As this is posted, it would have been Marilyn Monroe’s 95th birthday. She made her way to the top in an unforgiving industry, and she paid a very high price for it. Getting to the top takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice, and those who want to get there have to have a lot of inner strength and a thick skin. It’s certainly not for the squeamish. It might be difficult, even tragic, in real life, but that struggle to reach the top can make for a really effective sort of tension in a crime novel, and can even make for a plot point.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we meet famous actress Veronica Cray. She’s very successful by most people’s standards. She’s beautiful, wealthy, and well-regarded. But the climb to the top hasn’t left her unscathed. She’s become egotistical (or at least, her egotism is more obvious), and she doesn’t consider the implications for others of what she does. When she hears that an old love, Dr. John Christow, is staying locally, she contrives to visit the house where he’s staying, and meet up with him again. She wants to re-kindle the romance; he doesn’t. The two have an argument about it, which is overheard by her maid. At one point, Christow says,
‘There’s a lack in you, Veronica. You’re all grab and snatch – no real generosity. I think that’s it.’
And that’s a solid summary of what she feels she’s had to do become to succeed. As you can imagine, she’s furious at being thwarted. So, when Christow is shot the next afternoon, Veronica naturally becomes a suspect.
Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth sees Queen setting up a new detective agency with his business partner, Beau Rummell. One day, they get a new client, wealthy and eccentric Cadmus Cole. He’s spent most of his life at sea, so he hasn’t formed bonds with many people. Now, he wants Queen and Rummell to find his relatives, so that they’ll be able to inherit when he dies. One of those heirs is aspiring actress Kerrie Shawn. At the moment, she’s living in a run-down apartment in Los Angeles, trying to make it in Hollywood, and so far, not really succeeding. Still, she has hope, and she’s willing to work hard. At first, it’s difficult for her to believe that she could be heir to a large fortune, but she is persuaded that it’s true. There’s an unusual requirement, though: she’ll have to move into Cole’s large home on the Hudson River, together with the other heir, a cousin named Margo Cole. They’ll have to live there for a year, and then they can inherit. The two young women move in together, and trouble soon brews, which isn’t surprising. After all, there’s a large sum of money at stake. Then, Margo is shot, and Kerrie becomes the main suspect. But it soon turns out that she’s not the only one…
There are plenty of other professions, too, where it takes a lot to get to the top, and where sometimes, people sacrifice a great deal. For instance, John Grisham’s The Firm tells the story of Mitchell ‘Mitch’ McDeere. A Harvard Law School graduate, he is hungry, driven, and ambitious. He wants to get to the top, and he has everything a law firm could want. He gets several fine offers, too, but the one he chooses is the Memphis-based firm of Brendini, Lambert, & Locke. They offer him an irresistible salary and benefits, and they seem to welcome him warmly. His new colleagues even help him prepare for the Tennessee Bar Exam. Then, McDeere learns that several members of the firm have died, and he begins to be curious about what happened. He starts to ask questions, and soon learns that there’s a very dark side to this firm. The more he learns, the more danger he is in, and he’s going to have to find a way out if he’s going to stay alive.
Paddy RIchardson’s Traces of Red is the story of Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She wants to be at the top of New Zealand’s journalism tree. She’s already got a well-regarded television show, but she knows there are younger, hungry people coming up behind her, and she wants to cement her position. What she needs is the story, and she thinks she finds it when she hears about a man named Connor Bligh. He’s in prison for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Their daughter, Katy, survived because she wasn’t home at the time. Everyone’s always believed that Bligh was really guilty. But now, some little pieces of evidence suggest that he is innocent. If so, that would be the story of a lifetime, and Thorne wants it. So she starts to look into the matter and ask questions. But she finds herself getting closer to the story than she should – and that could be disastrous. In this novel, we see what it takes to be a top journalist, and we see the sacrifices people sometimes make.
Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket explores what it really takes to get to the top in the world of cricket. Wally and Darren Keef have played the game since they were children, and both have natural talent. They’re very different, though. Wally is disciplined, focused, and determined. He’ll get to the top because of his hard work. Darren has a rare gift for the game, but is less disciplined. When he’s ‘on his game,’ he is superb – once in a generation superb. But he isn’t consistent. Both of them devote as much time as they can to the game, and both dream of being the best. As the years go by, both young men become cricket stars, and we see how that impacts each of them, and what the cost of it really is – and it is tragic. We also get to see the underside of cricket.
And that’s the thing. It takes a great deal to get to the top. It costs a lot – sometimes more than a person can pay. And it can be very dangerous…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Candle in the Wind.