Part of the appeal of some crime novels is that they invite the reader to do some deeper thinking. For instance, I’d guess that we all want to think we’d do the right thing in a given situation. But what, exactly, is the right thing? It’s not always clear. Books that address those more difficult questions invite the reader to ask, ‘What would I have done in the same situation?’
There are certainly plenty of crime novels that raise that question. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed during a trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he works with M. Bouc, a director of the train company, and with fellow passenger Dr. Constantine, to find out who the killer is. The solution leaves Poirot, Bouc, and Constantine with a decision, and it’s interesting to ask what we might have done in the same situation.
In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood has received an extortion letter from book dealer Arthur Geiger. The letter makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen, and of course, Sternwood wants Geiger to leave the family alone. So he hires PI Philip Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him. By the time Marlowe tracks the man down, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Carmen Sternwood is in the same room, and was a witness to everything. But she’s either drugged or has had a mental breakdown, and isn’t able to be of help. Now Marlowe faces a decision: does he simply call the police, thereby putting Carmen at risk? Or does he help her escape, thereby possibly protecting someone involved in the murder? His decision to help Carmen gets him in far deeper than he’d planned…
Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is a fictional re-telling of the real-life case of Maggie Heffernan. In 1900, she was imprisoned for the killing of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie is raised in rural Victoria, where she meets Jack Hardy, who’s in from Sydney for a visit with relatives. The two start seeing each other and become secretly engaged. Then, Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. When Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, she writes to Jack several times to let him know, but he doesn’t respond. Knowing that her family won’t accept her, Maggie heads to Melbourne and finds work in a Guest House. The baby is duly born and for a short time, he and Maggie live in a home for unwed mothers. Then she discovers that Jack is also in the Melbourne area. When she finally finds him, though, he rejects her utterly, even calling her ‘crazy.’ With nowhere else to go, Maggie tries to get lodgings for herself and her son, but is turned away from six different places. That’s when the tragedy occurs. The novel invites the reader to ask, ‘What would I have done?’ in several places.
John Grisham’s A Time to Kill does the same thing. Ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped by Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. There’s a sense of shock and outrage, and a great deal of sympathy for the Hailey family in the small Mississippi town where they live. Tonya’s father Carl Lee Hailey is determined that Cobb and Willard won’t get away with their crime. From his perspective, it’s not a given that they’ll be convicted, since they are White and he and his family are Black. So he lies in wait for them and shoots them as they go into the courtroom. Attorney Jake Brigance defends Hailey, and he’s up against considerable odds. Woven throughout this novel is the question of what any of us might do under the same circumstances.
Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos features a woman who’s recently been released from prison. Her only real companion is her Pit Bull Sully. At first, things aren’t too bad as she gets used to living in ‘the real world’ again. Then, a mother who uses the nearby day care facility lodges a complaint with the local council because Sully is a restricted breed. Forced to give Sully up, his owner plots her own kind of response. As the story goes on, we learn why she was in prison in the first place. It’s certainly not a straightforward case, and it leaves the reader wondering, ‘What might I have done?’
That’s also true in Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X. When Shinji Togashi is murdered, his ex-wife Yasuko Hanaoka comes under suspicion. But Detective Shunpei Kusanagi can’t find clear evidence against her. He gets help from Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa, who soon learns that he’s up against a formidable opponent. Mathematics teacher Tetsuya Ishigami lives in the same building as Hanaoka does; in fact, he’s fallen in love with her. He’ll do anything to protect her, and he’s smart and skilled. In this novel, there are several places where the question comes up of what any of us might do if we were in the same situation as Hanaoka and Ishigami.
One of the clearest examples of the ‘What might I do?’ sort of novel (at least for my money) is Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone. When four-year-old Amanda McCready goes missing, the police launch a massive effort to find her. They aren’t successful though; and the more time that goes by, the less chance there is that Amanda will be found alive. So her uncle and aunt, Lionel and Beatrice McCready, hire PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro to find the girl. At first the two are reluctant to take the case. For one thing, they’re still recovering from their last case. For another, they don’t see what they can do that dozens of Boston-area police can’t do. But they are finally persuaded to at least ask some questions. They begin their search for Amanda and soon find that there are several possibilities. In the end, Kenzie and Gennario find out the truth about the child. But this isn’t a simple instance of, ‘PIs find out what happened to little girl.’ It raises a very challenging set of questions.
And that’s the thing about novels that invite the reader to ask, ‘What would I do?’ The best ones tell a well-written, cohesive story. But they also raise issues that make us wonder how we might act in a similar situation. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Cell Block Tango.