Happy With My Lot*

In one plot thread of Robert Luketic’s Legally Blonde, we follow a group of law interns as they work with an attorney who’s defending fitness expert Brooke Windham against a murder charge. She’s been accused of murdering her wealthy older husband for his money, and there is evidence against her. One of the interns (and the film’s protagonist), Elle Woods, says:

 There’s no way Brooke could’ve done this. Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy — happy people don’t kill their husbands!’

It’s a film, so there’s a lot of suspension of disbelief. But Elle’s point is an interesting one. Do happy people commit murder? I’m not talking here of killing to defend oneself or loved ones. Anyone might do that. That aside, do people who are basically contented (‘happy’ if you prefer) commit a planned murder? Let’s see what crime fiction has to say.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny to help Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence with a case of murder. James Bentley has been arrested (and is due to be executed) for the murder of his landlady. Everyone assumes he’s guilty, but Spence thinks he may not be, and Poirot re-opens the case. On the surface, it’s a very pleasant village where everyone is, well, nice. But as Poirot continues his investigation, we learn that all is not as it seems. Most of the villagers are hiding something or are facing difficulties. For instance, the owners of the guest house he’s staying in are in financial trouble. Another village family is quite dysfunctional. The killer, too, has a reason for unhappiness, and is certainly not content with life.

Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life is based around the murder of wealthy jet-setter John Levering Benedict III. Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are invited to Benedict’s home for a getaway weekend. They’ll have the use of the comfortable guest house, and Queen is looking forward to the chance to get some work done. They’re not the only invitees, though. Benedict has also invited his three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. Needless to say, there’s plenty of awkwardness, but the weekend gets started. On the Saturday night, Queen is in the guest house when he gets a call from Benedict, who says he’s been murdered. Queen rushes over to the main house, but he’s not in time to save his friend. There are three clues: an evening gown, a wig, and a pair of gloves. They don’t help much, because each belongs to a different woman. Now Queen will have to sift through the evidence to learn who the killer is. In the end, we learn that the murder has a deep unhappiness which ended up, in a way, causing Benedict’s death.

Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone tells the story of the privileged, well-educated Coverdale family. We’re told right from the first sentence that Eunice Parchman killed the family ‘because she could not read or write.’ Then, Rendell goes on to show how Eunice meets the Coverdales and what exactly leads up to the murders. It seems that the Coverdales are looking for a new housekeeper, and that Eunice seems like a good match for the job, at least during the telephone interview. She can start right away, too. It’s not long before there are a few questions raised about her, but all goes along well enough until a secret she’s been keeping comes out. As the story goes on, we learn about Eunice and the circumstances of her life. She is a fundamentally discontented, unhappy person who finds little to like about her life.

In Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate when a valuable gem, called the Wolvercote Tongue, goes missing. It’s part of an old Saxon belt buckle that’s displayed at Oxford’s Ashmolean Musieum, and an American tourist, Laura Stratton, had brought the gem to the UK to donate to it to the museum. She can’t help the police much, because she’s died of a sudden heart attack, likely brought on by the experience. Still, Morse and Lewis begin the work of tracking down the jewel. Then, Dr. Theodore Kemp, the Ashmolean’s curator, is found murdered. Now it’s clear that there’s something more going on than the theft. Morse and Lewis work to find out who would have wanted to kill Kemp, and they find more than one possibility. As it turns out, the murderer is deeply unhappy and resentful, and that’s played a role in the murder.

Mike Martin’s The Walker on the Cape is the first to feature his sleuth, RCMP Sergeant Winston Windflower. The story begins when two hikers find the body of a local fisherman, Elias Martin. At first, there doesn’t seem to be any reason anyone should want to kill him, but a look into the victim’s history shows more than one possibility. For one thing, a former shipmate’s son was lost at sea years earlier, and the father blamed Elias Martin. For another, there’s the fact that Martin accidentally hit a young girl, Ginger Grandy, a few years earlier. Her family could easily carry a grudge. Then there’s the fact that after his wife’s death, Martin had shown an interest in an old flame. Her husband has been publicly unhappy about that. So, Windflower has several possibilities to explore. As he looks into Martin’s past, he learns several secrets about the man’s life and about some of the locals, and we find that the killer is a basically unhappy person who’s found little peace and contentment.

So, is Elle Woods right? Do happy people not murder their spouses (or other people)? Possibly (I’m sure you can think of examples). But I think it’s much more likely that a murderer is unhappy and discontent. What are your thoughts?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm.


14 thoughts on “Happy With My Lot*

  1. Yes, unhappy, jealous, resentful… also greed comes into it I think. Some people are never satisfied, they always want more. The Walker on the Cape interests me, I don’t think I’ve heard of that series. I realised when I looked at the 6 books I read in November that not one of them was a crime novel. I knew something wasn’t quite right. LOL ! Will put that right in December, about to start Jumpng Jenny by Anthony Berkeley and have a few others to read too including a BLCC Christmas short story collection, Silent Night edited by Martin Edwards.

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    1. I think you’re right, Cath, about greed. Too much is never enough for some people, is it? I hope you enjoy the Berkeley; he wrote some good stories! And I really hope you’ll enjoy Silent Night. Martin Edwards is a very, very talented writer, editor, and curator of stories, so I think you’re in for some good reading!

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  2. What an interesting topic, Margot and one that has set me thinking. Content people, I think, accept their lot in life and do not think of violence as a means of changing things. Just my two cents…

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    1. Thank you, Neeru. And I think you have a really well-taken point. People who are content don’t eagerly seek more, and generally don’t use violence to achieve any goals they may have.

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  3. Gosh, now that’s an interesting one, Margot! I think some murderers might indeed be happy with their lot, but they may have got to where they are by illegal means and so are vulnerable to someone knowing what they’ve done. That would set them up with an instant target to be disposed of… But I think a lot of murderers are obviously pretty twisted, so that’s probably the predominant personality type for a killer! ;D

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    1. You have a really good point, KBR! I’m sure there probably are people who are happy enough with their lot – until someone finds out about something horrible they did. Then, as you say, they have a target… You’re probably right, though, that the majority of killers are either twisted in some way, or are profoundly unhappy and discontented (or fearful, or jealous, or….). I obviously don’t have all the answers, but it does, as Poirot would say, set me furiously to thinking!

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  4. Can’t think of any happy murderers but I feel I may have read a mystery at some point where the murderer did it just to see if they could get away with it – a bit like Hitchcock’s Rope, in fact. I suppose they might be happy, if a bit strange! And serial killers might be happy people too! It’s an intriguing thought – what would drive a happy person to commit murder… hmm… I feel a mystery writer should see that question as a challenge… 😉

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    1. Ooh, Rope! I hadn’t thought of that one, FictionFan, but it is an interesting way to look at this whole question. About serial killers… when I was planning this post, I thought about them, because, as you say, they might be happy – it’s hard to know. I sort of excluded them because there are so many other factors in play. At any rate, it certainly is an intriguing story idea. Ha, ha, yes, it would be a fascinating challenge to write…. 😉

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  5. I agree with Elle. I think it inherently implausible for a happy person to murder. They do not need to murder as they are happy. Now people can appear happy who have secrets and problems that belie their appearance. The rural Irish residents in The Searcher by Tana French speak of their lives as “grand” but there is deep darkness below.

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    1. You make an important point, Bill. There is a big difference between people who are genuinely happy (or at least content), and people who seem that way on the surface. The former aren’t likely to commit murder; the latter….well, who knows?

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