And She Doesn’t Know What’s Coming But She’s Sure of What She’s Leaving Behind*

UncertaintyOne year ends and another begins, and that always brings a little uncertainty. Even if one’s optimistic about what’s going to happen next, life’s rarely a sure thing. And even if one’s pessimistic, you never know what wonderful thing’s waiting round the corner so to speak. That uncertainty brings with it some tension and so it’s not surprising that we see it a lot in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie’s work sometimes includes a bit of uncertainty and that adds to the depth of the story as well as to its interest. For example, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is strangled during a trip on the famous Blue Train. She was on her way to Hyères to meet her lover, Count Armand de la Roche, when the crime occurred. The victim had with her a valuable ruby set in a necklace, and that ruby has been stolen, so the police are convinced that the motive for the murder was robbery. The count is of dubious reputation and he knew that Ruth had the ruby, so he is the most natural suspect. But the count has an alibi for the time of the murder and claims that he’s innocent. Hercule Poirot was on the same train en route to Nice, so he works with the French police to find out who the murderer is. One of the people they interview is Katherine Grey, who happened to have a long talk with the victim before the murder. She’s a former paid companion who’s just inherited quite a lot of money from her employer and has decided to take some time and travel about. Her first stop is Nice, where a distant cousin Lady Rosalie Tamplin and her daughter Lenox live. In a sub-plot of this novel, Katherine has two admirers, and there’s some uncertainty as to what she’ll do. And even at the end, we don’t know exactly what will happen to her.

Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke takes place in the Berlin of 1931. Hannah Vogel is a crime reporter for the Berliner Tageblatt. In that capacity, she’s at the local police station when she happens to look at the photographs displayed in the Hall of the Unknown Dead. To her shock and horror, Hannah sees a ‘photo of her brother Ernst among the dead. She can’t do much about it openly, because she and Ernst lent their identity documents to some Jewish friends who needed them to leave Germany. They promised to return the documents, but that hasn’t happened yet. Hannah is at real risk if anyone discovers the identity switch, so she doesn’t want to call any attention to herself. Still, she wants to find out what happened to her brother, so very quietly she begins to ask questions. Little by little she finds out that Ernst was involved with some very high-ranking members of the Nazi party, which is growing in influence. If one of them killed him, Hannah is taking grave risks by finding out the truth. Still, she persists. At the end of the novel, we do get closure in the sense that we find out who the killer is and why Ernst was murdered. But there is a great deal of uncertainty in the novel. We don’t exactly know what’s next for Hannah, as her life isn’t neatly ‘tied up in a package.’ We also sense the climate of uncertainty about Germany’s future.

In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole is hired by famous director Peter Alan Nelson.  Years ago Nelson was married to Karen Shipley and they had a son Toby. The marriage broke up, chiefly because Nelson didn’t want family responsibilities at the time. Now Nelson wants to find his family again and re-connect with his son. At first Cole is reluctant; many, many people disappear because they do not want to be found. But he finally agrees and begins the search, which leads to a small Connecticut town. When Cole and his partner Joe Pike locate Karen, they find that she’s gotten herself mixed up with the Mafia. However unwitting her involvement was, she’s in deep now and is frightened of what will happen if she tries to break free. Cole and Pike work to help Karen rid herself of the hold the Mob has over her; in return she agrees to at least meet with her ex-husband. At the end of the story, we don’t really know what will happen with that family. In some ways, questions are answered, but there’s enough uncertainty about their future that it’s also quite realistic.

