And I Got a Peaceful Easy Feeling*

Peaceful MomentsEver had one of those peaceful, calm times when life seems to be going along smoothly? It’s a fact of life that those times don’t last. In a way, that fragility makes them all the more precious, and even poignant. Here’s how Jodie Garrow puts it in Wendy James’ The Mistake:

‘Later, when she looks back on that time – the time before it all began to change – Jodie will see that it was more than good, more than happy enough. It was idyllic.’

It certainly seems to be. Jodie is married to Angus, a successful attorney. She has two healthy children and a well-off lifestyle. She’s healthy herself, and attractive. That peace is shattered when Jodie’s daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie gave birth years before to another child. No-one –not even Angus – knows about that other child. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie tells the nurse she gave the child up for adoption. But when the over-curious nurse looks for the records, she finds nothing. Now the question is whispered, and then asked quite publicly: what happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie’s life spins out of control as she becomes a social pariah. In the end, we learn what happened to the baby, and you can’t really say that Jodie’s life is forever ruined. But it’s never going to be the same.

There’s a peaceful moment like that in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, too. Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is taking a honeymoon cruise of the Nile with her brand-new husband Simon. Linnet is both wealthy and beautiful, so with her marriage to Simon, she seems to have it all. There were a couple of nerve-wracking moments when she and Simon encountered her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. But things seem to have calmed down, and Linnet is enjoying herself. She and Simon go on a sightseeing visit to a temple, where she has the chance to rest after they’ve finished the tour:

‘‘How lovely the sun is,” thought Linnet. ‘How warm how safe… How lovely it is to be happy… How lovely to be me me… me… Linnet. … She was half asleep, half awake, drifting in the midst of thought that was like the sand, drifting and blowing.’

Just a moment or two later, a boulder falls, very nearly killing Linnet. It’s frightening to think someone might have been trying to kill her. Things go from bad to worse on the cruise when she is actually murdered. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he and Colonel Race work to find out who the killer is.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia police detective Dave Robicheaux is taking some time away to heal up after an on-duty shooting that killed his partner and left him wounded. He’s enjoying the peace and quiet of his home, the chance to fish and spend time with his daughter Alafair, and the simple pleasure of sitting on his small dock. Everything changes when he gets a visit from an old acquaintance. Minos Dautrieve is now working with the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency on a special task force. He wants Robicheaux to help the government bring down New Orleans gangster and drugs dealer Tony Cardo. At first, Robicheaux demurs. But when Dautrieve tempts him with the chance to go after a criminal he’s been wanting to catch, Robicheaux agrees. He soon finds his life getting more and more dangerous as he begins to get close to Cardo.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue begins when University of Vancouver criminologist and academician Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan gets an unexpected chance for a trip to Nice. A colleague who was supposed to deliver a paper at a conference there has been injured and can’t go. So Morgan is tapped to take his place. She’s promised a lovely few days in Nice, with only the paper presentation on her docket. One afternoon, she’s sipping wine at an outdoor café, relaxing and thinking that maybe agreeing to this trip wasn’t so bad. She’s enjoying that peaceful moment when an old acquaintance, Alistair Townsend, passes by and sees her. She’s never liked him, but gets talked into attending a birthday party he’s giving for his wife. When he suddenly collapses and dies at the party, Morgan finds that what was supposed to be a peaceful trip is anything but…

The main action in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing starts peacefully enough for Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. He’s just arrived at his office, and goes through his usual morning routine. It’s a pleasant, if a bit mundane, sort of a morning, fueled with deliciously seasoned Kashmiri tea. Then everything changes. Puri’s secretary Elizabeth Rani brings him the morning paper, which contains terrible news. Dr. Suresh Jha has been killed. Jha was a former client of Puri’s, so the PI certainly takes an interest. It seems that Jha was killed when the goddess Kali appeared and murdered him as punishment for being an unbeliever. Puri is a spiritual enough person, but he doesn’t believe in supernatural solutions to mysteries. So he begins to ask questions. And he finds that this incident isn’t at all what it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall. That novel begins as Gurdial Singh goes on his morning rounds delivering the Globe and Mail to his Toronto customers who live in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. It’s a peaceful time of day, and Singh enjoys the routine. He’s content with his life, too, and likes where he is, if I can put it that way. Then he gets to the home of radio celebrity Kevin Brace. Singh finds the door a bit open, which is unusual enough. But when Singh knocks at the half-open door and Brace answers it, things turn much worse. Brace says only,

‘I killed her, Mr. Singh.’

Singh goes inside and discovers the body of Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Torn in one of the condominium’s bathtubs. The police are alerted and begin their investigation. It turns out to be a more complicated case than it seems on the surface, and Singh is drawn into it as an important witness.

Those peaceful, even idyllic moments are probably all the more precious because we know they end. And they can certainly add to the texture of a novel. I’ve given a few examples. Your turn.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Tempchin’s Peaceful, Easy Feeling.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, James Lee Burke, Robert Rotenberg, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

24 responses to “And I Got a Peaceful Easy Feeling*

  1. I guess we’re in the wrong genre if we want peace to be anything other than the quiet before before the storm 🙂 I suspect that Christie remains popular because you do get a bit of both!

