Nowhere to Look But Inside*

We all have our weak points, “sore spots” and let’s just say imperfections. Well, at least I hope I’m not the only one! Most of us find ways to compensate for them and sometimes hide from them. For instance, someone who’s never had to earn a living and make ends meet might have real difficulty surviving in “the real world.” That person may deal with that by choosing a wealthy partner, so avoiding any need to face that challenge. But we really learn a lot about our own characters and our own capacities when we’re forced to confront ourselves. In real life those experiences can help us grow. In crime fiction they can add a real layer of suspense to a novel and an interesting facet to a character or group of characters.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) we meet the members of the Cloade family. Family patriarch Gordon Cloade has always taken care of his siblings and their children, and in fact he made it clear to his brothers Jeremy and Lionel and his sister Adela that they would never have to worry about money. So they didn’t. Then something happens that no-one had imagined: Gordon Cloade marries twenty-six-year-old widow Rosaleen Underhay. Before he gets the chance to change his will to protect the rest of his family Cloade is tragically killed by a bomb blast. Now Rosaleen stands to inherit everything and the Cloades have to consider what they will do without the wealth they’d always assumed. The family is reeling from this when a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen might not have been a widow at the time of her marriage. If her husband was in fact still alive, her marriage to Cloade wasn’t legitimate and Cloade’s family will be financially safe. So everyone has a stake in finding out whether there is any truth to what Arden says. Then one night, Arden is killed. Hercule Poirot has already heard of Rosaleen Underhay from a member of his club, and he interests himself in Arden’s death. In the end we find out who Enoch Arden was and who killed him. Throughout this novel we see the various members of the Cloade family forced to confront their dependence on easy money. It’s fascinating to see how each of them reacts to that.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Velvet Claws introduces us Eva Griffin, who seeks out Perry Mason when she becomes the victim of a blackmailer. Griffin was at dinner with a “friend” up-and-coming politician Harrison Burke when the restaurant was held up. Gossip tabloid reporter Frank Locke found out about this relationship and has threatened to report the story in his paper Spicy Bits unless Eva Griffin pays him. Griffin wants Mason to stop Locke and he agrees to track the reporter down and try to convince him not to go ahead with his blackmail plan. In taking on Griffin as a client Mason takes on more than he’d imagined. In the first place, as Mason soon discovers, Griffin isn’t very honest. She doesn’t even give Mason her real surname, which is Belter. What’s more, she has a habit of constantly lying, so that it’s hard to tell whether anything she says is the truth. Then one night Mason gets a frantic call from his client. Her husband George has been murdered and she soon becomes the most likely suspect. In trying to clear his client’s name, Mason forces her to confront the fact that she’s a manipulative liar. And in fact it’s interesting to see how the dynamic between them develops as she continues to lie to him and he continues to call her on it, even while he’s trying to save her by finding out who really killed her husband.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She’s always been particularly close to her brother Bill so when he announces that he’s getting married she wants very much to be happy for him. But Bill has chosen former Hollywood wardrobe assistant Alice Steele, and from the moment they meet Lora doesn’t care much for her. Alice has what used to be called a checkered past, and she still has some associations with people who aren’t exactly pillars of the community. But for Bill’s sake Lora tries to get along with her new sister-in-law. Bit by bit though, she discovers disturbing things about Alice. For example, Alice claims that she’s got a teaching certificate, but Lora finds out that’s not true. There are other things too that don’t add up, so Lora decides to do a little digging. Then there’s a murder. Lora begins to wonder whether Alice might somehow have been involved, since the victim was someone Alice knew. So she starts to look into the case and ask questions. The more Lora learns about Alice’s life, the more she has to confront her own. On the surface, she’s a quiet, respectable schoolteacher and that’s how she’s always seen herself. But Lora finds herself just as fascinated by Alice’s life and her friends as she is repelled by them and one theme of this novel is Lora’s growing realisation of that. And in the end, readers are left to wonder just how successful that confrontation really was.

Shona MacLean’s Scottish teacher Alexander Seaton has been running from himself for quite a while as we learn in The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. At one point he was a very promising candidate for the ministry. His career ended in disgrace because of his relationship with his best friend’s sister Katharine Hays. In the 17th Century world in which Seaton lives, that relationship was enough to keep him from ever getting a pulpit. To make matters worse, he treated Katharine very badly after their relationship was discovered. Seaton has buried himself in his teaching work and done his best to escape what happened. Everything changes when local apothecary’s apprentice Patrick Davidson is poisoned. Seaton’s friend local music master Charles Thom is accused of the murder but Thom swears he’s innocent and begs Seaton to clear his name. Seaton agrees and begins to look into the murder. In doing so, he’s forced to confront his own failings as well as his refusal to let go of the past. Seaton is also forced to confront his unwillingness to interact with the locals, whom he is convinced hate him as much as he hates himself. Seaton finds out who Davidson’s killer is and also re-discovers himself.

Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure tells several stories of being forced to confront oneself. In that novel Sydney paramedic Carly Martens and her trainee Aidan Simpson are called to what seems like a basic domestic dispute between Connor and Suzanne Crawford. The next night, Suzanne is brutally murdered and Connor goes missing.  Detective Ella Marconi and her partner Dennis Orchard are assigned the case, which looks at first like a tragic case of domestic violence gone horribly wrong. But it’s soon clear that it’s not that simple at all. For instance, background checks on Connor Crawford show nothing. And it soon comes out that he was keeping a secret from his wife that she was desperate to learn. Then Emil Page, a teenage volunteer at the Crawfords’ nursery business, goes missing too. As this case goes on, several of the characters have to confront themselves. For instance Aidan Simpson is not at all a success as a trainee. He’s arrogant, smug, and inept when it comes to a real paramedic case. He’s habitually late, he’s rude and more. Several people have tried to help him but he’s ignored everyone. In the course of this case Simpson is forced to confront his own lack of knowledge and his own weaknesses. That process is an interesting sub-plot in this novel.

When we are forced to confront ourselves, we learn what we’re really made of and as painful as that can be it can help us grow too. It can also add “flesh” to characters and suspense and tension to a fictional plot.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Pressure.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Katherine Howell, Megan Abbott, Shona MacLean

12 responses to “Nowhere to Look But Inside*

  1. Margot: In Tapas on the Ramblas by Anthony Bidulka the family of 80 year old Charity Wiser is put on edge when she threatens to change her will. They have been dancing to her will for years.

    Inspector Gamache, in Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny, confronts the consequences of past decisions. He is weighed down by guilt and doubting himself. How do your forgive yourself?

    • Bill – Both of those novels are excellent examples of exactly what I meant by this post. Thanks for adding them. It’s interesting too because Charity Wiser knows from the beginning of the novel how dependent her family is on her money; it’s fascinating to see how she manipulates that. And I think it adds to Gamache’s character that he carries the weight of some of his decisions. One understands why he does, while still wanting to invite him to let it go and forgive himself.

  2. kathy d.

    I’m so glad to see that Katherine Howell’s book made your blog. I can rest assured that you liked her book. They’re easy reads, yet packed full of characters and plot lines. They’re interesting while they are books that readers can read until the wee hours, yet not lose sleep or carry the violence with us. This once again proves that books can be riveting without being gore fests.

    • Kathy – I did indeed enjoy this one 🙂 – And yes, Howell’s writing is rich and her characters well-developed. You’re right too that she accomplishes it all without drowning the reader in blood, so to speak, or being gratuitous really in any way.

  3. Series characters (like Betty Webb’s Lena Jones) have plenty of opportunity for this kind of self-confrontation. I think it’s harder in stand-alone novels, especially if the author doesn’t want the character to upstage the plot. Even so, it adds depth and helps the reader identify with and sympathize with the character as she works through the plot’s maze. I especially liked the way Megan Abbott developed Lora’s character and her conflicted emotions about her brother.

    • Pat – You make such a well-taken point about the difference between series and standalones. It really is easier for a series author to set up situations where a character has to confront him or herself. And yes, Betty Webb does that well I think. It is a challenge too to do that without pulling the reader away from the plot. Just how much focus on character development will there be? And I agree; Lora King’s character is really fascinating.

  4. I remember in a Sara Paretky novel, VI having to confront her culpability when Lotte Hershel became a target in one of VI’s cases. It caused a split in their relationship and VI was forced to confront her all consuming focus on a case.

    • Sarah – Are you perhaps thinking of Guardian Angel? That’s the one where Lotty is mistaken for Warshawski and attacked. If I’m right about what you had in mind, it really is a very good example of the kind of thing I mean. In that novel Warsahwki really does have confront the way she goes about solving cases.

  5. Nice post, as usual Margot. I think you’ve touched on one of the appeals of the genre. In Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series, Jo has to cope with the collapse and tragedy of a love affair (over several books) – quite an issue to cope with along with everything else in her life. Sebastian Bergmann is coping with an old “guilt” about his young daughter, which has traumatised him for many years.

    • Maxine – Thank you 🙂 – And I’m glad you brought up Jo Kilbourn. You’re quite right about her having to confront her feelings about the ending of that relationship. And it works well (at least for me) that it takes her some time. I confess I’ve not yet read Sebastian Bergman, but based on your excellent review of it, I should move it up on the TBR.

  6. I am a sucker for flawed characters. Or ones with baggage they can’t quite check at the door.

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