I Wish You Could be Here*

Ongoing LossIn real life, when we lose someone, the sadness and pain of that loss doesn’t stop magically after just a few days or weeks or months. Going on without someone we’ve loved is an ongoing process. You don’t ‘get over’ such loss; you go on.  A lot of crime fiction includes that devastating shock of first finding out one’s wife/husband/parent/child, etc. has been murdered, and that makes sense. Sudden death is a horrible blow. But it’s also realistic when a crime novel shows us what it’s like after some time has passed and we see that those wounds are not miraculously healed.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes is faced with the challenging case of two murders. Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson are Americans staying in London at a boarding house. When Drebber is murdered, suspicion falls eventually on Stangerson. They have a shared history and there could be any number of motives. But then Stangerson is also killed and Holmes has to find out what links the two deaths. The murders turn out to have their roots in the past. One important key is the devastating loss of one person and the hole that loss has left in another person’s life. Once Holmes finds out about that death, he’s able to solve the murders of Drebber and Stangerson.

Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) is the story of the two losses really. One is famous painter Amyas Crale, who was poisoned one afternoon at his home. The other is his wife Caroline, who was arrested, tried and convicted of the murder. A year later she died in prison. At the time of the crime, there was ample evidence to believe she was guilty although she always said she wasn’t. Now, sixteen years later, their daughter Carla Lemarchant wants to find out the truth about the killing. She’s always believed in her mother’s innocence and wants her name cleared. So she hires Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each of them. From that information he figures out who really killed Amyas Crale and why. One of the interesting threads running through this novel is the fact that none of the other people has really ‘gotten over’ what happened. They’ve gone on, but it’s clear that the losses have had a real impact on them, even years later.

In Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat, we are introduced to Anna Pigeon. She’s had to make major changes in her life after the accidental killing of her husband Zach. At the time, Pigeon and her husband were living the ‘social life’ in New York. After he was run down by a taxi, Pigeon left the city and trained to be a U.S. National Park Service ranger. As Track of the Cat begins, she’s working in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, where one day, she finds the body of fellow ranger Sheila Drury. The official explanation of Drury’s death is that a mountain lion must have killed her. Several signs suggest though that this was not a killing by a wild animal, but a deliberate murder. Besides, Pigeon is worried that if a mountain lion is blamed for the death, there will be an all-out hunt for mountain lions, and they’re endangered as it is. So she decides to follow up on the clues she’s seen and find out what really happened to Drury. As the novel moves on, we see how much Pigeon still misses Zach. Even after time has passed, his loss has left an empty space in her life that hasn’t come close to being filled.

That’s also true of Dorothy Pine, whom we meet in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words for Sorrow.  Five months before the events in the novel, her daughter Katie disappeared after school one day. John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay Police had been in charge of the search, but the police hadn’t found any evidence. Then one day, Katie’s body is discovered in an abandoned mine. Now Cardinal has the awful task of informing Dorothy that her daughter is dead. His job is made all the harder because for good reasons, there’s little love lost between the Ojibwa First Nations people and the local police. So Dorothy has absolutely no reason to trust Cardinal. She does allow him in the house though, and when he goes through Katie’s things one more time, we can see that time has done nothing to fill the hole, if I can put it that way, that Katie’s absence has left. In the end, Cardinal finds out who killed Katie Pine and why and in that sense, Dorothy at least has answers. But it’s also clear that there will be no such thing as ‘getting over it’ for her.

There’s a similar sense of ongoing loss in Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool, in which DCI Hannah Scarlett and her team investigate the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. At the time of the death, it was believed that Bethany might have committed suicide. But Scarlett has never been completely convinced of that. When book collector George Saffell and attorney Stuart Wagg are both murdered, Scarlett and her friend and fellow DCI Fern Larter believe that the cases may be connected. And so they turn out to be. As Scarlett returns to the Bethany Friend case, she visits Bethany’s mother Daphne. Scarlett’s hoping that Daphne may remember something that she didn’t think to mention when Bethany was first found dead. It’s obvious during the visit that Daphne still feels the loss of her daughter six years on. And in that sense Scarlett hates the idea of bringing her more pain. But it turns out that Daphne has some useful information…

Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second is the story of an incident on a bus that ends up costing Jason Barnes his life. He’s riding a bus when he sees three young people bullying another passenger Luke Murray. Jason intervenes and things settle for a bit as the bus gets to a stop. Luke gets off the bus and so do his harassers. Jason exits too. That’s when matters escalate again and there’s a full-on fight which continues all the way to Jason’s yard.  When it’s over, Luke’s been gravely injured and Jason is dead of stab wounds. Part of this novel of course deals with the process of talking to witnesses, finding out who the bullies were, and tracking them down. But a major theme in the novel is the way Jason’s loss affects his parents Andrew and Val. Their pain and grief don’t go away once the initial shock wears off. It’s a long, terrible experience for them. Even though there’s a feeling at the end of the novel that they will go on, it’s just as clear that they won’t ever be the same. Similarly, Luke’s mother Louise and sister Ruby have to deal with real sense of loss too. As a result of the fight, Luke is in a coma and it’s not clear what if any progress he will make, nor what his life will be like if he does begin to recover.

And that’s the thing about losing someone you care about a lot. You don’t ‘get over it.’ You go on.



One year on, Maxine, and we still miss you terribly and always will. I promise I’m behaving…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Paul Simon song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Cath Staincliffe, Giles Blunt, Martin Edwards, Nevada Barr

36 responses to “I Wish You Could be Here*

  1. Excellent points (as usual), Margot. One of the complaints I hear frequently about so-called “Golden Age” mysteries is that they don’t pay enough attention to the emotional background of a murder – the victim is often a sort of cardboard character. This isn’t true, of course, in many many mysteries by many many authors – but I think that when we are told more about a victim, when we see the impact that crime has had on those who had been emotionally involved with the victim as family or friends, it makes for a much richer book.

    • Les – Thanks. I’ve heard the same complaints about GA mysteries. And of course it’s true in some cases. But there are some in which we do see the emotional impact of the victim and her or his murder. And that does make I think for a richer, more realistic story.

  2. Lovely st Margot. I love Five Little pigs, such a tragic tale, even when justice is done, you are left feeling like there was so much unessecary loss.

    My mum once said when people die you don’t ever get over the loss you just learn to lice round it. X

    • DS – Wise words from your mum. You move on and you get along somehow. But no, you don’t really ever get over loss. And thanks for the kind words. I’ve always loved Five Little Pigs myself. As you say, although we know who’s really guilty of Amyas Crale’s murder, it doesn’t take away from the sadness and the sense that those lives have been irrevocably altered.

  3. St was meant to read post, sorry.

  4. Lovely post, Margot. Beautiful and fitting way to remember your friend.

  5. I am with angelasavage, this is indeed a lovely tributr to your friend.

    One Golden Age mystery that I can remember that deals with the pain of loss is Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die. It is not a favourite of mine but there are instances when the narrator remembers his dead child – how he had cut flowers for him one day or how he had gone to buy toffees on the fateful day – that still bring a lump to my throat.

    • Neeru – Thanks for the kind words. You make such a good point that it’s those little things, such as buying toffees or or cutting flowers, that really remind one of a loved one who’s gone. I’m glad you’ve got me thinking about that, as it’s post-worthy in and of itself. I think it really is those small things that make us remember…

  6. Margot: In The Shaman’s Knife Bessie Apakaq, the 90 year old mother of sleuth Matteesie Kitologitak, is injured by an escaping murderer and subsequently dies. Before she is gone Mattessie gets to see and visit and talk with her. Having a chance to have a last meaningful time with her eases the pain.

    I think of Maxine often. I am sure she would think you should do some misbehaving Margot.

    • Bill – Thanks for that terrific example. In fact, you’ve gotten me to thinking about the difference between situations such as Matteesie’s, where there is time to say ‘Goodbye,’ and situations such as Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn, who never did get to say ‘Goodbye’ to her first husband Ian. I think that matters.
      And you know, I could mention misbehaving, but this is a public record and all…

  7. Margot, a lovely tribute to Maxine, indeed much-missed. I’m a great fan of Sarah Caudwell, as you know, and her Thus was Adonis Murdered is a very light-hearted, funny book, but the final thoughts of the murderer I found very sad and affecting, his regrets and despair. And as you and others say above, people dismiss Christie as lightweight, but in 5 Little Pigs and The Hollow she deals very well with the aftermath of murder.

