I’m sure you’ve seen those cheerful social media updates. People post when they win awards, graduate, marry, have (grand)children, travel to exotic places, and go to fabulous restaurants. Those updates sometimes make it seem that the people who post them have charmed lives where everything’s going beautifully. Of course, in our rational minds, we know very well that life isn’t perfect, not even for people who post ‘photos of themselves being toasted at a major awards banquet. There really is no such thing as a charmed life. But when we compare our lives to others’ lives, it can seem that way.
An evocative poem by Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about how that comparison can play out in fiction. That thread of wistfulness – even envy – that people sometimes feel when they look at others’ lives can make for an interesting layer of suspense in a story. It can add a layer of character development, too. And in a crime novel, it can create a motive for all kinds of things…
In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we meet London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s had plenty of clients with the means to travel and enjoy life; and, although she’s not really what you’d call jealous, she’d like to play, too, as the saying goes:
‘So many of her ladies had been going to Le Pinet or just come back from Le Pinet. Jane – her clever fingers patting and manipulating the waves, her tongue uttering mechanically the usual clichés, ‘Let me see. How long is it since you had your perm, madam?… Your hair’s such an uncommon color, madam… What a wonderful summer it has been, hasn’t it, madam?’ – had thought to herself, ‘Why the devil can’t I go to Le Pinet?’
Jane gets her chance when she wins in the Irish Sweep. She’s returning by air from Le Pinet to London when a fellow passenger is poisoned. Since the only possible suspects are the other passengers in the cabin, Jane gets drawn into the investigation. Among other things, she learns that life among the ‘beautiful people’ is not charmed.
In one plot thread of Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s wedding. One of the events is to be a posh engagement-party weekend at the home of Mieka’s future in-laws. Then, Joanne gets an unexpected call. Christy Sinclair is the former girlfriend of Joanne’s son, Pete. She has a history of lying and being manipulative, so when she and Pete broke up, it seemed very much all for the better. Now Christy is back, and even says that she and Pete are getting back together. She wants to travel with the Kilbourns to the engagement party, where Pete is supposed to meet them, and Joanne reluctantly allows it. When Christy arrives the next day to join the family, she says,
“I’ve missed this family.’’
And it’s not just because of her relationship to Pete. When she is killed the next night in what looks like a drowning suicide (but isn’t!) we learn more about her history. She has a tragic background, and looked on the Kilbourns as almost a model of what she would like in a family. Fans of this series will know that Joanne and her family are not perfect, nor are their lives charmed. But that’s how it seems to Christy.
One of the main characters in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is Gates Hunt. When the story begins, in 1984, he is just moving into young adulthood in rural Patrick County, Virginia. He has a lot of natural athletic ability and the opportunity to parlay that into a successful career that can get him out of the poverty in which he grew up. He doesn’t make use of his talent, though, instead squandering everything. In fact, he lives on money from his mother Sadie Grace and from his girlfriend Denise’s Welfare payments. In the meantime, Gates’ younger brother Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity that comes his way. He’s worked hard and gotten a real chance at academic success. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. The argument ends for the moment; but later that night, the Hunt brothers run into Thompson again. More words are exchanged and before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots his rival. Out of filial loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime. The years go by, and Mason continues to be successful. He becomes a prosecuting attorney, marries a woman he loves, and with her, has a healthy child. Gates envies his brother, although it’s not the sort of resentful envy you might imagine. That is, not until Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and sentenced to a long prison term. He reaches out to Mason to help get him out of prison, but his brother refuses. Then Gates uses a powerful bargaining chip: he threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder if Mason won’t help him. Mason calls his brother’s bluff, as the saying goes, and Gates carries out his threat. Now Mason has to clear his name and avoid being convicted of a murder he didn’t commit.
In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets the opportunity to join a family cruise on a private yacht owned by wealthy business executive Charity Wiser. She’s hired Quant because she believes someone is trying to kill her, and she wants him to find out who it is. The idea is that if he goes on the cruise, he can ‘vet’ the various members of the family and identify the would-be murderer. Quant knows that even the wealthy don’t have a perfect, charmed life. But as Quant puts it,
‘I am generally a person with his feet planted firmly in reality, but I do love to dream…This case fit my dream perfectly. A swashbuckling adventure on the high seas.’
For him, it’s a chance to live, however briefly, the wealthy life. But as he finds out on this cruise, it can be as dangerous as it is enviable.
And, although it’s not really a crime novel, I couldn’t resist mentioning Monica McInerney’s Hello From the Gillespies. Angela Gillespie has spent more than thirty years sending out the sort of family newsletter that makes people resentful. You know the kind: perfect life, perfect children, success for all. But the reality is quite different for this family. They’re coping with everything from debt to career trouble to problematic retirement, and more. This year, for the first time, Angela tells the truth about her family:
‘It’s been a terrible year for the Gillespies. Everything has gone wrong for us.’
The trouble really starts when that letter gets sent accidentally to everyone on the newsletter list…
So as you see, you may get wistful or worse about your own life when you see those Facebook updates or get those holiday newsletters. When you do, it’s always good to remember that things are not usually what they seem. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop by Finding Time to Write? It’s a treasure trove of poetry, fine book reviews, and lovely ‘photos. Thanks for the inspiration, Marina Sofia.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ David Watts.