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.