18 October 2017

The Motive Motif


by Robert Lopresti

"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.)

But the reason I am writing this piece is a line Fuller wrote about another Concord-dweller (Concordian?  Grape?), Louisa May Alcott.  Fuller wrote that once the fighting started Alcott could not sell to the big magazines, because they wanted war stories.  Fuller explains:

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?

That may not be what Fuller meant to say, but it's how I read it.  And it got me thinking about our tendency to assume that any piece of human behavior stems from a single motive.  Several people have asked me why I wrote my latest book.  Depending on the questioner and my mood I have given four different and contradictory explanations.  And they are all true.  Because people are complicated.

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.

Snay does her/his best, but there are still plenty of puzzled questions in the comments.  (And let me salute Raheel Guillia, whose comment points out the huge plot hole in the movie, which does not appear in the novel.)

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.

Years ago I wrote a tale that appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  "Why" was a very short story with an even shorter title.  It consisted mostly of police officers speculating on the motive of a man who had killed several strangers.  By the end you know nothing about the killer, but a lot about the cops.

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.

4 comments:

janice law said...

I think you are right that in general the genre is hostile to mixed motives.

O'Neil De Noux said...

OK, maybe I'm reading this wrong or not. How about Sam Spade as an example? He has more than one motive in THE MALTESE FALCON. He wants to acquire the Maltese Falcon as does everyone else but also wants to solve the mystery of his partner's murder while getting close to the pretty girl - which is his way of doing both. He not just seeking the Falcon but a murderer.

Since reading this blog, I looked back at my novels. While my police characters seem to have a primary motive - catching a killer, my private eyes have more than one motive, usually solving a mystery and putting things right again, doing a good turn for someone.

Maybe I'm overthinking this. Good stimulating blog.

Elizabeth said...

In the book The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, but not in the movie, the murderer thinks up many reasons to kill another victim ... but never does it. None of the motives were less strong than the reason(s) for killing the first victim.

Robert Lopresti said...

Good examples, O'Neil and Liz, thanks.