Millions of people volunteer their time and energy to help those in need. And the best kinds of volunteers are the ones who don’t make a big fuss about it. They see a need and without judging or asking anything in return, they try to meet that need. I won’t go on and on about the different causes for which they work. There is far too long a list of urgent needs out there for me to do that. Suffice it to say though that volunteers have a huge impact. Certainly they do in real life; I’ll bet you volunteer yourself and if you do, you know what a difference the work you do makes. That’s why you do it. There are many, many volunteer and volunteer groups in crime fiction too.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles for example, Captain Hastings is recovering from a wartime injury. He accepts an invitation to visit an old friend John Cavendish while he heals up, and is looking forward to a pleasant stay. Instead, Hastings is drawn into a case of murder when Cavendish’s stepmother Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. By chance Hastings discovers that another old friend Hercule Poirot is staying in the nearby village and asks him to investigate. Poirot agrees, not least because Emily Inglethorp was his benefactor. As the novel goes along we learn that several members of the family do their share of volunteering, mostly in aid of the war effort. Cavendish, for instance drills with the local volunteer militia. His wife Mary volunteers as what would later be known as a Land Girl. And Emily Inglethorp plays quite a key role in all sorts of local charity groups. Although this fact of their lives isn’t the motive for the murder, it’s an interesting perspective on their lives.
Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House introduces us to Helping Hands, a group dedicated to helping abused women and their children find safe places to go and make plans for their lives once they get there. One night, a warehouse fire in Southwark is reported by a resident at Helping Hands, and Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his lover DI Gemma James go to the shelter to interview the person who called in the fire. There they meet Kath Warren, the director. What makes this fire of special interest is that the body of an unidentified woman was found in the remains. It seems that the shelter may be more than casually related when it turns out that Laura Novak, a member of its board of directors, has disappeared and could be the fire victim. There are three other equally strong possibilities though and Kincaid and James investigate all of them as they work to figure out who set the fire and who the dead woman is. I don’t think it’s spoiling this novel to say that the Helping Hands group didn’t engineer the fire or Novak’s disappearance. But we do get some interesting insight into the workings of a volunteer group, its leadership and the way such groups are viewed.
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman volunteers with the Melbourne Soup Run, a mobile soup kitchen that serves Melbourne’s street people. She’s a baker so she provides bread; she also takes her turn going on the run with other volunteers who travel from one part of the city to another. At each stop the Soup Run gives out coffee and tea, food, some medicines and other supplies like blankets and clothes. Chapman is quite matter-of-fact about her volunteer work. She doesn’t talk much about it; she just rolls up her sleeves as the saying goes and does what needs to be done. The Soup Run is overseen by the indefatigable Sister Mary, one of Melbourne’s strongest advocates for those in need. Sister Mary has a remarkable skill at getting people to part with their time, their money, their donations, their official permission, whatever is necessary to get the job done. And she’s one of the few people Chapman co-operates with nearly automatically. The Soup Run proves useful to Chapman too, in a few mysteries. For instance, in Devil’s Food, Chapman’s father seems to have disappeared. Through the Soup Run she makes contact with other Melbourne volunteer groups and services and is able to find out what happened to him. The Soup Run is also a source of clues in Earthy Delights, in which she helps to solve the mystery of a series of junkie overdose deaths.
In Peg Brantley’s Red Tide we meet volunteer guide dog handler Jamie Taylor. By day she’s a Colorado bank loan professional. She also trains and handles Gretchen, Socrates ‘Socks’ and McKenzie, who are search-and-rescue dogs. When the need arises Taylor and her dogs go on search and rescue missions. That’s how they get involved in an eerie discovery. Convicted serial killer Leopold Bonzer has told the FBI where he buried his victims and Taylor and her dogs are sent to that remote field. They find the bodies but they also find bodies that Bonzer could not have buried there. Now it looks as though a ‘copycat killer’ is using the same field. Each in a different way, Taylor, her sister Jacqueline ‘Jax’ and FBI Agent Nick Grant investigate to find out who this new killer is and how that relates to a tragedy in Taylor’s own past. Among other things, this is an interesting look at the way search-and-rescue operations are carried out and how dogs are used in the process.
And then there’s Nina Borg, whom we first meet in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase. Nina is a nurse at Ellen’s Place, a shelter and service provider for refugees. She’s also volunteered in several different world ‘danger zones’ and takes her work in service to others very seriously. But one day she gets a very unusual case. Her friend Karin asks her to go to the Copenhagen train station and pick up a suitcase. She does so only to discover that it contains a little boy. He’s dazed and drugged, but he is alive. So she tries as best she can to find out who he is. Her first call is to Karin, but Karen seems to have disappeared. Now Nina has to find out for herself who the boy is and get him to safety. In doing so she finds herself up against some ruthless people who want that child. Meanwhile, we meet Sigita Ramoskiene, the Lithuanian mother of three-year-old Mikas, who has been abducted. As she frantically searches for her son, we learn that he is the child Nina found. Each in her own way the two women work to find out why Mikas was abducted and return him safely.
Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer features Catherine Monsigny, who’s recently become an attorney. She has a full-time job at the law office of Maître Renaud, but she also volunteers her time to an association that works with undocumented immigrants who get into legal trouble. Her purpose in doing the volunteer work is mostly to get experience. That’s how she learns of the case of Myriam Villetreix, originally from Gabon, who’s been arrested and charged with the murder of her wealthy husband Gaston. The case has been getting a lot of media attention and if Catherine gets her boss’ permission to defend Myriam, it could launch her career. She gets that permission and begins to look into the case only to find that it’s more complicated than it seems on the surface. There is evidence against her client and there is motive. What’s more, this trial takes place not far from where Catherine’s mother was murdered when she was a tiny child. No-one was ever arrested for the crime and the memory of that day has haunted her since then. Being in the area spurs Catherine to try to find out who killed her mother while she is also searching for the truth about the murder of Gaston Villetreix.
There are of course many other crime fiction novels that feature volunteers, and quite frankly, I’m glad they get ‘air time.’ It’s easy enough to click a link and donate money. It’s not so easy to give up your time and your mental and physical energy. But volunteers do it all the time in a million different ways, and without going on about it. They deserve our respect and gratitude. Mostly, they deserve to have us join their company.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Withers’ Lean on Me.