You Lift Up My Spirits*

SDaliIt’s said that everyone has a talent. And there’s nothing quite like a job where one gets to use one’s natural ability. But there are some people who are truly gifted at something. It may be music, dancing, sport, acting, art or something else. Whatever it is, those are the people with a ‘once in a lifetime’ gift. They can’t always explain exactly how they do what they do, but their skill is extraordinary. They’re out there in real life of course, and we certainly see them in crime fiction. Their gifts make them very special and sometimes, very vulnerable.

Agatha Christie mentions this kind of rare gift in a few of her stories. One, for instance, is Appointment With Death. In that novel, the Boynton family is taking a holiday in the Middle East, including a sightseeing trip to Petra. While they’re at Petra, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what seems to be a heart attack. That’s logical, given her age and bad health. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied, and he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and begins the investigation. It turns out that Carbury’s suspicions were all too correct: Mrs. Boynton died of digitalis poisoning. She was, as Poirot puts it, a ‘mental sadist’ who kept her family cowed, so there is no lack of suspects. In the end, Poirot finds out who really poisoned Mrs. Boynton and why. One of Mrs. Boynton’s children is seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Ginny,’ who is already mentally and emotionally fragile. But, she turns out to have a rare gift for the stage. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that when that gift is discovered, we see what a great actress Ginny is. I know, I know, fans of Henrietta Savernake in The Hollow… 

Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory introduces us to the Davies family. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies has a rare gift for the violin, and is now world-class. He’s expressed himself musically since he was a child, and can’t imagine life without his music. Then one frightening day, he finds that he can’t play a note. He immediately seeks psychological help to find out what’s blocking his playing. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night by what seems at first to be an accidental hit-and-run incident. But as Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers find, there’s nothing at all accidental about it. The deeper they look into the case, the more they learn about how dysfunctional the Davies family is. They also learn about the tragic death by drowning of Gideon’s younger sister twenty years earlier. It turns out, as you can imagine, that that incident is related both to Eugenie Davies’ death and to her son’s struggle with his music.

In James Lee Burke’s Jolie Blon’s Bounce, we meet gifted musician Tee Bobby Hulin. Here’s what Burke says about his talent:


‘…Tee Bobby possessed another, more serious gift, one he seemed totally undeserving of, as though the finger of God had pointed at him arbitrarily one day and bestowed on him a musical talent that was like none since the sad, lyrical beauty in the recordings of Guitar Slim.’


Hulin may be extraordinarily gifted, but that doesn’t prevent him being suspected in two vicious rape/murder cases. New Iberia, Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux doesn’t care much for Hulin as a person, but that doesn’t mean he thinks the man’s guilty of horrible crimes. And there are other suspects in these crimes. Robicheaux finds that in order to discover who the killer in this novel is, he will have to face some demons from his own past.

In Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, we learn of the first case investigated by Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). In that case, the Palace Theatre’s upcoming production of Orpheus was sabotaged by several tragedies. One was the murder of gifted dancer Tanya Capistrania, who was to have had a solo part. In fact, she was leaving a rehearsal session when she was killed. She was so talented that one possible motive for her death was professional jealousy. The PCU found out who was responsible for the tragedies, including this murder, but there was one major thing left undone. Now, years later, it comes back to haunt John May when a bomb explodes in the PCU offices.  As May works to find out the truth about that bombing, he finds out that it’s directly related to that long-ago case.

The main protagonist in Gail Bowen’s series is political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. The series follows her home life as much as it does the mysteries she investigates, so over the course of the novels, readers get to know her family. One member is her adopted daughter Taylor. Taylor is a truly gifted artist, who is trying to come to terms with some difficult issues in her life. At the same time, she is learning what it means to have her kind of talent. In The Gifted, we learn that two of Taylor’s pieces of art will be included in a benefit art auction. Her parents are deeply concerned about how this might affect Taylor. She is, after all, only fourteen, and they want her to have as safe and ‘normal’ (whatever that means) a childhood as possible. On the other hand, Taylor’s talent is undeniable, and she is passionate about her art. To deny her the opportunity to evolve as an artist would be like removing a limb. So despite some misgivings, Taylor’s permitted to contribute to the auction. One of her pieces has unintended and tragic consequences, and throughout the novel, we see how much a part of Taylor’s life her art really is.

And that’s the thing about people who have rare talents. Those gifts are integral and essential. Perhaps those with special gifts can’t explain exactly how they do what they do. But they couldn’t imagine not using them. Which gifted characters have made an impression on you?


On Another Note…


This post is dedicated to one of the world’s truly gifted musical artists Paul McCartney. Happy Birthday, Sir Paul!


ps  The ‘photo above is by Salvador Dalí, who also had rare and special talent.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Follow Me.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen, James Lee Burke

30 responses to “You Lift Up My Spirits*

  1. Lovely post, Margot – and it brings back to me a memorable character in Ellis Peters’ “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Heart.” Before Peters wrote her Brother Cadfael series, she wrote a dozen contemporary mysteries featuring Inspector George Felse. In “Black Is…” one of the central characters is Liri Palmer, a folksinger. At a folk festival, she takes the old folk song, “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and, in performing it, turns it from “hair” to “heart.” Peters describes the event, and her talent, this way:

    “An achingly sweet voice, so rending in its sweetness as to corrode like an acid when she used it like this, as if all the frightening possibilities of her nature, for good or evil, could be molten in the furnace of her feeling, and pour out in that fine-spun thread of sound to purify or poison. She sang with such superb assurance that they all accepted it as the only rightness, only realizing afterwards how she had changed words to her own purposes, and torn the heart out of the song to leave it the antithesis of what it was meant to be.”

