Most people would agree that it can add interest to a crime fiction story or series if the sleuth or another major character has to deal with difficult or even traumatic situations. Those situations can raise the tension, give the sleuth more depths and add interesting layers to the story, too. And if the sleuth survives the situation and comes out stronger (or at least more evolved as a character) that can make her or him more interesting. But of course, there are limits, too. If the sleuth is put through too much and pushed too far, this can end up being gratuitous. And readers don’t like it if their favourite characters are pushed beyond their limits. So an author has to achieve a very tricky balance between adding some believable risk, loss, sadness and tragedy to a sleuth’s life (otherwise, the plot and the sleuth become flat) and putting the sleuth through unendurable and gratuitous horror (at which point readers rightfully rebel). The problem is that this line is subjective, and we all have different definitions of “gratuitous.” That said, though, it is also a very interesting balance and if it’s done well, achieving that balance can add much to a story or series.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury. Hunterbury is owned by wealthy Laura Welman, who’s taken quite a liking to Mary. In fact, Laura Welman’s niece Elinor Carlisle gets an anonymous letter one day saying that she and her fiancé Roderick “Roddy” Welman may be done out of their rightful inheritance if they aren’t careful. Although neither is greedy, both are accustomed to money and not interested in living without it. So, since Aunt Laura’s been ill lately anyway, they travel to Hunterbury. While they’re there, Roddy Welman sees Mary Gerrard for the first time in years and immediately becomes enamoured of her. This is a severe blow to Elinor, who’s very much in love with Roddy, more with him than he is with her. Nonetheless, Roddy and Elinor manage to stay together and they leave Hunterbury once they see that all is well enough with Aunt Laura. Then, they get news that Aunt Laura has worsened and return to Hunterbury just before she dies. To Elinor’s grief, Roddy is even more smitten with Mary Gerrard. Then one afternoon, Mary Gerrard is poisoned. The most likely suspect is Elinor, since she was jealous over Roddy’s feelings for the victim. There is also a financial motive, since there was every possibility that Aunt Laura would have changed her will in favour of Mary if she could have done so. And there’s physical evidence that links Elinor directly to Mary’s murder. So Elinor is arrested and tried, which adds more to her trauma. It doesn’t help matters that she’s Aunt Laura’s executrix and has to take on the responsibility of managing this large fortune. Local doctor Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and sees how much she’s going through. So he asks Hercule Poirot to do whatever is necessary to clear Elinor’s name. Poirot agrees and investigates the case. He finds that Elinor Carlisle is by no means the only person with a motive for murder. In this case, the deaths of Laura Welman and Mary Gerrard have to do with a past secret. As the novel goes on, we can see how much Elinor Carlisle is going through and we feel sympathy for her even though she may be a murderer. In fact, her ordeal is so difficult that at the end of the novel, she is taken to a sanatorium to regain her mental health.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has gone through a lot, too. For one thing, he’s survived a very unpleasant childhood and lived through the murder of his mother. He’s also seen the horrors of the Vietnam War. Bosch gets put through a lot on the job, too. In The Concrete Blonde, for instance, he’s faced with a wrongful death lawsuit. He’d been tracking a serial killer known as The Dollmaker and strongly suspected that Norman Church was the man he wanted. Bosch ended up shooting Church and now, Church’s family is suing Bosch. As if that weren’t enough, during the trial, another body is discovered and this murder bears all the hallmarks of a “Dollmaker” killing. So Bosch has to deal not only with his own conduct in killing Norman Church, but also with the possibility that he may have killed the wrong man and that the real Dollmaker is still out there. And then in 9 Dragons, Bosch has to cope with every parent’s nightmare: he gets a frantic call from Hong Kong, where his daughter Maddie lives with her mother. Maddie’s been kidnapped and it looks as though her abduction might be related to a case Bosch is working. So he takes the first flight he can to Hong Kong and begins to search desperately for her, in the meantime trying to avoid getting killed himself. Bosch gets through this harrowing experience and all that comes with it, and although we get the feeling he’ll be back on his feet again, we also see the toll that it takes on him.
Vanda Symon’s DC Sam Shepherd has also been pushed to her limit in a few ways. In Overkill, she’s suspected of murder when Gabriella Knowes, the wife of Shepherd’s former lover, is found dead on the banks of the Maturana River. At first the death looks like a suicide, but when it comes out that the supposed suicide note she wrote was forged, it’s clear that she was murdered. Sam then has to deal with frustration, marginalisation and suspension. She is also the prime suspect and has a personal stake in the case. In Containment, Shepherd tries to help restore order when a ship runs aground near Dunedin and spills containers everywhere. Looting and fighting over the containers begins, and Shepherd tries to stop the chaos. She’s attacked by one of the looters, she has ongoing problems with her boss, and to make matters worse, things in her personal life aren’t very settled either. She’s having family problems and what’s more, her boyfriend tells her that he’s applied for a job that will move him to Dunedin – not something Shepherd is sure she wants. We get the strong feeling that Sam Shepherd is able to get through the things that happen to her, but that doesn’t make it any easier for her.
The same is true of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux. He carries several scars from his past, including the trauma associated with his service in Vietnam. In Black Cherry Blues, we learn that he still has nightmares about the murder of his wife Annie, which he couldn’t prevent even though he was present. And throughout the novels featuring him, he faces a continuing battle to stay sober. In A Morning for Flamingos, he’s shot and left for dead (neither the first nor the last time he’s injured), and he’s had more than one experience with being set up and betrayed. Robicheaux is a strong and complex character who’s sustained by that strength and by his love for his adopted daughter Alafair. Again, we have the sense that he will survive, but he is pushed to his limits.
So is Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson, a Stockholm tax attorney who’s originally from the far north town of Kiruna. In Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar), she returns to Kiruna when a former friend is arrested for the brutal murder of her brother and begs Martinsson to help clear her name. In the course of that investigation, Martinsson has a very traumatic experience which leaves her quite fragile. That doesn’t help in the next novel, The Blood Spilt, in which she gets involved in the investigation of the death of Mildred Nilsson, a priest whose body is found hung from a tree near the church she served. At the end of that novel, Martinsson has two terrible experiences that are so traumatic that she ends up being sent to a psychiatric facility so that she can begin to heal. She’s a very strong person although she is also vulnerable, so we get the feeling that she will survive. But she is pushed to the limits of her endurance.
And then there’s Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon. When the series featuring her begins, she’s recovering from the death of her husband and as a part of that healing, leaves New York City, where she’s been living. She becomes a park ranger for the National Park Service, where her job allows her to indulge her passion for the outdoors and for nature and its creatures. But life does not get any easier for Pigeon for that. She battles alcoholism and loneliness and her adventures frequently get her badly physically injured as well. There’s also plenty of psychological trauma in Pigeon’s life, as many of her cases cost her dearly. For instance, in Borderline, she faces the case of a young pregnant woman who’s running from a murderer, and in Burn, she has to cope with the reality of real brutality to children. Pigeon is a very sturdy character in her own way, so the reader knows she’ll probably heal. But her cases do take an incredible toll on her.
The question of how much to put major characters through is not an easy one. Too much trauma puts readers off. Too little difficulty and there’s a risk of a “flat” novel or series. What’s more, people have different definitions of what counts as “too much,” so striking that balance isn’t easy. But what do you think? Which authors do you think have struck a solid balance? What do you think counts as “too much?” If you’re a writer, is there a limit to what you’ll put your characters through? Do you find it hard to have things happen to them?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Take it to the Limit.