Category Archives: Megan Abbott

It’s All About the Same Thing Underneath the Disguise*

Same Underlying Plot, Different BookIn Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercue Poirot works with Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and detective story writer Ariadne Oliver to solve the stabbing death of the enigmatic Mr. Shaitana. There are only four suspects, and each one could have committed the crime. What’s more, each one has, or so Shaitana hinted, killed before. The sleuths look into the background of all of the suspects to see what kind of murders they committed, and whether those crimes bear the same hallmarks they see in the Shaitana case. When Mrs. Oliver says that she wouldn’t commit the same kind of murder twice, here’s the conversation that ensues:
 

‘‘Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?’ asked Battle.
‘The Lotus Murder,’ murmured Poirot. ‘The Clue of the Candle Wax.’
Mrs. Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation.
‘That’s clever of you – that’s really clever of you. Because of course those two are exactly the same plot, but nobody else has seen it.’’
 

And she’s not the only author to use plot points, or even entire plots, that have been used before.

The fact is, there aren’t that many plausible reasons to commit murder. So if you look beyond the outer trappings of setting and so on, you’ll see a lot of books that bear similarities to other books, even if you might not think so at first. Moira at Clothes in Books got me thinking about this, and I’m glad she did. It’s an interesting topic, so I am grateful for the inspiration.

Some books’ similarities are quite clear, because they have such a similar context. For example, Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer and Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man both feature on-stage murders during the performance of a play. And in both cases, the sleuth has to look among the people who had access to the stage props to find out who would have been able to commit the crime. There are some differences (e.g. in one, the death looks like a suicide, but in the other, it’s a more obvious murder). But the underlying nature of the plot is strikingly similar.

Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is the story of Gilbert Hand, who has recently moved to a very respectable London hotel. He’s settling into his room when he discovers that the ottoman he wants to use as a storage space has something hidden in it. Hand pulls out the silk-wrapped package and discovers a coil of long dark hair. He begins to wonder about the person who owned that hair, and it’s not long before he discovers that that person is Freddie Doyle. When Doyle tries to reclaim the hair, Hand refuses. Now he begins to be obsessed with Doyle, and that obsession leads to tragedy. It might not seem on the surface that this would bear a lot of resemblance to Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which features a Pasadena schoolteacher named Lora King, and her relationship with her new sister-in-law Alice. But underneath the very obvious differences, there are some real similarities. Like Gilbert Hand, Lora King makes some unsettling discoveries about a person (in this case, Alice). And, like Hand, King finds herself becoming obsessed. She is both repelled by and drawn to Alice in the same way that Hand finds himself both repelled by and drawn to Doyle. And in both these novels, disaster strikes. Of course there are important differences between the books. Those differences set them apart and make each a unique read, with different characters and so on. But the core of the plot in the two books is very similar.

That’s also true of James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos and Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. One takes place in modern-day Louisiana; the other takes place in 1950’s Los Angeles. One features a police detective, and the other an amateur/soon-to-be PI. And the books focus on different kinds of contexts, too (a New Orleans crime syndicate v a Black church and the people who volunteer there). Different kinds of people are murdered, too. But underneath those major differences, we see some very strong similarities. In both cases, the sleuths are pressured by government authorities to bring down someone regarded as a ‘bad guy.’ In both novels, the sleuths are reluctant to do so, but are persuaded. And both sleuths face a serious internal struggle when they find themselves sympathetic towards the person they’re supposed to be targeting. These aren’t by any means alike. Each author has a unique way of telling the story, of developing the characters, and of resolving the story’s conflicts. But the underlying cores are quite similar.

They are in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City and Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too. These stories are unlike each other in many ways. They take place in different settings, feature different kinds of murder victims and murderers, and ‘star’ very different kinds of sleuths. You might not think of them as having anything in common. And yet, they do. In each case, we have a sleuth who has to find out why someone who seems innocent enough on the surface would be targeted. We also have some very, very ugly past history that plays an important role. And the solution for each case has to do with the past coming back, if you will. Saying more would bring me closer than I like to spoiler territory. But if you’ve read both books, you’ll know what I mean.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives and William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department might not seem to be similar stories at all. And in a lot of ways, they are not. One features a PI; the other ‘starts’ a police detective. They take place in very different time periods (the former takes place is a modern-day story; the latter takes place in pre-World War II Moscow), and the murder victims are very different sorts of characters. But look closely and you’ll see these stories have more in common than you might think. Both involve penetrating a closed community; in one case it’s a compound owned by a fundamentalist sect, and in the other a group of scientists working on a top-secret project. And in each instance, the original murder – the reason the sleuths look into things – hides a much deeper, uglier truth.