There’s also a thread of uncertainty in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. Stephanie Anderson is beginning her career as a psychiatrist in Dunedin. One day a patient Elisabeth Clark tells her a terrible story; Elisabeth’s younger sister Gracie was abducted several years earlier, and no traces of the child were ever found. This story is eerily similar to Stephanie’s own family history. Seventeen years earlier, her own sister Gemma was abducted. Despite a massive search, no traces of her were ever found either. Stephanie decides to lay her own personal ghosts to rest, so to speak, and goes on a search for the person responsible for causing so much pain. We find out the truth about Gracie’s and Gemma’s disappearances but there are some things that are left uncertain. For instance, Stephanie’s family has been shattered by the loss of Gemma. Knowing the truth about the case is helpful, and we can see ways in which the family is slowly trying to heal. But how far it’ll go and what will happen isn’t clear. There’s also the matter of Stephanie’s personal life. She makes a choice in her personal life but we don’t know exactly what will come of it. It’s an interesting way to end the novel and it adds to the interest.

There’s a great deal of uncertainty at the end of Anthony Bidulka’s Date With a Sheesha. In that novel, Pranav Gupta hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out the truth about the murder of his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ Neil was murdered in Dubai and the official explanation for his death is that he’d been attacked by hoodlums. But Pranav doesn’t believe it. Quant takes the case and travels to Dubai and then to Saudi Arabia, but it’s not just the case that occupies Quant. Some major changes in Quant’s personal life happen too, and as a result, we’re left with some real uncertainty at the end about what’s going to happen to him.

New years, new choices, big changes – they all bring uncertainty with them. But that’s part of what keeps life interesting, even if it does make us uneasy…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Stop in Nevada.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Paddy Richardson, Rebecca Cantrell, Robert Crais

12 responses to “And She Doesn’t Know What’s Coming But She’s Sure of What She’s Leaving Behind*

  1. Margot, your post always give me wonderful information to ponder. I appreciate all you do. Wishing you and your family a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful holiday season.

  2. We get the good, the bad, and the ugly….but I’m hoping for mostly good next year, for all of us.

    • So am I, Pat. And you’re right; we get what we get. Sometimes it’s good; sometimes it’s bad. And sometimes it’s pretty ugly. I hope it’s all good for us in 2014.

  3. Margot, I am sure we have all been there, where we have to step away from what we know, and move on to new beginnings. In the best situations, it is a choice we make; other times it just happens to us. Either way, it is a good premise for a mystery. The Rebecca Cantrell series is a perfect example.

    I have to catch up with Anthony Bidulka’s books and Robert Crais’ series also. I am way behind on both.

    • Tracy – I agree; the Rebecca Cantrell series really shows how Hannah Vogel has to move on to new things, even if it is scary. I think that does happen to us all at times. And yes, that whole experience of having to break out of what we know and move on is an effective premise for a mystery. Little wonder it works so well. And I do hope you get a chance to catch up on both Bidulka and Crais. Both are very much worth reading in my opinion.

  4. All those PIs in detective fiction – like Elvis Cole and Russell Quant – are always facing uncertainty: who will the next client be? Will there be any more clients? where’s next month’s rent coming from? Often a book starts with their opening their own business, with attendant uncertainty, while Cordelia Gray in PD James’ book Unsuitable Job for a Woman has to take over the business when her partner dies. It seems being a PI is a very uncertain business, at any time of the year…

    • Moira – You have a very well-taken point! Especially at the beginning of their careers, PIs don’t have a really strong client base. So they do have a lot of uncertainty. And as you say, even PIs with an established business don’t always know exactly what the next week/month will bring. Looking at it that way, you have to respect PIs’ faith in themselves. You need it I suppose to stick out those uncertain times.

  5. Margot – Another great post. Following up on Moira’s comment of the uncertainties in a PI’s life, I’m reminded of Chandler famous quip about, of a sort, uncertainty: when a writer’s in doubt about where to take the plot, have a guy walk through the door holding a gun.

    • Bryan – Now that’s a quote to remember. Thanks. And thanks for the kind words. You know, I hadn’t thought about uncertainty in terms of where a writer is going to take her or his story, but that certainly exists. I appreciate the ‘food for thought.’ And now I’ll have to figure out how to have a guy walk through the door with a gun in the next thing I write..

  6. Col

    Thanks for the Crais reminder, I need to get back to him……though I’m uncertain when!

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

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

You are commenting using your 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