Your Role Was Protective, Your Soul Was Too Defective*

There’s an argument that we hold certain people and professions to particularly high standards. For example, we might not bat an eyelash if a person is out having a glass of wine or a beer or two. But we might feel very differently if that person is a bus driver, an airline pilot, or a taxi or ride-sharing driver. We expect those people to be completely unimpaired. We trust people like doctors, lawyers, teachers, and financial advisors to behave scrupulously, and when they don’t, that belief adds to the sense of betrayal.

That expectation that certain people’s actions should be above suspicion is woven all through crime fiction. In some cases, it means that characters who should be suspects aren’t, at least at first. In other cases, it allows the author to play with that belief and misdirect the reader.

Agatha Christie made use of this belief in more than one of her stories. I won’t give titles or even protagonists (no spoilers here!). Suffice it to say that being a doctor, say, or in law enforcement, doesn’t automatically mean a character is innocent. In all of these cases, the other characters assume that it does, and that’s one way in which Christie misdirects.

To give another example, we can look at the way police officers are portrayed. There are many real-life situations where the police have been shown to behave in brutal and corrupt ways. And, yet, we’re supposed to trust them to protect us and help us in time of need. They’re supposed to be above suspicion. James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential explores the betrayal that people feel when the police commit crimes. It’s a fictional re-telling of a tragic real-life event. The novel begins on Christmas Day in 1951, when seven civilians were brutally attacked by members of the LAPD. The incident wasn’t investigated until there was a major public outcry at this betrayal of trust. As the events play out, the novel follows the story of three cops who are caught up in this tragedy and the ensuing investigation. They’re also caught in the web of another incident two years later, in which a group of people are murdered in a shooting at an all-night diner. As the story unfolds, we see how the police are held to a high standard, and what happens when they do not act with integrity. We also see the difference between characters who believe in that higher standard, and characters who have found that for them, the police cannot be trusted.

There are plenty of other crime novels, too, from Golden Age novels to more recent novels, where police officers and other members of law enforcement are assumed to be innocent by dint of their profession, but aren’t. I’m sure you could name several yourself. And authors use that assumption to misdirect the other characters and the reader. When we learn that the guilty party is a cop, that somehow makes it even worse, if I can put it that way.

People expect doctors and other medical professionals to behave with integrity. After all, patients can be extremely vulnerable. Besides, doctors have a lot of expertise that gives them a sort of power. So it’s especially distressing when a doctor, nurse, or other medical expert turns out to be guilty. That’s one of the factors that raises the tension in medical thrillers such as Robin Cook’s novels. It’s certainly happened in real life, too. Sue Coletta’s Pretty Evil New England, for instance, explores several real-life murder cases and murderers. One of them is Jane Toppan, a nurse who was also a serial killer. She escaped detection for some time because she was a trained nurse, and because people assumed that she could be trusted to take care of them.

People in the religious life are also expected to behave with integrity. Many people trust them with secrets, depend on them in times of grief, and look to them for guidance.  When a member of the clergy betrays our trust, it can cut especially deep. Michael Gilbert’s Close Quarters explores this sort of betrayal. Daniel Appledown, the verger at Manchester Cathedral, is accused of misconduct. It’s shocking, and the dean of the cathedral doesn’t want to believe it. So he asks his nephew, who’s a police officer, to look into the matter quietly. When Appledown is killed, Inspector Hazelrigg takes the case, and investigates the relations among the various people who are associated with the cathedral. No-one wants to believe that a member of the clergy, or anyone associated with the cathedral or its school, could be guilty of a murder. And that’s part of what Hazelrigg has to deal with as he looks into the matter.

There’s also Kerry Greenwood’s Unnatural Habits. In that novel, Phryne Fisher investigates the disappearance of three girls who worked at the Magdalen Laundry, which is owned by Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent. The laundry is supposed to be a place where ‘troubled’ girls can find work, learn a trade, and stay out of trouble. It hasn’t worked out that way, and it’s a very harsh, unpleasant place to be. When the journalist who’s working on the story also goes missing, Phryne decides to look into the matter herself. She finds that several people are keeping dark secrets. Part of what complicates the case for her is that people don’t want to believe that nuns, or anyone associated with a convent, would betray the trust of the girls in their care, or their families. That belief makes it even harder when the truth is revealed.

