One of the hardest things the police ever have to do is break the bad news of a loved one’s death. I can’t imagine anything that’s much worse. It’s very difficult to write such scenes in crime fiction, too. On the one hand, those scenes are not realistic if they don’t convey the shock and sorrow of that news. On the other, if those scenes are too maudlin, they aren’t believable and they can pull a reader out of a book. So those scenes can be a real challenge to write. But when they’re done well, they can be compelling. There are lots of such scenes in crime fiction; I only have space for a few examples.
In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda are invited to spend the weekend at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and he is invited for lunch on the Sunday. When he arrives though, it’s not a meal that awaits him but a dead body. Christow has just been shot by the swimming pool and is near to death. At first, Inspector Grange thinks this is an ‘open-and-shut’ case, as all of the obvious signs point to one person. But as he and Poirot soon discover, it’s not that simple. One of the heartbreaking tasks that have to be done is that Christow’s children Terry and Zena have to be told what’s happened. Christie depicts their reactions in a believable and (in my opinion anyway) affecting and effective way.
In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, the body of Reed Gallagher is found in a cheap, run-down rooming house. Regina Police Force Inspector Alex Kequahtooway has the thankless task of informing Gallagher’s widow Julie of the news, and he wants her to find out before the media does. He knows that political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn, whom he’s dating, knows Julie Evanson Gallagher, so he asks her to go with him to break the bad news. Kilbourn reluctantly agrees and the two make the visit. Julie’s reaction is believable and affecting. At first, she says very little; Bowen makes her shock clear. Then she lashes out at both her visitors, and that also makes sense. She and Kilbourn have a history that hasn’t always been pleasant and friendly and of course, her anger at her husband’s murder just adds to her burden. Kilbourn and Kequahtooway take it in stride as best they can and each in a different way, they investigate.
In Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow, Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police Department is faced with one of the most difficult tasks that any cop ever has to do. The body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine has been found in an abandoned mine shaft, and Cardinal has to inform her mother that Katie is dead. It’s hard enough that Katie and her mother are Ojibwa, and there is little love lost between the people who live on the Reserve and the White police community. What makes his job all the more difficult in this case is that Katie had been missing for five months before her body was found, and it was Cardinal who was originally assigned that investigation:
‘Asking Dorothy Pine last September for the name of her daughter’s dentist – so he could get her chart – had been the hardest thing Cardinal had eve had to do.’
His inability to find Katie, coupled with the fact that he knows Dorothy Pine doesn’t trust him – why should she trust a White cop? – make Cardinal’s visit all the more difficult. When he arrives with the news, Dorothy’s understated reaction makes her grief all the more apparent. So does the fact that all of Katie’s things are still there…
In Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, Sheriff Walt Longmire has to inform John Pritchard and his wife that their son Cody has been murdered. Cody Pritchard’s body was found on public land not far from Durant, Wyoming and at first, there aren’t many leads or much evidence. Here’s what Longmire thinks about the task awaiting him:
‘…the full impact of what I was going to have to do hit me like a Burlington Northern. How do you tell parents that their child is dead? Sure, they’d heard it through the grapevine, but I was the official word. I allowed myself a long sigh.’
What makes this task (and the investigation) all the more difficult for Longmire is that Cody Pritchard had recently been released from prison after serving what everyone thought was an offensively short sentence for rape. And when there’s another murder, this time of one of the other young men involved in the rape case, Longmire thinks that these murders may be related to that case. In this case, Johnson doesn’t go into detail about what exactly passes between Longmire and the Pritchards. He does say though that
‘The conversation wasn’t as bad as it could have been.’
In this case, that understatement adds to the sense of atmosphere.
In Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith is on duty when an SUV slides on an icy patch of road and plunges into the Upper Kootenay River. When the SUV is pulled from the water, it’s discovered that both of its occupants are dead. The driver Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth and his passenger Ewan Williams were with a group of friends on a ski holiday when the accident happened. Now Smith has the unpleasant duty of informing Jason’s sister Wendy of his death and that of his friend. So she goes to the guest house where the group is staying. She finds it very difficult to do this job, but she musters up her courage and asks to speak to Wendy privately:
‘Wendy Wyatt-Yarmouth had crumpled to the floor like a rag doll left out in the spring rain, while Smith shifted her feet and stuffed her hands into her pockets….
Assured that Wendy would be taken good care of, Smith left. Feeling like absolute crap.’
As Smith soon learns, this case isn’t a simple tragic accident. When forensics results show that Ewan Williams had already been dead for several hours before the SUV went into the river, it’s clear that something much more than an accident is going on.
I can only imagine what it must be like to have to tell someone that a loved one is dead – even worse, murdered. It’s got to be one of the most unpleasant and enervating tasks there is. And writing about it effectively takes a deft hand.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James Taylor’s Fire and Rain.