Thursday, December 1, 2011

A dish that’s best served cold

Elizabeth Zelvin

My husband asked me a good one last night: “Why is revenge a dish that’s best served cold?” I was particularly pleased because he’s far more likely to break a silence by sharing some scintillating fact about Frederick the Great. Anyhow, it was a fair question, and I immediately felt a blog post coming on.

When I googled for the origin of the saying, I got this from Yahoo! Answers:

The earliest well-known example of this proverb in print appears as "La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid" in the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782)....The saying exists in many cultures, including Sicilian, Spanish and Pashtun....The modern English wording is attributed to Dorothy Parker. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it is said to be a Klingon proverb....In comic books it is often associated with Batman's enemy Mr. Freeze.

How delicious to imagine the Klingons reading Dorothy Parker! From what I know of Klingons, they’d be far more likely to lose their temper and blow up starships than to bide their time in a bid for long-term retribution.

It occurred to me that “Don’t get mad, get even” is a simpler expression of the same sentiment. I went looking for a source for that saying and couldn’t find one. The dictionary of idioms in led me astray—or did it?—by referring me to Melville’s Moby Dick, Chapter 37:

(The cabin; by the stern/ Ahab sitting alone, and gazing out.)
I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.

Grand prose, but as I suspected, Herman Melville never wrote, “Don’t get mad, get even.” Moby Dick is certainly about revenge: Ahab is so driven by it that he bets not only his life but that of the whole ship’s crew on it—and loses. It’s the whale who gets even.

The other classics about revenge that sprang to mind were Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Hamlet is usually interpreted as delaying the showdown with his murderous uncle not as strategy but from indecisiveness. (My high school English teacher had a different opinion, but that’s another story.) Edmond Dantès, on the other hand, not only takes years to tunnel his way out of the Château d’If, but once he’s free, holds his hand long enough to consolidate his wealth and prepare an elaborate setup for his enemies’ ruin.

It’s easy to think of both good guys and bad guys in novels and movies who seek revenge—True Grit, The First Wives Club—sometimes long delayed, as in Sneakers. How about mysteries? In Dick Francis’s books, the horse-loving hero doesn’t start it, but after he’s been beaten or tortured or someone he loves has been killed, he won’t rest until he’s exacted retribution. Robert Fate’s Baby Shark demonstrates the sympathy we have for the avenger when she’s a woman who’s survived sexual assault. I heard from an anonymous source that the forthcoming MWA anthology Dark Justice, edited by Lee Child, got more submissions on adult retribution for childhood abuse than any other variation on the theme. I myself wrote a short story, “Dress to Die,” about adult retribution for an adolescent jilting on prom night.

When I queried the mystery lovers on DorothyL, the first suggestion that came in was Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, the first Mike Hammer novel, from which I found this quotation: "No jury would ever convict you on that, would they? ... We won't have to worry about a smart lawyer cracking our chains of circumstance and making them look foolish to a jury ... No, I am the jury now, and the judge, and I have a promise to keep." DLers added at least twenty more, from Nicholas Blake’s 1938 The Beast Must Die and Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express to Lisa Scottoline’s The Vendetta Defense and Carol O’Connell’s Shell Game.

Oh, the answer? Why is revenge a dish best eaten cold? Why is it better not to get mad if you want to get even? Retaliation undertaken impulsively, in the heat of the moment and with the mind clouded by rage, is likely to go wrong one way or another. The revenge might miss its mark, and the avenger might be caught and punished, whether by the law or by the target. It’s more effective for the avenger to wait, think, plan, and choose the perfect moment.


Leslie Budewitz said...

Liz, so glad B asked the question -- I've often wondered, and love the answer!

My own first published short story, "Driving to the War House," was also about an attempted adult retribution for a teenage jilting. I've been mainlining cozy mysteries the last few months, and revenge for past crimes is a frequent motive in them as well. I think we all understand the impulse--we just manage to rein it in!

Sandra Parshall said...

Revenge is one of my favorite motives for fictional murder, along with the need to keep a past secret hidden. Those are two things most readers can identify with.

jenny milchman said...

I have never actually written about revenge. And I definitely didn't understand the saying as well before reading this post!

Julia Buckley said...

Great post! I've written several things about revenge, including something that I'm currently shopping around. :)

Anonymous said...

Revenge is actually usually one of my LEAST favorite motives in a mystery, especially if the murderer kills someone bad, say a blackmailer, and the murderer gets hauled away for it or even indicted. Not why I read mysteries at all. I read them to see a puzzle solved & justice done & by that I mean a decent victim is killed & bad person murderer is hauled away. I just never want to read about a bad person getting killed and their victim getting hauled away for finally doing them in. A revenge story where a totally bad person gets killed & the one who gets revenge gets away would be fine.

One of Dorothy L herself's stories annoyed me terribly as an awful waste of my time and an awful waste of police time in the story. Totally worthless human being causing harm to others was murdered and Lord Peter pointed it out to the police who would not have noticed.