For 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.