At some point in life, we’ve all faced the prospect of starting out – of beginning our careers. It’s an exciting time in many ways; there’s so much to look forward to, and young people often have a lot of passion for their work. On the other hand, it’s a very nerve-wracking time too. Many young people don’t yet have confidence in themselves as they will when they’re older. And they often don’t have the wisdom that they will when they’re older either. So it can be a scary experience to get started in a career. In fiction, characters who are just getting started in their careers can add some richness to a story just because of that interesting mix of energy and anxiety. Here are a few examples from crime fiction.
In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to the Boyntons, an American family on a tour of the Middle East. During their travels, they decide to make a visit to Petra for a few days. On their second day there, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what looks like a heart attack. But Colonel Carbury isn’t sure that’s what happened, so he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s making his own trip to the area, to investigate. Poirot agrees and interviews each of the people in the Petra tour group. One of those people is seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Ginny’ Boynton, Mrs. Boynton’s daughter. She is mentally fragile after a lifetime of living with her tyrannical mother, but Dr. Theodore Gerard, who was on the Petra tour, sees great potential in the girl. He is a specialist in psychological cases and plans to treat her at one of his clinics and then see that she gets her preparation for the stage. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Ginny shows herself to be a talented actress. And yet, she still shows some of the natural anxiety of young people starting out.
Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn is a proud mother and now grandmother. The series featuring her shares her home life as well as her life as an academic and a political science expert. Readers get to know the members of her family and we see how their lives evolve. As the series begins, Kilbourn’s oldest daughter Mieka is off to university, with the mixture of excitement and anxiety that you might expect. Later, she decides to start her own catering company. Her mother has lots of concerns about this, since she wanted Mieka to finish her degree program. But Mieka is determined to make a go of it and see if she can be a success. As she talks about her business plan, we can see how she is both anxious about it and excited at the same time:
‘Her [Mieka’s] voice was strong. ‘I want my chance. I know I may get flattened but I have to try.’
As the series goes on, Mieka continues to develop and gets some of the confidence that people often acquire as they mature.
We see the same development in Vicki Delany’s Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith. As the series featuring her begins with In the Shadow of the Glacier, Smith has just started her career with the Trafalgar Police. She’s smart and determined to do well, but at the same time, she’s inexperienced and anxious. That’s especially evident when she discovers the body of developer Reginald Montgomery in an alley. At first it’s assumed that Sergeant John Winters will work with his usual partner Detective Lopez. But Lopez is out of town and Winters is paired with Smith. This makes her almost as nervous as finding the body did. But at the same time, she’s excited at the opportunity to work on this murder case. And she’s got the makings of a good cop. Smith matures as the series develops, and it’s interesting to watch her growth.
In Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl, we are introduced to Danny Boyle, a ‘summer cop’ in Sea Haven, New Jersey. He’s used to police work like directing traffic and issuing parking tickets. But then one morning, the body of wealthy developer Reginald Hart is discovered at an amusement park. Boyle works with Officer John Ceepak to find out who killed Hart and why. As the novel goes on, we see that he’s anxious about working as a full-time cop. He’s also a little nervous about working with Ceepak. At the same time, he’s got a sense of excitement about it and wants to make good.
Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer sees beginning attorney Catherine Monsigny taking on her first major case. Myriam Villetreix has been charged with poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston and she wants Monsigny to defend her. As Monsigny prepares for the trial, she’s excited at the opportunity to work this high-profile case. It could make her career. She’s also anxious though, and takes quite a lot of time over the research, her strategy and even the clothing she’ll wear. She doesn’t see herself as incompetent, but she’s not yet confident enough in her skills to really trust her instincts. At the same time she is haunted by the memory of her mother’s death. Monsigny’s mother Violet was murdered and because she was not much more than a toddler at the time, Monsigny doesn’t have clear memories of that day. As it happens the trial will take place not far from where the murder occurred, so she also returns to that earlier murder to find out who killed her mother and why.
Shona MacLean (who now writes as S.G. MacLean) created Alexander Seaton, a former candidate for the ministry who is now a teacher. In The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, he is undermaster of the grammar school in Banff, Scotland. When the body of apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson is found in Seaton’s classroom, he gets involved in investigating the murder. Towards the end of the novel, Seaton gets an opportunity for a teaching job at a school in Aberdeen. For a young man like him, it’s a plum job and on that level he’s excited about it. On the other hand, Seaton already has doubts about himself and he’s anxious about how he’ll do. But his mentor Dr. John Forbes encourages him and helps him to develop some faith in himself, and as the series goes on, we see Seaton start to mature.
In Jean-Pierre Alaux’s and Noël Balen’s Winemaker Detective series, oenologist Benjamin Cooker takes on a new assistant Virgile Lanssien. Cooker has a notable reputation as a wine expert, and Lanssien is a little nervous about working with him, and anxious to make a good impression. At the same time, he is himself quite competent, and he’s excited to develop his knowledge and skills. In Lanssien’s character we see that combination of anxiety and excitement that’s characteristic of young people just starting their careers.
If you remember what it was like to start out, you know just what that combination feels like. Which examples from crime fiction have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s I Have Confidence.