    I found that deeply moving – and her amazing talent will be central to the coming mystery.

    • Les – Thanks for the kind words. And thanks too for that excellent example. It’s exactly that sort of rare talent/gift that I had in mind with this post. Liri Palmer has it, whatever you call it. I love that quote, too! And you’ve reminded me that I must read some of that series. As you can guess, I’m more familiar with the Cadfael series than with Peters’ other work. Time to change that…

  2. Hi Margot — I would mention Nero Wolfe and his extraordinary talent for raising orchids. I’ve tried many times and failed miserably. 😀

    • Pat – I admire Wolfe’s ability to grow orchids – including very rare varieties – too. And of course, there’s Theodore Horstmann, too. He’s quite the orchid expert.

  3. I often mention Margery Allingham – and she often has characters who are very talented: fashion designer & actress in Fashion in Shrouds, artist in Death of a Ghost, performer in Dancers in Mourning. And Josephine Tey has the dancer Ray Marcable in The Man in the Queue. The stage is always a particularly fruitful area for murder stories.

    • Moira – I think it is, too. And thanks for mentioning those other examples of specially-gifted people. I agree with you that Allingham handles that well. And yes of course The Man in the Queue is a great example too. I like the way your comment shows that we’ve always had those brilliantly gifted people.

  4. Maud Fitch

    My first foray into adult literature was via Mary Stewart novels. Even today it takes a special historical fiction book to beat her Merlin series. Told from the perspective of Merlin from youth to old age, it recounts the life of King Arthur and was quite innovative at the time. I guess I’ve loved Merlin ever since! Mary Stewart had a long life and sadly passed away last month.

    • Maud – I’ve read several Mary Stewart novels too, and Merlin certainly was/is a gifted and unusual character. Thanks for reminding me of pleasant times. She will be sorely missed.

  5. Margot: Sometimes I think you must somehow have a special gift to know what I am reading.

    I just finished The Ascendant by Drew Chapman in which Garrett Reilly has a remarkable gift for remembering numbers and detecting patterns from masses of information.

    In the past two years I have read a pair of books featuring synaesthetes. In Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews it was Russian Dominika Egorova. David Rotenburg’s trilogy features Canadian Decker Roberts. Both Egorova and Roberts can determine whether someone is telling the truth mainly from the colours they see about people with whom they are conversing.

    Lastly, do I detect a crush on Sir Paul?

    • Bill – I’ve heard that The Ascending is good; I’ll be interested in your review of it. Interesting too that you’d mention synaesthetes. That’s a very unusual gift, and I would guess that an author has to ‘do the homework’ to make characters with it believable. You’re inspiring me to think about people who have those sorts of abilities and gifts, how they’re portrayed in crime fiction, and how they can be made credible. Thanks for that.
      And about Sir Paul? He’s a legendary talent and, from what I’ve read, a good person. So in that sense I like him very much. But my heart belongs to Billy Joel.

  6. Col

    Good in his day, but am I the only to think McCartney ought to pack it in now? Discuss!

  7. I’m currently reading Janet Gleeson’s ‘The Serpent in the Garden’ which features a character with an amazing talent for growing… pineapples. It’s original if nothing else!

  8. kathy d.

    Fun post. Well, V.I. Warshawski can sing opera and play the piano, taking after her Italian opera singer mother.
    And, I’d consider being able to cook wonderful cuisine an art, as does Fritz in Nero Wolfe’s NYC brownstone. (I think putting up with Wolfe is an art, too.) And there’s Adelina in Vigata, Sicily who prepares Montalbano’s dinners and Paola Falier who cooks for Guido, Chiara and Raffie Brunetti.
    Then there’s the gift of having a perfect memory, which I think Danglard has in Fred Vargas’ series.
    And, of course, there’s the talent for good wit, which Archie Goodwin has, for one.

    • Kathy – Glad you enjoyed the post. And you’ve certainly mentioned other special gifts that some famous crime-fictional characters have. And I’d have to agree: it certainly takes a special kind of person to put up with Wolfe…

  9. Margot – great work on yet another fascinating topic. Though there may be more elegant examples, I think of the less frequently used athletic gift, specifically in the Jonathan Valin novel Life’s Work, where the (anti)hero was a broken down warhorse of a football player. But I confess I don’t remember that many details of the story …

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. And trust you to suggest a different sort of example from a novel that adds to the discussion. This isn’t a novel I’m familiar with. Time for me to expand my horizons.

  10. kathy d.

    The TBR list has just toppled over into a heap.

  11. It was so much fun reading all the comments. I loved the Tee Bobby Hulin quote in your post:

    ‘…Tee Bobby possessed another, more serious gift, one he seemed totally undeserving of, as though the finger of God had pointed at him arbitrarily one day and bestowed on him a musical talent that was like none since the sad, lyrical beauty in the recordings of Guitar Slim.’

    This piece of writing is proof of Lee Burke’s talent as a writer. And what a wonderful name for a character: Tee Bobby. 🙂

    • Carol – I love that name too. And you’re so right about James Lee Burke’s writing style. It flows beautifully, doesn’t it? I’ve experienced a few of his books through audio recording and they’re great that way for just that reason. And that particular quote certainly shows the kind of music talent Tee Bobby has.

  12. Margot, I loved Kathy D.’s comments on the talents in the Nero Wolfe household. Certainly an unusual bunch.

    Flavia de Luce in the series by Alan Bradley is gifted in many ways, very intelligent, combining intuition and logic, and clever with chemistry.

    • Tracy – I agree about the Wolfe household. And I see your point about Flavia de Luce too. She’s got quite a lot of intellectual ability, to say nothing of her skill at chemistry. It all combines to make her an interesting person.

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