Showing posts with label motives. Show all posts
Showing posts with label motives. Show all posts

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.)

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.

19 April 2012

Reality in Mysteries


I have a gut feeling that more crimes have been solved based on a hunch than not. The intuitive feeling that nags at a detective or even an amateur sleuth has probably laid out many a trail to find the criminal responsible for a crime and certainly spurred the hunt.

Isn't this one of the reasons we choose to read mysteries? To read along ravenously and put together the clues the author doles out to us like breadcrumbs to starving ducks along a pond, we beg for more in order to follow them and deduce the true villain before the author makes his Big Reveal. Nothing induces a page turner like clues sprinkled along the way to whet our appetite.

Reading a good mystery is like winding our way through a maze. With a starting point and the supposition we will find our way through to the end quickly, we struggle past the red herrings leading to a blocked wall, barring our path. We retreat a few steps and as the GPS is always saying, we "recalculate," probably with more fervor than before. The journey is almost always the true joy and not the destination. I find myself dreading to find only a few more pages left of a really great read. I want to keep the momentum going of the exhilaration I feel as I get closer and closer to being sure of who the culprit is in the mystery. I admit: I am quite the greedy reader.

In real life, the offender is either someone everyone thought would turn out to be prison material or so unsuspecting the neighbors can't believe the stories they hear on the six o'clock news about the nice man down the block.

In mystery stories, this isn't always the case and makes the bad guy more fun to hunt down. Finding who the antagonist is and why he does the things he does is part of the mystery that most excites me as a reader. It's also safer being an armchair detective than one out on the streets actually dealing with people capable of committing such crimes as to be facing arrest, a trial and possible jail time.

I was one who never missed an episode of either "The Shield" or "Homicide" when they were on prime time television. I know some police officers who told me those portrayals were "on the money" as to how it was "on the streets." I know probably just as many who objected that it was completely unreliable. I remember one deputy who said, "In the first episode of 'The Shield' when that one cop killed another point blank, we dismissed the whole series as unbelievable." Another told me, "I can see how that could easily happen."

There is probably a bit of truth in both opinions. Both "The Shield" and "Homicide" showed a dirtier side of law enforcement than most Americans expected to show up on their television screens, but it is probably closer to the truth than not. If we've learned anything from reality TV programs, it's that people aren't always as nice as they were in Mayberry and their language isn't either.

Why would we expect someone being handcuffed and hauled into the back seat of a patrol car to be "nice" anyway? Even on "Cops," where the officers seem to never raise their voices, lose their tempers or let loose a swear word or two, it seems a bit forced. Maybe it's easier to watch your language when you know you're wearing a microphone and television cameras are nearby.

Many people objected to the blue language choices and the darkness of those involved both in law enforcement and on the other side of the law in "The Shield" and "Homicide." I don't condone bad language, but it seems appropriate in some instances in fiction, and certainly in true crime stories.

If every bad guy in a novel talked like a bad guy, the reader would easily guess he's the villain by the end of the first chapter. No need to keep reading that book. The good writer lets part of the maze surrounding the bad guy shield him from our view at least for a while. When we can't see or hear his true self, the character hides in plain sight and makes it more of a delicious undertaking to discover him later.

I have a hunch we will be finding another character hiding in that maze of mystery ready to confuse us with his designs of disguise. In mystery, that's reality.

05 April 2012

Tell Me Why


I am always curious about the why of things thathappen especially in the criminal world. Whether it is fictional or straight from the headlines, I want to know why someone commits a crime -- especially one that takes another's life, or in some cases even their own.

Online blogs and social media tags are often ignored though the warnings are clear in retrospect. Nicole Simpson told others that one day her husband would kill her and because he was O. J. Simpson, he would get away with it.

A few people leave diaries or prepared-for-the-worst-case-scenario suicide notes behind. They are desperate please left as a clear-marked trail if only someone would look for the clues.

To a trial defense lawyer, these admissions are another hurdle to jump in attempt to snare a release for their client charged with murder. We would think such admissions would be a clear path to a conviction, but that isn't always what happens either.

Tabloids can rake in a ton of sales with headlines and articles that may be true, may be half-truths and may be completely fabricated. A national broadcast channel was caught editing the 911 call made by Zimmerman, distorting what he actually said. What is the truth? Maybe we'll find out the why on this case, but maybe we won't ever find the complete truth.

We may never know the truth about Casey Anthony. Her daughter will still be dead.

Determining why human beings sometimes don't act quite humanely is a puzzle.

Criminal activity isn't anything new. Cain murdered his brother, Abel for a reason as old as time itself: jealousy. In fact, the Bible is more than peppered with crimes, it is well-seasoned with how man isn't always just. Many of those reasons are still filling our prisons today. Why can't we all just get along?

When we ask why a crime takes place, we are interested also in finding the guilty party and having him pay for what he's done. We may not be involved in law enforcement nor the judicial system, but we may all take a turn at the jury box. Sharing space with eleven of our peers, we represent the public at large and want to know more than the who and how. We want to know the why of the criminal activity.

Read a good mystery -- one that ties up the story all nice and pretty by the book's end. Know that the bad guys are locked away. Know they paid for their crimes. Know they are just pretend characters. The real world is sometimes scary.

Sometimes we may not want to really know all the why's. Curiosity killed the cat, you know.