Oh, No, Not the Same Mistakes Again*

We all make mistakes, of course. Most of the time, for most of us, we try to learn from what went wrong, so that we don’t make the same mistake again. Sometimes, though, people do repeat their mistakes, either because they have a ‘blind spot,’ or because they feel they have no choice, or for some other reason.

Repeating mistakes can be anything from irritating (‘Why did you order the shrimp? Remember what happened the last time you ate shrimp?’) to tragic (‘That’s the third time he’s been in jail for the same thing!’). And, when it comes to fiction, many readers are put off by characters who don’t seem able to learn from their mistakes. And yet, we all have our weaknesses and faults and ‘blind spots.’ It makes sense that fictional characters would, too.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering prepares to make a trip from London to Nice. What she doesn’t tell anyone is that she is actually planning to see her former lover, the Comte de la Roche. She’s well aware that her father doesn’t approve of the man; in fact, he used his considerable wealth and influence to break the couple up ten years earlier. Ruth, however, is strong minded and, truth be told, somewhat spoiled. So she undertakes the journey even though she knows the count has a bad reputation. When she is strangled during the train trip, the count becomes a major suspect. Hercule Poirot is not convinced of the man’s guilt, though, and investigates the case. He finds that the case is more complicated than it seems on the surface. On the one hand, one can get annoyed that Ruth made plans with a man who’s shown that he’s untrustworthy. On the other, it probably wouldn’t have made for as interesting a story…

Fans of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse know that he doesn’t exactly keep to a healthy diet. He’s fond of his ‘liquid lunch,’ and spends his share of time in the pub. His eating isn’t exactly what his doctors would want, either. Several times in the course of the novels, Morse is told that his eating and drinking habits are harming him. He has more than one health crisis, too. But he keeps making the same mistakes, and it keeps impairing him. Even Morse’s most ardent fans will admit that he doesn’t seem to learn from the physical issues that he has.

Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy features Jeet Singh, former lockbreaker and safecracker. He’s decided to ‘go straight,’ and now owns a small keymaking kiosk in Mumbai. He’s doing well enough until he gets a call from an old friend from his criminal past. A new job is being planned, and Singh is invited to be a part of it. He refuses at first. Then, everything changes. An old lover, Sushmita, visits Singh, asking for his help. She is suspected of paying to have her wealthy husband killed, but she claims to be innocent. Her stepchildren believe she’s guilty, though, and she could very well go to trial. She needs a good lawyer, but doesn’t have the money to hire one, since she can’t access her inheritance if she’s accused of the murder. Even though Sushmita broke his heart before, Singh agrees to do what he can to help. He contacts his friend and agrees to do the job, even though he knows the mistake that he’s making. Before long, Singh is in much more trouble than he imagined, as he tries to evade the police, other underworld types, and more.

Christina Hoag’s Skin of Tattoos introduces us to Magdaleno ‘Mags’ Argueta. He’s recently been released from prison, and he’s decided not to make the same mistakes again. He’s going to stay clear of gangs, get a legitimate job, and so on. It’s not as easy as he thinks it will be, though. For one thing, his former gang mates are not so willing to let him go. For another, it’s very difficult to find work that pays a decent wage once you’ve been in prison. Many employers won’t even consider hiring an ex-convict. There’s also the bond that Mags has with the gang. Still, he’s determined not to repeat the mistakes he’s made – to be smarter this time. Then, a series of events changes things, and Mags feels he has no choice but be a part of the gang again. He knows exactly what he’s risking, but he doesn’t see a way out of it.

And then there’s Alison Wood, a London barrister we meet in Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange. On the surface, she seems to have it all: she’s doing well on the job, she has a loving husband and daughter, and a good life. When she gets her chance to lead her first murder case, it seems that everything is going right. But Alice is far from perfect. She drinks too much, even though she tells herself every time that she needs to stop. She’s having an affair with another lawyer, even though she knows he’s no good for her. Still, she wants to make good with this trial. Her client is accused of murder, and, surprisingly, doesn’t dispute it; in fact, the client confesses. But something about it doesn’t seem right to Alison. As she investigates, she continues to make the same mistakes in her personal life, and we see how that impacts her. Little by little, she does come to terms with her choices, but they take a toll on her.

And that’s the thing. When we keep making the same mistakes, it’s very hard to grow, and it can lead to big trouble. Little wonder that many readers don’t have much patience with characters who don’t seem to learn from what they’ve done.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Taking it All Too Hard.

 

 


8 thoughts on “Oh, No, Not the Same Mistakes Again*

  1. Excellent theme Margot. Life would be difficult for criminal defence lawyers without repeat offenders. Rumpole of the Bailey imbibed many a glass of plonk from the generational repeat offences of the Timson family. While the family business of the Timsons was crime I find repeat offenders usually have good intentions waylaid by addiction. You can pick the form of addiction. Any of them can lead to criminal troubles.

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    1. Thank you, Bill. And thanks for reminding me of the Timson family. I always liked the way Mortimer portrayed them. On the one hand, they’re repeat offenders. It can be hard to have sympathy for people who won’t learn from what they’ve done, and ‘fly right.’ On the other hand, some of them are sympathetic characters, and I can see how Rumpole has a certain liking for them that go beyond his profession.

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  2. A few of my reads regularly concern criminals through a combination of stupidity and limited options falling into a pattern of repetitive behaviour….. crime, arrest, court, prison, release, repeat,

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    1. That’s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind with this post, Col. It’s not that these people are stupid, or necessarily even ‘bad apples’ or malicious. But bad luck, ‘blind spots’, and circumstances land them in the same bowl of soup time and again. It takes skill to draw a character like that and still garner sympathy for that character.

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    1. Thanks, Sue! And well-put. Some overlap actually works to serve a story, depending on how it’s done. Too much/too many just stretches disbelief too much. Characters like that get annoying!

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  3. I’m one of those readers who doesn’t have much patience with protagonists who repeat mistakes, especially in a series. There’s only so often I want to hear about someone’s morning-after regret. It works better for me when it’s not a recurring character – the villain or the victim rather than the detective.

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    1. You’re not alone, FictionFan. A lot of readers get very impatient with protagonists who don’t seem to learn from their mistakes. One or a few mistakes – well, that’s normal and characters wouldn’t seem real without it. And sometimes things do happen that cause mistakes. But repeating the same mistake over and over? That’s annoying. You have a good idea to keep that trait to a one-off character.

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