It’s a Matter of Trust*

If scholars such as Erik Erikson are right, then one of the basic issues we face – right from birth – is whether the world is basically a safe place or not. To put it another way, do we basically trust or not trust? Of course, the reality of it is that it’s a balance. It is important to trust, but it’s also important to trust very wisely and carefully. And that’s the balance that healthy humans try to achieve.

Trust is so important that when it’s not there, this can lead to serious anxiety, and a lot worse. Not being able to trust the people around you is a frightening feeling, and it can add a lot of tension to a crime story. Authors can also use that to misdirect readers. There are a lot of novels that use this particular plot point. Here are just a few; I know you’ll think of a lot more than I ever could.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ten people are invited to spend time on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, they all accept. When they arrive, they’re surprised to find that their host isn’t there. Still, they settle in. After dinner that night, everyone is shocked when each person is accused of being responsible for at least one death. Everyone denies the accusation, but then, one of the guests suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be a poisoned drink. Later that night, another person dies. It doesn’t take long for the remaining people to understand that someone has lured them to the island, and intends to kill them. As the other guests begin to die, the survivors have to work out who the killer is, and to stay alive themselves. As the story goes on, everyone sees that no-one can be trusted. On the one hand, they have to work together to survive. On the other, not one person trusts any of the others. It makes for a lot of tension.

Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins tells the story of Iris Carr, a socialite on her way home to England after a Continental holiday. As she’s waiting for her train, she has a blackout from too much heat. She wakes just in time to catch the train, and settles in. She soon makes the acquaintance of a governess named Miss Winifred Froy. The two have a pleasant conversation over tea; then Iris takes a rest. When she wakes, she can’t find Winifred. Worse, every single person in her compartment denies that there’s even such a person. Iris starts looking through the train, but can’t find anyone who’s seen the woman. It’s not long before Iris sees that she can’t trust anyone. Who is Winifred Foy? What’s happened to her? It all makes for a very frightening experience.

Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street explores what happens when the sociopolitical situation has made it impossible to trust anyone. The novel takes place in 1950’s Prague. Czechoslovakia is under the firm control of the ruling Communist Pary, and no-one dares to trust anyone else. Anyone might be reporting to the Party, so there’s a real danger in saying too much. Against this backdrop, Helena Nováková works at the Horizon Cinema, where one day, a young boy is found murdered. Captain Václav Nedoma investigates, and the killer is soon found. But that’s just the beginning. Before long, Nedoma himself is found dead in his car, not far from the cinema. Now, the cinema and its employees are all under investigation, and any one of them might be responsible. That tension is only increased by the overall sense that trust is a luxury no-one can afford in the current political climate.

Len Deighton’s Berlin Game takes place in 1983, in the midst of the Cold War. Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sansom is a former MI6 agent who now works in the agency’s London Central office. London gets word that one of its finest agents, code-named Brahms Four, wants to leave East Berlin and return to London. The agency relies heavily on this person’s intelligence, so Sansom is dispatched to Berlin to try to convince Brahms Four to stay in place. That trip is fraught enough with danger, since Sansom’s mission is a secret, and he can’t really trust anyone in Berlin. It’s all compounded by the fact that there’s a mole in MI6 headquarters. Someone very high up in the agency is providing information to the Soviet Union, and Sansom will have to find out who that person is. Among many other things, it’s a lonely feeling to be unable to trust anyone enough to make friends, or even to relax a little.

There’s a suspenseful use of the question of trust in John Grisham’s The Firm. Harvard Law School Graduate Mitchell ‘Mitch’ McDeere is ambitious, smart, and driven – just what a lot of law firms want. He has his pick of firms, but chooses the offer made by the Memphis firm of Brendini, Lambert, & Locke. At first it seems like a perfect match. McDeere fits in well, and his new colleagues help him to settle in. They even help him prepare for the Tennessee Bar Exam. Then, McDeere learns that several members of the firm have died, and he wants to know more about what happened. He starts to ask questions, and soon finds that there’s a very dark side to this firm. The more he learns, the more danger there is for him, and he’s going to have to get himself out of this situation if he’s to stay alive.

In Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, we meet Captain Sam Wyndham. It’s 1919, and Wyndham has just arrived in Kolkata/Calcutta from England. He’s come to take up his duties with the Indian Police Service, and hoping to start over again. He hasn’t been there long when Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal, is murdered and his body found in an alley behind a brothel. Wyndham and his team, Sub-inspector John Digby and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, investigate. Soon, Wyndham finds that this investigation is fraught with possible political and class complications, and he’s going to have to be very careful. As time goes on, there’s a real question of whether anyone can be trusted, and Wyndham feels on his own more than once.