There are many more examples of crime novels that tell similar ‘core stories,’ even though they are quite different. And if you think about it, that’s logical, considering that there are only so many credible reasons for murder, and only so many believable kinds of plots. What’s your view on this? Have you ever had that sense of déjà vu as you see that two quite dissimilar novels actually have a lot in common?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. And speaking of inspiration, may I suggest your next blog stop by Clothes in Books. It’s a rich resources of fine book reviews and informative discussion of clothes, popular culture, and what it all tells us about ourselves. I learn every time I visit.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh’s Over and Over.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Charlotte Jay, James Lee Burke, Megan Abbott, Ngaio Marsh, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

You Give Me the Creeps*

Creepy FeelingsThere’s an old saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. And it’s generally wise to wait before drawing conclusions about people. Sometimes they do surprise you. But we can’t always help our first impressions. If you’ve ever had a very bad feeling about someone that you had trouble shaking off, you know what I mean. There are times when those feelings are not justified, of course. But there are other times when they are.

It’s interesting the way these ‘creepy’ feelings are handled in crime fiction. They can be used very effectively to build tension and to create motive. And what’s even more interesting is that they can also be used to misdirect the reader. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of many more.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to Dr. Sarah King, who’s recently gotten her medical license. She’s just ended a romance, and by way of healing, she’s taking a trip through the Middle East. While she’s in Jerusalem, she meets the Boynton family, also touring the area. Sarah has a pleasant encounter with Raymond Boynton, but everything changes when she meets his mother. She is immediately repulsed, and can’t help almost physically shuddering. She wonders at first whether it might be an unfortunate first impression, but she soon finds out that she was right. Mrs. Boynton is an unpleasant, tyrannical mental sadist who has her family so cowed that none of them dares go against her whims. When Sarah takes a side trip to Petra, she thinks she’s seen the last of the Boyntons. But when they turn up on the same trip, matters soon come to a head. On the second afternoon of the trip, Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and when Colonel Carbury, who is the investigator for the case, asks him to look into the case, Poirot agrees. It turns out that Mrs. Boynton’s personality has a lot do with her murder.

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is the story of the Sternwood family. Family patriarch General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to help him solve a difficult problem. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Marlowe’s been hired to find Geiger and stop him. Marlowe’s first impression of the general is not at all a positive one. It’s actually rather eerie:
 

‘An old man two-thirds dead and still determined to believe he could take it.’
 

Sternwood has lived a decadent life and admits it; he also has an autocratic way about him. None of this appeals to Marlowe, but he takes the case. By the time he tracks Geiger down, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Marlow had hoped to simply get Geiger to leave the Sternwood family alone, but it turns out that he gets far more deeply involved with them than he imagined.

Anya Lipska’s DC Natalie Kershaw meets Janusz Kiszka in the context of a murder investigation in Where the Devil Can’t Go. She’s looking into the death of Justyna Kozlowska, who seems to have died of a drug overdose. It’s not as simple as that though, and Kershaw believes that the victim was probably murdered. Kiszka knew Justyna, and that makes him a ‘person of interest.’ He’s a sort of ‘fixer’ London’s Polish community – someone who can get things done. So he knows all sorts of people, both law-abiding and…not so law-abiding. What’s more, he doesn’t particularly trust the police, and he has his own reasons for not being entirely forthcoming with Kershaw. So she sees him as dangerous – possibly even a killer. As they get to know one another, each sees that the other has valuable skills and information, and that they’ll solve the case better by co-operating. But it takes a while before Kershaw can shed her initial bad feeling about Kiszka.

When Megan Abbot’s Lora King meets Alice Steele in Die a Little, she immediately gets a bad feeling about her. Lora is a Pasadena schoolteacher whose brother Bill has fallen in love with Alice. Alice is a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant with a shadowy past. On the surface, there isn’t really any reason to dislike Alice. She seems to treat Bill well, she’s friendly, she’s smart and she’s witty. In fact, Lora even tries to convince herself that she’s simply reacting out of overprotectiveness towards her brother. But she can’t shake her very creepy feeling about Alice. Matters don’t get any better when Alice and Bill marry, either. Then, there’s a murder. When it comes out that Alice may be mixed up in it, Lora feels especially torn. On the one hand, she is repelled by Alice’s life. On the other, she is drawn to it.

