Most of us have had to face our share of sorrow, loss and sometimes real tragedy. It just seems to be a part of life. The question isn’t really, ‘Do people have to face some terrible things in their lives?’ They do. The more important (or maybe that’s just my view) question is, ‘What do people do to go on after something terrible’s happened?’ Notice I didn’t say, ‘…to get over it after something terrible’s happened.’ That’s because we don’t really ‘get over’ tragedy and sorrow. They change us. But people do go on.
This is a pretty important issue in crime fiction because a lot of what happens in crime fiction involves tragedy. After all, people get murdered. Their friends and loved ones mourn them and the sleuth has to deal with the trauma of those cases. What’s more, because we all have to deal with life’s sadness and sorrow, it’s realistic when sleuths have their own scars from which they have to heal. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of the stereotypical sleuth who drowns in a bottle to cope with life’s damage. It’s much more interesting and I think engaging when sleuths and other characters find different ways to cope.
For instance there’s the character of Henrietta Savernake, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). She is a talented and highly-regarded sculptor who’s having an affair with Harley Street specialist John Christow. Christow is more absorbed in his passion for his profession than he is in his relationships with either his wife Gerda or his mistress. But the triangle continues until one fateful weekend when John and Gerda Christow are invited to the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Henrietta is also invited as she’s a cousin of Lucy’s. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot just before lunch. Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a nearby cottage as a weekend getaway, was invited for lunch and when he arrives, practically the first thing he sees is the murder scene and Christow’s apparent killer standing over the body, gun in hand. But something about the scene strikes Poirot as artificial. So when Inspector Grange begins his investigation, Poirot is not convinced that the killer is yhe most obvious person. He and Grange look into the case and slowly get to the truth. At one point, Edward Angkatell, who has also been staying at the house, tries to console Henrietta; here’s her response:
‘What did you think? That I’d sit gently crying into a nice little pocket handkerchief while you held my hand? That it would be a great shock but that presently I’d begin to get over it? And that you’d comfort me very nicely?’
In fact, that’s not what Henrietta does. Here is how she begins to move on:
‘‘Instead I must take my grief and make it into a figure of alabaster…’
Exhibit No. 58. ‘Grief.’ Alabaster. Miss Henrietta Savernake…’
That way of coping is a very effective fit for Henrietta’s character.
Sometimes characters deal with their trauma by trying to regain some kind of control over their lives. That’s what we see in Copenhagen police detective Carl Mørck, whom we first meet in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). As that novel begins, Mørck is recovering from a line-of-fire incident in which one of his colleagues was killed and another left paralysed. He’s physically ready for work again, but mentally still dealing with the trauma. Although he doesn’t really think about it this way, Mørck wants to regain control over his life after what happened. He goes about this in a couple of ways. One of the sub-plots in this novel is his determination to catch the man responsible for what happened and see him brought to justice. Another way in which Mørck tries to take back some control is that he becomes even less of a ‘team player’ than he normally is. In fact, he becomes so difficult to work with that he’s ‘promoted’ to a new department, ‘Department Q,’ which is set up to investigate ‘cases of special interest.’ The job itself doesn’t interest him much at first, but the chance to do what he wants, when he wants, does.
We also see that search for control if you want to call it that in Arnaldur Indriðason series featuring Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur. When Erlendur was a child, his brother Bergur was lost in a blizzard and has never been found. The boy’s loss was difficult enough for the family to cope with. But Erlendur feels an additional sense of loss and guilt because he was with his brother when the blizzard struck although they had gotten separated. Erlendur has never been able to forgive himself for not bringing Bergur back safely. He has gone on with his life though. And in an interesting story arc, Erlendur has faced his trauma and tried to regain control over that part of his life by searching for his brother. Now that he’s a cop, he tries to find out everything he can about that day so that he can either find his brother or his brother’s remains.
Some people choose to move on by making major life changes. That’s what Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon does. As we learn in Track of the Cat, she lived the New York ‘social life’ with her husband Zach, a talented actor. Then, tragically, Zach was run down and killed by a taxi. Pigeon has dealt with her grief by leaving New York and her socialite life. She’s become a National Park Service ranger and nurtured her love of nature and wildlife. She’s gotten good at her job and although there are things she misses about New York, she’s gone on with life. As we see Pigeon’s character evolve throughout the series, we see that she doesn’t really ‘get over’ Zach. At the same time, she moves on to a new chapter in her life. She even allows herself to love and marry again.
We see the same kind of choice in an earlier series by James Yaffe, featuring his investigator sleuth Dave. Dave’s a former NYPD cop whose life revolved around his work and his beloved wife Shirley. When Shirley dies, Dave finds himself unable to keep living the life he’s always had. So he makes a major change and moves to Mesa Grande, Colorado, where he takes a job as an investigator working for the Office of the Public Defender. His new job and new life don’t mean that Dave ‘gets over’ the loss of his wife. But he starts over and finds a new place for himself.
As fans of Åsa Larsson’s attorney sleuth Rebecka Martinsson know, Martinsson has had some traumatic things happen to her. As we learn in Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar), she grew up in Kiruna, but left for a trauma-inducing reason (no spoilers here). She returns when a former friend is accused of murder. That case leads to more trauma for Martinsson, and so does the case she investigates in The Blood Spilt. So how does Martinsson go on after the things that happen to her? After a time under psychiatric care, she makes a major life change, giving up her job in Stockholm and remaining in Kiruna. As Until Thy Wrath be Past begins she’s taken up a position as the local district prosecutor and is slowly putting the pieces of her life back together.
Some people find comfort in a new relationship when something traumatic happens. There’s an example of that in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Digger’s Rest Hotel. It’s 1947 and Melboourne cop Charlie Berlin has recently returned from Europe where he served as a bomber pilot and was also taken as a POW. He’s seen his share of awfulness and it’s left him with what we would now call PTSD. He is sent to the town of Wodonga to investigate a series of robberies that have apparently been committed by a motorcycle gang. While he’s in the middle of working on that case the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in a local alley. Now Berlin has a brutal murder to solve as well as the robberies. In the course of this investigation he meets journalist Rebecca Green, who has her own share of scars. One of the sub-plots of this novel is the healing each begins to experience as they work together and later, become involved.
We don’t really ‘get over it’ when something traumatic happens. But we can go on. Sometimes we start a new life; sometimes we do other things. That’s why it’s so human and believable when characters do things to make themselves feel better and go on.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Santana’s Just Feel Better (Yes, that’s Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler on lead vocals).