We all need to feel safe, and part of that is being able to trust. So it’s especially difficult to be in a situation where you can’t really trust anyone. Little wonder it’s explored in a lot of crime fiction. Which novels have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s A Matter of Trust.

12 thoughts on “It’s a Matter of Trust*

  1. A reminder here that I need to read Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins. I have been planning to for a long time.

    I think Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street is a perfect example of this theme. A lot of espionage fiction deals with this theme also, where the characters never know who to trust.


    1. I agree with you, Tracy, about Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street. There’s so much lack of trust woven through that novel, and it really heightens the tension. That’s true, as you say, of a lot of espionage and Cold War crime fiction. That’s part of what keeps the suspense high.


  2. John le Carre’s death has just been reported, and I was thinking of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of his best spy novels. trust plays a big part there, and the lack of it: who is the mole? He must be one of the trusted colleagues… and in the end, the betrayal of trust ensures the final fate of the bad spy.


    1. You know, it’s funny, Moira. I wrote this post before I heard of le Carré’s death. Such a blow to us all… And, yes, his stories really capture that complete absence of trust. Tinker Tailor… is a fantastic example of that. He really did such an excellent job of depicting what it’s like to move in a world where people are not what they seem, and no-one can be completely trusted. Made me decide I would never want to be a spy.


  3. Excellent topic, Margot. I’m beta-reading for a friend who explores trust in an unexpected way. The character *should* trust the staff at a long-term care facility, but he can’t. In his mind, no one can take care of his wife of 40+ years better than he can. After the husband “rescues” his wife from the facility, the author drops hints that maybe there’s more going on in the facility than meets the eye (unexplained bruising on his wife’s arms), but the reader can’t be sure he’s seeing the whole picture, since he’s an unreliable narrator. It reminds me of the saying, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you.”


    1. Oh, that sounds like an intriguing premise for a novel, Sue! And what an interesting way to raise the trust issue, too. On the one hand, people do need to put their trust in facilities like that, but there’s a good question of whether they are wise to do so. I think there’s a balance between being alert and trusting, and it sounds as though this book explores that. I’m sure it touches a nerve, too, since so many people are involved in care decisions about elderly loved ones.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Some great choices there, and yes, being unable to trust the people around you is a great basis for a tense crime novel. Spy fiction especially seems to rely on that to give it the kind of moral murkiness it so often depends on.


    1. Thanks, FictionFan. I think you have a very well-taken point, too, that espionage fiction really is a natural match for that atmosphere of not being able to trust anyone. It works well with the that ambiguity you mention. Of course, as you say, if you can’t trust the people around you, that adds a lot of suspense and tension to any crime novel…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Your article caused me to think about the use of trust accounts in Canadian law firms. Lawyers in private practice in Canada have general accounts into which are deposited paid fees and from which office expenses, including salaries, are paid. We also have at least one trust account per firm which holds funds in trust for clients. Some money will be advances for fees to be earned. Other deposits will be for real estate transactions or estate administration. Clients trust lawyers will not abuse these accounts. If a lawyer should take money from a trust account that is not earned fees the immediate repercussions are harsh punishments by the provincial Law Society. We also have a defalcation fund to pay clients who have had funds wrongfully taken.


    1. Thanks, Bill, for explaining how trust accounts work in Canadian law firms. It’s another example of how trust works, really. Clients trust that lawyers will not abuse those funds. Lawyers who abuse that trust face severe consequences. Even though those consequences are there, there is still a great deal of trust involved with that money. That’s an interesting perspective on the topic, and I’m glad you shared it.


  6. I really must read that Grisham, I’ve only ever seen the film. One of Don Winslow’s novels, The Force has a team of cops who bring down criminals while lining their own pockets. A team member dies and he is replaced by the hierarchy. There’s trust issues involved on whether the new member can be part of their inner circle or if he will remain an outsider.


    1. That sounds like an interesting plot, Col, and I do like Winslow’s writing. I’ve not read The FOrce (yet), so I appreciate the nudge. It reminds me in a way of one of Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa mysteries, A Window in Copacabana, where his protagonist is looking into, among other things, graft among his fellow coppers. He’s got to decide who can be trusted and who can’t. It’s a solid plot point. And as for the Grisham, I recommend it highly when you get to it.


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