Trying to Get the Balance Right*

RestoringBalanceIt seems to be human nature that we want to set things back in balance when they’ve gone awry. For example, if people don’t have a balance of work, leisure and so on in life, things don’t feel comfortable or ‘right’ until that balance is struck. And part of the reason people feel guilt when they’ve hurt someone is arguably that whatever has happened has set the relationship out of balance.

Balance is also arguably part of the reason so many people love crime fiction. A crime fiction story is very often a story of things being out of balance (because of a murder or other crime), and then set right, at least in a way. Of course not all crime novels end with the culprit being led away in handcuffs, but in a lot of crime novels, there’s a sense that solving the crime puts things at least a little right. So it’s no surprise that we see that search for balance throughout the genre.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is aboard the famous Orient Express train on a trip across Europe. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed to death. M. Bouc, a director of the company that owns the train, asks Poirot’s assistance in solving the case so that the solution can be offered to the police. Poirot agrees and begins to investigate. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the train, so he interviews them and puts together the pieces of what actually happened on the night of the murder. As it turns out, Ratchett’s murder has everything to do with something that happened in the past. And it has everything to do with an attempt to put things back into balance.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation, and a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. In many ways, Chee is a traditional Navajo; in fact, in several novels in this series, he is studying to become a yata’ali, or Navajo singer/healer. Because of his sense of identity with the Navajo culture, Chee takes seriously the Navajo concept of hozro – beauty – which really means harmony. When things are out of harmony, whether because of a disagreement, an illness, or something else, there’s a need to bring them back into balance. And Chee feels that need at various times in the series. For example, in The Ghostway, Chee investigates a case of multiple murder that’s connected to the disappearance of a Navajo teenager from the school she was attending. Chee finds out who’s behind the events in the story, and in that sense, matters are put right. But he still senses that he is out of harmony because of some of what happens in the novel. So he engages in a Navajo healing/cleansing ritual to re-establish that harmony.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a new client. Mr. Molofelo is a successful civil engineer who also keeps an ostrich farm. After a very dangerous encounter with some poachers, he decides to set some things right in his life – to re-establish the balance in it. Years ago, when he was a student, Mr. Molofelo stole a radio from the Tsolamosese family, with whom he lodged. At the same time in his life, he was involved with a young woman Tebogo Bathopi. When she became pregnant, he did little to support her. Mr. Molofelo knows he can’t take back the past, but at least he wants to find those people again and try to make things right if he can. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to see what she can do. After a search, she finds out what happened to the family and to Tebogo Bathopi, and it’s interesting to see how she helps her client restore some balance.

Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Decker series begins with The Ritual Bath, in which we see another example of this desire to restore balance. Much of the novel takes place at Yeshivat Ohavei Torah, an Orthodox Jewish community and place of religious study. It’s located in a remote area outside of Los Angeles, and in general, the people who live and worship there are left alone, apart from some anti-Semitic graffiti. Then, in one plot thread, one of the residents Sarah Libbey is raped as she is leaving the community’s mikvah – its ritual bath. LAPD detectives Peter Decker and Marge Gunn look into the case, and immediately face a problem. In order to catch the rapist, they want Sarah to go through an examination so they can get whatever DNA and other evidence they can. However, Sarah Libbey has strong Orthodox Jewish beliefs that include the need for a ritual cleansing after a terrible incident like rape. What’s more, Sarah is unwilling to discuss the rape, and doesn’t want to have a doctor examine her. With help from the mikvah‘s supervisor Rina Lazarus, the police are able to work out an arrangement that will allow Sarah to go through the process of restoring balance in her own way, and still get at least some of the evidence they need.

And then there’s Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, the first in his Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series. Rafferty is a travel writer who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s made a home for himself in Bangkok, and shares his life with Rose, a former bar girl who’s now the owner of her own apartment cleaning company. He also has made a home for Miaow, a former street child he wants to adopt. Clarissa Ulrich has come to Bangkok from Australia to look for her Uncle Claus, whom she hasn’t heard from in several months. She makes contact with Rafferty, a man she’s heard can do the job, and hires him to find her uncle. The trail leads Rafferty into a web of murder, theft, and more. It all comes down to things that have happened in the past, and how those events have affected people, even years later. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Rafferty goes through a great deal in the story, and Rose and Miaow have a sense that he is in need of a way to get back into harmony. So they arrange a ritual to help Rafferty re-establish his sense of balance.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series also takes place mostly in Bangkok. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police. As we learn in Bangkok 8, before they joined the force, Sonchai and his police partner Pichai were once involved in the murder of a drug dealer. To Sonchai, who is Buddhist, the murder put many things out of balance, including his own life. As a way of regaining that balance, he and Pichai both became police officers. Their choice of profession won’t bring the dead drug dealer back to life. But having a career dedicated to making life safer for others does something to restore harmony, if I may put it that way.