And then there’s Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. It soon comes out that Michelle was a sex worker who’d been in care since she was twelve years old. After a short time, Morriss discovers that Michelle was working for a pimp named Charlie Hawes. The more she hears about Hawes, the more contempt Morriss feels for him. But that doesn’t mean he killed Michelle. Still, she does consider him a suspect and tracks him down. The minute she meets him, she gets a very bad, creepy feeling about him. It doesn’t make her feel any better that Hawes is slick and arrogant. Among other challenges that she faces, Morriss has to separate her feelings about Hawes from a fair consideration of the evidence.

Her challenge is one we all face at times. There are just certain people who give us creepy feelings right from the beginning. Sometimes we’re right; sometimes we’re wrong. Either way, though, it’s hard to get past them.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Camper van Beethoven’s I Don’t See You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Maureen Carter, Megan Abbott, Raymond Chandler

Dress, Voice, Style, Image*

Image ObsessionIn Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch travels from New York City, where she’s been living, to her family’s home in Maycomb, Alabama. When she arrives, her Aunt Alexandra asks her,
 

‘‘Jean Louise, did you come down on the train Like That?’
 
Later in the conversation, Alexandra goes on,
 

‘’I do wish this time you’d try to dress better while you’re home. Folks in town get the wrong impression of you. They think you are – ah – slumming.’’
 

The debate over how Jean Louise ‘should’ dress and look highlights a very important social reality. There is often a great deal of pressure on people to dress in certain ways, look certain ways, and so on. That’s possibly even more the case with today’s social media. But it’s been going on for a very, very long time. Image isn’t just important for those on television or those who are considered ‘celebrities.’ There’s pressure even on ‘regular people’ too (e.g. ‘I can’t wear that! People might see me.’ ‘Wait, let me put my makeup on first. I can’t go out looking like this!’).

On the one hand, it makes sense to do certain ‘image’ things, such as wearing clean clothing, combing one’s hair, and so on. Like anything else, though, there’s definitely such a thing as too much pressure. There are all sorts of real-life stories of the negative consequences of that pressure, and we see it in crime fiction too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Arthur Hastings is returning by train and ferry from France to London. He meets a fellow passenger, a young woman who calls herself Cinderella. At one point, they’re about to reach the Calais station, and she hastily touches up her powder and lip salve. When he comments that she doesn’t need all of that, she says,
 

‘‘My dear boy! I’ve got to do it. All the girls do. Think I want to look like a little frump just up from the country?’’
 

It’s an interesting look at the pressure to look a certain way. When the train pulls into the station, Hastings takes his leave of Cinderella, assuming he probably won’t see her again. What he doesn’t know is that he’ll get caught up in a strange case of murder – and that Cinderella will make another appearance…

There’s a darker, more biting look at this phenomenon in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut to take advantage of lower taxes and good schools. When the flurry of moving is over, they settle in and all goes well enough at first. Stepford seems to be the perfect small town. Things go even better when Joanna makes a new friend Bobbie Markowe. Unlike a lot of the other women in town, Bobbie is down-to-earth, dresses casually, and isn’t preoccupied with the appearance of her home. It’s not long before both women begin to notice some odd things going on in town. For one thing, most of the other women in town seem obsessed with looking perfect (even in the grocery store) and keeping their homes immaculate. At first Bobbie and Joanna joke about it, but it’s not long before Bobbie becomes suspicious that something’s going on. And when Bobbie starts to behave the same way, Joanna becomes convinced that there’s something sinister beneath Stepford’s surface. Walter isn’t much help in the matter. When Joanna tells him about her concerns, he says,
 

‘’If Bobbie’s taking an interest in her appearance, it’s about time. It wouldn’t hurt you to look in a mirror once in a while.’…
‘Do you want me to change,’ she asked him.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’d just like you to put on a little lipstick once in a while.’’
 