    • Moira – Yes, indeed, that scene where we learn the murderer’s thoughts is very touching and sad. And yet, Caudwell weaves it in quite effectively in an otherwise lighter novel. And as to Christie, she does do an excellent job dealing with people’s grief in Five Little Pigs and The Hollow. Certainly she’s better known for plotting than for characterisation, but sometimes she does show some really strong character depths in her work

  8. A year already. Oh, my. Yes, death is certainly a central trope in almost every crime fiction book I read.

    • Patti – It hardly seems possible, doesn’t it? Time goes by so quickly. And I agree that having to cope with the loss of someone has become an integral part of crime fiction.

  9. Like Patti says, I can’t imagine crime fiction without a murder or two. Since I haven’t read all her novels, has Christie written any where there was no death?

    • Prashant – Interesting question. I know of a few Christie short stories where there isn’t a murder. Wasps’ Nest is one of them. But those are few and far between.

  10. What a beautiful tribute to your friend, Margot – missed but never forgotten.
    One book which conveys this sense of loss and grieving extremely well is Karin Fossum’s Calling Out for You, in which Gunder’s bafflement, guilt, desperation and anger at the murder of his Indian bride are movingly described (in Norwegian its title was actually ‘Beloved Poona’).

    • Marina Sofia – Thank you. And you are absolutely right about Calling Out For You. Gunder is so torn apart about Poona’s murder and I think it’s not spoiling the novel to mention the last scene, where he decides to leave Poona’s picture up in his home and still sees it as Poona’s home too. So very touching – well, to me.

  11. The year passed by so quickly! And you’ve written the perfect tribute to Maxine.

  12. Most of the time I prefer when the grief happens ‘off-stage’ in novels, or it can become too harrowing a read, particularly if the story involves the death of a child. I think that’s why I like police procedurals – it often provides a buffer zone between the reader and the family of the victim.

    • FictionFan – You make a good point that grief can be overwhelming, even it’s not done gratuitously or melodramatically. And in an excellent police procedural, you know the grief is happening without necessarily having to witness it all.

  13. Hi Margot. Excellent post/tribute. I think of Maxine too and think: would she like this book?? or whenever I see a new book out from a writer she loved… she is missed and the truth is that as long as I read crime fiction she will always be in my thoughts.

    • Keishon – Thanks. And I feel exactly the same way. I read reviews and wonder whether she’d agree with them. Or whether she’d like what I’m writing. Or how she’d feel about a book I’m reading. And like you I think she’ll always be in my thoughts.

  14. Margot – Echoing lesbsblatt’s comment, so often in Golden Age mysteries the victim isn’t very sympathetic, and ‘got what he/she deserved.’ We tend to forget that the victim, however unpleasant, was a human being too with at least some good qualities and the death had an effect on those close to him.

    • Bryan – You put that very well. I’m thinking for instance of what Cornelia Robson says about the victims in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile:
      ‘I didn’t like ____ much, but her daughter was ever so fond of her and she’s all broken up over her mother’s death. I don’t know much about ____, but I expect somebody was fond of her somewhere and as for Linnet Doyle – well apart from everything else she was just lovely!…And when anything beautiful’s dead, it’s a loss to the world. So there!’
      I think it adds to the richness of a story when we see that side of the victim even if s/he was unpleasant.

  15. Col

    I’ve just finished a book where family members still feel lost and traumatised 20 years after the loss of a loved one.
    I hope you have fond memories and can smile now when you think of your friend,

    • Col – Thanks – I can. And I’m not surprised that there’s that sense of loss after 20 years. I don’t think it ever goes away. You move on, but you don’t ‘get over it.’

  16. Nice tribute, Margot. It is true that the feeling of loss may soften but still linger for years. Definitely happens with the loss of parents or children.

  17. kathy d.

    This is a very nice tribute to Maxine Clarke. For those of us who didn’t know her personally, but who read and commented on Maxine’s blog Petrona, we are remembering her now. Just to read her blog and then read her responses to our comments was not only edifying but also educational as well. It was a real treat to be part of her blog-reading community.
    Since loss is a part of crime fiction, how it’s handled by the author is important. Sometimes it can be overwhelming and take up the majority of the writing; that is something that readers may choose to avoid.
    But, I think Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second deals well with emotions of loss, without being maudlin or depressing. She does a good job in describing the emotions of parents whose children were either seriously injured or murdered.
    But loss is a part of life. It’s unavoidable, whether it’s due to crimes, terrible illnesses or accidents. To carry on is the challenge.

  18. Lovely tribute to Maxine. I do think about her a lot and whether she would have liked a particular book.

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