We’re Just Two Lost Souls Swimming in a Fish Bowl*

Lost SoulsWe all need a way to anchor ourselves – a way to make it all make sense. Otherwise we become lost. And when that happens, it’s hard to refocus and find a new way to ‘moor’ ourselves.

There are plenty of examples of ‘lost souls’ in crime fiction. In fact, it can be an effective sort of character, especially (but of course not only) for a noir novel. I’m sure you’ll be able to share lots more examples than I can, but here are a few to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, we meet Elinor Carlisle. At first her life makes sense to her. For one thing, she’s engaged to a cousin-by-marriage Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, whom she’s always loved. She is also the niece of wealthy Laura Welman, from whom she assumes she’ll inherit. Then she gets an anonymous letter suggesting that someone is angling for Aunt Laura’s fortune. It’s not that she’s particularly greedy, but she is accustomed to a comfortable life. So she and Roddy go to the family home at Hunterbury. There, they renew their friendship with Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter. And that’s when Elinor’s world really stops making sense. Roddy becomes infatuated with Mary, and he and Elinor end up breaking off their engagement. Then, Mary dies of poison. Elinor says she is innocent, but it’s a case of murder and she’s the most likely suspect. So she is arrested and put on trial. Local GP Dr. Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared, so he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the matter. As the novel goes on, we can see how Elinor becomes a sort of ‘lost soul.’ She no longer feels anchored and it is traumatic for her.

We see a similar sort of thing in Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger. Fabien Delorme gets the terrible news that his wife Sylvie has died in a car crash. Their marriage hadn’t been a good one for a long time, but he still very much feels the loss. Then he finds out something that to him is worse: Sylvie was not alone when she died. She had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult. Now, everything Delorme had assumed about his life and his marriage has to be tossed aside. He feels completely ‘uprooted,’ and even though he stays with a friend, that doesn’t stop him feeling lost. When he learns that Arnoult left a widow, Martine, Delorme determines to find out more about her. He becomes obsessive about her and even contrives a holiday in the same place where she takes hers so that he can be closer to her. They begin a relationship and the consequences of Delorme’s obsession get more and more dire as his world starts to spin out of control.

Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road is the story of the murder of former prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. When he is found murdered in his shack at Green Swamp Well, everyone, including the police, thinks it’s the tragic result of a drunken quarrel. But Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest begins to suspect otherwise. She starts asking questions about the death and soon discovers that there’s a lot more to this murder than it seems on the surface. One of the people concerned in the case is fifteen-year-old Danny Brambles. He’s having difficulty anyway trying to make sense of his Aboriginal identity in the face of a ‘whitefella’ world, modern technology and so on. And it doesn’t help matters that his home life has been difficult. In some ways he really is lost. Tempest tries to help him by briefly taking him in, and then by working with his family to try to make his world a little more stable, so that it’ll all start to make sense. In this instance, it’s re-connecting with traditional culture that helps anchor him just a little.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the disappearance of Andreas Winther. When his mother Runi first reports him missing, Sejer isn’t too concerned. Young men often take off for a few days, and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong. But when more time goes by and he doesn’t return, Sejer begins to take the matter seriously. He is certain that Andreas’ best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe knows more than he’s saying. And so it turns out to be (and no, Zipp didn’t kill his friend). The better we get to know Zipp, the more we see that he’s a sort of lost soul, especially since his friend has gone missing. Fossum gives readers a look at the friendship between the two young men, and it’s clear from that that in many ways, Andreas was Zipp’s anchor. Then, as the events in the novel play out, we see how hard it is on Zipp when he no longer feels moored.

And then there’s Louise Penny’s Peter Morrow, whom we meet in her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novels. Peter and his wife Clara are both artists, and as the series begins, we learn that Peter is the better regarded of the two in terms of talent. Then, in one story arc, Clara finds her artistic voice. This helps her to develop herself and as she puts it in How the Light Gets In,

‘Clara had lost her husband. Not because she’d painted him, but because she’d outpainted him.’

Peter has lost his anchor – his sense of identity as a gifted artist. This upends him completely so that he feels lost. In fact, he and Clara separate with the agreement that they will take a year apart. This will hopefully give Peter the opportunity to re-anchor himself. But in The Long Way Home, we learn that Peter does not come back on the appointed day. Clara knows that this might mean he simply has decided to leave her permanently. But she’s still worried, as she is sure Peter wouldn’t just leave her like that without letting her know. So she asks Gamache to look into the case. Although the last thing Gamache wants is to be involved in an investigation, he agrees.

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls introduces readers to journalist Erin Fury. She is making a documentary on the impact of murders on those left behind. One case she’s exploring is the 1978 murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. At first, the police suspected that someone in her family might have been responsible. But then, a few months later, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor was also murdered, and it looked like the work of the same person, a killer the press dubbed ‘The Sydney Strangler.’ The real killer has never been caught, but everyone in Angela’s family has felt it better to put the tragedy behind them as best they can. So when Fury asks to interview Angela’s cousins Jane and Mick, and their parents, they’re reluctant at first. But gradually they relent. As we hear their stories and Fury’s, we see how several of the characters have become ‘lost’ because of what happened to the two girls. Their ways of making sense of the world don’t fit any more, and it’s hard for all of them.

