Sometimes we all benefit from the guidance of someone who’s more experienced and knowledgeable. Those mentor relationships are often organic, and they benefit both people involved, really. If you’ve ever had a mentor, you know how much of an impact that relationship can have. It’s certainly a part of real life, and there are plenty of crime-fictional examples as well.
In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode, head of Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. In one plot thread, Miss Bulstrode’s been contemplating what will happen when she retires, and she’s deciding who should succeed her. One possibility is Eleanor Vansittart, her ‘second in command.’ Miss Vansittart is devoted to Miss Bulstrode, and makes it quite clear that she intends to run the school in exactly the way Miss Bulstrode does. Another possibility is Eileen Rich, who teaches English Literature and Geography. Miss Rich is quite young for a position of real authority; still, she has a real passion for teaching, and is gifted in the classroom. Miss Bulstrode’s concerns for the future of the school are put aside when games mistress Grace Springer is shot late one night at the school’s new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s another murder. And a disappearance. Julia Upjohn, a pupil at the school, makes an important discovery about the events at the school. She visits Hercule Poirot, who is acquainted with her mother’s good friend, and asks his help. Poirot returns with her to the school and investigates. Throughout this novel, we see how Miss Bulstrode acts as a guide and mentor, especially to Eileen Rich.
There’s a similar relationship between Gail Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her informal mentor Hilda McCourt. When we first meet them in Deadly Appearances, Joanne is investigating the poisoning murder of her friend up-and-coming political leader Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. In part to deal with her own sense of grief and loss, Joanne decides to write Andy’s biography, and begins with his youth. That’s how she gets to know Hilda, who taught Andy in high school. Over the course of the next few novels in the series, the two women become friends. Joanne is glad of Hilda’s wisdom and experience, and benefits from using her mentor as a ‘sounding board.’ For her part, Hilda ‘adopts’ Joanne’s family and she too benefits from the relationship.
Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series features Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue. The restaurant is named for Lulu’s aunt, who taught her about cooking and about running a restaurant. That mentoring relationship has been very important to Lulu, who is proud to carry on the good traditions she learned from her aunt. Now that Lulu is no longer a young woman, she’s a mentor herself. Her son Ben is married to Sara, a talented artist. In a few novels in this series, Lulu serves as a sort of informal mentor to Sara. And in Hickory Smoked Homicide, she helps clear Sara’s name when she becomes a suspect in the murder of socialite and beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. Lulu has a way of supporting Sara without ‘taking over’ or interfering in her daughter-in-law’s life.
In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we meet former school principal Thea Farmer, who’s had a dream house built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Unfortunately, some poor financial decision-making and bad luck have meant that Thea has to give up that perfect house and settle for the house next door. None too happy about that, Thea calls the smaller house ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy the home Thea still sees as her own. Thea dislikes then intensely, referring to them as ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with the couple. At first, Thea is prepared to dislike Kim as much as she does Frank and Ellice. Instead, she develops an awkward kind of friendship with Kim, and sees real promise in the girl. She even invites Kim to join her in a writing class she’s taking. Thea sees herself as Kim’s mentor and support system, so when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for the girl, she makes her own plans to do something about it.
Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: a Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is a fictional re-telling of the case of Maggie Heffernan, who was convicted and imprisoned in 1900 for the murder of her infant son, and sentenced to execution. In this account, Maggie meets Jack Hardy when he visits her rural Victoria town to see relatives of his. The two fall in love and secretly become engaged. Then Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, and writes to Jack several times; but he doesn’t respond. Knowing that her family won’t accept her, Maggie goes to Melbourne where she gets work in a Guest House. When the baby is born, Maggie lives briefly in a home for unwed mothers, until she learns where Jack is. When she goes to see him, though, he rejects her utterly, calling her ‘crazy.’ Maggie and her infant son are then turned away from six lodging houses; that’s when the tragedy occurs. In the meantime, we also follow the story of Elizabeth Hamilton, who moved to Australia after the death of her fiancé. She soon meets Vida Goldstein, the first woman in the British Commonwealth to seek office as an MP. Vida is a champion of women’s rights and women’s suffrage, and wants to mentor Elizabeth. The two women become interested in the case of Maggie Heffernan, and try to prevent her execution. Throughout this novel, we see several examples of women mentoring and supporting other women; it’s one of the story’s themes.
We also see that in Kishwar Desai’s stories featuring social worker Simran Singh. In Witness the Night, an old university friend asks Simran to travel from Delhi to her home town in the state of Punjab to help in an unusual and appalling case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is suspected of the poisoning murders of thirteen of her family members; some were stabbed as well. Later, the house was set on fire. One possible theory is that Durga is responsible for what happened. However, there are signs that she may have been a victim too, and simply managed to escape. The authorities can’t get her to discuss that night though, so there’s no way to really know what happened. That’s where Simran comes in. It’s believed that if she can get Durga to talk about that night, there’ll be a clearer picture of the killings. Simran agrees and begins to interact with Durga. Bit by bit, the two get to know each other and Simran feels a sort of mentor-like protectiveness about the girl. In fact, it’s not spoiling the story to say that she plans to take Durga in once the case gets resolved.
There’s also Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. In that novel, secondary school teacher Ilsa Klein becomes concerned when one of her prize students, fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, loses interest in school. She stops attending class regularly; and when she is there, she barely takes part in what’s going on. Ilsa takes her concerns to the school’s counselor, but Serena’s family is, to say the least, dysfunctional and not open to help from the outside. Ilsa and her mother Gerda continue to become involved in Serena’s life, and that decision draws them into more than either had imagined.Then Serena disappears. Her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington back to the family home in Alexandra to look for the girl. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that mentoring/supporting plays a major role in this novel.
Those often-informal mentoring relationships can make a big difference in how we move along in life. Sometimes they make a bigger difference than more formal things. As I post this, we’re observing International Women’s Day. But really, supporting women is something that we can do all the time, not just on one day. Look behind you: there’s probably a woman (or another woman if you’re female) working her way up in life. Reach back and support her. It’s not a competition; it’s a matter of everyone doing better when each one does better.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Thomas Bank and Candy Dulfer’s Girls Should Stick Together (for Nada).