We’ve all had to deal with sadness, let-downs and sometimes much worse. In fact, the question really isn’t whether we have to deal with those negative and sometimes terrible things. The more important question is how we cope – what we do about the bad breaks we get. In crime fiction, there are a lot of novels that feature characters who’ve gotten a raw deal and lash out about it; sometimes those characters become murderers and there are a lot of plots both good and…otherwise that feature those characters. But the more interesting characters (or perhaps this is just my opinion) are those who don’t waste their time blaming others for their problems. Those characters may acknowledge that they’ve been hurt, or been a victim of some very bad fortune or worse. But, to use a metaphor, they play the hand they’ve been dealt. It takes strength and resilience to do that.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly we meet Amy Folliat. Once the lady of Nasse House in Nassecombe, Devonshire, she has had several pieces of very bad fortune. For one thing, she married a man who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic during an era when divorce was simply not an option. For another, she lost one of her sons during World War II. The family’s economic situation became so difficult that the Folliats were forced to sell Nasse House to pay debts, so that now Amy Folliat lives in the lodge associated with the house. And yet, although everyone knows about the blows fate has dealt her, no-one sees Amy Folliat behave bitterly or bemoan her fate. She doesn’t blame others for what’s happened to her. Instead, she lives life as best she can. When Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs begin to plan the fête that’s been held annually for years, Amy Folliat joins in the planning. This year, the group decides to have a Murder Hunt, akin to a scavenger hunt. They commission detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to design the Murder Hunt and she travels to Nasse House to do the planning. Soon after her arrival, she begins to get the feeling that something more is going on than just a fête, and asks Hercule Poirot to join her there. He agrees and travels to Nasse House under the guise of giving out the prizes for the Murder Hunt. On the day of the fête, Oliver’s worse fears are realised when fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was playing the part of the “victim” in the hunt, is really strangled. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out the truth about the killing. Throughout the novel, we see Amy Folliat’s strength of character and her refusal to blame others for the things that have happened to her. She’s a stronger and more interesting character for that.
James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux is like that too. He’s had his share of disappointments and bad breaks, but he doesn’t waste time looking for people to blame. Instead, he does what needs to be done given what he is and has. For instance, in A Morning For Flamingos, he and his partner Lester Benoit are assigned to transport two prisoners to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. One of the prisoners Jimmie Lee Boggs manages to escape and free his fellow prisoner Tee Beau Latiolais. Boggs kills Benoit and badly wounds Robicheaux, leaving him for dead. Robicheaux certainly knows that Boggs is responsible for what happens – he even has nightmares about it – and when he gets the chance to go after Boggs he does. But at the same time, he plays the hand he’s been dealt. Instead of spending his recovery time hating and blaming Boggs, he uses it to heal, to spend time with his daughter Alafair and to get back to the business of living. Robicheaux is a Vietnam veteran, so he sometimes has nightmares of things that happened during that war. But rather then blame the government that sent him, or the soldiers who attacked him, Robicheaux simply does his best to deal with the after-effects of that trauma.
We see that same strength of character in Denise Mina’s Maureen “Mauri” O’Donnell. She’s had more than her share of bad breaks. She grew up with a paedophile father and an alcoholic mother. For a number of reasons she really doesn’t have a close bond with anyone in the family except her brother Liam. But Mauri O’Donnell doesn’t waste her time blaming her dysfunctional family for everything that happens to her. She knows that her parents are deeply troubled and she knows what the source is of her own fragile emotional state. But instead of fulminating about it, she deals with her life as it is. She has friends, she works in a women’s shelter, and she builds a world for herself. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t acknowledge her scars. They are very real. But as we learn in Garnethill, they don’t stop her from finding out who killed her former lover Douglas Brady. They don’t stop her in Exile or Resolution, either. She shows real strength of character as she deals with the murder of one of the residents of the women’s shelter, the trial of Douglas Brady’s murderer and more. And that’s mostly because she doesn’t obsess about who is responsible for her bad fortune. She simply deals with her life as best she can.
So does Peter Temple’s Jack Irish. Irish is a Melbourne private investigator who used to have a regular law practice. Then his beloved wife Isabel was murdered by one of his clients. In Bad Debts, here is what Irish says about that:
“Deranged clients. It’s a risk you run. Isabel knew that. She practised family law, where practically all the clients are deranged to some degree. I didn’t blame myself. I just raged against fate.”
In that sense Irish does acknowledge his anger, grief and loss. And he does slide into a long period of drinking. But – and here’s what’s crucial – Irish doesn’t blame others for his choice to drink or for his anger. He doesn’t blame “an unfair system” or even spend a lot of time blaming the client who shot his wife. He picks up his pieces, stops going on drinking binges and simply lives his life with what he has.
We see a similar response in Deon Meyer’s Martin Lemmer. Lemmer is a professional bodyguard whom we meet in Blood Safari. He is the product of an abusive childhood and a broken home. He’s also had a battle with alcohol. But Lemmer does not waste time blaming his parents or anyone else. He gets a job as a personal bodyguard and is hired by Emma le Roux to travel with her from Cape Town to the Lowveld to help solve the mystery of her brother Jacobus’ disappearance. During the course of that trip, we learn that Lemmer copes with the life he’s got by not drinking, by controlling the anger he knows he has and by simply, as the saying goes, putting his head down and doing his job. He doesn’t ask us to feel sorry for him.
Neither does Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel, whom we meet for the first time in A Trace of Smoke. Vogel comes from a very troubled family background. In her adult life, she has to cope with food shortages, an unstable income and in A Trace of Smoke she has to deal with her grief at the loss of her brother Ernst. When Vogel discovers that her brother’s been killed, she is determined to find out how and by whom Ernst was murdered. She can’t do it openly though because she’s lent her identity papers to a friend and hasn’t gotten them back yet. And yet, through all of this, plus the danger from the rising Nazi party, Vogel doesn’t ask us to blame anyone for what’s happened to her, or to feel sorry for her. She uses her wits and she does what she can with what she has rather than wasting time blaming others.
The ability to simply “play the hand one’s dealt” without useless blaming can add real strength to a character and make that character all the more appealing. That said though, it’s just as important to make characters realistic enough to acknowledge the enormity of what happens to them and deal with that reality.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Eagles’ Get Over It