‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!’
Burns has a point. There’s often a difference between the way we see ourselves, and the way others see us. Sometimes, that difference isn’t such a big problem (do people really have to see every single flaw we magnify when we think of ourselves?). But sometimes, the difference is quite striking. And that can make for all sorts of conflict. So, it’s little wonder this plot point/character trait comes up in crime fiction.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to Mrs. Boynton. She is tyrannical and malicious – even cruel. In fact, her family members are so cowed that no-one dares to defy her. During a trip to the Middle East, she and her family meet Sarah King, who’s recently qualified as a doctor. Sarah soon finds herself interested in Mrs. Boynton’s stepson, Raymond, and the feeling is mutual. She also finds that she likes Raymond’s sister, Carol. But Mrs. Boynton’s mental sadism stands squarely in the way of either a budding romance or a friendship. At one point, Sarah is so frustrated with Mrs. Boynton that she speaks her mind:
‘‘You like to make yourself out a kind of ogre, but really, you know, you’re just pathetic and rather ludicrous.’’
Confronted with this outside view of herself, Mrs. Boynton is infuriated. Her reaction has real consequences, too. A few days later, she and her family take a trip to Petra. Sarah had already planned to do, so she continues follow the fate of the family. On the second day at Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and Colonel Carbury asks him to investigate. Poirot finds that this death has a lot to do with Mrs. Boynton’s personality.
In Talmage Powell’s short story, To Avoid a Scandal, we are introduced to a banker, Horace Croyden. He prides himself on a quiet, well-ordered life that is completely free of scandal. In fact, the very idea of a scandal horrifies him, and he’s very careful about the people he hires on that score. His passion is working ciphers, and he’s devoted to it. In short, his life is safe, respectable, and exactly the way he wants it. Then, he meets his boss’ cousin, Althea. They begin to date, and eventually marry. And that’s when the trouble begins. Althea is much more vivacious than her husband thought. Worse, she replaces some of the furniture with bright, modern furniture that’s not at all to his taste. The tipping point comes when she burns some of his beloved ciphers, because she thought they were trash. Croyden takes his own kind of action. The story is told from his point of view, which justifies everything he does, from the very beginning. And it’s very interesting to see how different his view of himself and his actions is from the view that others have.
Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat begins as Professor Bobby Wickham and the rest of the English faculty at the University of Drummondale, in rural Australia, prepare for a distinguished guest. Oxford Professor Belville-Smith is doing a tour of the country, and one of his stops will be Drummondale. Everyone’s hoping the visit will go well, but from the beginning, it doesn’t. Professor Belville-Smith is condescending at best, and contemptuous at worst. He has an exalted sense of his own importance and assumes that everyone thinks he is as scintillating as he thinks he is. He’s not. He’s rude, and his lectures are both dry and incoherent. At one point, he even mixes up two lectures, beginning with one and ending with the other. No-one has a good impression of him, and some go even further than that. Two days into the visit, he is murdered. Inspector Bert Royle, who’s never investigated a murder before, has to solve the case, and he has plenty of suspects. Among other things, it’s interesting to see the difference between Belville-Smith’s view of himself and that of his hosts.
In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, financial planner Dennis Brinkman dies in what looks like a horrible accident. His friend, Benny Frayle, is convinced he was murdered, though, and wants the police to investigate. At first, Inspector Tom Barnaby is disinclined to open the matter again. The police who came to the scene did their jobs competently, and he sees no reason to go back over the same ground. But then, a self-styled medium named Ava Garrett gives a séance in which she recounts details of Brinkman’s death, an event she didn’t witness. These details indicate that he was murdered. Not long afterwards, she is poisoned. Now it’s clear that there’s more going on here than an accident, and Barnaby and his team look into both deaths. They find some interesting differences between what others thought of Ava, and what she thought of herself. She’d bought into the public perception of what a medium ‘should be,’ but the truth was different.
In Herman Koch’s The Dinner, we are introduced to Paul Lohman, his wife, Claire, his brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. They meet for dinner one night at one of Amsterdam’s exclusive restaurants – the kind where you have to call months ahead for a table. Each part of the novel takes place during a different part of the meal (starters, main course, etc.). As the story goes on, we learn something about these people. On the surface, they seem to be successful people with good families. But underneath, things are darker. Paul and Claire’s fifteen-year-old son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s fifteen-year-old son, Rick, are guilty of committing a horrible crime. The real reason for this dinner is for the two couples to work out what they will do. The story is told from Paul Lohman’s point of view; and, through his eyes, we learn the backstories of these people. As he tells the story, Paul shows his own view of himself, but he also includes things that other people say. And it’s interesting to see the difference between the way he sees himself and the way others do.
See what I mean? Burns certainly had a point. Happy Burns Night!