Most of us don’t take pleasure in others’ misfortune. Every once in a while, though, we do like to see certain people being ‘taken down a peg.’ That’s especially true if the person being humbled is arrogant or annoyingly officious. It can be satisfying to see people like that put in their proverbial place. That’s certainly true in real life, and we see it in crime fiction too.
There’s a incident like that in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links. Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer in France at the request of Paul Renauld. He’s written to Poirot claiming that he is in possession of a secret that some very nasty people want to know. Because of that, his life’s in danger. By the time Poirot and Hastings get to France though, it’s too late. Renauld has been stabbed and his body found by a golf course that abuts his home. The Sûreté has sent M. Giraud to solve the murder, and almost from the moment they meet, he and Poirot are at odds. Poirot is not known for his humility about his detection skills, but Giraud is far worse. He’s arrogant, rude and condescending, and Poirot soon has enough of him. It gets to the point where Poirot decides to put Giraud in his place. He bets the Inspector five hundred francs that he can solve Renauld’s murder before Giraud does. As you might expect, Poirot wins the bet, pulling Giraud down more than one peg, as the saying goes. And what does Poirot do with his winnings? He buys a model foxhound to adorn his mantel. Here’s what he says to Hastings about it:
‘Is he not a splendid fellow? I call him Giraud!’
It’s not hard to fault him for that…
I think we all have our particular favourite quote or ‘zinger’ that puts a character in her or his place. One of mine comes in Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, the first of his Van Veeteren series. Eva Ringmar has been found murdered in her bathtub. Her husband Janek Mitter is the most likely suspect, and it doesn’t help his case that he was so drunk on the night of the murder that he remembers very little about anything. He’s put on trial and cross-questioned by an officious prosecutor who quickly gets everyone annoyed. When the prosecutor asks Mitter how he knows he didn’t kill his wife (since he was so drunk), here’s what Mitter says:
‘I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’
Truly an inspired response…
In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad, Colonel Halburton-Smythe and his wife Mary plan a weekend house party, mostly for the purpose of ‘showing off’ up-and-coming playwright Henry Withering, who’s become engaged to their daughter Priscilla. One of the guests is Captain Peter Bartlett of the Highland Dragoons. He may be ‘important,’ but he’s unpleasant, arrogant and lecherous. Needless to say he doesn’t get on well with the other guests. The weekend begins, and Bartlett makes a bet with fellow guest Jeremy Pomfret that he can bag a brace of grouse before Pomfret does. Early the next morning, Bartlett sneaks out before the agreed-upon hour, so he has more time to get his grouse. He never makes it back to the house and is later found killed, apparently the result of a terrible shooting accident. At least that’s what DCI Blair thinks. And that’s what the Haliburton-Smythes think too. But local bobby Hamish Macbeth isn’t so sure of that. Fans of this series will know that Blair is arrogant, pushy and sometimes rude, especially to Macbeth. So it’s with great pleasure that Macbeth presents Blair – in the presence of the ‘well-born’ Haliburton-Smythes and their guests – with evidence that Bartlett’s death was murder. Blair’s consternation is quite satisfying…
In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, sometimes-attorney Jack Irish is investigating the murder of a former client Danny McKillop. That murder is very likely connected to the hit-and-run killing of citizen activist Anne Jeppeson, so Irish ends up looking into both deaths. The trail leads him to a charity group, the Safe Hands Foundation, and he goes to see one of its executives. However, the security guard is both officious and implacable and refuses at first to telephone up to announce Irish’s arrival. Here’s how Irish handles it:
‘Then he wanted my driver’s license.
‘I’m not trying to cash a cheque here, sonny,’ I said. ‘Just phone the man.’
Tight little smile. ‘The body corporate lays down the security proceedings.’ Flat Queensland voice. Pause. ‘Sir.’
‘This isn’t Pentridge,’ I said. ‘Didn’t they retrain you for this job? Just phone.’
He held my gaze briefly but I’d got him in one. ‘I’ll check,’ he said.’
Irish wastes no time whatever bursting this security guard’s proverbial bubble.
Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that Brunetti is supervised by Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta. Fans will also know that Patta is self-important and arrogant, unless he’s in the company of the well-to-do and powerful, in which case he’s a toady. Whenever an investigation may lead to someone who ‘matters,’ Patta does everything he can to dissuade Brunetti from pursuing it. So it’s always especially satisfying to Brunetti when he can burst his boss’ bubble, so to speak, with irrefutable proof that someone important is guilty of murder. That’s what happens in Through a Glass, Darkly, when Giorgio Tassini is killed. Tassini is night watchman at a glass blowing factory, and at first, his death is put down to a tragic accident. But Brunetti isn’t sure that’s true, and starts to dig deeper. He discovers who the killer is, and when he finally gets the proof he needs, it gives him great pleasure to be able to
‘…ruin the Vice-Questore’s lunch.’
Fans of these series really can’t blame Brunetti for that attitude…
Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges is chief of police in the small French town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. The area is known for its cuisine; for centuries, residents have taken pride in the way they prepare and serve food. But since the advent of the EU and EU policies, there are new rules about the way food is to be stored, handled, prepared and served. On the one hand, the residents of St. Denis don’t want to make or eat tainted food any more than anyone else would. It’s not that they object to food safety. On the other, the EU inspectors are not local and don’t understand local traditions and customs. What’s more, they’re officious and obdurate, and they refuse to accept that the locals may have their own legitimate ways of ensuring food safety. So although Bruno is sworn to uphold the law, and is generally law-abiding himself, he does take pleasure in taking the EU inspection team down a few notches. When he learns that they’re paying a visit to St. Denis in Bruno, Chief of Police, he helps to let everyone in town know, so that code violations can be covered up. And it’s not hard for him (or the reader) to feel some sympathy for some locals who slash the tires on the inspectors’ official car. Bruno certainly doesn’t want violence, and he can’t condone breaking the law. But seeing the inspectors taken down a notch has a real appeal.
I think that’s probably a common feeling. We may not like embarrassing people publicly. And we may not condone violence. But sometimes we do get some real satisfaction when officious, arrogant people, especially if they are powerful, have their proverbial balloons burst. These are just a few examples. Which have I left out?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matty Malcek and Johnny Mercer’s Goody Goody. This song has been recorded several times, including by Ella Fitzergald, Frankie Lymon and Chicago. Check out a few versions and see which one you like.