One Small Choice*
Sometimes the little things we do have much more far-reaching consequences than we imagine. For example, parking in a space that someone else coveted can lead to ‘car rage’ and worse – much worse than one might think. And that’s what makes those little, sometimes-even-innocent actions so useful in crime fiction. It’s a way for the author to involve a character in a crime (or to mark that character as a victim). And it does reflect reality. So it’s a believable way to draw a character into the action in a story, and to involve the reader.
In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for example, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone assumes that her lodger, James Bentley, is responsible, and there is evidence against him. In fact, he’s already been convicted of the murder and is due to be executed. But Superintendent Spence thinks that Bentley may be innocent. So, he’s asked Poirot to look into the matter. As Poirot finds out more about the case, he learns that Mrs. McGinty saw a photograph – in a more or less innocent way – that it wasn’t safe for her to see. Her curiosity about what she saw unsettled someone who had something to hide. It was a small enough thing to do to have a look at a photograph, but it led to her murder.
Beryl Bainbridge’s Harriet Said takes place during a summer on the Lancashire coast. The thirteen-year-old unnamed narrator is waiting for her fourteen-year-old friend, Harriet, to return from a family trip to Wales. Bored and a little restless, the narrator happens to encounter Peter Biggs during an evening walk. The two strike up a sort of friendship, and the narrator starts to feel the first rush of adolescent hormones. As for Biggs, he’s a middle-aged man in an unhappy marriage, so he enjoys having a younger person around. Nothing comes of it, though, because the narrator wants to wait until Harriet returns to take any action. When Harriet does come back, she insists that Biggs be treated much more objectively, much like other experiences the two girls have had. So they decide to spend some time spying on Biggs and recording their observations. Peeking through a window isn’t exactly praiseworthy, but it’s not that serious – that is, until the girls see something they were not intended to see. That small action starts things spinning out of control, and it all ends in tragedy.
There’s also an unnamed narrator in Patricia Melo’s The Body Snatcher. A former telemarketer who lost his job in São Paulo has moved to the smaller town of Corumbá, near Brazil’s border with Bolivia. One day, he witnesses a small plane crash. He rushes to the scene, but it’s too late to save the pilot. He notices that the pilot is wearing a good watch, so he takes it. Not at all upstanding, but not the most horrible of crimes, either. He also notices that the pilot had a backpack. The narrator takes the backpack, too, and heads for home. That small act of taking things starts to spin out of control when the narrator opens the backpack to find a valuable cache of cocaine. After a bit of thought, the narrator decides to sell the cocaine – just this once – to get money to make a new start in life. It turns out that the cocaine belongs to some drug dealers who are, to say the least, not happy that someone has taken their merchandise. Now the narrator is mixed up with very dangerous people, and caught in a very dangerous situation, and all because of one small decision.
Aaron Elkins’ Loot is the story of art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. One day, he gets a call from a friend, Samuel Pawlovsky, who owns a local pawn shop. It seems that someone has pawned a painting that might be very valuable, and Pawlovsky wants Revere to give his opinion on how much the painting is worth. Revere’s interest is piqued, so he goes to the shop. To his shock, the painting appears to be a priceless Velázquez that was ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis during WWII. Revere wants to do a little more research to see if he’s right, and he leaves the shop. When he returns a few hours later, he finds that the painting is safely locked away, but Pawlovsky has been murdered. Revere feels guilty for leaving his friend in the dangerous situation of having such a valuable item in the store. And he wants to find out who was responsible for the murder. He decides that, if he can trace the painting’s path from the time the Nazis took it until the time it was left in the shop, he may be able to find the killer. So, he sets out to do just that. The simple act of doing a valuation for a piece of art draws Revere into a web of intrigue, theft, and murder.
There’s also Blair Denholm’s Sold, which introduces readers to Gary ‘Gazza’ Braswell. As the novel begins, he’s a car salesman for an upmarket dealership in Queensland’s Gold Coast. He’s doing well at work, and he has a stable home life (although he does drink more than he should). Then, he makes the small mistake of borrowing from an illegal bookmaker named Duncan ‘Jocko’ Mackenzie. It’s not a wise decision, but hardly horrific. But there’s the matter of paying Mackenzie back, and Braswell’s not sure how he’ll do that. He thinks he has a chance when a wealthy Russian land developer buys three expensive cars from him. But by the time he delivers the money, Mackenzie is already angry enough to punish him for not paying up promptly. If Braswell is to be free of Mackenzie, he’ll have to do a drugs run to Bali and bring back money. Braswell knows that Mackenzie won’t hesitate to take very ugly vengeance if he doesn’t cooperate, so he agrees. He ends up getting drawn into a mess involving Mackenzie, Russian land developers who want him to work for them, and the Australian Federal Police. It’s an ugly situation and it all starts with the simple choice to borrow money.
And that’s how situations sometimes get out of control. It can start with a very simple, even innocent, decision. It’s awful to face in real life, but it does make for a solid plot line.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Audiovent.