Around the Corner the Skies Are Blue*

Rays of HopeWhether 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?

 

In Memoriam…

 

ShirleyTemple and SidCaesar

 

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.

18 Comments

Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Robert Crais, Teresa Solana, Wendy James

18 responses to “Around the Corner the Skies Are Blue*

  1. Amen to that Margot – I love Noir but the nihilism and despairing tone can get a bit much, no matter how well it is put over. If you can project a positive outlook in fiction and earn it, then there is nothing as satisfying as an uplifting conclusion.

    • Sergio – Oh, I couldn’t have put it better myself. When it comes naturally, a ray of hope and a character with a positive outlook can make all the difference in the world in a story. Perhaps it’s because I don’t go for the very bleakest of noir in general, but I think even a noir story can benefit from some deftly-placed optimism.

  2. How about Father Brown? Nothing shocked him, and he had seen the very worst things humans could do to each other, but in the end he thought we could all be redeemed, that no-one was beyond the love of God. I don’t think you have to be at all religious to see the positivity in that. And I agree with both you and Sergio about what a good thing an optimistic outlook is…

    • Moira – Oh, you don’t have to sell me on Fr. Brown. In fact, I almost included him in this post. At the last minute I didn’t, so I’m very very glad that you filled in that gap. He always believed in the possibility of redemption and that’s a very positive aspect of those stories I think.

  3. Col

    Loved the Crias book and series (so far!)

    • Col – It’s a great series isn’t it? I admit I prefer the ones where Cole is the ‘star’ to the ones mostly featuring Pike. But that that’s a personal preference.

  4. As a reader I really like to have positive bits added into a story to break things up…especially if the story is bleak. Characters and sleuths can provide this…and humor injected to a story can be helpful, too.

    • Elizabeth – I’m with you. Whether it’s positive characters or sleuths, a bit of wit, or something else, it’s really helpful to break up the sadness in a novel. Along with all of the other benefits, that bit of optimism helps keep the reader engaged.

  5. kathy d.

    I love optimistic characters if they fit the story line. Precious Ramotswe is such a great and uplifting person. And she even provides a form of therapy. Friends read her stories and are put into rosy states of mind because of her optimism about human beings and life.
    Love Bridie Sullivan’s character — as a child and an adult. Wendy James could write a sequel to The Mistake featuring Bridie, and I think her fans would enjoy that.
    Corinna Chapman’s friends and co-dwellers in her apartment building: I think they all provide an upbeat tone to the book in their own ways … witches, magic brews, trans people, all of them a lot of fun, not to mention the Mouse Police and the humor in the books.
    Come to think of it, humor provides optimism.
    Just read Lisa Scottoline’s new book “Accused,” where the main character, Mary DiNunzio is quite upbeat and cheerful, and her zany Italian family kept me laughing!

    • Kathy – I’d love to see a sequel to The Mistake too. You have a well-taken point too that Mma. Ramotswe lifts everyone around her up with her positive way of looking at life. And so do Corinna Chapman’s (and Professor Dion’s) fellow residents. They may be a bit eccentric but they really do keep each other going. And of course, the Mouse Police help keep everything under control, as do Horatio and Belladonna.
       
      Glad you enjoyed Accused, too.

  6. kathy d.

    I have to mention Sid Caesar’s death. I remember watching his Show of Shows when I was a young child. Our household would gather around and laugh at him and Imogene Coca, as well as Howie Morris and others.
    He was a genius of comedy.
    One can view some of his and Coca’s skits on You Tube. What a treat.

  7. Books written in an upbeat way, even about murder, are so much more enjoyable to read, don’t you think? Dick Francis manages that very well – it’s not all gloom and despondency. Personally, I like books that entertain and make me feel better for having read them. Which is what I aim for in my own writing. Give me Blue skies around the corner any time!

  8. Nice tribute to Sid Caesar and Shirley Temple. I like a balance in my mysteries. Reginald Hill’s mysteries were always about serious subjects but also had humor (at least the Dalziel and Pascoe series).

    • Thanks, Tracy. And I agree with you about the D/P novels. They deal with sometimes awful subjects, but there’s enough wit in them that you don’t feel bogged down.

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