Life’s not always kind, and people who’ve seen a lot of that unkindness sometimes react to it by becoming cynical. If you think about it, a certain amount of cynicism is self-protective. It prevents too much vulnerability and disappointment (at least on a conscious level) when someone proves not to be trustworthy.
There are plenty of cynical characters in crime fiction, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Sleuths see the sometimes-tragic consequences when people act only in their own interests. And other fictional characters can be cynical, too. Carried to the extreme, cynicism has a lot of drawbacks. But a certain amount of it can add a layer of character development.
In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, we are introduced to Miss Pamela Horsefall, a writer for the tabloid Sunday Companion. One of her articles is a ‘Where Are They Now’ piece on women who’ve been involved in infamous crimes. The story itself is quite sentimental, and it suggests that these are all innocent people who’ve been victims of others or of society. That story turns out to be a clue when a charwoman is murdered. Everyone thinks the killer is her unpleasant lodger, James Bentley. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence isn’t so sure about that. He asks Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. When he finds out that Mrs. McGinty wrote a letter to the Companion shortly before she died, he suspects that there might be a connection between the article and her murder. So, he goes to visit Miss Horsefall. He discovers that she is much more cynical about the subjects of her story than it seems. In fact, in each case, she believes that the woman had much more to do with the murder than people think. Miss Horsefall’s cynicism doesn’t solve Mrs. McGinty’s murder, but the article gives Poirot an important lead.
Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy (Total Chaos, Chourmo, Solea) features police officer Fabio Montale. As young people, he and his friends, Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini and Manu, got into plenty of trouble, and had more than one brush with the law. Then, a tragedy changed everything. Montale left Marseilles and joined the military. After his stint in the service, he returned to his old haunts in Marseilles as a police officer. Although he’s on the right side of the law, so to speak, Montale has no illusions about the law, the city, the people, or his fellow coppers. He has seen, in some very ugly ways, just how self-motivated people can be, and how self-interest can come before anything else, including others’ lives. And, yet, Montale tries to be ‘on the side of the angels.’ He tries to do whatever good he can do. It’s an interesting example of a person who’s cynical without giving up, if I can put it that way.
Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes is the story of John ‘Duke’ Anderson. Shortly after being released from prison, he gets a legitimate job at a printer’s. He plans to stay on the proverbial straight and narrow until he gets a chance to visit a posh apartment building on Manhattan’s East Side. When he sees how much wealth there is there, he decides to rob not just one apartment, but the whole building. He knows he won’t be able to pull off the job by himself, so he gathers a group of confederates. Anderson is cynical about their motivations and interests, and he plans accordingly. He’s matched, cynicism for cynicism, by his friend-with-benefits, Ingrid Macht. She has her own dark history and very good reasons for mistrusting everyone. Her view is, ‘Everyone’s out for themselves, so I might as well get mine, too.’ Although she and Anderson are friends, they have no illusions about themselves or each other, and have no problem using one another. Ingrid isn’t one of Anderson’s co-conspirators, really, but she sheds important light on him and his character.
In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we meet Alice Steele, a former Hollywood wardrobe assistant. She meets Bill King, a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office, and the two begin dating. Bill’s sister Lora has her concerns about Alice. Still, she tries to be nice to her for Bill’s sake. Alice has a murky past, and she hasn’t completely left it. One of her friends, for instance, is Lois Slattery, a former roommate. Lois has a shady past of her own, and a cynical attitude towards life. Occasionally, she visits Alice, and Lora gets a chance to see how these two women seem to think. As time goes by, Lora has more and more questions about her new sister-in-law, and becomes increasingly uneasy about her. At the same time, she is drawn to Alice’s life. Then, there’s a death that turns out to be murder. And Alice could very well be mixed up in it all. Telling herself she’s doing it to protect Bill, Lora starts asking questions about the death. Throughout the novel, we see how cynical both Alice and Lois are. They’ve both seen plenty of life, and their cynicism comes in part from that.
As any fan of the ‘hardboiled’ PI novel can tell you, several fictional PIs are also cynical, even though they go after the ‘bad guys.’ Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, for instance, has no illusions about the motives of the clients who hire him, or of the people involved in his cases. He himself tries to do the right thing. But he’s seen enough in his time that he’s well aware of the dark side of many people. A similar thing might be said of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. There are plenty of other examples, too.
Cynicism certainly has its place in crime fiction. A dose of it can be useful in real life, too. And it’s interesting to see how it plays out in fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Supertramp’s The Logical Song.