Lean on Me When You’re Not Strong*

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Deborah Crombie, Kerry Greenwood, Lene Kaaberbøl, Peg Brantley, Sylvie Granotier

16 responses to “Lean on Me When You’re Not Strong*

  1. 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.

    Love what you wrote here and yes, we should all do our part. Read on Twitter recently in relation to Hurricane Sandy that responsibility is the ability/means to act. I volunteered when I was in college but since then I’ve been remiss. Never too late to change that though. Great post, Margot! I always come away from these posts with new books to add to my tbr pile.

    • Keishon – How very kind of you 🙂 – Thank you! I’ve been reading a lot about the incredible work the volunteers are doing amid Sandy’s devastation. That’s a very well-make point about responsibility too. And as you say, there’s no rule against choosing a way to give back even if it’s been a while since one did…

  2. Yes great post. There I’d an army of unpaid volunteers who do wonderful things. I love Miss Marple and her wonderful way of collecting for charity and helping girls in the village.

    • Sarah – Thank you 🙂 – And thanks for bringing up Miss Marple’s gentle but so very effective way of doing good work in the village. I like that about her.

  3. In my family after we turned 8 In order to receive our pocket money we had to do some kind of volunteer work – I suppose I might have resented it as a kid (don’t remember) but looking back I think it was a great thing for my parents to instil in us – as adults I think we (by brother, foster brothers and I) have all been volunteers of one sort or another for most of our lives – we just all think it’s what you do and I know for me there’s only been brief periods when I have had no kind of volunteer work in my schedule

    • Bernadette – I absolutely love your parents’ (and your) views. Volunteer work is so important in getting things done. And it teaches one things that one can’t learn in any other way – or at least, not in any better way in my opinion. In fact, in the U.S. there are a lot of schools that require students to do volunteer work in order to complete their programs. I like that, too.

  4. I’ve met some of the most amazing people through their volunteer work, and those who make volunteer work a part of their lives tend to work on into their 80s and longer if their own health allows. I can totally imagine some of them solving crimes in their spare time.

    • Pat – Oh, I couldn’t agree more. Volunteers are amazing people, and they are so full of life and energy, or so I have always found. And that energy is contagious I think. Good point about having them as sleuths too. 🙂

  5. This is a lovely post on volunteering in crime-fiction, Ms. Kinberg. I’m afraid I am going to digress a bit here…

    There is often no mention of fees or remuneration in the mysteries of detectives like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes as well as lawyer-sleuth Perry Mason which makes you wonder if they take up cases for free. Mason, of course, has received cheques following the successful conclusion of his cases. I am sure there is no charity involved though one gets the impression that detectives take up cases more as a vocational challenge, as in Poirot’s case, than for profits.

    I have also heard about Pro Bono cases in detective novels though the only fiction of its type that I have read is THE CHAMBER by John Grisham where a grandson struggles to get his racist grandfather off death row.

    I also like it when private detectives and police investigators empathise with the families of victims and lend a patient ear. That’s one kind of charity too: often people need someone who’ll just listen to them.

    • Prashant – Thank you for the kind words. You bring up an interesting point about fees in crime fiction too. I know in several of Christie’s Poirot mysteries, Poirot mentions that he is an expensive sleuth. And in The Aventure of the Priory School, Holmes admits to being ‘pulled in’ if you will by the handsome fee he earns. But you are completely correct that in general, those sleuths (Mason too) care more about their clients than they do about money. And thanks for mentioning some of Grisham’s characters too. They often do their work because it is the right thing to do. Your larger point (about the empathy that sleuths have for victims) is well-taken too. Sometimes people do just need to be heard.

  6. A lovely post honoring volunteers, Margot! And some good examples. I do think that frequently, volunteers get just as much out of the experience of helping as do the recipients of their help.

    • Elizabth – Thanks very much for the kind words – I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. You really make ea very well-taken point, too. Volunteerring certainly benefitss those who are being helped. But it also has tremendous benefits for those who reach out to help.

  7. Volunteers are essential in the sector where I work, keeping Neighbourhood Houses/Community Centres open and running.
    By contrast, my crime fiction heroine Jayne Keeney has been known to volunteer, not out of altruism but for ulterior motives: in The Half-Child, she goes under cover as a volunteer in an orphanage in order to find out more about the mysterious deaths of children in care. She gets her comeuppance, though, when she realises the mistake she’s made, choosing to volunteer in child care, thinking it would be less work than cleaning or admin 😉

    • Angela – I was hoping you would comment here; both you and Jayne have experience with volunteerism. I’m sure in real life you depend on your volunteers utterly. I know there are groups here like that too, where the volunteers are really the lifeblood of the group. And yes, Jayne does indeed get a lesson about what child care is like, and in The Half Child I think you paint a very realistic picture of volunteering in that context. I like that aspect of the novel quite a lot.

  8. kathy d.

    I’m for volunteerism all over and for donating, too, as much as possible. This is not a topic I would have thought of regarding crime fiction, so it’s interesting to read the instances of volunteerism in the books. Also, agencies or organizations are good places for murder, so I can see why writers utilize them in their stories.
    Volunteering is good for the soul. I’ve been doing it for decades, in one way or another and it’s greatly rewarding, as well as helpful. My family always pitched in and made contributions of their time and energy so I grew up learning this was what one did — and also donated financially, too.
    This is a good time of year for all of it, but so is all year-round.

    • Kathy – I agree with you completely about volunteering and donating. Volunteering really is rewarding and it does make a difference, and I can see why you’ve been involved with it for as long as you have. And as you say, when you grow up in a family that supports volunteering, you really do think of volunteering as ‘something one does.’
      You know, you make an interesting point too about volunteer agencies as being good contexts for a murder mystery. They really are. Of course, I wouldn’t want to scare people away from volunteering… 😉

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s