I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot*

A certain amount of ambition can be a real asset. After all, if you don’t set goals for yourself, there’s little motivation to achieve them. Of course, like just about everything else, ambition is best in moderation. But it’s an interesting personality trait, and it can prove to be really useful, especially when you finally get your shot at something. And there are plenty of crime-fictional characters who have the sort of determination and hunger, if I can put it that way, to go after their goals.

One of them is Susan Banks, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). When her rich uncle, Richard Abernethie, dies, Susan attends his funeral, after which she learns that she is set to inherit a great deal of money. Abernethie’s will specified that his fortune was to be divided evenly among his siblings, nieces, and nephew, so everyone’s busy making plans. Susan’s dream is to own her own cosmetics and beauty salon. She’s a bold thinker with big dreams, and she wastes little time as she starts planning. Then, one of the other heirs, Abernethie’s sister, is murdered. The family attorney, Mr. Entwhistle, asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. Susan finds herself under suspicion, since her aunt’s will names her as beneficiary. What’s more, the original will (Richard Abernethie’s will) states that if any of the heirs is dead, that portion of his fortune will be divided among the survivors. So it’s possible that Susan has a double motive for murder. She’s an interesting character, and her ambition and strong personality add to that.

John Grisham’s The Firm introduces Harvard Law School graduate Mitch McDeere. He’s smart and hungry for success, so he gets several good offers from a variety of law firms. Knowing that McDeere is a sought-after candidate, Memphis law firm Brendini, Lambert, & Locke make him an irresistible offer, which he accepts. At first, all goes well. McDeere fits in, and his new colleagues help him to pass the Tennessee Bar Exam. But some things are unsettling. McDeere finds out that several attorneys from the firm have died, and he wonders about the circumstances. By the time he finds some answers, though, he’s in deep, as the saying goes, and in danger. If he’s going to stay alive, he’s going to have to find a way out of the trap that’s been set for him.

When we first meet her (in The Burning), Jane Casey’s Detective Constable (DC) Maeve Kerrigan is a relatively new member of the Met’s murder squad. She wants to make her mark as a part of the team, and she is hungry for success. She gets a chance to make good when the team goes up against a killer they call the Burning Man (because he tries to incinerate his victims after he kills them). Several of Kerrigan’s male colleagues doubt she can do the job, and she’s determined to prove them wrong.  At one point, she is pulled off the Burning Man case to look into the murder of Rebecca Haworth. This could be another victim of the Burning Man, in which case it’s related to the original investigation. It could also be a ‘copycat’ murder, in which case the police cannot be seen to be ignoring a murder. So Kerrigan follows up. She makes mistakes, but she’s smart and ambitious in her way. And in the end, we learn how the pieces of this puzzle fit together. As the series goes on, Kerrigan gains some experience and confidence, and her colleagues come to respect her.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red introduces Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She has a well-regarded TV show, Saturday Night, and is finding some success. But she knows that there are young, hungry journalists eager for their chance to get to the top. So she’s looking for a story that will establish her at the top of New Zealand journalism. She thinks she finds that story in the case of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. The Dicksons’ thirteen-year-old daughter Katy was the only survivor, since she was not at home at the time of the attacks. Now, there are hints that Bligh may be innocent. If he is, then this story is exactly what Thorne wants. So, she pursues the matter to find out the truth. And in the process, she gets closer to the case than is wise, or safe for her.

And then there’s Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket, which takes place in the Melbourne area. Darren Keefe and his older brother Wally are both obsessed with cricket. As boys, they play whenever they can, and both show real talent for the game. They’re both ambitious and hungry for success, but they have very different personalities, so that desire for success comes out in different ways. Wally is disciplined, intent on the game, and fixed on being the best. He works hard and polishes his skills as he goes along. Darren has an unusual amount of natural skill – some say once-in-a-generation talent. He plays hard and very well, but he’s less disciplined than his brother, and he is less consistent than his brother. When he’s playing well, he is superb. But that doesn’t always happen. As the years go by, the brothers become professional cricketers, and we see how the world of cricket impacts both of them. They learn firsthand about the dark side of the game, and we see how that, and their personalities, lead to real tragedy.

When you get the chance – that shot – at going to the top, it’s hard not to work to get there. But it takes ambition and perseverance. Characters who are like that can have strong and very interesting personalities. But it’s not always good for them…

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s My Shot.

