We all know that people aren’t perfect. Most of us do some things well (perhaps even very well), and some things not very well. And, yet, there’s a myth that we ought to be perfect. We’re ‘supposed to’ do our work with no mistakes, always look perfectly ‘put together,’ and so on. There are even more myths around raising children (our perfect children are supposed to be raised perfectly).
Everyone knows that human make mistakes. Still, lots of people want to be perfect. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong (and a lot of things right) with setting goals, wanting to improve, and so on. It’s when perfectionism takes over that it can present a problem. I got to thinking about this after reading a really interesting post by Elizabeth Spann Craig. By the way, if you haven’t read Elizabeth’s mystery series (she’s got several), you want to try them. You won’t regret it.
Elizabeth’s post had a focus on perfectionism in writing (in case you’re wondering, it’s not possible.). But perfectionism isn’t just confined to writers. And it’s not confined to real life, either. There are plenty of crime novels in which perfectionism plays a role. Here are just a few.
In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, we are introduced to sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She goes with her father, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepmother, Arlena Stuart Marshall, to the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercomb Bay for a holiday. But this isn’t a happy time for Linda. She is very much dissatisfied with her physical appearance, for one thing. She’s also got that teenage awkwardness that makes it hard for her to feel confident. Linda wishes she were perfect in appearance, grace, and so on, but she knows she isn’t. And that makes life very hard for her. It doesn’t help matters that her stepmother is a famous and beautiful actress, with all of the looks, confidence, and grace you’d expect. Linda has a lot of resentment towards Arlena, and that’s part of what makes her a ‘person of interest’ when Arlena is murdered one day. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is.
Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal features a banker named Horace Croydon. He has what he sees as the perfect life. He does his job perfectly, he has a perfect little place to live, and he’s never done anything to raise even the merest hint of a scandal. Then, he meets his boss’ cousin, Althea. After a very respectable courtship, they marry. Almost immediately, Horace sees that he’s made a dreadful mistake. Althea doesn’t serve meals on time, she doesn’t do the shopping in the ‘right’ way, and she’s made several changes to his perfect home. She doesn’t even dress properly to appear at the breakfast table. All of that’s bad enough, but one day, she goes too far. When she destroys some ciphers that Horace is working (it’s his hobby and passion), he decides he’s going to have to act. And he comes up with his own plan to solve the problem.
Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg. She’s always wanted the ‘perfect’ suburban life, complete with white picket fence. And she thinks she has it. She and her husband Hendrik have been married for fifteen years, and they have a six-year-old son, Axel. For Eva, it’s very important to have the perfect home, the perfect marriage, and so on. Then, she discovers to her shock that Hendrik has been unfaithful. She’s devastated by this and decides to find out who his lover is. When she does, she decides to take revenge. In the meantime, we meet Jonas Hansson, who’s got his own issues. One night, he’s in a pub when Eva stops in for a drink. The two get to talking, and, soon enough, things spiral out of control for both of them. In this case, perfectionism has a very dark side.
It does in Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? too. Yvonne and Gerry Mulhern and their newborn daughter move from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of a very good job opportunity. It’s hard for Yvonne, because she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin. And, while she’s not stupid or gullible, she has been subjected to the myth of the ‘perfect mother.’ As anyone who’s ever had a newborn knows, babies are exhausting. There’s little time to eat properly, clean the house, put together the right outfits, and so on. And there’s no magic way to get them to stop crying when you want them not to cry. Yvonne doesn’t really have a support system and feels very strongly that she doesn’t ‘measure up.’ Then, she discovers an online forum called Netmammy. It’s a chat group for new mums, and there, she finds the camaraderie and support she so desperately needs. Then, one of the other members of the forum goes ‘off the grid.’ Yvonne’s concerned enough to go to the police, but there’s not much they can do. Then, the body of an unknown woman is found in an empty apartment. It could very well be Yvonne’s missing friend. If it is, what does this mean for Netmammy? Could the other members, including Yvonne, be in danger?
And then there’s Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. Devon Knox has rare gymnastic talent. Her parents, Katie and Eric, want to nurture that talent, so they are only too happy to listen when gymnastics coach Teddy Balfour invites them to place her in his gymnastics coaching program. Then, a tragic hit-and-run accident (if it was, indeed, an accident) changes everything. The question is now: how far does a family go to reach the Olympics? There’s a great deal of pressure in the program to be the best – to be perfect. And that plays its role in the novel.
We all know we’re not perfect. We’re messy, flawed, nuanced human beings. But it can be easy to ‘buy’ the myth that perfect is possible. And when that happens, it can lead to trouble.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barry Manilow, Jack Feldman, and Bruce Sussman’s Perfect Isn’t Easy.