I’ll bet we all know people we look up to – even, perhaps, envy a little. That’s possibly even easier in these days of social media, where people post pictures of delicious meals, or beaming, adorable (grand)children, or fabulous news. It’s very easy to wish you had someone else’s life when that life seems perfect. But as you know, life isn’t perfect, and social media often doesn’t show the whole story. My guess is, if you really knew what a person’s life was like, you might not wish for it so eagerly. Still, that feeling of ‘I want to be like you’ can be a strong one, and it can motivate all sorts of things, especially in crime fiction. It can also add an interesting layer of character.
In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, we meet Linette Ridgeway. She’s beautiful, extremely wealthy, and seems to live a charmed life. So, it’s not surprising that she attracts a lot of attention, and even some envy. In one scene early in the novel, for instance, she gets a visit from her friend, Joanna Southwood. Joanna’s not in any want herself, but she certainly would like to have all that Linnet has. Here’s what Joanna says:
‘You know, Linnet, I really do envy you. You’ve simply got everything. Here you are at twenty, your own mistress, with any amount of money, looks, superb health. You’ve even got brains!’
Not long afterwards, Linnet marries Simon Doyle, who was the fiancé of Linnet’s best friend, Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. On the second night of their honeymoon cruise of the Nile, Linnet is shot. Jackie, who is on the same cruise, is the first suspect, but it’s soon proven that she couldn’t have committed the murder. Hercule Poirot is on board as well, and he investigates. And it turns out that having everything wasn’t enough to save Linnet.
James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential begins on Christmas Day, 1951 – ‘Bloody Christmas.’ On that day, seven civilians were shot and killed by members of the police force. The novel is a fictional account of that tragedy, and of the lives of the people involved. One of them is Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley, son of the much-revered Preston Exley. Ed had an older brother, Thomas, for whom Preston Exley had all sorts of dreams and plans. Thomas was a proud police officer, and well thought of. However, he was killed, so Preston Exley has transferred his dreams to Ed. That makes things very difficult for Ed. On the one hand, he did look up to his brother and admire him. On the other, constantly being compared to Thomas is very hard on Ed, as is trying to live up to his father’s expectations. All of this plays a role in Ed’s personality and in the way he handles his job.
Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood features Clare Cavendish, who is soon to be married. Her friend Florence ‘Flo’ Clay is putting together a hen do for her, and she invites a few people for the weekend: Leonora ‘Nora’ Shaw. Nora hasn’t seen Claire in ten years, and doesn’t know why she was invited, but she makes a pact with her friend, Nina da Souza, who’s also been invited. Neither wants to go, but each agrees to go if the other does. Also invited are Tom Deauxma and Melanie Cho. The party is to take place at a summer home belonging to Flo’s aunt, and Flo is determined that everything will be perfect for Clare. Before long, though, tensions rise, and we learn some things about these characters. Clare’s the type of person just about anyone would envy. She’s beautiful, smart, and has a way of getting people to do what she wants. The unease grows as various characters make little ‘sideways’ snipes and remarks, and things soon turn uncomfortable. Then they turn sinister. And in the end, we see that Clare’s way of having it all and getting it all play a role in what happens.
Megan Abbott’s Die a Little takes place in 1950s Pasadena, California, where Lora King is a teacher. She’s especially close to her brother, Bill, so when he meets and falls in love with Alice Steele, Lora takes a strong interest. She’s put off by Alice, and by her seamy past. But Bill loves Alice, so for his sake, Lora tries to be nice. When Bill and Alice marry, Lora determines to be a friendly, helpful sister-in-law, but she soon has questions about Alice. Just who, exactly is she, and what is her background? As she learns about Alice, she finds herself repulsed in some ways. At the same time, she drawn to Alice’s life, and even wants to be like her in a way. There’s just something magnetic about Alice’s personality. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice may be mixed up in it. Telling herself that she’s doing it for her brother’s sake, Lora starts asking questions about the murder. And in the end, her obsession with Alice gets her in far deeper than she’d thought.
And then there’s Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down. Mix Cellini earns his living repairing exercise equipment. That’s how he meets supermodel Merissa Nash. He becomes obsessed with her, imaging a relationship that doesn’t really exist. At the same time, he finds out about notorious serial killer Richard Christie. The more he learns, the more obsessed Cellini becomes with Christie, wanting to be like him. And the more time goes by, the more Cellini’s life comes to resemble Christie’s. As you can imagine, that has tragic results.
It’s only human to wish you were more like someone you admire, or to want someone else’s life. But sometimes, that can go too far. At least it can in crime fiction…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Storm Front.
12 thoughts on “Most Men Hunger For the Life I Lead*”
Interesting choice of theme, Margot – the green eyed monster is responsible for so many murders, whether it’s emotional jealousy or a financial thing. I don’t think that’s likely to change, either, not while human beings are human beings!
I don’t think so, either, KBR. And it’s interesting how other people’s lives look so perfect from the outside, but when you really know what their lives are like, you might not be so quick to envy… And, yet, jealously, or at least coveting, can be awfully powerful. As you say, it’s responsible for a lot of misery and murder.
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I can’t think of any crime fiction novels I have read with that basis for murder. Except for Death on the Nile, which I loved. Someday I want to read James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, and Megan Abbott’s novel sounds creepy and chilling. I should try more books by her.
Megan Abbott is really very talented, and builds psychological suspense so well. I hope you’ll have the chance to read more of her work, Tracy. And L.A. Confidential is a classic sort of noir novel. I’ll be interested in what you think if you read that.
Thanks for the reminder of Ellroy. I loved LA Confidential. He has a new one out as well that I need to get to! Hmm and probably the one before that!
I want to read Widespread Panic, too, Col! Ellroy really is talented, and writes such an excellent noir novel, doesn’t he? And LA Confidential is a really fine example of his skill, in my opinion.
One that I read recently, Ursula Curtiss’ Letter of Intent had a very ambitious social climber as the antagonist. I don’t know whether it fits here.She wants to be at the top and wouldn’t let anything or anyone stand in her way.
She sounds like the sort of person whose success a lot of people would envy, Neeru. On the surface, a lot of those ‘climb to the top’ people look as though they live charmed lives, so I think this fits in nicely. But of course, we never know what goes on beneath the façade…
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I want to be Benevolent Despot of the World – that’s not too much to ask, is it? Hopefully it doesn’t involve having my hair cut like Kim Jong-un, though… Anyway, back to books! Nightshift by Kiare Ladner is a great debut novel about a young woman, Meggie, who becomes friends with a colleague at work, Sabine, and soon starts emulating her in a bid to have the exciting, exotic life Sabine seems to live. But all is not as it appears on the surface, for either of them. Although not strictly classified as crime, I felt this one fell into the genre because the style is very noir-ish and there is a very disturbing crime in it. May well appear as one of my books of the year!
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You know, FictionFan, if you were Benevolent Despot of the World, we’d all be reading much better books, because you wouldn’t stand for anything less. And, no, I don’t think you need a particular sort of haircut…
As for Nightshift I remember your excellent review of the book. It sounds like a novel that really draws the reader in, as a good psychological suspense novel will. I’m glad you reminded me of it, and I would like to read it.
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Thanks for the link, Margot, and I hope you enjoy Nightshift if you manage to fit it in sometime!
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It’s a pleasure to mention your excellent blog, FictionFan, and I’m sure I will enjoy it. Now to fit it in the TBR!
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