As we get older and (hopefully) mature, we also tend to lose our innocence about the way the world works. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean that we become complete cynics. Rather, it means that we learn (sometimes, sadly, the hard way), that not all people can be trusted, and that there’s plenty of corruption and worse in the real world.
That experience can be very difficult for a person, and we all deal with it in different ways. And, in a crime novel, it can add to a character’s development. It can also add tension and even suspense to a story as the character faces that loss of innocence.
There’s a sense of that experience in Agatha Christie’s Three-Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). In it, we are introduced to Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore. On the surface, she tries to be jaded. But she is quite innocent in her way, although she’s neither gullible nor completely naïve. One evening, she is invited to a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. At the party, one of the other guests, the Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Not long afterwards, several of the same people, including Egg, attend a house party at the home of Dr. Bartholomew Strange. At that gathering, Strange dies, also of poison. It seems clear that the two deaths are linked, as is another death that occurs. Hercule Poirot gets involved in the case, as he attended the first party. And in the end, he finds out who the murderer is, and how the killings are connected. As the novel goes on, we see how Egg loses her innocence about who can be trusted and who can’t.
John Grisham’s The Firm is the story of Mitchell ‘Mitch’ McDeere. As the novel begins, he’s a Harvard Law School graduate, and an attractive candidate for a number of law offices. He’s smart and ambitious, and that’s exactly the sort of lawyer that the Memphis firm of Brendini, Lambert, & Locke want to hire. They make Mitch an irresistible offer, and he accepts. He settles in, and all seems to go very well at first. Mitch’s new colleagues help him pass the Tennessee Bar Exam, and everyone welcomes him as a colleague. But then, he begins to have questions. It seems that several members of the firm have died, and he wants to know more about why. By the time he begins to see some things going on at the firm, he’s in deep, as the saying goes. And he’s going to have to find a way to get out of his situation if he’s going to stay alive. Throughout the novel, we see how Mitch loses his innocence about what can happen in law firms, especially this one.
Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain? Introduces readers to twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrrand. He doesn’t have any clear plans for his future; in fact, he’s rather aimless. But he does have something very valuable: a driving license. And that’s just what professional assassin Simon Marechall needs. He’s nearing the end of his career, but he wants to complete one more job before he retires. He hires Bernard to drive him to Cap d’Agde, on the French coast, where he’ll carry out this last job. Bernard isn’t stupid, but he doesn’t know what his new boss’ business is. When he finds out, there’s a loss of innocence as things start to spin out of control.
In Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat (set in the 1950s) we meet twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who lives in a small Welsh village with her parents and her older sister Bethan. Gwenni’s a little unusual. She’s what a lot of people call a dreamer, and she’s very much a reader. She’s curious, too. Life in the village goes on as it has for a long time, until the day that Ifan Evans goes missing. Gwenni has a vision/dream in which she sees a body, and when Ifan’s body is eventually found, she wants to know what happened. So, she starts to ask questions. As she slowly puts together the truth about the death, she also learns some dark truths about some people in the village. And, she learns some things about her own family. All of this teaches Gwenni some unhappy lessons, and in the process, she loses some of her innocence.
And then there’s Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. That’s the story of Darren Keefe and his older brother Wally. As children growing up in Victoria, they’re passionate about cricket, and play it whenever they can. And, as it turns out, both have real talent for the game. As they get older, they begin to play professionally, and soon enough, they learn about the dark side of cricket. There’s plenty of ugliness that goes on behind the scenes, and, each in a different way, the Keefe brothers are impacted by it. It affects them differently, because they have very different personalities. But in the end, they both lose their innocence about the game. And the result is tragic.
Of course, not all loss of innocence is tragic. But it’s often sobering. It also can make for a solid layer of character development in a novel, to say nothing of the possibilities for tension and suspense.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Everybody Loves You Now.