In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife Gerda were visiting Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell at their country home at the time he was killed, and among other possibilities, Poirot and Inspector Grange consider all of the people in that house party. One of them is Christow’s mistress Hentrietta Savernake, who’s a well-known sculptor. It’s not spoiling the story, I think, to say that she loved Christow, probably more than she wanted. So his death has devastated her. That’s not to mention the difficulty of being involved in a police investigation. Yet, here is what Poirot says to her:
‘But you are one of those who can live with a sword in their hearts – who can go on and smile –’
He’s right. Henrietta isn’t by any means perfect. But she is a strong character who goes on and survives despite the things that happen to her.
That sort of character can be very refreshing, especially considering the number of ‘demon-haunted’ fictional sleuths who find it very hard to go on with life. It’s a tricky balance to create such a character too. On the one hand, it wouldn’t be realistic if characters had no ill effects from things they’d been through in life. When we go through tragedy, it affects us deeply. On the other hand, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of creating a character who drowns sorrows in drink, or who can’t possibly have functional relationships. For a lot of readers, that sort of character has become so commonplace as to be almost a trope now, and that can be off-putting. But there are crime-fictional characters who strike that balance. Here are just a few.
Tony Hillerman’s ‘Legendary Lieutenant’ Joe Leaphorn has had his share of sadness and tragedy. As a young person, he was put under enormous pressure, as were many members of his generation, to give up his Navajo ways and adopt Western clothes, beliefs, lifestyle and so on. Even now, Leaphorn sometimes feels quite separated from his cultural identity, although he is accepted as ‘one of us’ by his people. He married a more traditional Navajo woman Emma, who turned out to be the love of his life. When Emma dies in the course of the series, Leaphorn is devastated. He’s lost a part of himself. And yet, he doesn’t drown himself in drink or behave self-destructively. He picks up his pieces, as the saying goes, and moves on with his life. In fact, as time goes on, he meets another woman Professor Louisa Bourbonette, who studies anthropology and gets involved in few of his cases. The two develop a relationship that works for both of them. It’s not the marriage he had with Emma; it couldn’t be. But it shows his ability to make a life after tragedy.
Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve shows a similar kind of strength. In the first of this series Deadly Appearances, we learn that she was widowed when her husband Ian was murdered one night when he stopped to help a stranded couple. She’s had to raise their three children by herself and of course, cope with her own grief. In the course of the series, other things happen in her life too, and some of them are frightening and very, very sad. But she doesn’t succumb to those things. Even at her worst moments, she moves along as best she can with her life. In fact, she has other relationships and even marries again. In Joanne’s character, Bowen balances acknowledging the very real loss and grief that happens when you lose a loved one with strength of human spirit.
The same could be said of Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer. An Oslo police inspector, he lost his beloved wife Elise to cancer after twenty years of marriage, and he continues to feel her loss deeply. He misses her all the time. And yet, Fossum doesn’t fall into the trap of making Sejer a pitiable wreck who drinks too much, can’t interact, and …well, you get the idea. Sejer builds his life again the best that he can. He has a strong relationship with his daughter Ingrid and dotes on his grandson Matteus. He develops a relationship too with psychiatrist Sara Struel. The two are not obsessed with each other, but each fills an important place in the other’s life.
And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She made a disastrous choice of marriage partner in musician Note Mokoti, who turned out to be abusive. She also had to face admitting as much to her father Obed Ramotswe, who’d always suspected as much, when she moved back in with him. What’s more, she lost her only child. That’s enough grief to set anyone back for a long time, perhaps permanently. And Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t deny that she has had her share of suffering in life. And yet, she gets on with the business of living, even after the death of her beloved father. She starts her own detective agency, she remains a part of the community’s social life, and she even marries again. Her second husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni proves to be a much better choice of partner, and Mma. Ramotswe learns to find contentment in her life. She also finds that she’s quite good at the detection business.
Geoffrey McGeachin’s Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin is also made of sturdy stuff. A WWII veteran, he’s seen his share of death and inhumanity in the war and at times it haunts him. He’s had a difficult time settling back into peacetime Australia, too. He’s had other sadness in his life as well, and we could understand it if he gave up completely. But as we see in The Diggers Rest Hotel, Blackwattle Creek and St. Kilda Blues, he doesn’t crumple up. He makes a real life for himself, complete with a wife Rebecca whom he loves, and two children whom he also loves deeply. Life has its bad moments for Charlie Berlin, but he gets back to the business of living. At the same time, he doesn’t deny some of the awfulness of what he’s seen and had to do.
That’s a difficult balance to achieve, but when it works, the result can be a really memorable and even admirable character. I’ve only touched on a few examples. Over to you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the All-American Rejects’ Move Along.