It’s said that everyone has a talent. And there’s nothing quite like a job where one gets to use one’s natural ability. But there are some people who are truly gifted at something. It may be music, dancing, sport, acting, art or something else. Whatever it is, those are the people with a ‘once in a lifetime’ gift. They can’t always explain exactly how they do what they do, but their skill is extraordinary. They’re out there in real life of course, and we certainly see them in crime fiction. Their gifts make them very special and sometimes, very vulnerable.
Agatha Christie mentions this kind of rare gift in a few of her stories. One, for instance, is Appointment With Death. In that novel, the Boynton family is taking a holiday in the Middle East, including a sightseeing trip to Petra. While they’re at Petra, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what seems to be a heart attack. That’s logical, given her age and bad health. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied, and he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and begins the investigation. It turns out that Carbury’s suspicions were all too correct: Mrs. Boynton died of digitalis poisoning. She was, as Poirot puts it, a ‘mental sadist’ who kept her family cowed, so there is no lack of suspects. In the end, Poirot finds out who really poisoned Mrs. Boynton and why. One of Mrs. Boynton’s children is seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Ginny,’ who is already mentally and emotionally fragile. But, she turns out to have a rare gift for the stage. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that when that gift is discovered, we see what a great actress Ginny is. I know, I know, fans of Henrietta Savernake in The Hollow…
Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory introduces us to the Davies family. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies has a rare gift for the violin, and is now world-class. He’s expressed himself musically since he was a child, and can’t imagine life without his music. Then one frightening day, he finds that he can’t play a note. He immediately seeks psychological help to find out what’s blocking his playing. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night by what seems at first to be an accidental hit-and-run incident. But as Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers find, there’s nothing at all accidental about it. The deeper they look into the case, the more they learn about how dysfunctional the Davies family is. They also learn about the tragic death by drowning of Gideon’s younger sister twenty years earlier. It turns out, as you can imagine, that that incident is related both to Eugenie Davies’ death and to her son’s struggle with his music.
In James Lee Burke’s Jolie Blon’s Bounce, we meet gifted musician Tee Bobby Hulin. Here’s what Burke says about his talent:
‘…Tee Bobby possessed another, more serious gift, one he seemed totally undeserving of, as though the finger of God had pointed at him arbitrarily one day and bestowed on him a musical talent that was like none since the sad, lyrical beauty in the recordings of Guitar Slim.’
Hulin may be extraordinarily gifted, but that doesn’t prevent him being suspected in two vicious rape/murder cases. New Iberia, Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux doesn’t care much for Hulin as a person, but that doesn’t mean he thinks the man’s guilty of horrible crimes. And there are other suspects in these crimes. Robicheaux finds that in order to discover who the killer in this novel is, he will have to face some demons from his own past.
In Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, we learn of the first case investigated by Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). In that case, the Palace Theatre’s upcoming production of Orpheus was sabotaged by several tragedies. One was the murder of gifted dancer Tanya Capistrania, who was to have had a solo part. In fact, she was leaving a rehearsal session when she was killed. She was so talented that one possible motive for her death was professional jealousy. The PCU found out who was responsible for the tragedies, including this murder, but there was one major thing left undone. Now, years later, it comes back to haunt John May when a bomb explodes in the PCU offices. As May works to find out the truth about that bombing, he finds out that it’s directly related to that long-ago case.
The main protagonist in Gail Bowen’s series is political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. The series follows her home life as much as it does the mysteries she investigates, so over the course of the novels, readers get to know her family. One member is her adopted daughter Taylor. Taylor is a truly gifted artist, who is trying to come to terms with some difficult issues in her life. At the same time, she is learning what it means to have her kind of talent. In The Gifted, we learn that two of Taylor’s pieces of art will be included in a benefit art auction. Her parents are deeply concerned about how this might affect Taylor. She is, after all, only fourteen, and they want her to have as safe and ‘normal’ (whatever that means) a childhood as possible. On the other hand, Taylor’s talent is undeniable, and she is passionate about her art. To deny her the opportunity to evolve as an artist would be like removing a limb. So despite some misgivings, Taylor’s permitted to contribute to the auction. One of her pieces has unintended and tragic consequences, and throughout the novel, we see how much a part of Taylor’s life her art really is.
And that’s the thing about people who have rare talents. Those gifts are integral and essential. Perhaps those with special gifts can’t explain exactly how they do what they do. But they couldn’t imagine not using them. Which gifted characters have made an impression on you?
On Another Note…
This post is dedicated to one of the world’s truly gifted musical artists Paul McCartney. Happy Birthday, Sir Paul!
ps The ‘photo above is by Salvador Dalí, who also had rare and special talent.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Follow Me.