Having something as devastating as murder touch one’s life is a horrible experience and it’s impossible not to be affected by it. People deal with that kind of grief and loss in different ways, and that’s as true of crime fictional characters as it is of real-life people. Some characters stand out particularly though in the kind of dignity with which they deal with such a loss. They’re almost haunting in fact. They don’t seem to fall apart but at the same time they don’t hide the fact that they are suffering. It’s very difficult to depict that kind of character well; it’s too easy to slip into either melodrama or a character who seems too aloof to be believable. But when it is done well, those characters can stay in our minds long after the book is finished.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, we meet Amy Folliat. She and her family owned Nasse House in Nassecomb, Devonshire for many generations until the property had to be sold for financial reasons. Now she lives in the lodge at Nasse House, and the house and grounds are owned by Sir George Stubbs and his wife Hattie. There’s a lot of sympathy for Amy Folliat, as everyone knows she’s had a difficult life. And yet many people still treat her as though she were still the mistress of Nasse House. Sir George, Lady Hattie and Mrs. Folliat, along with the house staff and some locals, are planning Nasse House’s annual fête and it’s decided that this year they’ll include a Murder Hunt, a bit like a scavenger hunt. They commission detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to design the story, the clues and so on, and she travels to Nasse House to begin the project. But she soon senses something more than a fête is going on and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. He agrees and goes to the fête under the guise of presenting the prizes for the Murder Hunt. On the day of the fête, the fictional murder becomes all too real when fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who is playing the part of the victim, is strangled. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who would have killed a seemingly innocent teenage girl with no apparent enemies. What they find is that Marlene found out some things that it wasn’t safe for her to know and paid for it with her life. The murder takes a real toll on Mrs. Folliat; she seems to age ten years in the few months during which the novel takes place. And yet she doesn’t lose her dignity, her strength or her courage. And in the end when she and Poirot have a conversation about it, here is what happens:
“Then Mrs. Folliat of Nasse House, daughter of a long line of brave men, drew herself erect. She looked straight at Poirot and her voice was formal and remote.
‘Thank you, M. Poirot,’ she said, ‘for coming to tell me yourself of all this. Will you leave me now? There are some things one has to face quite alone…’”
In this novel we also meet Marlene Tucker’s parents who have a dignity of their own. A working-class couple, they are also devastated by the loss of their daughter, and yet they keep going. They are not maudlin about their grief and yet it’s quite obvious that they are suffering.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets an unusual commission. Andrea Curtin is an ex-pat American who lived in Botswana years earlier when her husband had a World Bank position there. Their son Michael loved the place so much that he decided not to return to the U.S. when his parents’ stay in Botswana was over. Instead, he joined an eco-farming commune. Then, he disappeared. At the time, the authorities assumed that he was killed by a wild animal and although there was an investigation, it wasn’t pursued for very long. Now ten years later, Andrea Curtin has returned to Botswana. She wants closure about her son’s disappearance so she asks Mma. Ramotswe to look into the matter. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and travels to the eco-commune to begin asking questions. In the end she finds out what really happened to Michael Curtin and is able to give his mother answers. Throughout this novel it’s obvious that Andrea Curtin is suffering. She’s grief-stricken over the loss of her son and it has taken a toll. And yet she has a real sense of grace and dignity and her sorrow is all the more haunting because of it.
That’s also true of Eddie Holland, whom we meet in Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back. In that novel, the body of Eddie Holland’s fifteen-year-old daughter Annie is found at a tarn near the village of Granittveien. There are no signs of sexual assault or defensive wounds, so it’s clear that Annie knew and probably trusted her killer. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre have to look among Annie’s friends and relations to find her killer and one of those suspects is her father Eddie. He claims that he is innocent and he is truly devastated by the loss of his daughter. As the investigation continues we feel his grief and bewilderment. There’s an especially affecting scene, for instance, during which he has to go to the local funeral home to make final arrangements. He can barely function but he still does what needs to be done. In fact, Fossum creates a great deal of sympathy for Eddie Holland so that the reader doesn’t want him to be the guilty one. Neither does Inspector Sejer and that makes it hard for him to treat Holland as a suspect. But he does what needs to be done too. In the end Sejer and Skarre find out that Annie Holland knew more than was safe for her to know about someone, and that ended up being the reason for her murder.
Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road is the story of the murder of prospector Albert “Doc” Ozolins. He was supposedly killed as the result of a drunken quarrel but fledgling Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest suspects otherwise. She notices certain things that just don’t fit with the “drunken quarrel” solution to this murder. So she begins to ask some questions, much to the vexation of her boss Bruce Cockburn. One person she decides to speak to is Ozolins’ brother Wishy, who manages a transport and works depot. In the course of the first conversation Tempest has with Wishy Ozolins, we learn some interesting things about Ozolins’ background and we learn an important piece of information about him. We also see that Wishy Ozolins is deeply grieved by his brother’s murder although he isn’t melodramatic about it. Wishy’s daughter Tiger Lily is devastated too; she adored her uncle and truly misses him. At first Wishy is willing to believe the official explanation, but when Tempest convinces him that there are holes in the story he agrees to support her independent investigation. And in the end she finds out who killed Doc Ozolins and why.
We also see a haunting portrayal of that kind of dignified grief in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Connor Bligh has been imprisoned for several years for the murder of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. The only member of the family who survived was Angela and Rowan’s daughter Katy, who wasn’t home at the time of the murders. When new hints suggest that Bligh might not be guilty, Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne thinks this may be just the story she’s been wanting. So she decides to investigate it. Katy Dickson has always believed her uncle was the killer, especially because of something she overheard during a telephone conversation. She is still devastated by the loss of her family and has absolutely no desire at all to co-operate with Thorne or even speak to her. Yet Thorne keeps asking questions and looking into the matter, all the while getting more personally involved in the case than she should. Throughout this novel, the scenes that feature Katy Dickson show a grief-stricken but strong character who is slowly putting her life back together. It’s a haunting and eloquent depiction of dignified grief.
Characters like that can help make a novel unforgettable when they’re well-drawn. Which ones are your favourites? If you’re a writer, how do you go about depicting grief without being melodramatic about it?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s Gold Dust Woman.