‘Cause I’m Mr. Brightside*

In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Hercule Poirot solves a set of murders that are connected in an unusual way. At one point, Mr. Satterthwaite (a semi-regular Christie character) is talking to one of the suspects. During their conversation, she says,

‘You can’t really shock a sweet mid-Victorian. They say so little, but always think the worst…’

There are certainly people like that. They’re quick to think the worst of others, and not usually surprised when things turn out badly. On the one hand, that can be a disheartening point of view. On the other, naivete doesn’t usually solve crimes, and many people believe it’s safer to prepare for the worst, if I can put it that way. Little wonder we see characters like that in crime fiction.

For example, Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys is the story of a group of nine police officers who gather in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park after their shifts. The use the time to vent, to drink, and to have sex with a couple of cocktail waitresses who join the group now and then. These officers have little faith in anyone – certainly not in the people they encounter. They are very quick to assume that witnesses are lying, that people are doing illegal things, and so on. They don’t think much of their fellow humans, and they’re quite cynical about the upper echelons of the police department. All of these cops come under scrutiny when there’s a shooting one night at the park. As the story goes on, we learn their stories, and we see how the challenges of the job, and the things some of these police have seen, have impacted them. It’s not surprising that they have so little confidence that anything will go well.

There’s also Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. On the one hand, he would like for things to work out well. In The Daughters of Cain, for instance, he meets a prostitute named Ellie Smith in the course of a murder investigation. There’s a mutual attraction, and both are aware of it. But she’s a murder suspect and he’s a copper. It simply wouldn’t work out. Towards the end of the novel, she goes missing, and he would like to find her. But he has no faith that he actually will. He’s had his share of disappointment, both in love and in his professional life, and has come to assume that he’ll be lied to, and that people keep some ugly secrets. He’s not shocked to learn when people have affairs, or sabotage each other’s work. He’s come to expect that. It doesn’t mean he thinks everyone is evil. He doesn’t. But he certainly isn’t quick to believe the best of them.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Mørck is like that, too. He’s had more than one experience of people not doing their jobs, or of lying to him, or of things going wrong. He’s been wounded in the line of duty, too, and has no illusions about his fellow humans. It doesn’t mean that he’s full of hate; he’s not. It does mean, though, that he tends to check up on things (including things his colleagues tell him) before he believes them. He doesn’t trust easily, and he often assumes that people aren’t telling the truth, or that they have ulterior motives. He’s not particularly trusting in his personal life, either, and certainly not a romantic.

And then there’s Yūko Moriguchi, whom we meet in Kinae Minato’s Confessions. She’s a Tokyo middle school teacher whose four-year-old daughter Manami recently died. As the novel begins, she announces her retirement to her class. Then, she goes on to say that she knows Manami was murdered, and that she knows by whom. Two students in her class were responsible, and she makes it clear that she knows which ones they are. She doesn’t lay out what she plans to do about it, but her intent is not lost on her students. Another teacher takes over the class, and at first, it seems that things will go back to normal. But instead, life begins to spin out of control, and it’s soon clear that nothing will ever be the same. We see as the novel goes on that Yūko has no faith at all in the innocence of her students, even though they’re young. She knows how cruel young people can be. What’s more, she doesn’t believe that the Japanese justice system will appropriately punish the guilty students, as they are juveniles. She’s become quite embittered about people, and we see the impact of that as the story progresses.  

It can be depressing, even disheartening, to believe the worst of people. And sometimes, it can pull a book into bleakness. But that sort of thinking can also be useful, as it reminds us that not everyone can be trusted, and that things don’t always work out. These are only a few examples (I see you, fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe). Your turn.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Killers’ Mr. Brightside.

Published by Margot Kinberg

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

12 thoughts on “‘Cause I’m Mr. Brightside*

  1. Margot, I feel so bad. I just found that you had a new website and blog. Well, late or not, I am so glad that you are blogging again. Eeyore is the perfect choice to illustrate this theme. I have the 2nd Carl Mørck book high on my TBR pile to read soon.

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    1. Please don’t feel bad, Tracy. I’m just really happy that you visited. Thanks for the kind words, and I hope that you’ll enjoy Carl Mørck #2. I think the series is well written and worth following.

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  2. Nice to see a picture of Eeyore, one of my first heroes and a major life coach! I’m all for cynicism – it means that if I’m surprised by people, it’s usually in a good way… 😉 I guess it must be hard not to develop a cynical view of humanity when you’re in the police, but I always like detectives who still believe that sometimes people can be honest, whatever their experience tells them to the contrary.

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    1. Ha! I like Eeyore, too, FictionFan! Sadly, there was a later Disney production of the Winnie the Pooh series in which Eeyore was much more optimistic and ‘cute.’ I never liked that at all. That is not Eeyore! There’s nothing wrong with some cynicism; it’s often very useful. 😉 As you say, it would be hard to be a cop without developing a somewhat cynical attitude, considering everything they have to deal with in their jobs. Still, it is nice when their faith’s restored a bit…

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  3. Love Eeyore! It’s funny how cynical people IRL can get on my nerves (I’m a glass half full gal), but they’re fun to read about. Same goes for snarky characters. Love ’em in books. The snarkier the better. IRL, however, a little snark is fine, but don’t overdo it or it can come off as egomania.

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    1. Isn’t Eeyore great, Sue?! And I know just exactly what you mean about characters vs people in real life. Snark is a lot of fun in a book – not so much (well, small doses) in real life. Same with that cynical, ‘why even bother’ perspective. I’m a ‘glass half full’ kind of person myself, so like you, I get my fill of negativity. Some is probably a good thing, and realistic. But too much is hard to take.

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  4. Ah, that old conundrum – are you realistic or idealistic, naive or cynical? I like to believe the best about people’s intentions, but the worst about situations and the way things work out. So noir with a heart of gold?

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    1. I love that description, Marina Sofia – noir with a heart of gold. That describes beautifully the balance between hoping for the best and planning for the worst. And it is a conundrum, isn’t it?

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    1. Oh, that’s such a good example of that balance, Victoria! It is cynical, but also has some optimism, too – a difficult thing to pull off! Thanks for the reminder.

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  5. Margot: I lament in fiction and real life those who become cynical. It defeats the ability to consider people as individuals. Realism does not mean cynicism. I encourage young lawyers to respect each client. They may fit a stereotype but should never be in a category.

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    1. You make a strong point, Bill, that there’s a big difference between realism and cynicism. As you say, each person is an individual with a unique story. And that’s a very important lesson to pass on to the young attorneys you mentor.

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