One of the characteristics of some great crime fiction sleuths is that they roll up their sleeves, get to work and do what’s necessary. They don’t do it for the glory (in fact, there’s plenty of crime fiction that includes criticism of glory-seekers). They don’t do it because it’s easy or fun either. It usually isn’t. And they don’t do it just to help out a family member or a mate. They do what they do because it’s the right thing to do and because it needs to be done. Sleuths like that aren’t perfect of course, but they’re refreshingly free of self-pity or angst. Let me show you what I mean.
Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest is like that. In Gunshot Road, she’s just started work as an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO). On her very first day on the job, she and her team are called to a murder scene at Green Swamp Well, where Albert “Doc” Ozolins has been murdered. At first his death looks like the tragic result of a drunken quarrel with John “Wireless” Petherbridge. In fact the case looks so clear-cut that Tempest’s boss Bruce Cockburn wants final reports written up quickly and the team to move on to other matters. But Tempest isn’t so sure it’s that simple. For one thing, she knows Wireless and isn’t convinced he’d have killed Ozolins just because they had a quarrel. For another, little clues she finds suggest that something else might be going on. Tempest doesn’t ruminate about it; she does what’s needed and starts searching for answers. They lead to a case that’s much more than it seems on the surface. In the course of her investigation Tempest uncovers some truths that some very powerful people want to keep hidden and that discovery gets her into terrible danger. In fact, she herself is attacked. And while the attack devastates her, she doesn’t give up or complain that “it’s too hard to do this.” Instead, she redoubles her efforts and in the end, gets to the truth of the matter.
That’s also what former attorney Jack Irish does in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts. When Irish gets a call from former client Danny McKillop, he’s inclined not to take it as an urgent matter at first. But then McKillop calls again, this time begging Irish to meet with him. By the time Irish follows up on McKillop’s calls it’s too late. Danny McKillop has been murdered. It’s not long before Irish connects this death to an earlier death. McKillop had served eight years in prison for the drink driving killing of Anne Jeppeson, an activist who’d been managing a protest against the closing of a Melbourne low-income housing estate. Irish represented McKillop in this case but didn’t handle the case well, which is one reason McKillop was in prison. After he gets word that McKillop’s been shot, Irish looks into both killings. He slowly uncovers connections between these two deaths, another death, and a great deal of greed and high-level corruption. He doesn’t do it because it’s easy. In fact, a couple of times he’s in real danger and at one point he almost gives up completely. And the case means he has to face his own personal “baggage.” Rather, Irish follows through on this case because he has to, because he feels he owes it to McKillop’s family, and because in the end, it’s the right thing to do.
That’s why Vanda Symon’s DC Sam Shepherd does what she does, too. In Containment, for instance, Shepherd does her best to help restore order when a ship runs aground at the entrance to Otago Harbour. The ship’s cargo spills overboard and it’s not long before there’s looting and fighting over the contents of the containers. At one point in the mêlée, Shepherd is attacked when she tries to break up a fight between two of the looters. She’s not gravely injured but her attacker is hurt badly enough to need an ambulance. What really shows Shepherd’s character is that she goes with the attacker to the hospital and in fact saves his life when he nearly dies along the way. Meanwhile, Shepherd’s investigating another case – what looks like a diving accident. When it’s shown that the victim was murdered and stuffed into his wet suit after his death, Shepherd starts tracking down a killer. As it turns out, the two cases are related. Neither case is an easy one, but Sam Shepherd does what needs to be done. Although she’s by no means perfect, she also doesn’t whine and complain and give up because life gets very tough for her at times. She does what she does because it’s the right thing to do.
So does Andy Clark, whom we meet in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. His daughter Elizabeth has had a mental breakdown and spends some time in hospital trying to recover. Elizabeth’s therapist is Stephanie Anderson, who’s just finishing her program in psychiatry in Dunedin. After some difficult work together, Anderson is able to help Clark begin to heal. Andy Clark is very grateful to Anderson, so when she takes a trip from Dunedin to her home in Wanaka, he offers her all of the hospitality of the Guest Home he runs. And he’s not the only one. Throughout Anderson’s trip, several people are helpful to her and many have never even met her before. They offer her hospitality and help because they decide to reach out. And Anderson can use all the help she can get. She’s taking the trip for a very special, very painful reason. Seventeen years earlier, her four-year-old sister Gemma was abducted and has never been found. Anderson found out that Elizabeth Clark’s younger sister Gracie was abducted in a similar way and now she wants to find the person responsible as well as lay her own ghosts to rest, so to speak. All through this novel we meet people who help even though they really don’t have to do so. And in the end Anderson is able to catch the person who devastated her family’s lives and begin to put the pieces of her own life back together.
Now, let me tell you about a group of people who’ve reached out, helped and done the right thing far more than any fictional detective: the proud members of the Anzac military forces. For nearly a hundred years, these brave men and women have sacrificed much, including their lives, to do the right thing and to help others. They’ve traveled far and fought honourably and well to defend people like me whom they’ll never meet.
On this Anzac Day (today or tomorrow, depending on when you read this), no words can really express the gratitude these people are owed. And honestly, I don’t know that a lot of gushing words would really be in order anyway. So I’ll just say this: I can post to this blog in part because of the Anzac forces who helped and still do help to ensure that I can. When you owe someone that much, what else can you say? But on my bucket list is attending a dawn Anzac Day service. I will do that some day.
And there are things you can do, too. For instance, you can support some wonderful Australian and New Zealand crime writers whose work deserves much wider readership than it gets. Don’t know where to start? I can help you there. Check out Fair Dinkum Crime for the latest and greatest on Australian crime fiction. There are terrific reviews there as well as news of what’s coming out. Check out Crime Watch, the best source I know of for what’s happening and what to read in the world of Kiwi crime fiction.
You can also give back in other ways. See that New Zealand flag on my sidebar? Mmhmm, that one. Click it. Go ahead. It’ll take you to the New Zealand government’s secure donation site for rebuilding Christchurch. Your donation goes directly towards the reconstruction of one of the world’s really beautiful cities.
Don’t want to donate there? That’s OK; find some other Kiwi or Australian charity with which you feel comfortable, like Australia’s Books in Homes or New Zealand’s Auckland Marathon. Or something else that suits you. Step up. Anzac does. Dare ya…
Kia Ora, Anzac.
ps. The ‘photo is of the New Zealand travel visa stamp on my passport. I’ve been there a few times and every time I’ve traveled there I’ve been treated not just professionally and courteously but kindly, warmly and helpfully. It’s a little nation with a very big heart.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Help Is On Its Way, by Melbourne’s own Little River Band.