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod, whom we first meet in The Blackhouse. MacLeod is an Edinburgh police detective who returns to his home on the Isle of Lewis when a murder there looks suspiciously like another murder he’s investigating. Fin’s past plays a major role in his interactions with the other characters, and in the actual case he’s working. In many ways, that past holds him back. Facing it and dealing with it are hard to do, but that’s the battle with himself that Fin faces.
And that’s the thing about being our own worst enemies. Sometimes people spend more time throwing up obstacles themselves than they do getting past hurdles anyone else sets up. It’s a common human tendency, so it’s little wonder we see it as much as we do in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Man on Mulberry Street.