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.