When the Chips Are Down I’ll Be Around*

Unlikely HeroesPeople don’t always know how they would react in a crisis until one happens. And then, it’s sometimes surprising the way people whom you wouldn’t have expected it of turn out to be real heroes. Somehow that crisis brings out their very best. There are a lot of examples of that in real life, and of course, we see it in crime fiction too.

Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links for instance introduces us to a young woman who calls herself Cinderella. Captain Hastings happens to meet her when they share a compartment on a train and, although she’s by no means stupid or weak, she certainly doesn’t strike one as heroic. Hastings thinks she’s attractive (if a bit annoying) but doesn’t think much more about her. Then, he and Hercule Poirot travel to France at the request of Paul Renauld. Renauld has sent Poirot a letter saying that his life is in danger and asking for Poirot’s help. When the two get to the Renauld home, they find that they’ve arrived too late:  he’s been stabbed and his body found on a nearby golf course. Poirot finds out who is responsible for the murder, but that doesn’t mean the danger is over. I think I can say without spoiling the story that at a very critical point, ‘Cinderella’ proves her mettle and turns out to be quite heroic.

The main plot of Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors revolves around a robbery, some missing emeralds, and their connections to an unknown corpse found in the Thorpe family grave. Lord Peter Wimsey gets drawn into this mystery when he and his valet Mervyn Bunter are stranded near the village of Fenchurch St. Paul after a car accident. Rector Theodore Venables invites the men to lodge at the rectory while the car is being repaired and they agree gratefully. Wimsey is able to return the kindness when one of the church’s change-ringers Will Thoday is taken ill. Since Wimsey has some experience, he offers to take Thoday’s place and Venables is only too happy to have his help. The change-ringing goes well but the next day, word comes that Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire, has died. Wimsey and Bunter stay for the funeral and then go on their way. Several months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables. Sir Henry Thorpe has died, and while the gravediggers were preparing for the service, they discovered the body of an unknown man in the Thorpe family grave. Venables asks Wimsey to return to Fenchurch and find out who the dead man was and why his body is in the grave. Wimsey and Bunter go and they discover how this body is related to the robbery and the missing emeralds. Throughout most of the story, Venables is portrayed as an essentially very decent person, but a little scatty and vague – certainly not a person you’d label a hero. But when a flood comes to Fenchurch, he takes the lead and behaves heroically as he works to save his congregants from the rising waters. The flood isn’t the main plot, but the threat of a storm is a thread that runs through the story.

In Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money, Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan is hired by Madeleine Avery to find her missing brother Charles. He’s fairly good at tracking down people who don’t want to be found, so he’s a natural choice for the job. Quinlan travels to Bangkok, where Avery was last known to live. But when he gets to Avery’s apartment, he finds that his quarry is gone. He also finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. Quinlan discovers that Avery’s next destination was Phnom Penh, so he heads to Cambodia. There, he meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin. Sarin isn’t weak-willed at all, but he’s a bit retiring and certainly not the ‘macho’ type. He is however extremely knowledgeable about Cambodia and he and Quinlan form a partnership as Quinlan continues to search for Avery. It turns out that Avery had gotten the wrong people very angry, so Quinlan and Sarin face long odds as they follow the trail to Northern Cambodia. Sarin proves to be both loyal and heroic as the pair find out what happened to Avery and why so many people seem determined that they won’t learn the truth.

Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective introduces us to Preeti and Basanti, two young girls from India who have become a part of the dhanda – a term used to refer to India’s sex trade. The girls’ families have been paid money for their services, the idea being that Preeti and Basanti will work in the trade for a certain amount of time and then return to their villages. Preeti is positive and quite brave about joining ‘the trade,’ although she’s nervous. And Basanti depends heavily on her friend’s courage and optimism. When the girls are sent to Scotland, they manage to stay together until they arrive. Then they are separated and for quite a time Basanti doesn’t know what’s happened to her close friend. One day she finds a way to escape the people who’ve been holding her, and goes looking for Preeti. She discovers that the body of an unknown young woman has been found in the sea, and that it could very well be the body of her friend. She makes her way to the home of oceanographer and Ph.D. student Caladh ‘Clad’ McGill. He’s an expert on wave patterns and ocean movement, and just may be able to help Basanti find out who killed Preeti. Throughout this novel Basanti shows what she’s made of as the saying goes, and proves herself quite heroic as she survives horrible trauma and manages to help McGill discover the truth.

In Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom, Toronto PI Sasha Jackson is hired by Christine Arvisais to find out who killed Arvisais’ former fiancé Gordon Hanes. Hanes was shot on what would have been their wedding day had the engagement not been broken off. A lot of people think Arvisais is responsible for the murder, but she claims she’s innocent and wants to clear her name. Jackson takes an immediate dislike to her client, but a fee is a fee, so she gets to work. She discovers that Arvisais is not the only one with a motive for murder in this case. What’s more, she finds that Hanes’ murder may be connected with some other deaths. One of the characters we meet in this novel is Victor, a former client of Jackson’s. He’s a little eccentric and has, as Jackson puts it, a ‘runamok mouth.’ He’s also quite smitten with Jackson. He’s a nice guy but not at all what you’d think of as the heroic type. But as it turns out, he has more brains and courage than Jackson knows, and comes through at a very crucial time.

