One of the many patterns we see in crime fiction is the character who’s in a bad situation and doesn’t simply leave it. It’s very tempting to yell, ‘Well, then, just don’t go back to him!’ or ‘Well, then, just leave your job if you hate it so much!’ But as we know, it’s not that simple. And it can add to the richness of a crime novel if the author acknowledges how difficult it can be. It can also invite the reader to engage more with a character if the author shows the complexities of that character’s situation.
In Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill, for instance, Spillane’s sleuth Mike Hammer is in a seedy bar one day when William Decker and his toddler son come in. Decker quickly buys and downs two drinks. Then he says goodbye to his son and leaves the bar. Just as he’s leaving, he’s struck by a hit-and-run driver whose passenger then fires several gunshots just to be sure, or so it seems, that the job is done. Hammer runs outside but not quickly enough to catch those responsible for Decker’s murder. He takes in Decker’s son and resolves to find out who killed Decker. He discovers that Decker was a safecracker who’d been working with a local gang. He’d ‘gone straight’ for the sake of his son but then, at his wits’ end for money, returned to his old profession. At first it looks as though Decker was killed because he bungled a job he was doing for the gang. But as Hammer finds out, it’s not that simple. You might wonder why Decker would return to such a dangerous and illegal lifestyle, but in this case, having a son to take care of means that leaving that life is not the straightforward decision it seems to be.
M.C. Beaton’s Love, Lies and Liquor takes her sleuth PI Agatha Raisin to the run-down Paradise Hotel at the seedy seaside town of Snoth-on-Sea. Raisin’s ex-husband James Lacey has convinced her to take a holiday there and against her better judgement, she goes. Once there Raisin meets the very unpleasant Geraldine Jankers, her new husband, her son Wayne and his wife Chelsea, and a friend Cyril Hammond and his wife Dawn. One night Raisin gets into a quarrel with Geraldine Jankers. When Jankers is later found murdered, Raisin becomes a very plausible suspect. Partly in order to clear her name and partly because she’s intrigued, Raisin investigates the murder. One interesting suspect is Cyril Hammond. Through a course of events that occurs in the novel, he stands to inherit Jankers’ considerable wealth. As she looks into Hammond’s life, Raisin discovers a very ugly truth about him: he has been abusing his wife. Raisin confronts Dawn with what she knows and Dawn admits the truth. In fact, Raisin even convinces Dawn to leave her husband. But then, inexplicably to Raisin, Dawn goes back. On the surface of it, you could yell at Dawn for going back when she knows what awaits her (at least I wanted to). But Hammond is wealthy and ‘connected’ and Dawn has neither real marketable skills nor any real professional experience. She’s very much afraid of what will happen to her if she tries to make it alone so for her, the decision to leave and stay away is not as simple as it seems.
We see a kind of related situation in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. In that novel we meet Sadie Grace Hunt. She and her husband Curt live in rural Patrick County, Virginia, where they raise their sons Mason and Gates. Curt Hunt hasn’t had it easy financially, and he tends to drink too much. What’s worse, he abuses his sons physically and his wife more emotionally and verbally. Both Mason and Gates are deeply affected by the abuse they suffer and it later leads to tragedy when Gates Hunt murders a romantic rival during a heated quarrel. Mason is persuaded to help cover up what his brother has done. That decision comes back to haunt him when Gates is imprisoned on a drugs charge and begs his brother, now a prosecuting attorney, to help him get out of prison. Their conflict tears the family apart and raises several questions about family loyalty, among other things. Sadie Grace Hunt is fully aware of what her husband is like and she is appalled at her husband’s treatment of his family. But she doesn’t leave. Part of the reason for that is financial; where would she go and how would she feed two sons? Part of the reason is her commitment to what she sees as her family obligations. While it’s easy to blame someone like Sadie Grace for not leaving, it’s a very complex situation, and Clark doesn’t reduce it to ‘black and white.’
Andrea Camilleri doesn’t reduce complex situations to ‘black and white’ either. For instance, in The Wings of the Sphinx, Inspector Salvo Montalbano investigates the murder of an unknown girl with a distinctive tattoo. Her body is discovered near a local landfill and at first, no-one claims to know her. But later she is identified as a foreigner who came to Italy with a group of other young woman under the premise that the group sponsoring them would find jobs and security for them. Things haven’t turned out that way though and without giving spoilers, I can say that the women have gotten themselves into a very difficult and dangerous situation. So why didn’t any of them leave the area? Why did they stay? They’re not portrayed as stupid; in fact, quite the contrary. But leaving that kind of situation is complicated. Without plenty of money, they can’t return home or even go to another part of the country. Without connections it’s hard to get legal work. So although you might argue that the women should just leave, it’s more complex than that and it’s to Camilleri’s credit that the story acknowledges that fact.
That’s also true in Betty Webb’s Desert Wives. Esther Corbett has left a Utah polygamous group called Purity. She hires private investigator Lena Jones to go to Purity and rescue her daughter Rebecca from the group and Jones and her partner Jimmy Sisiwan successfully find Rebecca and return her to her mother. But in the meantime, Purity’s leader Solomon Royal has been shot and there’s some very strong circumstantial evidence against Esther. When Esther is arrested for the murder, she begs Jones to find out who Royal’s killer is so that Rebecca won’t be forcibly returned to her father Abel, who is still a loyal member of Purity. Jones agrees and goes undercover at Purity to find out who murdered its leader. While she’s there Jones discovers some appalling truths about Purity including domestic violence, forced marriage and child abuse. Jones finds it very hard to believe at first that the women of Purity would simply stay there and tolerate what’s been happening. But the more she learns about their situation, the better she understands why they can’t just leave. First, Purity is an isolated compound, so leaving is physically very difficult. Then too, Purity’s women have very little money and no independent means of transportation. Most have little if any education. Further, local and regional authorities do little or nothing about the abuses at Purity although they are aware of them. And finally, many of Purity’s members have been raised to believe that that’s ‘the way things should be.’ One very clear message in this book is that changing the situation at Purity is not as easy as one would wish.
That’s the message in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar too. Australian ex-pat Jayne Keeney lives and works in Bangkok, but occasionally goes north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. One night during one of Keeney’s visits, de Montpasse’s partner Nou is murdered. The police begin to investigate and almost before Keeney knows it, de Montpasse has been shot. The official explanation for that killing is that de Montpasse murdered his partner and threatened the police when they came to arrest him. But Keeney is certain that’s not true. So in order to clear her friend’s name, she begins to investigate. What she finds is that those two deaths are connected to corruption, child abuse and sex trafficking. One of the debates raised in this novel has to do with how we stop the practice of child trafficking, and one question is, why do parents from rural villages continue to allow their children to be sold into the sex trade? Why don’t they simply stop doing it? But as Savage points out, the question is much more complicated than that and entails more far-reaching issues than it seems on the surface.
And that’s the thing about people who seem locked in bad situations. Very often (‘though certainly not all the time), simply leaving those situations is not as easy as it seems on the surface. And exploring those complex issues can make for a realistic and rich crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Already Gone.