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.