You’ve Got to Roll With the Punches to Get to What’s Real*

Real and fictional sleuths have to deal with some true ugliness in their jobs. The hours, the horrible things one sees and the danger all take a heavy toll on the detective. And it’s not really fair, but crime fiction writers sometimes do some very nasty things to their characters. And yet sleuths keep doing what they do, and those affected by crime keep living their lives. Part of the way they keep their sanity is by enjoying life’s little moments of ‘normal’ when they can. You know what I mean: planting something in the garden, your first cup of tea or coffee in the morning, the way a freshly baked pie smells. I’ll bet you could create a long list of those little things in life without really thinking about it. But the trouble is that it’s often easy to forget them. That’s true in daily life and it’s true in novels too. There are two ways in which integrating those little things can add to a crime novel. One is that they can relieve the sorrow in what can be a very sad story. The other is that they can be very realistic. Of course, overusing those moments can be mawkish and can detract from a novel. But when they’re used well, they can add much to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we meet Lord Stephen Horbury. Much against his better judgement, he fell in love with actress Martha Jebb, who went by the stage name Cicely Bland. They married, but the marriage has been very far from a happy one. Horbury is miserable on that account as it is, and when his wife begins to run up huge gambling debts, things get even worse. Then, to his shame, Cecily gets mixed up in murder when she is a passenger on a flight from Paris to London. Also on that flight is French moneylender Marie Morisot, who goes by the name Madame Giselle. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight and he works with Scotland Yard Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp to find out who the killer is. Lady Horbury has a strong motive for murder, since she owed Madame Giselle a lot of money, and the possibility that she may be a murderer adds even more to her husband’s worry. There’s one scene in this novel though that brings everything into perspective for him. He summons his hunting dog Betsy and they go for a walk around his property. Just being outdoors and talking a walk lifts his mood and although it doesn’t solve the mystery, it lightens the story.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice features LAPD cop Harry Bosch, who’s alerted one night to a suicide in his area. Fellow officer Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore has apparently killed himself, and the official department explanation is that he’d ‘gone dirty’ and committed suicide as a result. Bosch isn’t sure that’s true though and begins to ask questions. But the LAPD ‘higher-ups’ don’t want the case to get any attention because if Moore was ‘dirty’ it’ll embarrass the department and possibly lead to other truths that the department isn’t eager to reveal. So Bosch is taken off the case. That doesn’t stop him though, as anyone who knows Harry Bosch could have foreseen. Bosch continues on the trail, which takes him to a small Mexican border town and a nasty drugs gang. Bosch is under a great deal of departmental pressure, he’s taking this trip without official approval and he’s dealing with the loss of a colleague, among other things. But the drive from Los Angeles to Mexico soothes him and he notices the stark beauty of the land as he drives. It’s a very effective integration of one of those everyday little moments of sanity that keeps Bosch from going over the proverbial edge.

For Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman, it’s the preparing and baking of bread that is real and that keeps her grounded. That’s one important reason she started her bakery. She’s not at all happy about getting up at four in the morning to start the day’s baking but for her, bread really is the stuff of life and it’s very meaningful. For instance, in Heavenly Pleasures, Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen investigate some serious matters: there’s sabotage at a local chocolate shop, an enigmatic and possibly dangerous new resident in Chapman’s building, a bomb threat and more. But Chapman is able to step back from what’s going on as her assistant Jason manages to create the perfect chocolate muffin. In fact, when he produces this delectable concoction, Chapman stops everything and insists on getting the details of how it’s made. It’s one of those everyday little things that make it easier for Chapman to get through the not-so-pleasant things that happen to her.

Tarquin Hall’s Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri also depends on normal, everyday satisfying things to keep his perspective. He has a loving wife Rumpi on whom he depends more than he is always willing to admit. And coming home to her provides him very helpful stability. The one thing Rumpi is a bit of a stickler about is her husband’s diet. She’d like him to eat healthier food than he does but the thing is, those unhealthy foods, like crispy green chili pakoras, are part of what keep him grounded. They remind him of what is real about life.

