18 October 2017
The Motive Motif
"I didn't go immediately, of course, as I hadn't made up enough reasons." - Don Berry, TO BUILD A SHIP
I recently read The Book That Changed America, by Randall Fuller. It's about the United States' response to Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, which arrived in the months before the Civil War started, and was naturally used as a weapon by both pro- and anti-slavery forces. It's a fascinating read although I thought at the end it got bogged down with the residents of Concord, Massachusetts. (Granted those townies included Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, etc.)
In order to write about the war, she needed experience. In the winter of 1862 she volunteered to work as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington.
That struck me as unfair, since it seemed to be saying that Alcott's only motive in volunteering for this nasty and dangerous work (it nearly killed her) was commercial gain. No patriotism? No desire to help the suffering soldiers?
You may remember that in September both of my blog pieces here featured John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and I am going back to that well one more time. In researching those other pieces I found a blog by someone going by the name of Malnatured Snay who attempts to clarify the plot of the movie. The piece is titled, optimistically, I CAN EXPLAIN IT TO YOU.
Here's the key example. A number of commenters were baffled as to why the character Jim Prideaux did a certain thing near the end of the flick. Anyone who had read the novel could have told them, but the movie didn't make the point clear enough, for some viewers, anyway.
And so the commenters offered multiple contradictory motives for Prideaux, some of them wildly missing the point. All of which got me thinking about the fact that people can have more than one motive for their actions, which is why I wrote this piece.
Wait. Didn't I say I wrote it because of the sentence about Louisa May Alcott? Turns out people can have more than one motive.
But I have been trying to think of any mystery novels or stories that play on the point that a single person could have more than one motive for what they do. It seems like a natural thing for a mystery to discuss. After all, we're always being told that detectives look for a suspect with motive, method, and opportunity. Doesn't motive deserve a little more attention?
The closest example I can think of is Rex Stout's Death of a Doxy, in which the murderer leaves a confession which includes an entirely false motive. And that's not really the same thing. Can you think of better examples? Put them in the comments. No spoilers, please. And I hereby promise I am done mentioning John le Carre for a while.