An interesting comment exchange has got me to thinking about a difficult challenge that crime fiction authors face. Murder and crime are horrible things. Any writer who doesn’t acknowledge that isn’t really writing a credible story. And some authors (I’ll bet you could name at least as many as I could, likely more) focus on that and make their stories quite bleak. But not all readers want a steady diet of bleak, noir novels. So how does an author integrate the real-life sadness and horror of crime while at the same time presenting a positive, hopeful outlook? It’s not easy. But it can be done if the story is in deft hands.
Agatha Christie for instance wrote some novels that have very sad endings and messages. But some of her work is a lot more hopeful. For instance, Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) tells of the murder of Marie Morisot, usually known as Madame Giselle. She’s a French moneylender who is poisoned while she’s en route between Paris and London. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, one of whom is Hercule Poirot. He works with Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp to find out who the killer is. Very soon after the investigation begins, Poirot discovers that a number of people benefited by Madame Giselle’s death; she used information she had about her clients as ‘collateral’ for the loans she made, and several people are highly anxious that their information shouldn’t be made public. In the end, and after another murder, Poirot discovers who the murderer is. This novel certainly acknowledges the sadness of murder and in particular how stressful it is for those caught up in the investigation. But without giving away spoilers, I think I can say that we get the sense that things will be all right. The criminal is caught and the other people involved will go on.
Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series featuring Mma. Precious Ramotswe is like that too. In fact, this is the series that was mentioned in the comments (Thanks, Kathy D.!) that inspired this post. There are lots of examples of what I mean in this series; I’ll just share one. In The Kalahari Typing School For Men, we meet successful civil engineer Mr. Molofelo. When he has a narrow escape from poachers on his ostrich farm, he decides to set some things right in his life. Years ago when he was a student, Mr. Molofelo boarded with the kind and generous Tsolamosese family. While he was there, he stole a radio from them. At the same time in his life, Mr. Molofelo was involved with a girl named Tebogo Bathopi. He got her pregnant but did little to help her. Now Mr. Molofelo wants to find both the Tsolamoseses and his former girlfriend to make things right, so he hires Mma. Ramotswe to find out where they are. She agrees to take the case and tracks down the people Mr. Molofelo wants to find. On the one hand, it’s a sad story. Mma. Ramotswe’s client can’t really undo what he did. On the other, he gets the chance to make amends and we get the strong message that everything is going to be all right. It’s a story that ends on a hopeful note.
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series is like that too. Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and works in a Roman-style building called Insula. Chapman doesn’t actively look for mysteries to solve but she frequently gets involved in them because of her loyalty to her friends and fellow residents. And some of her cases are awfully sad. For instance, in Earthly Delights, the first novel in the series, there’s a new resident in Insula Andy Holliday. A former business entrepreneur, Holliday seems to have half-drowned himself in alcohol. We soon discover that a big part of the reason is that his daughter Cherie has gone missing. We also learn that her disappearance has to do with a tragic family rift caused by a horrible incident. Chapman works with her lover Daniel Cohen and information from two other residents to find out what’s happened to Cherie. In this particular case, there is plenty of sadness and Greenwood doesn’t ‘sugarcoat’ it. But at the same time, the case is resolved in a way that gives us hope – a sense that things will be all right.
That’s also what we see in Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri series. Puri is a Delhi private investigator who’s usually called in to do background checks on potential brides and grooms so that families can be certain the match will be a suitable one. But sometimes Puri is involved in more difficult cases. For instance, in The Case of the Missing Servant, Puri is hired by successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal to find out what become of the Kasliwal family servant Mary Murmu. She disappeared a few months earlier and Kasliwal has been accused of raping and murdering her. The police don’t want to be accused of being ‘bought’ by the rich and powerful so they make a show of arresting Kasliwal for the crime. Kasliwal claims that although he is hardly perfect, he is innocent of any wrongdoing when it comes to Mary Murmu. So Puri and his team begin to look into the case. The truth of the case is sad and Hall doesn’t make light of what happened to Mary Murmu. At the same time, the end of that story also gives a sense that all will work out. And the ‘feel’ of the novels in this series is more or less optimistic. Hall manages this while still acknowledging the reality of what Puri and his team investigate.
And then there’s Robert Crais’ series featuring PI Elvis Cole and his partner Joe Pike. One of the appealing things about this series is that Crais varies the novels so that they don’t get too ‘samey’ so some of the novels in this series are bleaker than others. But Lullaby Town gives a sense of hope. Famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson hires Cole and Pike to find his missing ex-wife Karen Shipley and their son Toby. Nelson claims that he wants to have a relationship with Toby but he and Karen parted on very bitter terms, so she hasn’t been in contact. Cole’s reluctant at first but finally agrees to take the case. The trail leads to a small Connecticut town where Karen Shipley works in a local bank. Cole soon finds though that this isn’t going to be a simple case. Karen has gotten herself mixed up with the Mob, so some very nasty people soon take an unhealthy interest in Cole and Pike. In some ways this is a sad story and Crais doesn’t make light of the Nelson family rift. Nor does he pretend that getting mixed up with Mob types is fun and lighthearted. It’s actually quite ugly and dangerous. But the ending to this story is in many ways hopeful, and it gives us the feeling that things will work out.
Being able to send that message, while at the same time acknowledging what murder and crime are really like, is not easy. And as I said, some readers don’t want books with a hopeful message. Their taste runs to the bleak. What about you? Do you gravitate towards hopeful books? If you’re a crime writer, do you put a hopeful spin on your stories?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds.