It seems to be a part of human nature that we’re sometimes very critical of others, for the very same things we do ourselves. We use a different set of standards, if you like to put it that way (e.g. ‘Well, it’s different in my case!’). Or, we simply don’t see the same trait in ourselves.
t’s certainly a human characteristic, so it’s realistic. It’s little wonder, then, that it comes up in fiction, including crime fiction. And it can make for interesting character development, not to mention tension.
In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for instance, we are introduced to Miss Emily Brent. She’s among a group of people who are invited to spend time on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. When the group arrives, they’re surprised to find that their host hasn’t yet made an appearance, but everyone settles in. Then, that night, each one is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long afterwards, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, another guest dies. Soon, it’s clear that someone has lured the guests to the island, and plans to kill them all. Now, the survivors have to find out who the killer is, and stay alive themselves. Miss Brent denies causing anyone’s death, and has no problem sitting in judgement, if you will, of the others as we learn about their situations. But little by little, we learn that she’s no different. She refuses to see that she’s no less guilty, though, and it’s an interesting layer to her character.
Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die introduces readers to novelist Frank Cairns, who writes as Felix Lane. His son, Martin ‘Martie’ was tragically killed in a hit-and-run incident, and now, Cairns wants to kill the man who was responsible. So, he returns to the town in which he and Martie lived at the time of the death, and begins to track down the driver of the car. He finds out that that man is George Rattery, and slowly makes his plans. His idea is to take Rattery out sailing and make sure he drowns. But Rattery finds out what Cairns has planned, and tells Cairns that if anything happens to him, Cairns will be suspected. Later in the day, Rattery is murdered by what turns out to be poison. Now, Cairns contacts poet and amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways. He tells Strangeways that, while he plotted to kill Rattery, he isn’t actually the murderer. Strangeways agrees to look into the case and find out who the real killer is. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Cairns views what he planned. He doesn’t put his plot to murder Rattery in the same category as Rattery’s killing of Martie. He doesn’t see what he’s doing as the same thing at all.
In Megan Abbott’s historical novel (1950s) Die A Little, we meet Lora King, a Pasadena, California, teacher. She has a very close relationship with her brother, Bill, so she’s concerned when he begins to date former Hollywood seamstress assistant Alice Steele. At first, Lora tells herself that she’s being overprotective of her brother, but her concerns only grow when Bill and Alice marry. She tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law for Bill’s sake, but she starts to find out some things about Alice that really unsettle her. At the same time as she is repulsed by Alice’s life, though, she is also drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could very well be mixed up in it. Lora tells herself she’s trying to help her brother, and begins to ask questions. Throughout this novel, there’s a very interesting and real question about whether Lora is really very much different to Alice, despite the way she judges her sister-in-law.
In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham police detective Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. When it’s discovered that she was a sex worker, the team looks among Michelle’s fellow sex workers and clients to find out who would have wanted to kill her. And it’s not long before they find several different possibilities. Throughout the novel, we see a clear prejudice against sex workers among many people. One thread of that (albeit not a major point in the novel) is that those who use sex worker services see a big difference between what they do and what the sex workers do.
And then there’s Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy. That novel is the story of a plot to kidnap the son of wealthy São Paolo business tycoon Olavo Bettencourt. Bettencourt has a life that just about anyone would envy. He’s rich, he has a beautiful ‘trophy wife,’ Mara, and quite a lot of ‘clout.’ He also has a young son, Olavinho. A gang decides to kidnap the boy, and sets the plan in motion. Everything falls apart, though, when they get the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinho, they abduct the mute son of the Bettencourt’s housekeeper. Now, the gang has to decide what to do about this situation. And Bettencourt has to decide what to tell the media and the police about the situation. His business deals have not all been entirely legal, and he’s reluctant to have any of that brought to light. As the novel goes on, we learn more about the Bettencourts. Mara grew up desperately poor, and has done a lot of questionable things to get to the wealthy life she has now. She despises her husband, but it’s arguable that she’s not much different. For his part, Olavo is contemptuous of his wife and her ‘low class’ background. But again, it’s arguable that he is no different.
There are plenty of other examples of characters who look down on, or at the very least, judge, the very qualities in others that they themselves share. It’s a human trait, so it makes sense that we’d see it in fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Good Night and Thank You.