‘‘Let us take a man – a very ordinary man. A man with no idea of murder in his heart. There is in him somewhere a strain of weakness – deep down.’’
We all have flaws, of course, and in some cases, those flaws – those strains of weakness – can be used to manipulate us. For instance, someone who’s secretly a little greedy can be tempted quite a lot by money.
In crime fiction, this can make for an interesting layer of psychological tension, as well as a character motivation. There are lots of examples in the genre; here are just a few.
In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is hired by Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs to create a Murder Hunt event for an upcoming fête. On the surface, it seems quite innocent – all in fun. But Mrs. Oliver suspects that more is going on, and she asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who the killer is. One of the ‘people of interest’ in the story is a scientist, Alec Legge, who’s rented a nearby cottage. As Poirot finds out more about the case, he discovers that Legge was drawn in, if you will, by some dangerous people. He had, as Poirot puts it, sympathy for a certain political party, and the more powerful members of that party wanted to exploit both that sympathy and Legge’s science skills. When Legge tried to extricate himself, he found it much harder and more dangerous than he imagined. It’s an interesting look at the way people’s biases and weaknesses can be used against them.
William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel introduces readers to low-rent New York PI Harry Angel. The novel takes place in the 1950’s, not very long after the end of World War II. One day, Angel gets a call from the prestigious and upmarket law firm of McIntosh, Winesap and Spy. Ordinarily, such a firm wouldn’t hire a PI like Angel. But one of their clients, a man named Louis Cyphre, wants to find a man, Jonathan Liebling, who’s gone missing. According to Cyphre, Liebling, who went by the name of Johnny Favorite, was a talented jazz musician whom Cyphre helped at the start of his career. In exchange, Favorite promised Cyphre ‘a certain collateral.’ Then, Liebling was drafted into service in World War II. He came back from the war suffering from physical wounds as well as what we now call PTSD. Eventually, he was placed in a special hospital. Now, he’s disappeared from the hospital, and Cyphre wants to find him. The fee is tempting, and Angel takes the case. He soon finds that this is no ordinary missing person case. Instead, Angel’s been drawn into a web of horror, and his weaknesses are being exploited.
We also see that in John Grisham’s The Firm. In that novel, Harvard Law School graduate Mitchell ‘Mitch’ McDeere gets an offer from the Memphis law firm of Brendini, Lambert, & Locke. It’s by no means the only offer he’s gotten. McDeere is smart, has a good background, and is hungry for success, as many young lawyers are. And that’s exactly the sort of lawyer Brendini, Lambert, & Locke want. They make McDeere an irresistible offer, and he signs on. At first, all seems to be going well. McDeere’s new colleagues help him pass the Tennessee Bar Exam, and he’s welcomed in other ways, too. But it’s not long before he begins to have some questions. Several attorneys connected with the firm have died, and McDeere wonders about the circumstances. By the time he starts to get some answers, though, he’s in deep, as the saying goes. His own ambition has drawn him in and been exploited. If he’s going to stay alive, he’s going to have to find a way to extricate himself.
In Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, we meet Winter, a small-time Glasgow drug dealer who wants to make a name for himself in the criminal underworld. He’s caught the attention of Peter Jamieson and his right-hand man, John Young. Jamieson is a ‘rising star’ in the underworld himself, and he has no interest in sharing the spotlight with an upstart who’s not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. So, he and Young hire Callum MacLean to ‘take care of’ Winter. MacLean has a good reputation and knows how to do the job. He soon sets his plan in motion. And, even though things don’t go exactly the way he intended, we see how weaknesses such as greed and desire can make a person very vulnerable.
Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy is in part the story of Olavo Bettencourt. He’s a wealthy and successful São Paolo advertising executive who has a life that most people would envy. He has a beautiful home in a closely-guarded part of the city. He has a gorgeous ‘trophy wife,’ and a healthy son, Olavinho. As Brazil’s political system gets a bit more open, several political candidates are advertising more, and they’re depending on people like Bettencourt. And that’s to say nothing of the large companies with which Bettencourt does business. He very much enjoys the money, perks, and power of his situation, but he’s really not as much in control as he thinks. In fact, some even more powerful and dangerous people have used Bettencourt’s weaknesses against him, and he’s now caught in a web. Then, a group of gangsters decides to abduct Olavinho – not an outrageous idea, considering the family’s wealth. They put together their plan and set it in motion. But they kidnap the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinho, the gangsters find that they have taken the mute son of the Bettencourts’ housekeeper. Now, the gang has to decide what to do about the boy they’ve abducted, and what to do about Olavinho. For his part, Bettencourt has to decide just what to tell the media and police. After all, too many questions about him could land him in jail…
We all have our weaknesses. They’re part of what makes us human. And it can make for an interesting layer of character development and suspense when those weaknesses are exploited.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s The Happiest Days of Our Lives.