Most societies have certain expectations of people. And in some ways, that can be a very good thing. It allows for a certain sense of security when interacting with others, and it gives people a sense of who they are within a society. On the other hand, those expectations can be quite limiting. So, there are plenty of people who choose to flout them, at least to some extent. That can be liberating; but, as crime fiction shows us, it can also be dangerous.
Agatha Christie created several characters who chafe at the expectations for them, and strike out on different paths (right, fans of The Man in the Brown Suit?). One of them is Harry Lee, whom we meet in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas). In the novel, family patriarch Simeon Lee gathers all of his family members for the Christmas holiday. No-one in the family wants to accept the invitation, as Lee is malicious and tyrannical. But he holds the proverbial purse strings, so no-one dares refuse. What Lee doesn’t tell his family is that he’s also invited his son, Harry, the family ‘black sheep.’ Harry didn’t want to be involved in the family business, preferring to break out on his own. That didn’t sit well with his more conservative brothers. But that doesn’t bother Harry; as desperate as he sometimes gets for money (and he does), he likes living his own life. On Christmas Eve, Simeon Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying with a friend who lives in the area, and he is called in to help find out who the murderer is. And in this family, everyone is a suspect.
Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt is the story of Edward Powell. His parents died when he was a baby, so he’s been raised by his Aunt Mildred. Now, he lives with her in the small Welsh Town of Llwll, and there’s nothing he’d like more than to break free and leave that town (and his aunt!). But she’s in financial control, and it’s her wish that he continue to live with her. Powell hates the town, the people, and mostly, living with his aunt. And she has plenty to say about living with him, too. The only thing he has to look forward to is that when Aunt Mildred dies, the family fortune passes to him. Then, Aunt Mildred goes too far, and Powell decides to hurry her death along. He makes his plans and prepares for everything. But Aunt Mildred is no mental slouch. The question then becomes: can Powell find a way to get away with murder? Will his aunt find out before he puts his plan into action?
Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests introduces Frances Wray. It’s 1922 in London, and the Wray family has been devastated by the tragedy of World War I. Both Frances’ father and her brother were lost in the war, and now she lives with her mother in the family home. It’s a time of economic hardship, and, in order to make ends meet, the Wrays decide to open their home to paying guests. Soon enough, Len Barber and his wife, Lilian, answer the Wrays’ advertisement, and arrangements are made for them to move in. At first, all goes well enough, if awkwardly. But life has plenty of drudgery in it, and Frances does dream of more. She’s encouraged by her best friend’s example of a completely non-conformist life. But things start to change once the Barbers move in, and the end result is tragedy. It turns out that wanting to break free has real consequences for Frances.
The main characters in Natuso Kirino’s Real World are four teenage Japanese girls. In some ways, they’re quite different to each other, but all of them chafe, at least to some extent, against the ‘typical’ Japanese lives that they are expected to live. Whether it’s ‘cram school’ to study for exams, or traditional gender roles, these girls want to be their own persons. Then, there’s a murder in the home next door to one of the girls. Before long, they’re all drawn into the case when the victim turns out to be the mother of a boy they know. As the story goes along, we see how the case is investigated. We also see the consequences for these girls of trying, at least a little, to break free.
Of course, it’s not always teens and young people who want to break free. For example, in Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night, we meet octogenarian Sheldon Horowitz. He’s moved from his native New York to Norway, to be near his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband. But he’s not entirely ready to settle down and live the life of the elderly. In one main plot thread, he rescues a young boy who witnessed his mother’s murder. Horowitz knows that the killer will mostly likely go after the child, so the two go on the run. And more than once, Horowitz keeps the boy safe from some very nasty people. It’s an interesting case of breaking free and not doing what society expects, and in this instance, it’s lifesaving.
And then there’s Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz. In it, Paris police detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot investigate when the body of Laura Vignola is found in her apartment. There are several possibilities for suspects, including the young man who discovered the body. It turns out that he and the victim knew each other, and that could mean any number of motives. But, as the police look more closely into the matter, they learn that Laura had come from a deeply observant Jehovah’s Witness family. Her parents are almost fanatically devoted to the religion, but Laura rejected it utterly. She wanted to break free and live on her own terms. And it’s possible that that might be a motive for murder. As the story goes on, we learn more about Laura, her friends, her lifestyle, and so on, and we find out who really killed her.
It’s not outrageous for people to want to break free from others’ expectations of them. It may be awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s sometimes an irresistible urge. Little wonder it shows up in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s James.