    • You do indeed get both with Christie, don’t you, Sergio? It’s one of many reasons I like her work so well. And you’re quite right that any crime fiction fan knows not to trust a peaceful moment…

  2. I don’t think I have read one of these books, but several of them are books I want to get to eventually. Especially Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

  3. It’s one of the things I love most about Agatha Christie, especially the Miss Marple books. Those pretty English villages where the sun shines brightly and everyone knows each other. But underneath lurk all kinds of passions just waiting to rise to the surface… St Mary Mead itself is a lovely example, of course, but I’ve always loved the village of Lymstock in ‘The Moving Finger’ – the perfect place for airman Jerry to recuperate from his accident, until the poison pen gets to work. “There’s no smoke without fire…”

    • Oh, that’s a perfect, ‘perfect little village,’ isn’t it, FictionFan? You just know as Jerry and his sister to settle in that things are going to go very wrong. And that little bit of peace just before it all does is really effective. Christie did do that quite well.

  4. Ah, the calm before the storm. Peace is never a good thing in crime fiction; something awful is always waiting around the corner. Love the examples! What a great title: “The Corpse With The Silver Tongue.”

    • Oh, and that’s a good book, too, Sue. I recommend Cathy Ace’s mysteries; they are quite good traditional mysteries, but with contemporary characters, contexts and the like. She does that quite well. And you’re absolutely right; peace is always a pretty good sign in a crime novel that something wicked this way will come. Soon.

  5. Col

    Years since I read the Robicheaux book and my memory of it is far less than yours. I’ve retained nothing!

    • Col – I think there are just too many books out there to remember every detail about every one. And it’s hard enough to make time for the new books one wants to read, let along re-visit old friends. That said though, I think Burke’s pretty nearly always worth a re-read.

  6. In almost each one of Cathy Ace’s books, there is a cosy, calm moment (usually with food and wine involved) when you think all the world is at peace, before things go terribly wrong. After all, how else would we know just how much peace we are shattering? It’s interesting that most of the examples seem to be from Golden Age or cosy mysteries – I suppose you don’t get much of a breather in modern thrillers or noir fiction!

    • No, you really don’t, Marina Sofia. And you’re right about Cathy Ace’s work. There are those delightful, peaceful moments that are in stark contrast to what happens next. I think the contrast is effective. It’s quite true, too, that if you don’t have those moments, you don’t see the impact of the crime that follows quite as much. Interesting point!

  7. Kay

    I love the examples you’ve given. Death On The Nile is the only one I’ve read. I was recalling how there were several quasi-peaceful moments for Linnet and Simon and then Jaqueline kept popping up like some kind of terrible Jack-in-the-box. And the example above from The Moving Finger was good. Christie excelled in giving us a calm, peaceful setting and then, boom – a body. I was thinking of The Body In The Library where Mrs. Bantry is dreaming about her roses and then…the body. LOL

    • Oh, that is a good one, Kay – thanks! And you’re right; Christie was quite good at setting up those peaceful scenes where you know something bad’s going to happen. Still, you’re drawn into that peach and calm.

  8. I’ve just been reading Anthony Gilbert’s book The Spinster’s Secret, and there is a touching moment there where the spinster, Miss Martin, who is poor and lonely and sad, meets a little girl and her nanny, who live nearby. They make friends and she is invited to tea, an event she looks forward to and enjoys immensely. Things go badly wrong after that, but the happy moments of the teaparty live on in the reader’s memory too.

  9. I do like a book that starts with ‘the calm before the storm’ and Agatha Christie did it so well…

  10. That’s exactly what’s wrong with the instruction to begin a novel in situ. We can’t grasp the shock of things going wrong when we don’t see the idyllic existence the characters were living before disaster struck.

    • That’s an excellent point, Pat, and one I hadn’t thought of, really, when I was preparing this post. Authors need to provide that ‘calm before the storm’ in order to put the tragedy in stark relief and add power to it.

  11. Kathy D.

    I like that song too, Peaceful, Easy Feeling.
    It seems as if many mysteries, especially set in calm villages or beach towns, start off calmly — then there is a murder amidst the serenity.
    Montalbano is off walking on his beautiful beach in Sicily and gets a call about a murder. Brunetti is lunching with his family or sitting in a Venice trattoria enjoying coffee and gets news of a crime.
    Irene Huss is having dinner with her family and gets a call about a murder.
    In so many books a body is washed up on a beach or found in a remote part of a beautiful forest or in a Norwegian or British village.
    Yet, underneath all the beauty and quiet lurks danger and death. That is the premise of so many mysteries. That’s one of the lures of the genre.

    • It is a good song, isn’t it, Kathy? And you’re right; so many well-written mysteries do have those peaceful scenes that are interrupted by murders. The examples you gave are great ones, too. As you say, underneath that peace and quiet and beauty is the danger. I think that contrast does add to the genre.

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