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s Dance of the Seagull. In that novel, Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano is faced with a particularly difficult case. One of his valuable team members Giuseppe Fazio has gone missing. At the time of his disappearance, Fazio was following up on some leads to a dangerous smuggling ring and Montalbano believes that his best chance of finding his teammate is to follow the trail Fazio left. That trail turns out to be particularly risky; it ends up leading to several crimes, including murder.  The team members do find Fazio, wounded but alive. He’s transported to hospital and that’s where Montalbano meets Angela, a nurse who works there. Like most nurses Angela works hard and does her job well. But she doesn’t strike one as unusually heroic. And yet, as Montalbano and his team get closer to catching the people responsible for the crimes, she shows remarkable courage.

Just goes to show you – you never know what kind of inner strength and bravery people have until they’re up against it. These are just a few examples. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this song is a line from Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s The Power of Love. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Andrew Nette, Dorothy Sayers, Jill Edmondson, Mark Douglas-Home

18 responses to “When the Chips Are Down I’ll Be Around*

  1. In Elly Griffiths ‘A Dying Fall’, Ruth’s friend Cathbad shows an unexpected heroic streak when Ruth’s child seems to be in danger. It turns out his heroism was misplaced in that instance, but it made his character much more likeable and added a dramatic element to the book.

  2. Another Christie comes to mind – The Moving Finger. Megan Hunter takes action at the end which enables the murderer to be caught, despite considerable danger to herself, and many of the characters having treating her as half-witted throughout the book. Hero Jerry is cross with Miss Marple for encouraging her do this, but Miss Marple convinces him it was the right thing to do, and all ends happily….

    • Moira – Oh, you’re right, that is a great example of the kind of heroism I had in mind. And you don’t expect her to have that steel in her. Yet she does. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  3. Posting my family’s true life crime story tomorrow. Circa 1947.

  4. My favorite part of Murder on the Links was Cinderella. And the rest of the books you mention I am looking forward to reading someday.

  5. One of my favorite Arthur Upfield mysteries featuring Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte fits very neatly into this pattern, Margot. In “Murder Must Wait,” Bony is faced with a murder that occurs apparently in conjunction with a wave of baby kidnappings. Bony is certainly brave enough, but the really courageous detective in this book is First Constable Alice McGorr. In the course of solving the baby kidnappings – a crime that forces the murder to the back burner – Alice McGorr demonstrates incredible bravery and strength; without her, it is highly unlikely that Bony could have solved the case. This is another one that I wish were still in print – it’s one of the best of Bony’s adventures.

    • Les – I wish it were in print too. It really is an excellent example of that kind of heroism from people you might not expect to have it. It is a shame that more of this series isn’t easily available. I know there’s been a movement to bring back some of those great old novels; I wonder if some of these will get some attention. Thanks for reminding me this one’s out there.

  6. Margot: Every lawyer who does criminal defence faces the decision of whether he or she will represent the accused damned by society. Will you take on the case of the despised and scorned? Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer in rural Alabama, in To Kill a Mockingbird not only defends a black man unjustly charged he stands against a mob intent on lynching his client. No single character has inspired more young lawyers.

    • Bill – Atticus FInch embodies the kind of courage I had in mind when I wrote this post. Little wonder that young lawyers want to be like him. And what a model for his children, too. Thanks for reminding me; that was a gap that needed to be filled in.

  7. Col

    I really enjoyed Nette’s Ghost Money, but I’m unfamiliar with your other examples – and yet again I draw a blank when trying to remember examples from my own reading. Not enough caffeine in the system yet!

    • Col – I’m always in favour of a shot of caffeine to jolt the thinking. I’m glad you enjoyed Ghost Money; I think it’s a very well-written novel with a really strong sense of place.

  8. Margot – I find also interesting the crisis situations which bring out the worst in a hero, or villain, for that matter. I can’t think of a lot of specific examples, but an extreme case might be Mike Hammer, where the ‘crisis’ he’s involved in inspires the worst in him, i.e. his tendency to violence and vigilantism. Ironically the character of Hammer sees himself acting in a heroic way in a worthy cause.
    A somewhat less extreme version of this formula might be the character of Dixon Steele from Dorothy Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, portrayed so memorably by Humphrey Bogart in the film version.

    • Bryan – You make an interesting point. A crisis has different effects on different people, and certainly that kind of stress can bring out someone’s worst character traits. You give a strong example of that in the case of Mike Hammer and there are others too. In fact, that’s such an interesting topic I think I’m going to mull it over and do a post on it soon. Thank you very much for the inspiration.

  9. Completely agree with Fiction Fan about Cathbad. He turns out to be a del hero. Can’t wait for the next instalment.

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