They Can Keep What They’ve Got But They Can’t Have My Soul*

For writers, there’s a balance between writing what they want to write, and may be passionate about writing, and writing what will sell. Sometimes it amounts to the same thing, and there some authors who’s achieved a great deal of fame and success when what they want to write is the same thing as what people want to read.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Not with writing, not with art, and not with a lot of other things. Very often, people have to give up at least some of what they want to do, because those bills have to be paid. That tension can add some depth to a character, and it’s interesting to see how it plays out in crime fiction. After all, there are lots of possibilities for plot events.

In Agatha Christie’s Within a Wall, for instance, we are introduced to Alan Everard, a successful artist who has married a ‘blueblood’ wife Isobel. He’s passionate about doing the sort of art that he wants to do. She, on the other hand, wants him to do ‘society portraits’ and other work that will sell well. It’s a difficult balance for him, and it’s made especially clear one afternoon when he and Isobel host a party to celebrate his latest work, a portrait of her. The work is technically excellent. But Everard knows that there’s no real soul or life to it. One of the guests happens to see another portrait Everard did – an older portrait of family friend (and Everard’s muse) Jane Haworth. A comparison of the two paintings shows just how different his present work is. It shows, too, how much of an influence Jane has been on his life, and that impact has consequences. They isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime story. But it shows the tension Everard feels between following his passion, and doing what will sell well (and make Isobel happy, too).

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation who lives on the Reservation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal (now Nation) Police. He’s content living where he is, following many of the traditions of his people, and so on. He doesn’t have a lot of money, but that doesn’t really bother him. Fans know that he has a few relationships over the course of the series. One is with Mary Landon, a white teacher who lives on the Reservation. Later, he meets and falls in love with Janet Pete, a half-Navajo attorney. In both cases, there’s a pull for Chee to leave the reservation and take a job with another agency (such as the FBI) that will pay more. At the same time, Chee would have to give up a lot of what makes him a Navajo. And it’s not spoiling the series to say that he doesn’t want to give up the person he is.

There’s a similar sort of challenge in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary. That novel begins just before Justice Bruce Brosnan renders a decision regarding the Corrowa people’s right to Brisbane’s Meston Park. The Corrowa claim that the land is theirs and always has been. But a development company wants the land, and the judge rules for the company, saying that the Corrowa cannot prove uninterrupted use of the land. Hours later, Brosnan is killed. Then, others who were involved in the case against the claim are also killed. Police officers Jason Matthews and Andrew Higgins investigate, and the case won’t be easy. It’s especially challenging for Matthews. He is Aboriginal, so he has sympathy for the Corrowa case. On the other hand, he is a dedicated police officer who really wants to do his job well. And it’s not trivial that he wants to succeed in a police force that has its share of racism. Running through this novel is the question of the relations between whites and Aboriginal people. Some argue that the Aborigines will do best if they take advantage of opportunities such as going to certain schools, taking certain jobs, and adopting certain cultural norms. Others see this as ‘selling out.’ For them, Aboriginal people who adopt white ways are giving up essential parts of their identities. They are, in short, selling themselves to get a good job or put their children in good schools. It’s not an easy question, and Watson doesn’t gloss over it.

Donna Leon’s Giuseppe Patta is the vice questore for Venice. He is also supervisor of Leon’s protagonist, Commissario Guido Brunetti. Patta’s not stupid, and he’s very politically savvy. In fact, he might at some point have made an excellent detective. But he is ambitious, and wants to go as far as he can in the police force. And that means making sure that the wealthy and powerful like him. More than once in this series, he is willing to sacrifice the integrity of a sound police investigation if it means that he stays in the good graces of those who can help his career. And this can be quite a challenge for Brunetti and his teammates, who would like to do their jobs as well as they can.

In John Grisham’s The Firm, we meet Harvard Law School graduate Mitchell ‘Mitch’ McDeere. He’s very bright and ambitious – a top pick for any law firm, really. And the firm he chooses is the Memphis law firm of Brendini, Lambert, & Locke. They’ve made him an irresistible offer, and at first, it looks as though all will go well. His new colleagues make him welcome, and even help him pass the Tennessee Bar Exam. Then, McDeere begins to have some questions. Several attorneys associated with the firm have died, and he’s uneasy about the circumstances of their deaths. But by this time, he’s gotten drawn in by his own ambition, and has already been exploited. If he’s to solve this puzzle and stay alive, he’s going to need to decide what really matters and focus on that.

And that’s the real issue. It’s not always easy to choose between, say, a lucrative job and a low-paying job that allows one to follow one’s passion. At some point, a person has to decide what matters. And that tension can add depth to a character and suspense to a story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Getting Closer.

8 thoughts on “They Can Keep What They’ve Got But They Can’t Have My Soul*

  1. Grisham also shows the other side of this question in the much lighter-hearted The Litigators. The main character is disillusioned and exhausted working in a huge top-ranking form of lawyers, and walks out to find a less pressurised small firm where he’ll be able to be more personally involved with his clients and maybe even get home at a reasonable hour in the evenings. It’s a fun look at the lower end of the legal profession – the “ambulance chasers”.


    1. I love your example, FictionFan! It shows that this balance can go both ways, and I like the fact that Grisham explores that. I think a lot of people feel the way David Zinc from The Litigators feels: sick of the grinding hours and high stress, even if it’s lucrative. And you’re right: it is fun to look at life as a lawyer from the perspective of ‘ambulance chasers.’ Certainly it’s a far cry from the high-powered, top-pay lawyers who represent politicians and celebrities!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Margot, on a related note, I’m intrigued by how lawyers-turned-writers such as John Mortimer, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Grisham, Scott Turow and others utilised their proifessional expertise to become such successful authors. It’s a book waiting to be written.


    1. I agree with you, Prashant. A strong legal background really must give a person such a lot of fascinating experiences. Perhaps that’s why so many fine legal novels come from lawyers and former lawyers. That’s an interesting point.


  3. In the biography of Ross Macdonald (Ken Millar) there was a good bit about the decisions he had to make regarding what type of book would sell and help support his family. Margaret Millar was also writing and contributing to the income but some years were good and some were not so good, for both of them. He also worried about paperback rights and how they would sell and what income he could depend on there. He sometimes wanted to write more “literary” books and felt like he did not have that option at times. But there were points in his life when he was doing quite well with his writing income.


    1. Oh, that sounds really interesting, Tracy! Thanks for bringing it up. It is really hard at times for an author to balance writing what s/he wants to write with writing what will pay the bills. And it’s interesting that Millar was concerned about paperbacks. That question of format really does matter, too, because there are plenty of people who prefer paper books to e-books. And there are those who prefer e-books. Or hardbacks. Or audio. That’s why I like it when a book is available in more than one format.


    1. Thanks, Col. You make a well-taken point that no matter what career/job we have, we have to balance what pays the bills with what means something to us. If we’re really lucky, we do both.


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