There are people who try to do good, sometimes against very difficult odds. They know they’re taking real risks at times to do what most of us would agree is the right thing, but they do it anyway. Certainly those people exist in real life, and the world is better because of them. But they also exist in crime fiction. The trouble with writing such characters is that if they seem too perfect, it’s hard to accept them as authentic. So it’s important that they be realistic. But when they’re well-drawn, those characters give us hope. They add to a story or series too.
You’ll notice that I’m not going to mention sleuths or other protagonists who are like that. They’re out there of course, but the examples in this post will be characters who aren’t protagonists.
Admittedly that line between protagonist and ‘not the protagonist’ can be a little blurry at times. For example, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, we meet attorney Atticus Finch. He lives and works in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama at a time when racism was both institutionalised and rigidly enforced. When Tom Robinson, who is Black, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, who is White, there’s a lot of pressure to assume that he’s guilty and turn to ‘vigilante justice.’ But Finch is unwilling to do that. For one thing, he’s not entirely certain that Robinson is guilty. For another, even if he is, Robinson deserves a fair trial, like every other citizen. So Finch takes the case despite the fact that the town will likely turn against him. He knows that his choice to defend Robinson may have terrible consequences, but he also knows that it’s the right thing to do. So he goes ahead with his preparations, and in the end, he finds out the truth about the Robinson/Ewell case.
One of the recurring characters in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series is Sister Mary. Among her other projects, she is in charge of the Soup Run, a mobile soup kitchen that delivers food, non-alcoholic drinks, blankets, clothes and medicine to Melbourne’s street people. She is a tireless advocate for those who’ve been forgotten or at least not served by the system, and she persuades, cajoles and bullies for donations, for volunteers and for the necessary legal permits to undertake her work. She’s got a strong enough personality that no-one dares to disobey her if I can put it that way. Sister Mary is down-to-earth and practical. She’s neither smug nor self-righteous, and she doesn’t expect that anyone will subscribe to her religious beliefs. That doesn’t matter to her as much as does helping those in need in Melbourne, and everyone respects her for what she accomplishes.
Sara Paretsky’s Dr. Charlotte ‘Lotty’ Herschel is another example of those who are forces for good despite the odds. She and her family escaped the Nazis and she ended up in the US. Since then she’s moved to Chicago and is now the close friend of Paretsky’s sleuth V.I. Warshawski. Herschel works with those who are least well served by the medical care system and is always willing to lend her medical expertise where it’s needed, whether or not the patient can pay. She’s an advocate for children’s health, especially those children from low socioeconomic groups. She has a strong personality, but she’s not self-important about what she does. Lotty Herschel does what needs to be done, as she sees it.
Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in 1979 Argentina, at a time when the government was controlled by a military junta. Anyone suspected of disagreeing with the government is liable to ‘disappear,’ and very little attention is paid to these abuses of power. Against this backdrop, Buenos Aires police officer Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano gets a new case. He’s called out one morning to a riverbank where there are reports of two bodies left there overnight. The bodies bear the hallmarks of an Army ‘hit,’ and Lescano is well aware of the consequences if he questions those murders. But to his surprise there is also a third body. This one doesn’t have the same hallmarks and it’s soon clear that someone is using ‘disappearances’ to cover up a murder. The victim is successful pawnbroker and moneylender Elías Biterman and Lescano begins to investigate to find out who the killer is. There is a great deal of pressure on Lescano to ‘rubber stamp’ the case and leave it alone, but he’s unwilling to do that. In the end, he does find out the truth. And there are people who risk terrible consequences to do the right thing and help him. One is forensic expert Dr. Fuseli. He provides Lescano very helpful and important information about the murder at great risk to himself.
And then there’s Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. Emma la Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her on a trip from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out what happened to her brother Jacobus. Then a member of the South African Army’s Nature and Environmental Conservation Unit, he disappeared twenty years earlier after a skirmish with poachers at Kruger National Park. Everyone thought he was killed in that incident, but Emma has good reason to believe he may still be alive. If that’s true, she wants to know where he’s been and what he’s been doing. Lemmer takes the job and goes with Emma to the Lowveld, where they start asking questions. Those questions stir up matters that some very nasty and powerful people would rather not discuss, so both Lemmer and Emma find themselves in terrible danger. In the end though, Lemmer discovers what really happened to Jacobus le Roux. One of the people who figures in that true story is Vincent ‘Pego’ Mashego, who worked with Jacobus and who knows what happened when he disappeared. It turns out that Pego took incredible risks to do the right thing, and has demonstrated quite a lot of courage.
In Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second, we meet Jason Barnes, a teenager who happens to be riding a bus when he observes a terrible incident of bullying. Three other teenagers have boarded the same bus and are harassing fellow passenger Luke Murray. Despite the danger to him, Jason intervenes and the bullying stops for the moment. Then Luke gets off the bus and so do his harassers. So does Jason. The bullying starts again and Jason steps in once more to stop it. This starts the fight anew and it lasts all the way to Jason’s yard, where Luke is gravely wounded and Jason fatally stabbed. One of the questions his parents have to wrestle with is why he stepped in instead of protecting his own life. At the same time, they respect the fact that he did the right thing in a situation where others didn’t.
People who take truly grave risks to do good remind the rest of us of what is possible. When those characters are written as human beings, they can add much to a story. I’ve only had space here to mention a few; I’m sure you can think of lots more. Which do you like best?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Henry Dixon Loes’ This Little Light of Mine.