We see a similar search for harmony in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. When Maryanne Delbeck falls (or jumps, or is pushed) from the roof of the Pattaya building where she lives, the police put it down to suicide. But Maryanne’s father Jim doesn’t believe his daughter killed herself. So he hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to look into the matter. She travels to Pattaya where Maryanne volunteered at an orphanage/adoption facility called New Life Children’s Centre. It’s possible that Maryanne’s death might be linked to her work there, so Keeney goes undercover as a volunteer to find out if there is a connection. In the end, she finds out what really happened to Maryanne Delbeck. She also discovers the role that the need to restore balance and to set things right, so to speak, plays in the things that happen in the novel.

Sometimes we all feel out of balance, whether it has to do with health, relationships or something else. It’s human nature to want things to be in harmony, so it makes sense to see this in fiction, too. There are just a few examples. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is title of a song by Johnny Duhan, recorded by Mary Black.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Faye Kellerman, John Burdett, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman

18 responses to “Trying to Get the Balance Right*

  1. Interesting as always, Margot! 🙂 It made me think of Gordon Ferris’ ‘Douglas Brodie’ novels – across the four of them we see how Brodie deals with the trauma of his war experiences when he was one of those who first went into the concentration camps after the war, and saw the horrors there. As the series progresses, we see that trauma come to a head and then him being able to lance the boil to an extent by taking part in the war crimes investigations. And by the end, we’re left hoping that he has found a way to move into a new phase of his life, with the past behind him and balance restored.

    • FictionFan – I’m very glad you mentioned the Douglas Brodie novels. I should have, as they’re really effective examples, but I didn’t. Thanks for filling in that gap. As you say, Brodie has a serious dose of what we now call PTSD, and a lot to get through in his life. And it’s interesting to see how he uses his role as an investigator to set things at least just a little right. He can’t bring back the lost lives of course, but you’re right; he manages to find a sense of balance by doing something positive.

  2. At the end of Dorothy L Sayers Busman’s Honeymoon, we see Lord Peter getting very very anxious about the execution of the murderer – she goes into some detail about this, it’s quite long-drawn out: apparently he always has a problem when the criminals he catches meet their fate. This is the first time it has happened since he has married Harriet, and she finds herself at first unable to help him – but they find a way through together… (personally I find the whole thing a bit much, but DLS was obviously trying to work through some real issues and look at aspects of guilt, capital punishment, responsibility etc)

    • Moira – Oh, that’s an interesting point about the end of Busman’s Honeymoon. I think you’re right that it gets a bit much, but it also shows an interesting side of Wimsey. And yes, it gave Sayers the chance to discuss those larger issues. You know, I hadn’t thought about that part of the novel when I was planning this post, but it does show how the sleuth can feel out of harmony and off balance even when the ‘bad guy’ is caught. There’s a bit of that in The Nine Tailors too. When Wimsey deduces that solution, it does throw him off balance, so to speak.

  3. This is an interesting post, Margot, as I’ve been thinking about the subject matter of my next book. I do feel that, generally, the mystery stays with us more than the actual solution. So, the denoument can really come at the very end of a book. But, as crime fic readers we do expect a solution.

    • Sarah – You’ve got an interesting point there. I think as both readers and writers, we in the crime fiction world do focus a lot on the mystery (i.e. as opposed to exactly how the case was solved). That said though, I also think that when there’s a particularly clever twist to the solution, that resonates too. It is a balance, which I am sure you’ll strike. And very, very excited to hear you’re working on your next book.

  4. Margot, Arthur Upfield’s detective, Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, must always strike a balance between his two halfs which are torn between two Australian cultures, as the child of a white father and an Aboriginal mother. In “The Bone Is Pointed,” Bony nearly dies as the result of an ancient Aboriginal ritual – and it takes another such ritual to cleanse him and make him whole again.

    • Les – Right you are indeed about Bony. He also has to strike a balance between doing what he knows is the right thing and ‘getting along,’ if I can put it that way. Some how, he manages… 🙂

  5. Col

    Too early in the morning for me to have the brain fully functioning, so no examples to push. Two day’s running mentioning Hillerman, must be a sign to dust one of his books off!

    • Col – I honestly think Hillerman did a fantastic series. And although it wasn’t intentional to mention it twice, if it suggests a re-read, well why not? I think some authors (and he’s one of them) are worth the re-read.

  6. What a great post. Ritual cleansing to restore balance- not sure I have read anything along those lines, but a very interesting topic to explore.

  7. I hope you keep reminding me that I need to read Hillerman’s books. I can’t believe I haven’t done that yet. Also have not sampled Timothy Hallinan or John Burdett’s writing.

  8. Another thoughtful post, Margot.
    IMO the readdressing-the-(im)balance idea works best in the cozy tradition, whether the setting be the UK, U.S. or elsewhere.
    By contrast the proletarian edge of the classic hardboiled American mystery in the Chandler/Hammett tradition is built on the supposition that the fix is in and the society is inherently out of balance (mostly economically so). And the best the sleuth can do is right a few selective wrongs – in his rough justice sort of way! – and in some cases merely survive his often dangerous cases.

    • Bryan – You make a fascinating comparison between the more traditional/GA or cosy novel and the ‘hardboiled’ PI novel. I think other noir novels too often portray the inherent imbalance and unfairness of the world, if I can put it that way. I’ve even seen that in some police procedural series, where the culprit is among the ‘high and mighty’ and therefore, out of reach.

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