That’s the thing about people who are in positions of trust, like doctors, members of the clergy, or attorneys. It’s bad enough when anyone commits a crime. It’s doubly hard when the criminal is someone who’s held to a higher standard.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Great Wall of China.

 


11 thoughts on “Your Role Was Protective, Your Soul Was Too Defective*

  1. Yes, and I think that’s what makes motive-based books more interesting to me than the kind of gangland crime fiction, where there’s no surprise that the criminals are criminals, if that makes sense. One of the things about country house murder mysteries that makes them so appealing is exactly that most of the people are “above suspicion” because of their social standing, and yet the investigation reveals that they all have their flaws and weaknesses…

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    1. Your comment makes a lot of sense, FictionFan. We expect gangland people to be criminals, and we can imagine them committing murder. But when the characters are ‘decent’ people, it’s much harder to see them as criminals. That encourages the reader to want to know the ‘why,’ and that can be very engaging.

      You’ve got an interesting point about country house murder mysteries, too – one I hadn’t thought of, but that makes sense to me. Characters in those stories are often very respectable, or at least, as you say, have a high social standing. So nobody expects one of them to be the guilty party. But they’re just like the rest of us – imperfect. And social standing doesn’t preclude being a murderer…

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  2. True Margot, we expect people in certain professions to be trustworthy and not capable of/ willing to do any harm. To me the most vicious is that group which is supposed to take care of young ones but in reality harms them. And the young child has nowhere to turn to because elders often don’t pay much heed to his/her tellings, seeing them as tall tales. I am not merely talking about sexual harm done to a child (which nauseatingly is on the rise nowadays both in real life and fiction) but also otherwise. A famous novel of Christie comes to mind as also a famous movie. There was also an Indian movie in which for a heart-stopping minute, the maid of the house who has taken a young child out for walk, almost throws him in front of a speeding truck. Really shocking!

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    1. I agree, Neeru. The worst are those situations where someone who is supposed to care for a child abuses that trust. As you say, children are vulnerable; if an adult doesn’t listen and take them seriously, they are at the mercy of an abuser. The Christie novel is a good example of this, so I’m glad you brought it up. And I can only imagine the tension in that film as the maid gets ready to harm that boy. Such a frightening prospect. We really do depend on certain people to be above suspicion and to deserve our trust. When they don’t, the blow hits especially hard.

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  3. Part of what i enjoy about crime fiction is that it often highlights that you cannot assume anyone is above murder or other crimes. Very interesting post, Margot.

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    1. Thanks, Tracy. And that really is the thing. Anyone might commit a crime under the right circumstances. That’s one of the things that makes crime fiction tick.

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  4. Yes, it’s a complex know to unravel: and the question of trust is always important. I like books that make us question our own assumptions.

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    1. I like that sort of book, too, Moira. And you’re right; any crime fiction fan soon learns to be careful about trusting any of the characters…

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  5. I think I see the same theme in espionage fiction. I’m reading Robert Littell’s The Company which does blend real life people and events into the narrative. Certain characters because of class, education, upbringing are expected to be pillars of the establishment but for whatever reason betray their country.

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    1. That’s really interesting, Col, that The Company blends real-life people into the story. Sometimes that works quite well if it’s done effectively. And you have a well-taken point that some people are thought to be above suspicion because of their class or their education, or something. That’s how they get away with the things they do. When they betray their country, it’s somehow that much worse.

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    2. That’s really interesting, Col, that The Company blends real-life people into the story. Sometimes that works quite well if it’s done effectively. And you have a well-taken point that some people are thought to be above suspicion because of their class or their education, or something. That’s how they get away with the things they do. When they betray their country, it’s somehow that much worse.

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