It 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.