Let’s face it: all sorts of terrible things have been going on in the world lately. It’s enough to drive anyone to despair. But through it all, there are those small miracles that happen that can make all the difference in the world.
Just as one example, I learned that an Omaha (Nebraska) teen had gone missing from her high school yesterday (Monday 15 December). I cannot imagine any news more terrifying for a parent to hear. But before you start thinking the worst, I also learned that she is now safe and at home with her family. This is one of those stories that remind us to hope.
There are stories like that in crime fiction too. It’s hard to do them effectively, because of the risk of making a story too saccharine or too unbelievable (you know – the ‘nick of time’ syndrome). But if it’s done well, it’s possible to include those bright threads of hope and, dare I say it, little miracles, without overpowering what’s supposed to be a crime plot.
Agatha Christie included those moments in several of her stories. Lots of them involve some sort of romance (or a hint of it), but there are others too. For instance, in Hallowe’en Party, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver visits her friend Judith Butler, who lives in the small town of Woodleigh Common. Mrs. Oliver is helping prepare for a Hallowe’en party at another home in the village when a local girl Joyce Reynolds boasts of having seen a murder. Everyone hushes her immediately; but when she is murdered later that evening at the party, it seems that she may have been telling the truth. Mrs. Oliver asks her friend Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he travels to Woodleigh Common to look into the matter. It turns out that Joyce’s death is connected to a past murder. It is also very nearly the cause of another murder. The prevention of that death is one of those bright moments that gives hope. In a sense it’s not a ‘miracle’ (no spoilers here!), but it does inspire a big sigh of relief.
In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets involved in a case of murder when his friend, pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky, asks him to take a look at a painting. Pawlovsky thinks it may be valuable but he wants Revere’s expert opinion. To Revere’s shock, the painting turns out to be an extremely valuable Velázquez that was one of a group of paintings ‘held for safekeeping’ by the Nazis. By the time Revere gets the chance to do some background research on the painting and return to the pawn shop though, Pawlovsky has been murdered. Revere feels guilty for leaving his friend alone in the shop with such a valuable piece of art, so he has a personal sense of responsibility about the murder. He thinks that if he can trace the painting from the time it was ‘stored’ by the Nazis to the present, he can find out who killed Pawlovsky. In the process of following the trail, Revere goes up against several nasty people who want the painting for themselves. In the end though, he discovers the murderer. He also (I don’t think this is spoiling the story) helps to create one of those ‘miracles’ by righting a very old wrong.
Kerry Greenwood’s Heavenly Pleasures is the second of her series featuring Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman. In that novel, Chapman is faced with a few mysteries. One of them is that someone is trying to sabotage the chocolate shop owned by Chapman’s friends Juliette and Vivienne Lefebvre. Another is that a very enigmatic man has moved into the building where Chapman lives and works. It’s soon clear too that the man has brought real danger to the building. One day there’s a bomb threat in the building. Everyone’s cleared out and fortunately, no-one is killed. It’s then discovered that the mysterious new resident has been attacked (‘though not killed). It turns out that all of this has to do with a desperate search for something that some nasty people want very much to have. Tangling with them is extremely dangerous, but even after the bomb scare, everyone’s safe.
In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, successful and somewhat high-profile accountant Daniel Guest is being blackmailed. He is married, but someone has found out that he’s had several trysts with men and is threatening to reveal that. Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who the blackmailer is. Quant thinks it would be easier for Guest to ‘come out’ publicly, but Guest refuses to do that. The trail leads to New York and, later, to a murder. At one point, Quant and his friend Jared Lowe are ambushed, abducted and abandoned in the proverbial middle of nowhere. And that’s no joke in Saskatchewan just before Christmas. The danger of death from exposure is quite real, and the two are at risk. But they manage to find shelter. The next morning, they even find an abandoned shack where they can escape the worst of the cold. It’s one of those bright spots of hope that don’t seem like much until you consider the alternative.
And then there’s Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace and his team face two difficult cases. One is the discovery of the torso of an unidentified man in an abandoned chicken coop. Another is that superstar Gaia Lafayette will be visiting the area to do a film. She’s already had one near miss, and there’ve been threats against her life, so Grace is asked to provide extra security. It turrns out that these two cases are related, and as Grace finds out what’s behind both of them, he begins to see that he’s up against a fairly dangerous foe. In the meantime, he has another major concern. His partner Cleo Morey is about to give birth to their first child, so he’s worried about her well-being anyway, although she’s in good health. But then, anonymous threats make it clear that someone is out to get Grace through Cleo. The story itself has some very sad – even bleak – aspects to it. But in this case, there’s also a real little miracle…
It can be very tricky to include those little moments that can make you want to believe in miracles. They can be contrived and ‘sugary sweet’ and can take away from a story if they’re not done effectively. But they can also add a layer of hope to an otherwise sad story, and every once in a while, great things do happen.
My best wishes to those who celebratre Chanukah. May you enjoy a joyful and hopeful Season of Lights. To all of you, whatever you celebrate, all my best, and let’s be happy for those everyday miracles.
*NOTE: The title of this song is the title of a song by The Ramones.