There’s an old Cherokee story (you can read it here) in which a grandfather explains human nature to his grandson. He portrays it as a battle between our own good and evil tendencies, and claims that the side that wins is, as he puts it, ‘the one you feed.’
There’s a lot to that perspective if you think about it. We can look at human nature and good and evil from several points of view (philosophical, religious, anthropological, etc.). But, I’m not a philosopher, a member of the clergy, or an anthropologist. And besides, it’s a very large topic, and this is a very small blog. But even keeping the focus on crime fiction, we see plenty of examples of characters who ‘feed’ their ‘better angels’ as well as those who do just the opposite. In both cases, there are consequences.
G.K. Chesterton’s Hercule Flambeau begins as a notorious thief. In fact, in the short story The Blue Cross, we learn that he has gone from France to England, and is on his way to steal a valuable religious artifact. Flambeau has bested many people, including the French police. But Father Brown proves to be more than a match for him. Flambeau then chooses to ‘feed’ the better side of his nature. He gives up his larcenous career and becomes a private investigator. He doesn’t start going to religious services, and he enjoys a good wine as much as the next person. It’s not those outer trappings of what some people think of as ‘morality’ that change. Rather, it’s his decision to nurture the ethical side of his nature.
We see that sort of conversation and struggle in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, too. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Among the other hotel guests are famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall; her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall; and Marshall’s teenaged daughter Linda. It’s soon hotel gossip that Arlena is having a not-very-well-hidden affair with another guest, Patrick Redfern. So, when she is found murdered one day, her husband Kenneth comes under suspicion. He has a solid alibi, though, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. One of the people they talk to is Linda Marshall. As it turns out, she hated her stepmother, and cannot be ruled out as the killer. At one point, she and Poirot have an interesting conversation about the difference between the urge to kill someone and actually going through with the act. That conversation, and one other one, suggests that, while Poirot is not naïve about the existence of evil, he does believe that people can choose to ‘feed’ their better natures, too. I see you, fans of Death on the Nile.
In Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, we are introduced to fourteen-year-old Adam Vander. He’s finally managed to escape his abusive father, Joe. But Adam has been kept locked away for many years, so he has little knowledge of the world and no good skills to survive in it. Fortunately, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who’s at the house when Adam makes his escape, and who becomes his ally. The two spend the next week together, and Billy provides Adam with a great deal of ‘street knowledge,’ as well as basics like a place to stay, clothes, and food. As they spend time together, the two also become friends, and begin to confide in each other. It turns out that both of them are haunted by the past, and by their connections to the tragic disappearance of a small boy from a crowded market ten years earlier. As the story evolves, both Adam and Billy learn something about ‘feeding one’s better nature,’ and about starting over, if I can put it that way.
Of course, people sometimes ‘feed’ their worse – even evil – side as well. After all, where would crime fiction be if they didn’t? And when they do, the result can be disastrous.
In Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair, we are introduced to Gilbert Hand, who works for a publishing firm. He’s recently moved to a very respectable London hotel, where he’s hoping to start over after the tragic death of his wife. Shortly after his arrival, he makes a bizarre discovery: in the davenport in his room, he finds a long coil of dark hair, wrapped in a scarf. Hand gets curious about the room’s former occupant and soon learns that it was man named Freddie Doyle. Now he’s even more curious, especially when Doyle pays him a visit to ask for the coil of hair (which request Hand refuses). Little by little, Hand becomes obsessed with Doyle, at the same repulsed and fascinated by him. He imagines a sort of ‘chess game’ between them. As his obsession grows, Hand starts to ‘feed’ his darker side, and the result leads to real tragedy.
A similar thing happens in Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down. Mix Cellini takes a flat in a home owned by Gwendolyn Chawcer. They don’t really like each other, but it’s a business arrangement; and on that level, it works. Through his profession (he repairs exercise equipment), Cellini meets supermodel Merissa Nash. He’s immediately smitten, and soon goes beyond that to obsession. At the same time, he learns about the life of notorious killer Richard Christie. The more he reads, the more obsessed Cellini becomes with Christie, too. Little by little, he starts to ‘feed’ his darker side, and the end result, as you’d expect, is disastrous.
It does in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, too. Dr. Everett Seeley has lost his medical license due to his drug problems. He decides to go to Mexico to start over; but until he gets settled, he doesn’t want to bring his wife Marion with him. So he establishes her in a Phoenix apartment, and sets her up with a job as a file clerk in the exclusive Werden Clinic. At first, all goes well enough. Marion even makes two friends: Louise Mercer (a nurse at the clinic) and Louise’s roommate Ginny Hoyt. It’s not long before Marion starts spending more time with them, and getting more and more involved in their edgy, even dangerous, lifestyle of wild parties, drugs and drinking. As time goes on, Marion begins to ‘feed’ her own darker and more dangerous side. The end result is an awful tragedy that impacts everyone involved.
Oh, and speaking of Abbotts, you’ll also want to check out Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel as a really interesting example of making choices between which side of our nature we ‘feed.’ Eve Moran has always nurtured her selfish side, letting nothing – not even someone’s life – get in the way of what she wants. Her daughter Christine’s been brought up with this influence, and has been caught in her mother’s web, so their relationship is truly dysfunctional. But everything changes when Christine sees that her little brother Ryan is at risk. Now she’s going to have to find a way to free herself and her brother from their mother’s influence.
And that’s the thing about human nature. People generally aren’t all good or all bad. The choices we make – the side of our nature that we ‘feed’ – plays a major role in what we do. And those choices can have far-reaching consequences.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s Ebony and Ivory.