Whether it’s fictional or real, murder is of course a horrible crime, and well-written crime novels don’t make light of that. But on the other hand, a novel in which there is no ray of hope or reason to be positive can be awfully depressing. That’s why it can add much to a novel if there is a character with a positive outlook on life: one who can make us see that everything will work out somehow or other. I’m not talking here about comic relief; that’s another topic entirely. Rather, I mean characters whose overall positive outlook on life can lighten an otherwise dark story.
One such character is Robert Crais’ L.A.-based PI Elvis Cole. Part of Cole’s appeal is that he has a sometimes wisecracking sense of humour and he isn’t overly pessimistic. He knows how horrible murder is and he doesn’t look at investigating as a fun, happy pastime. But at the same time, overall, he has the sense about life that it will be all right. For example, in The Monkey’s Raincoat, Ellen Lang hires Cole to find her husband Mort, who’s disappeared and taken their son Perry with him. Cole knows that plenty of people disappear because they want to disappear. Still, he is concerned about the boy’s safety, so he agrees to look into the matter. The situation becomes urgent when Mort is found dead, with no sign of Perry anywhere. Now Cole has to find out who killed the victim if he has any hope of finding his son. Throughout the novel, Cole does his best to support Ellen Lang and give her as much hope as he can while still being truthful. He doesn’t make light of the situation but he does take a positive attitude.
So does Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She is no stranger to life’s sadness. The former wife of an abusive husband, Mma. Ramotswe has lost a child and her father, so she knows that life often brings sorrow. But she has an overall optimistic and positive attitude that provides a great deal of comfort and solace for her clients. For instance, in Morality For Beautiful Girls, Mma. Ramotswe is hired by an important Government Man to find out whether his sister-in-law is, as he believes, trying to poison his brother. Mma. Ramotswe travels to the Government Man’s home village, where she begins to get to know the people in his family. One afternoon, everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened by what turns out to be poisoned food. As soon as she is able, Mma. Ramotswe has conversations with everyone, and uses her own recall to piece together what happened. She learns how and by whom everyone was poisoned, and she uses her positive outlook on life to help resolve some issues within the family.
Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PI Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez also has an overall positive attitude about life. When he and his brother Eduard take on their first murder investigation in A Not So Perfect Crime, Eduard isn’t sure they’re prepared to look into a crime like that. He tends to be cautious and would rather focus the brothers’ efforts on cases that are more similar to what they’ve done before. But Borja has an upbeat, ‘It’ll all work out’ view of life. Besides, the client Lluís Font is powerful and wealthy. When he is accused of murdering his wife Lídia, it’s in the Martínez brothers’ interest to clear his name and build their reputation. And they do discover who the murderer is, despite some (sometimes very funny) setbacks. Throughout the novel, Borja’s positive outlook on life may be a bit on the ‘happy-go-lucky’ side, but it does serve to keep the investigation going and to complement his brother’s occasional pessimism.
It’s not always the sleuth whose positive attitude can really serve a crime novel. Sometimes other characters do that too. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features a group of people who live in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Chapman herself owns a bakery in that building and through her eyes we get to meet the other residents. One of them is (retired) Professor Dionysus ‘Dion’ Monk. He’s getting on in years and at times he’s hurt or laid-up with illness. But even then, he has a more or less optimistic attitude about life. He’s an expert in the classics and often uses references from those writings to make sense of life. He’s had his own sorrows, but he proves a solid source of overall optimism and steadiness that proves a real comfort. And he has old-fashioned manners and courtesy that remind the other residents of the way it is possible to treat others.
Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer sometimes has very difficult and ugly cases to solve. And although he has a close relationship with his daughter Ingrid and his grand-son Matteus, he has his own share of life’s sorrows. He’s a widower who still misses his wife Elise, and he has seen some terrible things in the course of his work. But there is also optimism and hope if you will in his life. Beginning with He Who Fears the Wolf, Sejer develops a relationship with psychiatrist Sara Struel. She helps him to understand some of the people who figure in that novel. That understanding helps Sejer as he investigates the murder of Halldis Horn, whose body is found in her front yard. Since she lived alone in a remote place, there aren’t many witnesses. But one likely suspect is a troubled young man named Errki Johrma who was seen in the area. The case isn’t that simple though, and Sara provides helpful insights. She is realistic and doesn’t shy away from life’s sadness. But she is also a generally optimistic, sometimes-spontaneous person who adds a bright note to Sejer’s life.
And then there’s Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan, whom we meet in Wendy James’ The Mistake. That story features Jodie Evans Garrow, who meets Bridie during their childhoods. Jodie hasn’t had a lot of happiness in her life, but Bridie is positive and optimistic, with big dreams. She brings a proverbial ray of sunshine to Jodie and the girls become inseparable. Then Bridie moves away and life goes on for both of them. Later, Jodie marries Angus Garrow and settles down to what seems like an enviable life. Angus is a successful attorney, Jodie has a comfortable home and upper-middle-class lifestyle, and they have two healthy children. One day their daughter Hannah is involved in a car accident and is rushed to a Sydney hospital – the same hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another baby girl whom she’s never discussed with anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but the over-curious nurse can’t find any formal records. Now the whispers start and soon the media gets hold of the story. If the child is alive, where is she? If not, what happened to her? Did Jodie kill her? Before long the accusations become very public and Jodie is made a social pariah. Then by chance, she meets Bridie again at a book club meeting. Bridie proves the same source of support she was during the girls’ childhood and her basically positive outlook on life provides real solace for Jodie.
And that’s the thing about people and fictional characters who offer hope and have positive outlooks on life. They don’t deny that life can be hard, but they firmly believe that things will get better. Which ones do you like best?
This post is dedicated to the memories of two people who gave much hope and ‘sunshine’ when people needed it. This past week we lost both Shirley Temple Black and Sid Caesar. They both had private troubles, but kept on going and offered the world a hopeful look at life. For that, I am grateful. They will be much missed.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roger Edens’ and Earl Brent’s Around the Corner.