One of the things that makes for a well-written crime fiction story is the way it portrays ordinary people when they are faced with extraordinary and terrible circumstances. Most of us don’t have superpowers (although I sometimes wish that I did ), so we identify most with characters like us – characters who go through life the best they can. When those characters rise to an occasion and meet extraordinary challenges, they show us what humans can achieve. That’s a pretty positive thing, and it’s no wonder that we admire them the way we do.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Miss Marple shows just what an ordinary elderly lady with a keen knowledge of human nature can achieve. In that novel, Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy is on a train, on her way to visit Mss Marple. She glances out of the window and into the window of a passing train. When she does, she witnesses what looks very much like a murder – a woman is being strangled. At first, no-one believes Mrs. McGillicuddy; after all, the police can’t find a body and no-one fitting the description has been reported missing. But Miss Marple stands by her friend and believes her. She begins to do a little research and deduces that the body was probably thrown from the train and most likely ended up at Rutherford Hall, the home of Luther Crackenthorpe and his family. With the help of professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Miss Marple slowly figures out who the woman is and who killed her. The trouble is that she doesn’t have any real evidence. So she rises to the occasion and puts her own self at risk to get the murderer to confess. I like the loyalty she displays in this novel.
In Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, we meet Joan Murchison. She’s a secretary who works for an agency owned by Miss Katharine Climpson. She takes on much more than she bargained for when she agrees to help Lord Peter Wimsey with a case. Mystery novelist Harriet Vane will soon be tried (for the second time) for the murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey is quite sure that Vane is innocent and besides, he’s fallen in love with her. So he’s more than eager to clear her name. Wimsey believes that there may be an important clue to the murder among the papers of attorney Norman Urquhart, so Murchison goes undercover as a newly-hired secretary at the office to find out what she can. In doing that, she undertakes her share of risks and is in fact almost caught out. But she rises to the occasion and is able to find what Wimsey needs. And all this to clear the name of someone Murchison has never met.
And then there’s Margaret Billy Sosi, a sixteen-year-old Navajo who figures strongly in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway. Sosi gets a troubling cryptic warning from her grandfather. The message disturbs her enough so that she goes to see him. When she gets to his home, she finds that he’s disappeared. So she goes on a dangerous trip to Los Angeles to try to search for him. The authorities at the school Sosi attends alert the police when she leaves the school, and Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee is assigned to find her. He comes to believe that her disappearance is related to another case he’s investigating – the death of Los Angeles Navajo Albert Gorman, who’s relocated to the Big Reservation and who happens to be distantly related to Sosi. It turns out that Chee is right. Chee does track Sosi down, but really, it’s she who shows some real heroism. Twice she saves Chee’s life and in the end, she’s as responsible for catching Gorman’s killer as Chee is.
Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight introduces us to the Sutherland family. Andy and Jenny Sutherland and their children Leona and Jake are tragically torn apart in Last Light when the world’s oil supply is suddenly and deliberately cut off. They all happen to be in different places when that happens, and the story of their desperate attempts to re-unite is an important part of this story. In Afterlight, which takes place ten years after the events of Last Light, those who’ve survived a world without oil have begun to manage to carve out lives of sorts for themselves. Jenny Sutherland has had to search deep within herself to find the strength to carry her family through this time and now, she leads a small group of survivors who live on an oil rig off the Norwich coast. They’re starting to put their lives together when word comes that another survivors’ group, this one based in London, may have oil. Scarrow tells the story of why the oil supply has been cut off, but the real story in these novels is of the Sutherland family, who are ordinary people. Yet they show true heroism as they try to cope with a harsh new reality.
Alan Orloff’s Channing Hayes has had to cope with some harsh new realities, too. He’s a standup comedian who’s also part owner of The Last Laff, a Northern Virginia comedy club. In Killer Routine, we learn that Hayes had a very promising career as a comic until he and his fiancée Lauren Dempsey were involved in a tragic car accident in which Dempsey was killed and Hayes badly injured. Hayes has to slowly put his life back together as he comes to grips with life without Lauren. In Killer Routine, he gets involved in the search for Lauren’s younger sister Heather, who disappears one night just before she’s scheduled to do a comedy performance. In Deadly Campaign, Hayes and his business partner Artie Worsham get drawn into the mystery surrounding an attack on the restaurant owned by their friend Thomas Lee. In both the novels, Hayes gets in deeper than he thought, so to speak, because of his loyalty to his friends. He’s also got to do the possibly more courageous thing – learn to live with what’s happened to him. What’s interesting here is that Hayes is a pretty ordinary guy – for a comic. But he meets the challenge when he gets plunged into some extraordinary events.
Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Merete Lynggaard shows real heroism, too, in more than one way. In Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes), we learn that Lynggaard is an up-and-coming Danish politician. She’s made her share of political enemies, but that doesn’t really stop her. In her personal life, she has the care of her younger brother Uffe, who hasn’t spoken since the two were in a terrible car accident when he was thirteen and she sixteen. Lynggaard’s career matters to her, but Uffe comes first. Then one day, the two are taking a ferry trip when Merete Lynggaard goes over the side and disappears. Many people say that Uffi pushed her over, however accidentally, and she drowned. And since her body never washes up, nor does she return, that’s the assumption that everyone eventually begins to accept. But then, five years later, Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck and his assistant Hafez al-Assad take a new look at the case. Their search leads them to believe that Merete Lynggaard may still be alive. When we find out what happened to Merete Lynggaard, we see just how heroic she’s had to be.
And that’s the thing about really well-written fictional heroes. They’re normal people. They don’t have super powers. That’s why we can cheer them on when they surpass themselves. It’s also why we can learn from them.
There are real-life heroes like that, too. Today’s post is dedicated to one of them: Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who one year ago today was nearly killed by an assassin’s bullets. Giffords has surmounted impossible odds to recover from what could easily have been a fatal injury. Every day she works hard to continue her recovery. One of the moments I will remember always was when Congresswoman Giffords made a special trip to Washington on 1 August 2011, just seven months after her devastating injury, to cast a vote on a crucial national issue. That’s the scene pictured here and I will not forget it. Congresswoman Giffords, I salute you. You are an inspiration and I wish you well.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Foo Fighters’ My Hero.