For much the same kind of reason, Peter Temple’s Jack Irish spends a lot of his spare time at his friend Charlie Taub’s cabinetry chop. Irish has had plenty of personal sorrow; his beloved wife Isabel was shot by a crazed client and he still deals with that loss. That plus his often very stressful cases means that Irish is sometimes in need of a way to focus on what’s real – to pay attention to those little things in life that matter. So he is learning cabinetry from Taub. He’s got nowhere near Taub’s mastery of the craft, and Taub doesn’t often let him forget that. But he loves handling the wood, he’s learning different skills and cabinetry keeps him grounded.

It’s never easy balancing home life and police work, and sometimes that balance is especially difficult for Åsa Larsson’s Anna Maria Mella. But she wouldn’t give up her family for the world. And very often it’s her family who give her those real moments that put everything into perspective for her. In The Black Path for instance, she and her partner Sven-Erick Stalnåcke investigate the murder of Inna Watrang, Information Officer for Kallis Mining. It’s a difficult and dangerous investigation and it was an ugly murder. So Mella has quite a lot to work through in this novel. One morning, though, she gets a great real moment with her toddler son Gustav that helps her to keep her perspective. She’s woken by Gustav and they greet each other warmly:


‘’I love you,’ she said. ‘You’re the best thing in the whole wide world.’ He stroked her hair in return. Then he suddenly looked very serious, and patted the area around her eyes very carefully; he said anxiously, ‘Mummy, your face is all cracked.’
‘From beneath the covers on the far side of the bed came a muffled shout of laughter, and she could see [her husband] Robert’s body heaving up and down.
Anna-Maria tried to kick her husband but it was difficult with Gustav between them like a protective wall.’


Now that’s a moment to remind one of what is real in life.

And that’s the beauty of those moments. They keep us grounded, they help us cope with life’s stresses and they remind us of what matters. And when they’re sprinkled through a good crime fiction novel, they can provide excellent leaven. I don’t have space to mention all of them; I probably haven’t mentioned the ones you like best (I know, I know, fans of Nero Wolfe’s ‘orchid moments’). So please fill in the gaps I left.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Van Halen’s Jump.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Kerry Greenwood, Michael Connelly, Peter Temple, Rex Stout, Tarquin Hall

18 responses to “You’ve Got to Roll With the Punches to Get to What’s Real*

  1. I love the husbands laughter at mummy’s face being cracked. A very genuine piece of reality there 🙂

  2. Love that extract from “The Black Path” Margot – haven’t got it yet, but I will. It’s details like that that make books re-readable, once you get past the plot mechanics.

    • Sergio – Oh, I like that bit myself, very much. And you’ve got a really well-taken point. Those are the details in a novel that bring the story alive and give it the kind of character that makes one want to read it again.

  3. Margot: I think the making of meals has been used well in numerous series to show the human side of sleuths.

    Nero Wolfe comes closest to being human when he is in the kitchen with Fritz working out a recipie.

    Who can forget in Anthony Bidulka’s series, Russell Quant’s mother Kay, cooking her special red sauce (ketchup mixed with regular cream) for her boy?

    Joanne Kilbourn in Gail Bowen’s series tries hard to cook and share each day an evening meal with her family.

    Tough guy, Spenser, prepares wonderful meals though Susan Silverman barely eats them.

    • Bill – Oh, I really like your examples of the way sleuths use meals and cooking as ways to ground themselves. Thank you for filling in that gap. Even sleuths who are not gourmands can enjoy the day-to-day real-life experience of cooking and sharing food. That’s one of those experiences that can be very life-affirming, can’t it?

  4. kathy d.