And that’s the thing about ‘lost’ characters. They may want to have anchors, like most of us do. But their assumptions and the things that have kept them grounded are gone. Such characters have to be drawn deftly, or they can seem either stereotyped ‘demon-haunted’ people, or simply not credible. But when they’re done well, they can be haunting. These are a few examples. Over to you.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.


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20 responses to “We’re Just Two Lost Souls Swimming in a Fish Bowl*

  1. One of my favourite songs of all time… perhaps that explains my constant melancholia! Great examples of lost souls – believable lost souls, even if not always sympathetic (I have to admit I sometimes lose patience with Peter, Clara’s husband, but in The Long Way Home I finally understand him).

    • Marina Sofia – That’s how I felt about Peter, too! But as you say, it’s a lot clearer in The Long Way Home, isn’t it? And I’ve always liked that song, too. It really packs a punch in a relatively short song. Melancholy yes, but still…

  2. These all sound like the kind of mystery I like, because it is focusing on the people involved and not just a crime. I haven’t read any of these books (although I have read others by Christie and Penny). They all sound good.

    • Tracy – I actually think that’s one thing I like the most about Penny’s work. She develops her characters very effectively. They’re rich and interesting. And yes, there’s a crime (or crimes), but it’s still the characters that matter.

  3. I like lost souls as characters. So thanks for this post. Now i have more to read! 🙂

    • Carol – Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 – I think ‘lost souls’ can be absolutely fascinating to read about and to write. It’s just a matter of how the author chooses to go about developing them. It can be tricky if you don’t want to make such a character too melodramatic.

  4. I think Elinor Carlisle is one of Christie’s really great creations – she is a real person with real feelings and reactions. Thanks for reminding me what a good book Sad Cypress is.

    • I love Elinor Carlisle too, Moira. She really does have solid depth and texture. And I thought Christie was very clever in handling POV in that novel. It’s a great story.

  5. Love the song and such true points. Giving characters the weaknesses we all loath in ourselves makes them all the more human.

    • Thanks, Lesley 🙂 – I love the way you put that too. Reading about characters who have those flaws and weaknesses we don’t like in ourselves makes them accessible. We can understand them better. And when the author also gives them a certain depth (i.e. not all bad), this makes them even more memorable. Oh, and I love that song too.

  6. For most of the book, I always thought Jackie in ‘Death on the Nile’ was a perfect ‘lost soul’ and I loved Mia Farrow’s portrayal of her in the film. Farrow got all that beautiful vulnerability that Christie wrote into the character. Her performance is what keeps that as one of my favourite Christie adaptations.

    • FictionFan – Oh, she does do such a wonderful job in that adaptation, doesn’t she? She really does capture what I’ve always imagined the character to be. No doubt about that. I’m so glad you reminded me of it. And yes, Jackie is a perfect example of a ‘lost soul’ through most of Death on the Nile.

  7. Margot: For lost souls in crime fiction I think of two sleuths who were English soldiers. John Madden (Rennie Airth) and Ian Rutledge (Charles Todd) struggle through life long after the Great War.

    WW I poet Isaac Rosenberg powerfully sets out the type of image they remember:

    A man’s brains splattered on
    A stretcher-bearer’s face;
    His shook shoulders slipped their load,
    But when they bent to look again
    The drowning soul was sunk too deep
    For human tenderness.

    • Oh, that is a powerful poem, Bill! Thanks very much for sharing it. And yes, both of those characters are perfect examples of the sort of ‘lost soul’ character I had in mind with this post.

  8. Once again you’ve reminded me of books I want to read, I’ve just read a great review of the first in the Gamanche series and The Lost Girls that sits patiently on my kindle. I think Vera in A Dark Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine fits well into the lost souls category?

    • I think she does too, Cleo – absolutely. And that’s such a powerful story, too. I do hope you’ll get a chance to try the Louise Penny series. It’s very, very well done and has some great characters. I think it’s best appreciated in order, so I recommend starting with the first one. And The Lost Girls is a really excellent book as well.

  9. I love your taste in music as much as your taste in books, Margot! (I always think the story of Syd Barrett is such a sad one….definitely a lost soul.) I’ve investigated The Lost Girls, as it sounds excellent. I can never think of examples for your posts, normally – but on this occasion I’m going to nominate Kay, from Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, who spends her time walking the streets of London, alone.

    • Thank you, Crimeworm 🙂 And yes, the Syd Barrett story is heartbreaking isn’t it? As you say, a lost soul himself… I hope you do get the chance to read The Lost Girls. It’s a powerful book, I think, by one of my top-rated authors. Of course, everyone’s taste is different, but still, I think the world of Wendy James’ work. And thanks too for mentioning The Night Watch. I keep hearing such great things about Waters’ work, and haven’t (yet) had the chance to read it. Shame on me!

  10. Col

    Loved the Garnier, one of my best reads of last year.

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