A lot of people think of the word love in its sense of romance between two people. That’s especially true on days like today (As I write this, it’s Valentine’s Day). Other people may think of love among family members or even the strong attachments we have to close friends. They’re all different ways of thinking about that same driving force. But there are other ways to look at that force too. For instance that same passion drives people who love what they do. If you’ve ever had a teacher or professor who inspired you because of that person’s passion for the subject, you know what I mean. If you’ve ever had your hair done expertly by someone who absolutely loves making people feel good about the way they look, you know what I mean. If you’re a writer with a ‘day job’ who juggles everything frantically because you are passionate about writing, you know what I mean too. Doing what you love is energising and fulfilling. And in fiction, characters who do what they love because they love it can add life and zest to a novel. Just a quick look at crime fiction should show what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) we meet Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He is passionate about medicine and medical research and the one thing that drives him more than anything else is his love for the field. In fact, it helps to make him one of the most ‘alive’ characters in this story. One week-end, he and his wife Gerda are invited to the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Also invited are a few other Angkatell relations. Among them is Henrietta Savernake, who is as passionate about her sculpture as Christow is about medicine. Hercule Poirot has taken a nearby cottage for getaways and the Angkatells invite him for lunch on the Sunday. When he arrives though, Poirot is met by a scene he thinks has been arranged for his ‘amusement.’ Christow’s been shot next to the swimming pool and the person who seems to have shot him is standing holding the gun. Within seconds Poirot sees that this not a tableau; it’s all too real. He works with Inspector Grange to find out who show Christow and why. Throughout the novel we see how Christow’s passion for what he does has impacted him and how Savernake’s passion for what she does influences her. That passion isn’t really the reason Christow was murdered. But it forms an important theme in this novel.
A passion for archaeology is what drives Harry Steadman in Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man. Steadman inherited a good deal of money, so he’s been able to leave his position at Leeds University and move to Yorkshire, where he can follow his dream of excavating the Roman ruins there. He and his wife Emma are more or less settled in Yorkshire and Steadman’s been working on a large excavation plan. Then one day he’s found bludgeoned to death. DI Alan Banks and his team investigate the murder and they soon find that more than one person had a motive. One of the interesting themes in this novel is the way that Steadman’s love for his profession and his passion for what he does influences all of the people in his life.
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a baker who lives and works in Melbourne. At one time she was an accountant, until she realised that accounting simply didn’t matter to her. When she turned to baking she found a career for which she has a true love, even if it does mean getting up at four in the morning. For her, making bread is real. In fact, in Trick or Treat, she learns just how much baking means to her. In one of the plot threads of that story, there’s evidence that some of the local bread may have been poisoned with ergot. So Chapman’s bakery has to be quarantined while the authorities search for signs of ergot. She’s devastated that she can’t do what she loves and what means the most to her. She’s just as upset at the possibility that her bread could have caused harm. In the end, it gives Chapman a real sense that everything will be all right when she’s able to re-open her bakery and start creating bread again. Chapman passes on that passion (or perhaps awakens it) too. Her assistant Jason has just as much of a love for creating; in his case it’s muffins. In fact one of his nicknames is The Muffin Man. Nothing makes him happier than to come up with a delicious new variety or to perfect one he’s already created.
Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo introduces us to Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham. She is passionate about writing and about Wordsworth and puts up with the difficulties of being on the ‘bottom rung’ of academia as she works on her scholarship. Then she gets word that a body has been discovered in a bog not far from where she grew up in the Lake District. It’s possible that the body belongs to Fletcher Christian of H.M.S. Bounty fame. There always were stories that he didn’t die on Pitcairn Island as had been reported. If he made his way back to the Lake District, nothing would be more natural than that he might contact his good friend Wordsworth. If that happened, so Gresham reasons, Wordsworth would likely have written about the real story of what happened to his friend. And that could very well be the unpublished Wordsworth manuscript that Gresham has always believed existed. So she travels eagerly to the Lake District to find out if such a manuscript exists. Gresham soon gets mixed up in murder as first one, than another lead in her search turns up dead. In order to clear her name, she’ll have to discover who the killer is and hope that that will also lead her to the manuscript.
Martin Edwards’ Daniel Kind also loves what he does. He’s an Oxford historian whose passion for history is one of the driving forces in his life. That love of history also gives him valuable insights into the ‘cold cases’ that DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate. Scarlett used to work with Kind’s father Ben, so the two have known each other for some time. Scarlett may not be the keen historian that Kind is, but she respects his passion and finds that his knowledge is often helpful. For instance, his research into Lake District writer Thomas de Quincey is key to solving three murders in The Serpent Pool. Kind’s interest in history is infectious too; in fact, at the beginning of the series he moves to the Lake District in part because he’s had enough of being a ‘history celebrity.’ He’s much in demand for lectures and guest teaching and it’s easy to see why. He loves what he does.
There are of course fictional sleuths who are passionate about solving cases. That for instance is why Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes does what he does. He loves solving problems and dealing with his cases feeds that passion. It’s the same for Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Michael Connelly’s Hary Bosch too. And I’m sure that you can think of other fictional sleuths who are driven by their passion for solving cases.
Doing what you love and are passionate about can be one of life’s truly fulfilling experiences. In fact, Billy Joel has said, ‘If you are not doing what you love, you are wasting your time.’ I don’t know if I’d put it in terms like that, but I think Mr. Joel has a point…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s What I Did For Love.