Don’t They Know It’s the End of the World*

RebuildingFor obvious reasons, a lot of crime novels include characters who are dealing with a great loss or trauma in their lives. Sometimes those characters are protagonists; sometimes they’re not. Either way, the author has to choose how to depict that coping process. And it is a process. On the one hand, most people understand that it takes time to pick up the pieces of life when something awful happens. On the other, there’s also pressure to move on and start living again. Sometimes that pressure is internal (e.g. ‘I really shouldn’t feel this way. I need to get on with my life.’). Other times, the pressure comes from well-meaning family members, friends, co-workers, etc. (e.g. ‘Come on, you really should start dating again/get back to work/etc.’). That process and the tension that comes with it can add much to character development in a novel, and it does reflect reality. Here are just a few examples. I’m quite certain you can think of many more than I could.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder is a former member of the NYPD. His career with the police ended after he targeted two armed thieves who murdered a bartender. In the process of going after them, he accidentally shot a young girl Estrellita Rivera. The shot was ‘clean,’ and no-one really blames Scudder. Even the victim’s family members understand that it was a terrible accident, but an accident. Still, that incident has permanently altered Scudder’s view of himself and of life. Despite pressure to move on and see the shooting for what it really was, Scudder has his own way of dealing with it, and it’s not a quick, easy process.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve has had to endure her share of life’s blows. As the series featuring her begins, she’s living with the loss of her husband Ian, who was murdered one night when he stopped to help two young people whose car had broken down. In the course of the series she continues to pick up the pieces and work out a new kind of life for herself and her family. It’s not always easy, either, particularly as she forms new intimate relationships. But that process adds to her development as a character.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish is a Melbourne PI/sometimes-lawyer with his own share of sorrow to bear. He was a full-time attorney when a disturbed client shot his wife Isabel. Irish knows he wasn’t at fault for the murder, but it left him devastated all the same. At first he drowned his sorrows in far, far too much drink. But in Bad Debts,as the series begins, he’s begun to climb out of the proverbial bottle and get back to being alive. As the series moves on, we see that on the one hand, the process of living with what happened to Isabel is not easy. Irish grieves in his own way, and people have sympathy for him. On the other hand, life has not stopped. There are people in Irish’s life who care about him and who don’t want to see him completely disintegrate. They don’t pressure him with comments such as ‘You really ought to start dating again,’ or ‘Snap out of it!’ But they do encourage him to be a part of the human race again if I may put it that way. It’s interesting to see how they influence Irish.

In Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), we first meet Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson. She’s originally from Kiruna and although she had her own reasons for leaving, she puts them aside and returns for the sake of an old friend Sanna Stråndgard. Sanna’s brother Viktor has been murdered, and it isn’t long before the police begin to suspect that Sanna might be the killer. She claims she’s innocent, and asks Martinsson to act for her. In the course of the investigation, Martinsson goes through a traumatic incident that continues to affect her after the end of the novel. As the series goes on, she slowly starts living again. On the one hand, the people around her do have sympathy for her, and their first response is concern for her well-being. On the other, there is pressure for her to return to work and pick up her life again. There’s even awkwardness because she’s not ‘back to normal,’ whatever that means. Martinsson knows that coping is not going to be that simple, if it’s even possible, and it’s interesting to see how she slowly builds a new life in her own way.

Anthony Bidulka’s PI sleuth Russell Quant lives and works in Saskatoon, although he also travels quite a lot. On two levels, Quant deals with personal loss and tragedy as this series goes on. First, of course, there’s the fact that his cases bring him, and sometimes those he cares about, up against real danger. Quant is not superhuman, and some of his experiences leave him with real emotional trauma. Then there’s the matter of his personal life. On that level, Quant has to cope, as we all do, with the ups and downs of relationships and the deep sadness when they end. In some ways, he’d like very much just to pick his life up and move on. But as he learns, life’s not that simple and it can leave lasting scars. In this series, Quant’s friends and family members find ways to help him pick himself up and go on. So in that sense they do put what you might call pressure on him. But it’s not the uncaring, ‘Get it together!’ sort of pressure that often just makes things worse. Instead, they remind him that life is generally a very good thing, and rely on him to take their cue.

In Split Second, Cath Staincliffe explores the way families move on after tragedy strikes. One day, Luke Murray is riding a bus when three fellow passengers begin to bully him. Jason Barnes, who’s also on the bus, intervenes and for a time the harassment stops. Then Luke gets off the bus, and so do the bullies. Jason does, too, and the bullying starts again. Jason continues to stay involved and the fight escalates all the way to Jason’s front yard. When it’s all over, Luke’s been gravely injured and Jason is dead of a stab wound. As the police work to find out who the bullies were and what the story is behind the incident, Jason’s parents Andrew and Val have to cope with the worst thing that can ever happen to any caring parent. Everyone is sympathetic, but as time goes by, we can see how they begin to feel pressure to pick up their lives. It’s not overt pressure and you could argue that they bring most of it to bear on themselves. But there is tension as they struggle to find a way to re-build themselves. In the meantime, Luke’s mother Louise faces that sort of pressure too. Her son is in a coma from which he may not recover, and everyone understands her deep sense of sorrow. At the same time, her daughter Ruby has a life ahead of her, and Louise still has to be there for her. That tension between accepting that dealing with grief is a process, and the pull to pick up the pieces, certainly plays a role in this novel.

It does in real life too. Life doesn’t stop just because a horrible thing has happened. And sometimes balancing that with the very normal and healthy need to grieve is difficult. OK, over to you.



*NOTE:  The title of this song is a line from Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee’s The End of the World, made popular by Skeeter Davis.