    This is a very good post, with interesting hobbies or normal life experiences that help to keep the detectives’ perspective and sanity.
    There’s also V.I. Warshawski’s going to the lake with Mitch and Peppy, her dogs, and her listening to opera, while drinking wine. There’s Guido Brunetti reading old Roman history books and dropping by trattorias for wine or coffee. There’s Salvo Montalbano sitting wine, while looking at the sea — not to mention his obsession with food all day long, stopping at a restaurant before going home to eat dinner. There’s also his crime ficiton reading, which Jayne Keeney, an Australian in Thailand also enjoys.
    Erlandur drives around Iceland and thinks. Irene Huss enjoys her spouse’s gourmet cooking and teenage daughters.
    Russell Quant also spends down time with his Schnauzer, Barbra, while reading and listening to music.

    • Kathy – Thanks very much for the kind words. Thanks also for those terrific examples of things that sleuths do to keep themselves grounded. Your ideas really helped fill in the gaps I left. Listening to music, or having a good meal, or playing with dog, or other everyday things can put things into perspective I think. They help remind the sleuth that there’s more to life than the ugliness of crime.

  5. I always loved the down moments when Morse was listening to opera records and relaxing at home. It does give a feeling of normalcy and offers a breather to readers, I think.

    • Elizabeth – Oh, yes! Morse! Thanks for reminding me. Yes, when he listens to opera, does his crossword puzzle and so on, that does give the reader a break. And you’re absolutely right; it adds some normalcy and therefore (I think) makes the character seem more real.

  6. Darn, I was going to mention those orchids. 😀

    V.I. Warshawski plays piano and sings opera and Alex Cross plays piano. And Harry Bosch loves jazz. Listening to or playing music is a great way to relieve stress..

    • Pat – Thanks for bringing up that well-taken point about music. There area lot of sleuths actually who ‘keep it real’ with music and stay grounded that way. I may actually do a post just on that some time.Thanks for the inspiration.

  7. I liked in L R Wright’s ‘The Suspect’ the care and attention the old man gave his garden. Miss Marple was always gardening of course and even Poirot had a dabble with his marrows.

    • Sarah – Good examples of how gardening is one of those things that sleuths do to keep them grounded. Caroline Graham’s Tom Barnaby does that, too. Certainly gardening is a very real thing to do if I can put it that way. I just wish I were more skilled at it *sigh.*

  8. As before I loved this and all the comments and examples of ordinary snippets in a sleuth’s hard and busy day. I must be on the right track. I have my victim having her hair done by a mobile hairdresser and chatting over cigarettes and coffee in her kitchen as she is washed and styled, and my sleuth sits in bed watching the 24 hours news whilst writing up her notes after checking her weight on her bathroom scales. Not in the same league as Christie or Connolly of course, but I am glad I kept those scenes in now. Wonderful and informative as ever. Thanks.

    • Jane – Why, thank you 🙂 – And I really do like the examples you’ve offered of what your victim and sleuth do. Those are real-life, everyday things that add ‘flesh’ to characters and draw the reader in. I can just picture what’s happening even from your short description. I like it!

      • Thanks Margot, I am glad. When I wrote the kitchen scene I wondered if it would be one of those which might find themselves on the editor’s floor at some point. But I am heartened by what you have written as it has given me some confidence in that I wondered if I was being a bit too down to earth at times. Your comments are valued and appreciated. Please do tell me if I am cluttering up your posts with my comments, especially if unwanted or not on track. You love all the authors I love…I grew up with Christie, Chandler, Spillane and Marsh, and of course, Enid Blyton – without whose adventure stories I may well have been led elsewhere. Thank you so much. I suppose working in music and painting pictures with music and also in TV/Movies, I see things in scenes and storyboards and as ‘tracks’ on an album, all coming together to create a whole. Of course, I have no idea if I can achieve it with writing, but I think of it all as pictures, scenes and images which I am trying to convey to someone who, until now, hasn’t been given the chance to imagine it. Well, that’s the plan.

        • Jane – And I like your plan very much. You’re welcome here at any time and as often as you wish. I learn a lot from what you offer. I like those everyday scenes you mention actually. They remind the reader that the sleuth, the victim, the suspects and so on are all real people. They help the reader identify with the characters too in my opinion. Of course anything can be overdone and that includes scenes like that. But I don’t think yours come close to that.

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