Someone Like Me Should Know Better*

Let’s face it: we all make mistakes sometimes (please, tell me I’m not the only one who does!). Most of the time, we learn from our mistakes, and most of us try not to make the same sort of mistake twice. And that’s the way many crime fiction fans like their characters, too. They want characters to be human enough to make mistakes. At the same time, making the same sort of mistake over and over can be off-putting in a character. So can doing something foolish (the ‘You should know better than that!’ sort of mistake). It’s a delicate balance for the author and for the reader. Which mistakes are the normal sorts of things anyone might make, and which are annoying (or worse)?

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, we meet Eleanor Vansittart. She is a teacher at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls school. Miss Vansittart is hoping to be chosen to succeed the headmistress, Honoria Bulstrode, when Miss Bulstrode retires. One night, the games mistress, Grace Springer, is murdered in the school’s new Sports Pavilion. The police are called in and begin to investigate. Then, not long afterwards, there’s a kidnapping. In the midst of all of this chaos, Miss Vansittart tries to continue with her teaching. Then one night, she, too, is found dead in the Sports Pavilion. One of the students, Julia Upjohn, seeks out Hercule Poirot, whom her mother has met, and asks for his help with the case. He returns to the school with her and begins an investigation. Poirot works out who is responsible for the murders and the disappearance, but it leaves open a question: why did Eleanor Vansittart take such a risk? Why go out to the Sports Pavilion at night, especially after everything that’s happened? She does have a motive – she’s not wandering there out of curiosity. But still…

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is a brilliant detective. He finds out the truth, even in very complex cases. He has a blind eye, though, when it comes to his health, especially to his drinking. More than once in the series, his doctors warn him that he badly needs to change his eating and drinking habits. In fact, he even has a hospital scare in The Wench is Dead when he develops a bleeding ulcer. And yet, he falls back into the same pattern of poor diet and more alcohol than he should have. As beloved a character as he is, and with good reason, it’s easy to get thoroughly annoyed with the fact that he won’t do anything to take care of himself. Admittedly, that’s part of his character, so perhaps he wouldn’t be the same Morse without that trait. But still…

Sometimes, characters do know better, so to speak, but they get led astray by their hormones. That’s what happens with James M. Cain’s Walter Huff in Double Indemnity. He’s an insurance representative who pays a visit to a client, H.R. Nirdlinger, one afternoon when he’s in that area. Nirdlinger himself isn’t home, but his wife Phyllis is. She and Huff strike up a conversation, and Huff soon finds himself attracted to her. She does nothing to discourage him, either. Before long, they’re having an affair, and he’s so besotted that he falls in with a plan she’s concocted to kill her husband. Huff is not a stupid man. He knows better than to get mixed up with a client’s wife. He knows better than to get involved in a murder-for-insurance plot, too. And yet, he does both. It’s tempting to ask how he can be so foolish, and some readers don’t like that about the story. At the same time, there wouldn’t be much of a story if he were to restrain himself…

Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway is a highly intelligent forensic archaeologist associated with North Norfolk University. The police consult her when unidentified remains are found, and she helps them find out who the dead person was and whether those remains are related to other cases the police are working. In that capacity, she met police detective Harry Nelson. Nelson’s married with children and Galloway knew that. She knew better than to get involved with him. Yet, she did. In fact, she and Nelson have a daughter, Kate. It’s a messy situation, as Nelson doesn’t really want to leave his family, although he cares very much for Galloway and for Kate. There are plenty of readers who’ve gotten quite annoyed at Galloway for not simply ending it with Nelson, forgetting about him, and moving on. And she has tried. She’s even been in other relationships. But she just doesn’t seem to learn when it comes to romance.

There’s also Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan. She works with the Met, and has been involved in a number of different cases at many different levels of danger. She’s intelligent and quick-thinking, and she has the persistence to keep going on a case and find out the truth. She has her own way of thinking, but she’s also not a ‘maverick’ who has no respect for procedure. You’d think that she would be thoughtful when she’s pursuing a case, but that’s not always true. In The Kill, for instance, she goes after a suspect by herself, in a poorly lit building with which she’s not familiar. It’s not the wisest of moves, and when it’s over, Kerrigan regrets it. It’s a foolish thing to do, and someone with her intelligence and experience ought to know better. And yet, that’s the choice she makes.

She’s not alone, either. Lots of characters who absolutely know better still do things they shouldn’t do. It can be enough to put a reader off. At the same time, there are stories that probably wouldn’t be full stories if they didn’t do those things…

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s This Night.

 

 


8 thoughts on “Someone Like Me Should Know Better*

  1. Definitely one that has to be handled carefully if it’s not to put the reader off. I’m more forgiving of the “amateur” making a mistake, like Miss Vansittart, than I am of professionals like Maeve who have training and can easily call on back-up. As for Ruth Galloway! I’ve felt she needed to move on for about the last ten books now! She’ll still be hankering after someone else’s husband when she’s in the old folks’ home… 😉

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    1. You’re right, FictionFan; this is a tricky issue. You’ve a well-taken point, too, about the difference between an amateur – even a smart one – and a professional. That sometimes subtle, but very real difference impacts the decisions those people make. It’s easier to understand how an amateur can make those sorts of mistakes than it is to accept a professional doing the same things. And about Ruth? I sometimes wonder if she’ll ever learn! How many times does a girl have to be reminded that other people’s husbands are off limits? 😉

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  2. Oh gosh, no, you’re not the only one making mistakes. I feel like I’m old enough to have learnt a few things and seen everything but it’s not always the case!

    I love the Ruth Galloway books but my goodness her and Nelson need to sort things out. I started out wanting them to be together as I didn’t like Michelle much. But my respect for Michelle has grown as she has put up with her husband fathering a child with another woman and is still with him. He’s the one needing to get his act together in my opinion and I would like to see Ruth move on.

    And that thing where a detective goes into a dark and empty building by his or herself with no backup! TSTL or Too Stupid To Live as they say. Drives me insane.

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    1. I know what you mean, Cath; I should have learned some things by now, too, but still…

      As for Ruth Galloway, I think Ruth ought to move on, too. Harry isn’t going to leave Michelle; he just isn’t. And he loves his children. As you say, he does need to re-think a lot of things, but as long as he’s not doing that, Ruth needs to get past it all.

      I love that TSTL label, too! I really dislike it when characters do those sorts of things. I mean, how foolish do you have to be? It’s the same in horror movies when the teen just has to go up to the attic or down to the basement alone. Please!

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  3. I believe you make mistakes. In real life criminal law it is not likely to go well with a sentencing judge to claim criminal action was a mistake. The judge may very well take it as denying responsibility.

    In crime fiction I thought of Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee Jenkins in Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby. They each had a “mistake” filled youth that sent them to prison. Ike has learned but Buddy not so much. They seek to make amends for the way they treated their gay sons with the regret that comes from realizing their greatest mistake after the deaths of their boys.

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    1. I can imagine sentencing judges don’t look too fondly on that claim of making mistakes, Bill. And you raise such a fascinating question about the whole question about responsibility. There’s a fine line between, ‘I made a mistake,’ which we all might do, and not accepting responsibility.

      Thanks for mentioning Razorblade Tears, too. Among other things, it brings up the interesting question of atoning for mistakes. It makes me think, too, of the way people use their time in prison. Sometimes they try to use it to learn and start putting their lives right. Sometimes they don’t…

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