The very fact that we’re human means that we make mistakes – sometimes big ones. We do stupid things, we hurt people without meaning to and so on. At least I hope I’m not the only one who screws up. It’s hard enough to apologise for our mistakes but sometimes it’s even harder to forgive ourselves and move on. In fact, what’s odd is that we are sometimes more forgiving of others than we are of ourselves. Of course it’s healthy to admit it when we make a mistake or hurt someone. That’s part of how we grow. But there’s a balance between accepting responsibility for our behaviour and carrying an unhealthy load of guilt that gets in our way. Certainly too much guilt impedes us in real life and it happens to characters in crime fiction too.
For instance in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, beautiful and notorious actress Arlena Stuart Marshall is taking a holiday with her husband Kenneth and stepdaughter Linda. They’ve chosen the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay and at first all goes well enough. Then Arlena begins to notice fellow guest Patrick Redfern. He’s all too willing despite being married and before long it’s common gossip that they’re having an affair. Then late one morning Arlena Marshall is found strangled on Pixy’s Cove not far from the beach. The most likely suspect is Kenneth Marshall since he knew of his wife’s infidelity. But he has a solid alibi so the police have to search for another suspect. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel and he works with the police to find the real killer. Kenneth Marshall’s daughter Linda hated her stepmother and that hatred makes her actually believe that she has killed her stepmother. Her guilt over that hatred drives her to drastic action and it’s interesting to see how she is affected by her inability to forgive herself for the way she feels.
Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus is the story of Davide Auseri, a young man who’s developed a severe drinking problem and who shows other signs that something is seriously wrong. His father hires Dr. Duca Lamberti, who has just been released from prison on charges of euthanasia, to help Davide. Lamberti knows that if he doesn’t get Davide to really tell him the reason for the heavy drinking, it will never end. So he starts by getting the young man to open up to him in general. Bit by bit Davide tells Lamberti the problem. A year earlier a young woman named Alberta Radelli begged him to let her run away with him. She claimed she couldn’t stay in Milan but Davide didn’t believe her and she ended up being murdered with her body left in a field. Lamberti decides that the only way to free Davide of this guilt is to find out who the murderer is. So he begins to dig into the matter and finds that shortly after this young woman’s death, another young woman Maurilia Arbati was also killed. Lamberti believes that these two deaths are related and with help from Davide Auseri and Albert’s friend Livia Ussaro, he slowly finds out what really happened to the dead women.
In Michael Connelly’s Echo Park, L.A.P.D. Harry Bosch has to deal with a deep sense of guilt about the case of Marie Gesto. She walked out of a Hollywood supermarket one day and simply disappeared. Bosch was assigned the case and even had a suspect in mind but he couldn’t catch the criminal. Then a few years later Raynard Waits is arrested for two other brutal murders. There’s no question of his guilt as he was caught with grisly evidence. In order to escape the death penalty Waits offers to give the police information about other disappearances including that of Marie Gesto. Bosch has always felt guilty about not being able to solve this case and that’s part of what motivates him to work with Waits.
And then there’s Shona MacLean’s Alexander Seaton, a teacher in 17th Century Scotland. When we first meet Seaton in The Redemption of Alexander Seaton he’s the undermaster of a grammar school. He was a very promising candidate for the ministry but he fell into disgrace because of his relationship with his best friend’s sister Katherine Hay. Seaton’s professional disgrace is hard enough for him to forgive in himself. What’s even harder is that he treated Katharine very badly over the whole situation and ended up rejecting her. Seaton simply cannot forgive himself for what he’s done and doesn’t spend a lot of time with other people. But he does step in when his friend Charles Thom asks for his help. Thom’s been imprisoned for the murder of apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson, but he claims he is innocent. He begs Seaton to clear his name and find out who the killer is. In the course of this investigation Seaton begins to stop seeing himself as a pariah who deserves to be an outcast. He learns to forgive himself for the past.
Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Copenhagen cop Carl Mørck still hasn’t forgiven himself for a shooting incident in which one of his colleagues was killed and one left paralysed. Mørck himself was badly injured but of the three officers involved he’s the only one who’ll be able to make a full recovery. He feels a strong sense of guilt that he didn’t do more to save his fellow cops and that’s an ongoing struggle for him. In Mercy AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes we learn that Mørck has become so difficult to work with since the shooting incident that he’s “promoted” to a new department, Department Q, which is devoted to cases “of special interest.” One of them in particular, the case of the disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard, gets the attention of Mørck and his assistant Hafez al-Assad and the two re-open the case. In part because of his guilt, Mørck shares the details of the case with his paralysed colleague Hardy Henningsen to try to spark some interest and get some insight. It adds an interesting layer to both men’s characters to see how each deals with the awkwardness of Mørck’s visits.
None of us is perfect, so learning to forgive ourselves and move on, with lessons learned, is an important part of functioning. When people can’t forgive themselves it can weigh them down and in a sense keep them trapped. It’s not particularly healthy in real life but it can add an interesting layer to a novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Already Gone.