Among other things, this novel offers an interesting social commentary.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little tells the story of Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. When her brother Bill falls in love with Alice Steele, Lora tries to get along with her for Bill’s sake. But right from the beginning, it’s difficult. At first, she thinks it’s just because she and Bill are close, and she’s not happy admitting to herself she doesn’t want to ‘share’ him with someone else. Besides, Alice is beautiful, with exactly the right clothes, while Lora isn’t exactly a fashion plate. But little by little, she begins to have real suspicions about Alice. Nonetheless, when Bill and Alice marry, Lora continues to try to get along with her new sister-in-law. Alice quickly becomes a social leader in their circle. She’s the one with the perfect hair, makeup, parties and hors d’oeuvres. But the more Lora finds out about Alice, the more she sees that Alice has a dark side. At the same time as she’s repelled by that, Lora is also drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder. When it looks as though Alice might be implicated, Lora has to decide what she’ll do.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman owns a Melbourne bakery of which she’s justly proud. She depends on her employees, and she cares about them. For instance, her two shop assistants, Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge are both determined to have television careers. To that end, they eat as little as they can, to make sure they stay thin. And they’re very concerned about what they wear and how they look. In Devil’s Food, their obsession goes a little too far, when they’re both sickened by diet tea that turns out to have been poisoned. At one point, Chapman and her friend Meroe are trying to help the two girls after they’ve been poisoned. Chapman’s trying to find anything among their possessions that might have been responsible. As she’s looking through their things, she finds that,
 

‘Those girls had more makeup than a theatre company…Foundations enough to build a small Greek temple…and eye pencils to supply Ancient Egypt for a dynasty.’
 

In the end, Chapman and Meroe do discover both the source of the poison and the person responsible for it. And in the process, we learn just how much effort Kylie and Goss go to in order to look ‘just right.’

In case you think this pressure applies just to women, that’s actually not true. Men, too, are often pressured. We see that, for instance, in Bev Robitai’s Body on the Stage. Dennis Dempster has more or less let himself go since his divorce. His sister insists that he get his life back together and, mostly because of her, he signs up for auditions at Auckland’s Regent’s Theatre for the upcoming show Ladies’ Night. He gets a job with the stage crew and preparations begin. The dancers in the show get ready for their performances with workouts and training at a local gym called Intensity. When Dennis solves a printer problem for the gym’s owner Cathy, she invites him to join the dancers’ workouts as a way to get into shape. He reluctantly agrees, and starts the regimen. Then, Cathy’s assistant Vincenzo Barino disappears, and is later found dead. It turns out, too, that there is more than one possible motive, as Vincenzo was involved in some lucrative ‘side businesses,’ with some dubious people. What’s more, he had a reputation as a ladies’ man who wasn’t particularly fussy about the marital status of his partners. As the story unfolds, we learn about the dangerous side of trying for ‘the perfect body,’ and the balance needed to stay in shape in a healthy, but not obsessive, way.

There is an undeniable pressure to look and dress a certain way, and it’s not helped by media and other popular images. In real life, it can have disastrous consequences. It can in crime fiction as well.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Rainbow High.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bev Robitai, Harper Lee, Ira Levin, Kerry Greenwood, Megan Abbott

I Got the Feeling That Something Ain’t Right*

Growing SuspicionsHave you ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window? Even if you haven’t, you probably know the premise: L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies is laid up with a broken leg; to pass the time, he begins to observe what’s going on in the other apartments that face the same courtyard his does. It’s not long before he begins to suspect that one of those other people, a man named Lars Thorvald, may be a murderer. Part of the tension in the film comes from the the fact that we don’t see the suspected murder, and there’s no real evidence that anyone’s been killed. And yet, Jeff is convinced that something is very wrong. Everything Thorvald does has a logical explanation; yet it also has a possibly sinister one as well. And of course, the more convinced Jeff is that Thorvald is a murderer, the more possible danger there is for him and his girlfriend Lisa Fremont.

It’s arguably a bit harder to depict that kind of growing suspicion with words, but it can make for a suspenseful plot point in a crime novel. Is someone a character observes a criminal or not? We see that in all sorts of crime fiction; space only permits me a tiny sampling.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), French moneylender Marie Morisot, who goes by the name of Madame Giselle, is poisoned while en route from Paris to London. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Chief Inspector Japp concentrates his attention there. Hercule Poirot was on the same flight, so he works with Japp to find the killer. One evening, two of the other passengers, Jane Grey and Norman Gale, are having dinner and discussing the case. They notice detective novelist Mr. Clancy eating at the same restaurant and decide to sleuth him. As they do, they come to believe that he’s acting most suspiciously:
 

‘His direction, too, was erratic. Once, he actually took so many right-angle turns that he traversed the same streets twice over.
Jane felt her spirits rise.
‘You see?’ she said excitedly. ‘He’s afraid of being followed. He’s trying to put us off the scent.”
 

