Isn’t this wombat cute? I think so, too. But don’t let that fool you. Wombats are extremely strong, have sharp teeth, and can be very aggressive and destructive. That’s part of why they’re best left in their natural habitat. It’s a big mistake to be blind to what wombats can really be like.
The same is true of people. I think most of us would like to believe the best about the people in our lives. That’s arguably part of the reason we make excuses, at least to ourselves, for the way some people behave (e.g. ‘Yes, she’s very short-tempered, but look how creative she is!’). And sometimes, that way of thinking can allow us to work with others productively, even if we’re aware of their faults. And, in any case, no-one’s perfect.
It can be a mistake, though, to ignore others’ character traits, or to think that someone will change a fundamental trait (e.g. ‘I know he cheated on her, but it’ll be different with me.’). Making those sorts of excuses can lead to all sorts of sad consequences. And in crime fiction, it can lead to disaster.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of Crale’s death, it was believed that his wife, Caroline, was responsible, and she certainly had motive; he was having a very obvious affair. In fact, Caroline was arrested, tried, and convicted in connection with the murder. But now, their daughter Carla wants to clear her mother’s name. So, Poirot interviews the five people who were on the scene at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts of what happened from each one. Using the interviews and accounts, he works his way towards the truth of the matter. As the story goes on, we learn more about the victim’s character. For him, his art was the most important part of his life. In fact, he even warned his mistress, Elsa Greer, not to believe in him or trust him, except for his art. She didn’t listen to him, though, and took their relationship far more seriously than he did. She believed they would marry as soon as Crale divorced his wife. Her refusal to see Crale for what he was caused all sorts of conflict and tragedy that play a role in the story.
In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele. She meets Bill King, a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office, and the two begin a relationship. Bill’s brother, Lora, a Pasadena teacher, isn’t enthusiastic about Alice at first, but she puts that down to her protectiveness about her brother. Even so, as she gets to know Alice, Lora begins to have questions. Alice and Bill marry, and Lora tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law, but the questions and concerns won’t go away. The more she learns about Alice, the more repulsed Lora is by Alice’s life. At the same time, though, she is drawn to it. And she comes to have, as she sees it, fewer and fewer illusions about her sister-in-law. Bill doesn’t share her concerns, though, and Lora knows that he doesn’t see Alice for what she is. Then, there’s a murder, and it looks very much as though Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s looking out for her brother, Lora starts to ask questions. In the end, refusal to see things as they are ends up wreaking havoc.
Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry is the sixth in his series featuring London PI Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewellyn. In the novel, Scotland Yard Inspector Terence Pool goes to Barker with an odd request. It seems that the British government has granted immunity to Sebastian Nightwine, and that he will be returning to London at the government’s request, so as to take part in a top-secret mission. Nightwine has indicated that he’s afraid he’s in danger from Barker. It was Barker’s discovery of some of Nightwine’s crimes that caused him to flee England in the first place. Now that he’s returning, he’s concerned that Barker represents a threat to him. Pool warns Barker to stay away from Nightwine. But Barker strongly suspects that Nightwine has his own agenda, and may even have a major criminal plan underway. To Barker, the government is naïve in not acknowledging the sort of person Nightwine is, and that naivety will lead to disaster. So, he does a little checking, and discovers that he’s right. Before he can do anything about it, though, he’s neatly framed for a murder. Now, the police are after him, and so are Nightwine’s people. So, with help from Llewellyn, Barker’s going to have to clear his name and stop Nightwine if he can.
Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion is the first of her Anna Travis novels. In it, Travis has recently been promoted to the rank of Detective Sergeant (DS), and has joined the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. The team is facing a very perplexing case. The body of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been discovered, and her murder is similar in many ways to six other deaths the team is investigating. But there are some major differences. For one thing, the other victims were all prostitutes, and Melissa wasn’t. For another, the other victims were all older; Melissa was a teenager. Still, it’s certainly possible that all seven women were killed by the same person. Gradually, the team comes to believe that a man named Alan Daniels is that person. But that possibility presents several challenges. Daniels is a beloved television actor who’s about to ‘make it’ in films. Any public aspersions on him will not be taken kindly. What’s more, there’s no conclusive evidence against the man. And, Daniels is wealthy and well-connected. He can afford the best legal representation, and the team risks a lot of public embarrassment (and more) if they botch this case. As a part of the investigation, Travis gets to know Daniels, even seeing him socially. All of this is planned by her team, but that doesn’t mean it’s not risky. And, as she sees more of him, Travis has to consider what sort of person he is, and whether there’s a ruthless killer underneath his charming surface. He is charming and attractive, and Travis needs to remind herself, more than once, not to make excuses for him.
And then there’s Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy, which features a locksmith named Jeet Singh. He’s a former safecracker/lockbreaker who’s ‘gone straight,’ and now operates a keymaking kiosk in Mumbai. One day, he gets an unexpected visit from his former lover, Sushmita, who asks for his help. It seems that her husband, wealthy industrialist Pursumal Changulani, has been killed in a planned murder disguised as a carjacking gone wrong. Sushmita says that she’s being accused of hiring a killer, so she could inherit her husband’s money. Now, she needs her name cleared. For that, she needs money, and that’s why she’s come to Singh. He’s still at least partly in love with Sushmita, so he agrees to do what he can. And that means taking on one more illegal job, so that he can earn some quick money. He knows that Sushmita broke his heart, callously (to him) marrying another man because he was very rich, and Singh is not. But he refuses to really see her for what she is, and that leads to all sorts of trouble in this novel.
And that’s the thing about not seeing people for what they are. Most of us acknowledge that everyone has faults. But we sometimes ignore troubling character traits. And that can cause real trouble. So…be careful if you pet a wombat.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Mein Herr.