Have you ever been in a situation that started out badly, but ended up putting you right where you needed to be, either figuratively or literally (or both)? You know, like getting lost and stumbling onto a great restaurant you’d never known of before or having your flight delayed only to have one of your fellow passengers turn out to become a really valuable and helpful business contact? Part of dealing with life’s “curve balls” is having an optimistic attitude about them; part is the simple twists of luck or fate that can make things work out all for the best. I love when that happens to me in real life; it’s a tonic. It’s also interesting when it happens in crime fiction. It can be a nice “lift” in an otherwise sad story, and it can show an interesting side to a sleuth’s character (i.e. how does she or he cope with those bad situations?).
For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), Miss Marple decides to take a walk one afternoon to look at the new council housing which has come to the village of St. Mary Meade. During her work, she stumbles and twists her ankle badly. At first it seems like a very bad situation and just a little scary for an elderly woman in a neighbourhood she doesn’t know. But Heather Badcock, who lives in the nearest house, comes to Miss Marple’s rescue and invites her inside for a cup of tea and a rest. Miss Marple turns that bad situation into a chance to indulge her interest in human nature and gets to know a bit about Heather Badcock and her husband Arthur. During that conversation, Heather tells Miss Marple something that turns out to be a clue later in the novel. It’s also through Heather that Miss Marple learns that famous actress Marina Gregg Rudd and her husband have bought Gossington Hall, the home of Colonel and Dolly Bantry (and the scene of plenty of the action in The Body in the Library). There’s to be a charity fête to celebrate the famous couple’s move to the area and all the locals attend, including Heather Badcock, who’s a particular fan of Marina Gregg Rudd. On the day of the big event Heather is poisoned by a cocktail originally meant for Marina, so at first the police assume that Marina was the intended victim. It turns out though that Heather was meant to be the victim the whole time and now Miss Marple works to find out who would have wanted to kill her and why.
Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant faces a bad situation in A Daughter of Time when he falls through a trap door while chasing after a criminal. One of his colleagues catches the criminal but Grant ends up in hospital with a broken leg. While he’s recuperating, Grant becomes obsessed with a reproduction portrait of England’s King Richard III. The portrait doesn’t strike Grant as the likeness of a horrible man, as Richard III was always made out to be. So Grant decides to find out the real truth about Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. He makes the best of that unfortunate and embarrassing situation to look into the case and comes to the conclusion that Richard III was quite likely framed, and not the evil killer he was assumed to be.
In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia police officer Dave Robicheaux and his partner Lester Benoit are assigned to transport two prisoners to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. One of them, Jimmie Lee Boggs, manages to free himself and the other prisoner and they escape, killing Benoit and leaving Robicheaux for dead. Robicheaux survives though and spends the next few months healing. He gets well physically but he’s haunted by nightmares and by Benoit’s death. Then he gets a visit from Minos Dautrieve, a friend who now works on a special Presidential Task Force on drugs that is planning a major “sting” operation. Dautrieve wants Robicheaux to go undercover as a cop who’s “gone dirty” and get close to New Orleans crime boss Tony Cardo. At first Robicheaux refuses. It’s a bad situation and he’s barely getting himself together anyway from nearly being killed. But then Dautrieve tells Robicheaux that this operation could also get him Jimmie Lee Boggs. Now Robicheaux sees that this situation could turn out after all, and agrees to the assignment. As he gets closer to Cardo though, Robicheaux realises that this “sting” operation isn’t nearly as clear-cut as it had seemed.
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman also finds that a situation that starts out badly ends up with her being where she needs to be, both literally and figuratively. Chapman is a former accountant who came to the conclusion that she’s just not interested in accountancy any more. It has no meaning for her. Along with that, her marriage has ended. And although Chapman is refreshingly free of wallowing or ruminating about her problems, she doesn’t have a close relationship with her parents either. Finding herself at loose ends, Chapman takes an apartment in Insula, a Roman-style building in Melbourne. She opens a bakery which is what she’s always loved doing, and starts again. She and the other residents of Insula form a kind of family and they all take care of each other. Her business is successful too. Chapman’s situation, which started out badly, has put her exactly where she needs to be. And even though Chapman is hardly what you would call an enthusiastic sleuth, at least at first, her willingness to ask questions and help those who need it make her new situation that much better in the end.
Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) gives us an excellent example of a bad situation turning out to be a good thing. Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck is recovering from an injury he got in a line-of-duty shooting. He’s still dealing with the trauma of what happened, not least because one of his colleagues was killed in the incident. He’s been struggling too, so much that his colleagues find him impossible to work with any more. There’s been a lot of political and media pressure lately to solve crimes, especially “cold cases,” so Mørck is “promoted” to the head of Department Q, a newly-organised department set up to investigate “cases of special interest.” Everyone, including Mørck, knows that this is really a thinly-disguised attempt to get rid of him, but this bad situation actually places Mørck exactly where he needs to be. Once he realises that, he turns the situation to his advantage quite cleverly. He uses the leverage he has to get office space and an assistant Hafez al-Assad. And despite the fact that everyone expects him to do nothing, Mørck gets to work. The first case he and Assad investigate is the five-year-old disappearance of “rising star” politician Merete Lynggaard, who was believed drowned in a ferry accident. Mørck makes his new situation work for him and he and Assad slowly uncover the truth about Lynggaard’s disappearance.
Sometimes a situation that looks bad or at least unpleasant on the surface ends up being, in an odd way, the best thing that could have happened. It takes the right attitude and, let’s be honest, the right circumstances, but it does happen.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.