I’m Just Glad to be Here, Happy to be Alive*

A tragic event or a trauma has a way of completely changing the perspectives of the people involved in it. When one’s been at close quarters with real sorrow and horror, many things that seemed incredibly important before just don’t matter as much and other things take on a whole new meaning. Things like listening to fun music, sharing a good picnic lunch with the birds, having a rich conversation or laughing at a movie that’s so bad it’s good become much more important. People who’ve been through tragedy know that those are the things life is really made of and they value those things. That’s certainly true in life. Trust me. Those moments can also add layers to a good crime fiction novel. They make characters more believable and authentic. They can also add a welcome tonic to the sorrow that’s caused by a murder investigation.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Hercule Poirot works with Inspector Grange to solve the shooting murder of noted Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. One of the people most deeply affected by Christow’s murder is his mistress Henrietta Savernake. As she struggles to come to grips with Christow’s death, she realises (and it’s a sad realisation, too), that she’s not able to connect with those things that make life worthwhile. Here are her thoughts about that and about her cousin Midge Hardcastle, who can embrace those things:

 

“John was right. I cannot love – I cannot mourn – not with the whole of me… It’s Midge, it’s people like Midge, who are the salt of the earth.
Midge and Edward at Ainswick…
That was reality, strength, warmth.”

 

Those two characters – of Henrietta Savernake and Midge Hardcastle – are a really interesting contrast in this novel.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has certainly had his share of life’s hard times. So although he’s driven by his work, he also appreciates those other things that make it worth getting up in the morning. For instance, in Trunk Music, the body of film-maker Tony Aliso is found in the trunk of his Rolls Royce. It looks like a classic Mob execution and that makes sense when Bosch begins to ask questions. It turns out that Aliso’s lifestyle was a lot more expensive than he’d have been able to afford as a mediocre film-maker. The L.A.P.D. seems surprisingly unwilling to investigate this murder, especially given that it looks like a good chance to “get” the local Mob. But the L.A.P.D.’s reticence doesn’t stop Bosch, and he follows Aliso’s trail to a Las Vegas money-laundering operation as well as a shady Las Vegas casino. The case also leads Bosch to a former love Eleanor Wish. It’s a dirty, ugly, seamy set of events so at the end of the novel, Bosch is more than ready for some healing. Here’s the final scene:

 

“He then lay back down on the lounge and closed his eyes. Almost immediately he felt the sun begin penetrating his skin, doing its healing work. And then he felt Eleanor’s hand on top of his. He smiled. He felt safe. He felt like nobody could ever hurt him again.”

 

More than many people, Bosch can appreciate those things that make life worthwhile; he’s seen the opposite often enough…

So has James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux. That’s one reason he treasures his home, and fishing, and barbecuing, and being with his daughter Alafair. For instance, in A Morning For Flamingos, he’s recovering from a terrible incident in which his partner Lester Benoit was killed by an escaping murderer named Jimmie Lee Boggs. Robicheaux himself was badly wounded and left for dead. Now all he wants to do is savour those life-affirming moments. For instance, here’s a scene in which he takes Alafair fishing:

 

“Alafair and I took the jugboat and headed out Southwest Pass onto the salt …
The day was warm, the ground swells long and gentle and rolling, so that when they crested the wave broke into a thin froth and blew in the wind….The clouds in the west looked like strips of flame above the green horizon when we headed back through the Pass into Vermilion Bay. The ice bin was loaded with gaff-top catfish and speckled trout… Alafair sat on my lap and steered us between the buoys into the channel; when I touched her head with my chin I could feel the sun’s heat in her hair.
“Let’s take some to Batist tonight,” she said.
“That’s a good idea, little guy.”
She twisted her head around and grinned up at me.
“Then maybe rent a movie,” she said.
“You got it, Alf.”
“Buy some boudin and fix some Kool-Aid, too.”
“That’s actually been on my mind all day.”
“All right, big guy.”
We were happy and tired when we drove down the dirt road under the oaks toward my house on the bayou… It had been a fine day. I was determined that it would remain so, even though I saw Minos Dautrieve’s car parked by my gallery and Minos sitting on my front step.

 

Unfortunately for Robicheaux, Dautrieve has other plans. He wants Robicheaux’s help bringing down New Orleans gangster Anthony “Tony” Cardo. Robicheaux doesn’t want to do this, but it will give him the opportunity to track down Boggs, who’s been working with Cardo. So he gets involved in the case.

Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road features Emily Tempest, who’s just been named an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO). On her very first day on the job, she and her team are sent to Green Swamp Well where prospector Albert “Doc” Ozolins has been murdered in what looks like the terrible result of a drunken quarrel. Tempest suspects otherwise, though, and begins to ask questions. She uncovers much more than a simple case of murder-out of-anger. In the end, it turns out that Ozolins’ death had everything to do with some unpleasant discoveries he’d made. Tempest has some awful moments in this novel, so she is especially grateful for those life-affirming moments that she also has. For instance, at one point, she gets word that her lover Jojo Kelly, who works for the Parks and Wildlife Commission, is in the area. So she surprises him and the two spend a life-affirming night together. The next morning, Jojo starts to prepare breakfast:

 

“He rummaged around in the back of his car, came up with some bush potatoes, pigwee, mallee seeds and nuts. Threw them into oven or ash, as seemed appropriate.
As he was sanding up, a wood swallow darted between us, almost brushed his leg. ‘Do it again!’ he smiled, but the bird was gone.
I nestled in his arms while we watched our breakfast simmer.” 

 

That’s just the kind of respite Tempest needs to give her strength to keep going on in this case.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, in which fledgling psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson takes the decision to search for the person responsible for abducting her younger sister Gemma years earlier. Anderson’s been deeply scarred by that experience, but she’s made a life of sorts for herself. Then one of her patients Elizabeth Clark tells a story that’s eerily like Anderson’s own; Clark’s sister Gracie was abducted one night, and has never been found. Now Anderson decides to use what she’s learned about the Clark case as well as what she knows from her own tragedy and find the person who wreaked the havoc on both families. So she takes a trip from Dunedin, where she lives and works, to her home in Wanaka hoping to pick up the trail of the culprit along the way. Anderson has had to deal with a great deal of pain in her life. So she especially appreciates those life-affirming moments when she allows herself to experience them. For instance, at one point, she stays with Elizabeth Clark’s father Andy, who runs a guest lodge:

 

“Anyone staying at the lodge is invited to dinner at Andy’s if they want to go and it’s too tempting to stay away…
She talks and eats and drinks more than she ever has and every evening she totters home, falls into bed and sleeps soundly and for hours. In the mornings she walks miles down the beach, striding along the ashen sand, breathing in the briny fresh smell of sea, feeling the early spring sun on her face and arms and, as often as not, rain as well.”

 

It’s times like those that begin to heal Anderson as she opens herself to them, and give her the strength she needs to find her sister’s abductor and to heal her own wounds.

Tragedies and trauma do alter one’s priorities and perspective. When that reality’s woven into a crime fiction novel, it can make the story that much more authentic and engaging. And it can add richness and depth to the characterisation.  Or maybe that’s just me…..

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Traveling Wilburys’ End of the Line.

14 Comments

Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Paddy Richardson

14 responses to “I’m Just Glad to be Here, Happy to be Alive*

  1. Jan

    I love this – and think of it in terms of balance too. All too often mysteries seem to just barrel on through sadness and deaths like it was the most mundane thing. We know it isn’t like that. I love an author who is confident enough to let us slow down with the protagonist and feel what is happening – the good, the ordinary, and the extreme. thanks, dearie.

    • Jan – That’s so kind of you – thanks :-). And I like the way you put that. It’s about balance, both in life and in fiction. You’ve also highlighted one of the problems with a murder mystery that goes too fast. Tragedy such as murder brings loss and sadness; books need to acknowledge that. They also benefit, I think, from showing what people do to cope with that sadness. And sometimes, those life-affirming things are what people do.

  2. When an author includes these things it gives the reader a little more insight into the character, thus making them seem even more realistic. Great post.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – Why, thank you :-). You bring up a good point about insight, too. The more insights we get into a character, the more real that character seems to be. And one of the ways we can get that insight is through seeing how those characters cope when tragedy strikes and how their priorities change.

  3. Margot: Your post made me think of the 4 post WW I series I have read – Charles Todd’s series with Ian Rutledge, Renie Airth’s series with John Madden, Jacqueline Winspear’s series with Maisie Dobbs and Charles Todd’s series with Bess Crawford. All the characters survived and were deeply marked by their WW I experiences. Each has difficulty enjoying life as they wonder why they survived. The consequences of their war experiences are important to each series.

    • Bill – I’m very glad you mentioned the Charles Todd series and of course, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, too. Those characters really do have what you could think of as “survivor’s guilt” as they work on getting on with their lives. War experiences have definitely shaped their attitudes and their priorities. Your comment has actually made me think of several novels where wartime experiences have had effects on people. That’s actually a really interesting topic in and of itself.

  4. kathy d.