 

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

17 thoughts on “I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot*

  1. Oooh, I KEEP meaning to read Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. It’s sitting right here on my shelf and I don’t know why I haven’t got into it yet. Thanks for the nudge and a very interesting post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Mrs. P. I know just what you mean about books you keep meaning to read. I have some of them, too. The Serong is a really compelling novel. It’s uncompromising and noir (at least I’d call it that), so best enjoyed when you’re ready for something hard-hitting. I think it’s excellent.

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  2. I’d forgotten that Maeve Kerrigan started out as one of these female police officers battling sexism. Thank goodness the series has moved on from that aspect – I do feel it’s been done to death in crime fiction over the last couple of decades! I too have had the Serong on my wishlist for ages – I’ll get to it one of these days…

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    1. I have a list of ‘I will read that book – sometime’ books, too, FictionFan. And you’re right about the Casey series. I like the way she’s developed not just the characters, but also the social climate. It keeps the series relevant, in my opinion. It’s important to raise those sorts of issues, but people also want interesting plots that don’t always focus on the same thing.

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    2. I have a list of ‘I will read that book – sometime’ books, too, FictionFan. And you’re right about the Casey series. I like the way she’s developed not just the characters, but also the social climate. It keeps the series relevant, in my opinion. It’s important to raise those sorts of issues, but people also want interesting plots that don’t always focus on the same thing.

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  3. Margot: Among the most unexpected “taking a shot” ventures in crime fiction was by Mickey Haller, the Lincoln lawyer, created by Michael Connelly. When he ran for D.A. of Los Angeles I could have been knocked over by a feather. That staunch, even fierce, defender becoming the bureaucratic head of prosecutions was an incredible idea. While his loss is good for maintaining credibility I would have loved to have seen what Connelly could have done with Mickey as D.A.

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    1. That would have been really interesting, wouldn’t it, Bill? I wonder what that would have done to his character… I think if anyone could have pulled it off, it’s Connelly, but like you, I’m not sure it would be credible. As a voter, I certainly would think twice about voting for him, if that makes sense. But I liked it that he had the determination and perseverance to go after the job.

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  4. I’ve been mulling this over, Margot, and it occurs to be that most people do have ambitions of some kind, even if they are modest ones, which don’t necessarily fuel the plot as in the novels you mention. It is unusual for someone to have none – but – Jack Reacher! It is interesting to see what happens when that is the case.

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    1. That’s such an interesting point, Christine! You’re right about Jack Reacher, and that’s an important part of his character. But I agree with you that most of us have some sort of ambition. We have goals we want to achieve, whatever those goals are. The way I see it, ambition in small or moderate doses is normal, even can be a good thing. But too much leads to trouble, just like anything that’s not ‘taken in moderation.’

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    2. That’s such an interesting point, Christine! You’re right about Jack Reacher, and that’s an important part of his character. But I agree with you that most of us have some sort of ambition. We have goals we want to achieve, whatever those goals are. The way I see it, ambition in small or moderate doses is normal, even can be a good thing. But too much leads to trouble, just like anything that’s not ‘taken in moderation.’

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  5. This post reminded me of the initial power struggle between Detectives Leaphorn and Chee (two different departments) in Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers. It turns out to be a beautiful partnership, but it didn’t start that way.

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    1. That’s quite true, Sue. I really like the way Hillerman developed those characters, too. As they grow, so does their relationship. But, as you say, they have their struggles at first.

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  6. I thought Bill Selnes might mention Escape Velocity by Susan Wolfe, a book he drew my attention to: we both read and enjoyed this story set in silicon Valley. There’s an excellent heroine, Georgia, who is ambitious and determined to get ahead – she has personal motives, and needs to get herself and her sister away from her family and into relative prosperity. She is smart and focussed, and the book shows her cleverness in working her way into her job, and then up the career ladder. Bill and I agreed that she was a fascinting heroine.

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    1. She does sound like a great protagonist, Moira! I remember your excellent review of that book, and Bill’s, too. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read since I read your reviews, but haven’t gotten to yet. I really like what I’ve heard of Georgia’s strong, driven personality – that’s not easy to pull off and still make a character sympathetic, if that makes sense.

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    1. I hope you’ll enjoy his work when you get to it, Col. In my opinion, he’s got some good stuff out there. As a side note, I had the privilege of meeting him in person just over a year ago. He’s a very nice guy.

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