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Åsa Larsson, Cath Staincliffe, Gail Bowen, Lawrence Block, Peter Temple

28 responses to “Don’t They Know It’s the End of the World*

  1. As so often, I’m turning to Agatha Christie, who was much better than people think at depicting emotions (I know you share my views on that). In The Hollow, Henrietta Savernake is devastated when her lover is murdered. Her mourning is made more difficult because she was supposedly just a friend of the deceased: their affair had to be secret because he was married to Gerda. She is not going to recover soon from her bereavement, but matters are not helped that she is trying to help his widow and carry out the victim’s last wishes… Her art – she is a talented sculptor – is the only thing she has left to hold on to.

    • Oh, Moira, that’s a perfect example! Thank you for filling in that gaping hole I left in the post. And what makes the example of Henrietta all the more poignant is that Edward expects her to cry for a little and then ‘get over it’ and marry him. He’s not quite that forceful of course, but still, I think the expectation is there. And yet, as you say, John Christow’s murder is a deep and permanent blow to her. As you say, all she has left is her art…

  2. The Dead series by Peter James shows Roy Grace attempting to cope with the fact his wife has been missing for a number of years. This is an unusual kind of loss because it isn’t clear whether Sadie is dead or not. The series is now up to number 10 and, as in ‘real life’ Roy Grace is still dealing with a range of emotions. A really interesting post and for once I have an example to add into the comments 🙂

    • Cleo – And a terrific example it is. Even though Grace has in some ways moved on from Sadie’s disappearance, that doesn’t mean he’s not hurting and it doesn’t affect him. I sometimes even see him getting annoyed with himself for letting his grief about Sadie ‘hold him back,’ in a way. But it’s real, and I think James makes it realistic.

      • Thank you Margot, I read most of your posts and can rarely think of anything to add! I do think Peter James handles Sadie’s disappearance well and in a credible way although I have read lots of reviews that say it’s getting boring I think the series shows that life goes on but it is never quite the same after a trauma!

        • Well-put, Cleo. I actually like the way the Roy Grace character has evolved. And I think part of the reason for that is that, as you say, it’s all handled credibly. *Makes mental note to put one of these novels in the spotlight.*

  3. All I want to say today is that I love Skeeter Davis and I love that song and I’m happy it is now floating around in my brain pan. So thank you deario!

  4. I crashed into Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Morck series halfway through (as usual) but the running storyline about the death of some colleagues and the horrific injuries of another seem to be central to his character and development. Some kind of survivor guilt at play perhaps. I really must go back and read the beginning of the series at some point…

    • FictionFan – I do hope you’ll get the chance to read Mercy (That’s the first in the series). Not only do I think it’s a well-written story in and of itself, but it also lays the groundwork for the characters. In that novel, we learn what the incident was that changed Mørck’s life and killed one of his colleagues. ‘Survivor’s guilt’ certainly does play a role here. So does that conflict between getting on with life and acknowledging what’s happened. I do recommend the story.

  5. Margot Remember Me Like This fits perfectly into your post today – so much guilt, so much trauma…

  6. Col

    Temple and Block are long overdue a read, thanks for the reminder!

  7. Great topic, Margot.
    Wonderful description of mourning by Canon in Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke, beginning ‘Mourning is not forgetting . . .’ Meg Elginbrode lost her husband in the war and five years later is about to marry again when a photo arrives suggesting that her first husband is still alive . . .
    Forget which one, but in one of Peter Lovesey’s novels his Inspector Diamond arrives at a crime scene to find that the corpse is his beloved wife. It is very well done.

    • Chrissie – Thank you. And you’ve contributed some excellent examples of exactly what I had in mind with this post. As far as the Peter Diamond novel, do you perhaps mean Diamond Dust? I think that’s the one where it’s first thought that his wife was the latest victim of a multiple killer, but it turns out that might not be true. If that’s the one you mean then I agree 100% that it’s done beautifully.

  8. That’s the one!
    And I’ve just remembered Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith in which Renko is maddened by grief at the death of his lover, Irina, to the point of being on the brink of committing suicide.

    • Oh, yes! Havana Bay is another example of that balance between needing some time for the healing process, and the pressure to get back to the business of living.

  9. kathy d.

    Grief can really wreck people’s lives if they’re not careful, including in crime fiction. Jack Irish is one example. A lot of alcoholic cops or investigators turned to drinking after a great loss they can’t cope with.
    Or they become pro-active. In Garnethill, Denise Mina’s protagonist goes after the murderer of her ex-lover in a fit of rage.
    And there are many stories of detectives searching for the perpetrators of their loved ones’ murders and they’re out for revenge.

    • Kathy – You’re quite right. Grief can twist a person into a new shape even if it doesn’t leave one completely shattered. Some fictional detectives handle it in some semblance of a healthy way (at least after a while). Others….not so much.

  10. kathy d.

    I listened to this song, and, of course, I didn’t remember the name but once I heard it, I knew it. Oh, the 1960s! So much music that just went into the deep recesses of one’s mind.

  11. I’ve recently read John Connelly’s ‘The Wolf in Winter’ whose protagonist Charlie Parker is haunted by the death of his wife and child. I’ve come to the series late so I don’t know any more details but it clearly has had a major impact on the character.

    • Sarah – Oh, interesting – that’s a series I’ve wanted to read and just…haven’t yet. But I think grief is like that; it impacts us in many ways, sometimes long after the event.

  12. Just about every author you mention here is one I need to read more of, or start reading. I don’t have anything by Cath Staincliffe but I do want to sample her writing. I do have Bad Debts by Temple and have to get to that soon. I keep saying that.

    • Tracy – Oh, I know exactly what you mean. There are so many books and authors I want to try, and there just never seems to be enough time to read them. Life keeps getting in the way of reading…

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