Mr. Clancy does other things too that make the two suspect him.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is the story of Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their move to the quiet town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, the move seems like an excellent decision. The town is lovely, they’ve been welcomed, and their children Pete and Kim have settled into school and begun to make friends. Then Joanna’s friend Bobbie Markowe starts to suspect that something dangerous is going on in Stepford. At first, Joanna thinks Bobbie is overreacting. But then other things happen that convince Joanna that Stepford is not the idyllic place it seems to be. Everything she observes seems to have a very plausible explanation; in fact, she herself wonders whether she may be crazy. But she learns that what she’s noticed also has a very sinister explanation as well.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King learns that her brother Bill has met and fallen in love with Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. Lora wants to be happy for her brother since they’ve always been close. But she’s not at all impressed with Alice. On the surface, Alice seems terrific; she’s beautiful, pleasant and quite devoted to Bill. But Lora has her doubts. Still, she puts the best face on it when Bill and Alice get married. Then, little things begin to surface that make Lora doubt Alice even more. Everything she learns has a plausible explanation, and Alice provides them. But Lora’s suspicions continue to grow. Then there’s a murder, and Alice may be mixed up in it. Lora is afraid for her brother, so she decides to find out whether that’s true. The more she learns about Alice’s world, the more repelled Lora is by it; at the same time though, she is drawn to it. And that sense that something is probably – but not definitely – very wrong adds a layer of tension to the story.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces us to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. The ‘bread and butter’ for his private investigations company is ‘vetting’ potential brides and bridegrooms. Before final wedding arrangements are made between families, one or the other often hires an agency such as Puri’s to make sure that the prospective new family member is respectable and meets the family’s standards. One such case is that of Brigadier General Kapoor, who hires Puri to look into the background of Mahinder Gupta, who is slated to marry Kapoor’s granddaughter Tisca. On the surface, there seems no problem with Gupta, and there’s no one thing in particular that upsets Kapoor. But he has the feeling that something isn’t right about the bridegroom-to-be, and he’s become worried. As Puri and his team investigate, they find out something that Kapoor didn’t know.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to former school principal Thea Farmer. She’s planned and had built a ‘dream house’ in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But poor financial decisions have meant that she has to change her plans drastically. Instead of the perfect home, she’s had to settle for the smaller house next door – ‘the hovel,’ as she refers to it. To make matters worse, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington have purchsed the home that Thea still sees as her own. She dislikes them both intensely, and even more so when Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them. Still, Thea develops a kind of friendship with Kim. So when she slowly begins to be convinced that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate environment for the girl, Thea gets concerned. She soon learns that the police aren’t going to do anything about it because they don’t have actual evidence that there’s any problem. Everything Thea witnesses has a plausible explanation. But she is certain that Kim is at risk. So she makes her own plans to deal with the situation.

Everything may appear perfectly innocent on the surface, but sometimes it’s not. And sometimes little suspicions can grow, whether or not they’re well-founded. That possibility can make for a solid layer of suspense in stories (and in films!). Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Megan Abbott, Tarquin Hall, Virginia Duigan

They Show You Photographs of How Your Life Should Be*

IllusionsWe all know of course that life isn’t perfect. But the illusion that it could be is very appealing. That illusion of a perfect setting/life/society/etc. can be very powerful. It’s what sells all sorts of products from ‘the perfect getaway holiday’ to ‘the perfect hairstyle’ to just about anything else. Just look at the ‘photo, for instance. It’s a picture of the famous Las Vegas Strip, where nearly everything is a carefully-crafted illusion of perfection. That ideal of perfection is also arguably part of what drives people to keep up appearances (e.g. ‘Yes, I have the perfect family.’)

But as I say, life doesn’t work that way. Before you know it, that perfect pair of shoes gets a scratch in it, or new people move onto the perfect street and start throwing loud parties and leaving trash everywhere. Those reminders that nothing’s perfect can be hard to take, because the illusion that it could be is so easy to accept. And that can add quite a lot of tension and suspense to a crime novel. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more examples than I could. Here are a few to get started…

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Linnet Ridgeway seems to have it all. She’s beautiful, wealthy and intelligent. And she’s accustomed to getting what she wants. She’s not deliberately spiteful or destructive, but she is used to arranging her life in exactly the way she decides. As the novel begins, for instance, she’s working on creating the perfect home at Wode Hall, which she’s recently purchased and is having renovated. She’s even trying to tear down a group of local cottages and relocate the people who live in them so that she can have the perfect view. When she meets Simon Doyle, who is engaged to marry her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, she finds herself attracted to him and before long, he too is part of the perfect world she’s trying to create. She and Simon marry and take a cruise of the Nile as part of their honeymoon trip. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet finds out tragically that the world won’t always work her way when she’s shot. The most likely suspect is Jackie, who is also on the cruise. But it’s soon proven that she could not possibly be the murderer. So Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race, who are also aboard, have to search elsewhere for the killer. Interestingly, Poirot tries to warn Linnet that the world cannot be ‘made to order,’ but Linnet doesn’t listen…

