This is the time of year when a lot of people resolve to make changes in their lives. That’s why there’s often an upsurge in the purchase of gym memberships, health foods and all sorts of classes. We want to feel healthier, or have a better income, or pursue that goal we’ve been dreaming of reaching. So we resolve to stop doing things that aren’t good for us and start doing things that are. It’s a very human impulse. Of course, making and keeping a resolution aren’t the same thing. We often have to fight our own inertia. That conflict between doing something new, even if it’s a good thing, and following comfortable patterns can add some real interest to a fictional character, and it can make for a solid sub-plot in a story, too.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is among several guests staying at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. His planned holiday gets interrupted when another guest, beautiful and notorious Arlena Marshall, is found strangled on a beach not from the hotel. Arlena’s husband Kenneth Marshall is the most likely suspect; Arlena was carrying on a rather obvious affair with another guest, and her husband likely knew about it. But he’s got a solid alibi, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the murderer. One of the other guests/suspects is Rosamund Darnley, a highly successful dress designer. She’s happy with her success but she’s reached a crossroads in her life. Should she go on with her business, which is fulfilling, or should she marry and plan a family? Her resolution to make a change adds an interesting layer to her character and a solid sub-plot to the story.
Ian Rankin’s John Rebus is both a heavy drinker and a smoker. He knows that neither habit is exactly good for him, but he chooses not to do much about it. But then in Black and Blue, he works with DI Jack Morton. In this novel, Rebus is investigating the death of oilman Allan Mitcheson. He’s also interested in the case of “Bible Johnny,” a “copycat” killer who seems to be following in the macabre footsteps of a notorious serial killer from the sixties and seventies. There’s also the case of the suicide of Lenny Spaven, a criminal who’d been suspected of a brutal murder. In true Rankin style, these cases are tied together, and Morton and Rebus work together to put the pieces together. Morton actually has a positive influence on Rebus and convinces him to give up smoking and drinking. Rebus doesn’t stick to his resolution, and in a way that makes him more human. But later in the series, he does give up smoking.
Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is also quite fond of his pint. In fact, he’s been known to say that he does his best job at detecting when he’s at his local. He doesn’t exactly have the healthiest diet, either. So it’s no surprise that he develops some serious health problems as a result of his lifestyle. He has more than one health crisis, and in fact, doctors tell him more than once that his lifestyle will quite literally be the death of him. Morse is aware that he doesn’t take care of himself, and sometimes he does decide to make changes. But he never really does permanently change his lifestyle, and that’s got tragic consequences. In fact, in The Remorseful Day, we can empathise with Sergeant Lewis’ feelings of resentment and anger at Morse for not taking better care of himself. That personal conflict for Morse – between his own comforts and his knowledge that they are having terrible effects on him – adds a thread of tension to several of the Morse novels.
Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen has had to make several changes in her life. As the series featuring her begins, she’s the postmistress in the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. She’s recently divorced and trying to make a new life for herself. As the series moves on, she learns several things about herself, and that leads to a lot of growth. For instance, in Hiss of Death, Harry is diagnosed with a treatable form of cancer. She resolves to make some lifestyle changes to cope with this diagnosis and begins to go to the local gym. Her connection to the gym leads her to some important clues to the murder of an operating room nurse and a doctor, but more than that, it leads her to some permanent positive changes.
And then there’s Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope. She’s overweight and not in good physical shape. So in Silent Voices, her doctor orders regular swimming workouts. Stanhope doesn’t want to do this, not least because she’s embarrassed at the way she looks compared to the other people who use the Willows Health Club where she swims. But Stanhope knows she needs to do something about her health so she determines to follow through with her resolution. That’s exactly what she’s doing late one morning when she discovers the body of social worker Jenny Lister, who’s been strangled. Stanhope and her team begin to look into the case and they discover that it’s related to a past crime.
In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, we meet personal bodyguard Martin Lemmer. He’s the product of a very unhappy background, and has been trying to get past it for quite a while. One of the lasting effects of his background is a difficulty managing anger. In fact, that trouble with anger landed Lemmer in prison for a time. His prison experience taught Lemmer that he needed to change his life, so he moved out of the city to a smaller, more peaceful place. He’s also tried to learn to stop himself from letting his anger get out of control. But he’s tested to the limit in this novel when Emma Le Roux hires him to find her missing brother Jacobus. Along the way, both face some terrible danger and in fact, Emma is gravely wounded. Lemmer’s anger at that, at himself, and at those responsible is nearly unmanageable and it’s a real struggle for him to channel his energy. That strong thread of tension adds much to this novel.
Characters who are deep enough to be interesting are also aware enough to realise they may need to make some changes. That process of deciding to make a change, and the way the character does(n’t) follow through with it can make that character more real and human. It can also add an interesting layer to a story. But what do you think? Which of your favourite sleuths have made resolutions? Have you made any resolutions?
*Note: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street.