    I hate to see tragedies and traumas, even in fiction. The terrible event that happened to Emily Tempest was awful and stayed with me. And Harry Bosch has had his share of traumas, starting with his mother’s murder and continuing through Nine Dragons. He’s more human because of them and more understanding.
    V.I. Warshawski lost her mother young which affected her.
    Guido Brunetti, although a very self-confidant and strong character was impacted by his childhood, his working-class origins and his mother being hospitalized for years. It does make him more sensitive to the characters, I think.
    Erlendur is very affected by a traumatic loss in his childhood. It never left him. It does make him think through other people’s travails, especially seen in The Silence of the Grave, Hypothermia and now Outrage. The other books, too.
    Even Martin Beck ruminates about his mother being in a nursing home and feels badly about this. Don’t know if it has a lasting impact.
    No detective worth his or her salt with any sensitivity to people can claim to have an unscarred life.

    • Kathy – You make several good points here. A lot of sleuths have had to go through some terrible trauma and it certainly does affect their perspectives. It affects the way they interact with others, too, as you say. Those kinds of events give those characters an extra layer of depth and certainly shape their personalities. At the same time, though, those sleuths have found ways to go on; they aren’t what you would call trapped by what’s happened to them. I think that’s important too as it keeps them from becoming stereotypically “tortured detectives.”

  5. In this, detectives and/or cops reflect what happens in real life. For instance, I was the victim of a violent crime as a teenager; as a result I’ve lived a fearless life, figuring the worst thing that will ever happen has already happened. Doesn’t mean I’m foolish of course. When I moved from the midwest to the east coast, I discovered the healing powers of the ocean. When you sit on the rocks overlooking the ocean and watch the tide go in and out, surf hitting the rocks, and seagulls peacefully riding the waves, you gain perspective on the world. Things happen and then that time passes and in the great scheme of things, it isn’t all that important much of the time.

    • Barbara – I’m so sorry to hear that you had such a terrible thing happen to you. Nobody deserves that. But I respect so much your choice to be stronger because of it. And you are so right about the power of the ocean. I’ve always felt that, too, really. That and the stars. Those timeless things – oceans, seagulls, sand, rocks – certainly do show us what matters and what is less important. I’ve always found the rhythm of the ocean to be very soothing, too…

  6. Margot– I agree with the sentiment but disagree at the same time. I like seeing well-developed characters; who doesn’t? Tragedy and trauma can be an effective tool to do this. However, I will take a bland, undeveloped character ANY day of the week over a character who spends their time angsting about a trauma.

    Maybe that’s heartless of me. After all, traumas are… traumatic. (There’s no better way to say that, is there?) But I lose interest when I see the same thing done over and over and over again, more derivative each time than the last. The estranged father-son who are forced to reconcile over a murder investigation where one of them is a suspect. The alcoholic German father and the abusive, kleptomaniac Greek mother. The person who had the kind of childhood that makes Oliver Twist’s look like a sojourn in paradise. The person who does nothing but moan about how their sex life sucks. The insecure woman who, in the middle of a murder case, has nothing better to think about than is her makeup done right. Oh, and let’s not forget those tiresome monologues from the psychotic killer’s POV.

    Besides, there’s a point where it all gets ridiculous. I can’t stand balloons, for instance. I don’t mind them being on the wall, but while someone is blowing them up, or if someone picks one up and their fingers dig into it… *shudder* I get terrified beyond my wits. But that doesn’t mean I spend every hour of every day on the lookout for rogue balloons out to get me. Which is why I find it so odd when characters in the middle of a murder investigation spend all of their time thinking just how much their life stinks. Avenue Q frankly does a more entertaining job: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPvZVdHDB4E

    When done well, these elements can work… but too often, I find they are NOT done well, and I personally prefer a good plot and bland characters over a bland plot driven by nothing but character angst.

    • Patrick – You make a very very well-taken point that angst and trauma are very much too often overdone. As you say, the “tortured character” has been become cliché. I think the key here is the question: What serves the story? Some stories are well-served by characters who have gone through trauma. And let’s face it; we’ve all had sadness in our lives. It’s part of the human experience. Not all of us have been traumitised, but we’ve all had those bad times. So it can make a character more believable to have that character go through some troubles too.
       
      That said, though, a character who cannot focus on the matter at hand because of personal trauma can get very tiresome. Even if the plot starts out reasonably strong, it’s quickly derailed if a character is consumed too much by trauma. That’s why it can be refreshing when there are those moments in novels where characters do those things that are, for lack of a better term, life-affirming. It’s nice when a character realises exactly what you mention here – that it’s not enough to just ruminate about how bad life can be.
       
      As with anything else in a novel, it’s a matter of balance. And it’s not an easy balance to strike. People generally don’t want flat characters with no personal histories, but they also don’t want characters who are stuck in their histories.

  7. This topic always reminds me of Betty Webb’s protagonist, Lena Jones, who went through so much trauma as a child.

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