The search for the perfect place to live motivates Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their children to move to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. The move seems successful and the family slowly settles in. At first, Stepford seems like an idyllic place to live: good schools, low taxes, friendly people and so on. But Joanna’s friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something dangerous may be going on in Stepford. At first Joanna doesn’t agree, and having just moved there, she’s not overly eager to sell their new house and move again. But after a time, she starts to believe that Bobbie may be right. The closer she gets to the truth, the more she sees that there is no such thing as the perfect place to live. Even beautiful small towns can have their dark secrets.

Glenn Hadlock thinks he’s found the perfect job in Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary. He answers an employment advertisement for a bodyguard/escort position and finds that his prospective employer is wealthy Victor Scofield, who is disabled and in need of a chauffeur/escort for his wife Eileen. The pay and benefits are excellent, and Hadlock accepts right away when the job is offered to him. At first it seems like an ideal situation for him. Scofield is not exactly a pleasant person, but he is fair and generous, and Hadlock gets a nice place to live, a good wardrobe and plenty of spending money. He also gets to spend time with Eileen Scofield, and that becomes a serious problem when he finds himself attracted to her. Scofield has told Hadlock that his relationship with Eileen must be strictly professional. As Hadlock finds that employment condition harder and hard to accept, he also finds that his perfect job arrangement…isn’t.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces us to Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. She works hard to create the illusion that she’s the perfect girlfriend, and then the perfect wife, to police officer Bill King. And she succeeds too, at least at first. She’s beautiful, smart, witty, and friendly. Her parties are perfectly arranged, the food is always beautifully presented and delicious, and she and Bill are the most popular hosts among their group of friends. But Bill’s sister Lora gradually begins to suspect that Alice is not the person she seems to be. First it’s a matter of little inconsistencies in what Alice says about herself. Then Lora begins to wonder just what kind of secrets Alice has. The more she learns about Alice’s life, the more she is at the same time repelled by and drawn to it. And she’s a little worried for Bill, to whom she’s always felt close. To her, Bill is too eager to believe that Alice is the perfect wife that he thinks she is. Then there’s a tragic murder, and Lora thinks Alice may be involved in it. If so, this could be dangerous for Bill. So Lora has to decide how she’ll go about finding out the truth and what she’ll do when she does find out.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we meet Eva Wirenström-Berg, her husband Henrik and their son Axel. Eva has worked very hard to create the perfect home, complete with white picket fence, and the perfect family life. She’s arranged everything as best she can to make everything idyllic. But of course, life isn’t that way. One day Eva finds out that Henrik has been unfaithful. She knew he’d been unhappy for a while (ironically, a lot of that had to do with her own attempts to make everything perfect). But this discovery devastates her. One night she goes out to a pub, where she meets Jonas Hansson, who has his own troubles. That meeting soon leads to both of their lives spinning out of control. And (again ironically), the more they try to make things perfect, the less perfect things get.

Qiu Xiaolong addresses the issue of the ‘perfect society’ in Enigma of China. In that novel, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police is assigned to investigate what seems to be a straightforward case of suicide. Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, had come under investigation for corruption. It’s widely believed he killed himself rather than go through the humiliation that a full investigation plus trial and imprisonment would bring. But Chen isn’t completely sure this was a suicide and in any case, his job as a detective is to investigate fully. So he and his assistant Detective Yu look more deeply into the case. It turns out that the original allegations of corruption came from an Internet ‘grass roots’ group that posted some of the evidence. The Chinese government doesn’t want such groups to post, as that would put the lie to the illusion of a harmonious society that the government wants to create. At the same time, the government used that very group’s evidence against Zhou. It’s a very delicate situation, and in the novel there are several interesting discussions of the way the Internet is now used both for dissent and for factual information, since the official government outlets support only the appearance of societal stability and harmony.

People do want to believe illusions at times, because they can be so appealing. But sometimes, the cost of creating and maintaining an illusion can be awfully high. Maybe it’s just better to acknowledge that life’s not perfect…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s The Grand Illusion.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Karin Alvtegen, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Colby