It Should be Easy For a Man Who’s Strong to Say He’s Sorry or Admit When He’s Wrong*

ApologiesBeing human, we all make mistakes at times. And some of those mistakes mean we also have to make apologies. Some apologies (e.g. accidentally bumping into someone) are easy. A quick, ‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ and all’s usually well again. But other apologies are harder and take longer. They can be really awkward too. If you’ve ever had to look someone in the eye and tell that person how sorry you are, you know what I mean.

Apologies are an important part of relationships, though, and simply bringing the topic up can clear the air. They may not be the main plot point in crime fiction novels, but they can add some character depth and points of tension. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver is visiting Nasse House, Nassecomb, to help with preparations for an upcoming fête. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as one of the attractions. But she suspects something more than a fête may be going on. So she asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. When Poirot arrives, he gets to know Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, who own Nasse House, as well as some of the locals who are helping to prepare for the big event. Among those helping out are Alec and Peggy Legge, who have taken a cottage nearby for a summer break. In one of this novel’s subplots, the Legges’ marriage is under a great deal of stress, and at one point, Peggy actually leaves. Poirot has guessed the reason for the strain, and advises Alec to go after his wife and patch things up with her. Alec agrees, and although Christie doesn’t tell us how it all works out, it’s clear he thinks that saving his marriage is worth humbling himself.

Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters is the first pairing up of DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla. In this novel, they’re investigating the sudden death of Meredith Winterbottom, who seems to have committed suicide. Kolla isn’t so sure of that, and Brock gives her the ‘green light’ to look into the matter. And it turns out that there are several reasons that someone might have wanted to kill the victim. For one thing, a developer wants to buy up all the property on Jerusalem Lane, where Meredith lived with her two sisters, and create a new shopping and entertainment district. Meredith was the lone holdout, refusing to take the developer’s offer. What’s more, she and her sisters are descendants of Karl Marx, who lived in that part of London for a time. They have some family books and papers that could be quite valuable. As if that’s not enough, her son stands to inherit the house (and the potential profit from selling it) if his mother dies. And he’s very much in need of money. For the most part, Brock and Kolla have a good working relationship. But there is an important rift between them, and Brock decides to work things out. So he visits Kolla, bearing a peace offering of flowers and a bottle of Scotch. It’s a little awkward for both of them, but I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say they patch things up.

Wendy James’ The Mistake is the story of Jodie Evans Garrow, who seems to have the perfect life. She’s healthy and good-looking, married to a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children. All is well until the day her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident, and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years ago, Jodie gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about that child, but a nurse at the hospital remembers her and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she give the child up for adoption, but when the overzealous nurse checks into that, she finds no formal adoption records. Jodie’s family life begins to crumble when the gossip starts about what might have happened to the baby. And when it all goes very public, Hannah begins to feel the strain of having a mother who’s become a social pariah. We do learn the truth about the baby, and Hannah learns that there is no such thing as ‘black and white’ when it comes to people. When she sees a fuller picture of her mother’s story, she knows that she owes Jodie an apology:

‘‘Oh, Mum,’ she’s crying, a year’s worth – a lifetime – of tears. ‘I’m so sorry. It’s been so awful. I’m sorry I’ve been such a cow. I didn’t mean to. I don’t even know why. I’m so sorry. I just want everything to be the way it was.’’

Everything isn’t magically wonderful again after Hannah’s apology, but we can see that,

‘It’s going to be okay.’

That apology is an important part of opening up communication between mother and daughter.

Sometimes, it’s parents who have to say they’re sorry, and that can be just as awkward. In Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead, Garda Ben Devlin and his team are involved in some difficult and painful investigations that take up a lot of his time. In a sub-plot, he’s also facing a bit of trouble with his children, Penny and Shane. Penny is dealing with the physical and emotional aftermath of a trauma she suffered. Shane loves his sister, but has to cope with the understandable jealousy (and guilt over that) that he feels about all of the attention Penny’s gotten. As a way of spending some special time with Shane, Devlin offers to take the boy to a film – a ‘just us men’ sort of thing. Shane’s all excited about it, but Devlin gets caught up in a piece of the case he’s working and forgets to take Shane out. He knows he’s really hurt his son, and at a vulnerable time, too, so he makes a special effort to say how sorry he is. At first, Shane’s not having any, but I don’t think it’s spoiling the story that by the end of it, Shane forgives his father, even if he’s still not at all pleased about what happened.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red features Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s at a bit of a plateau in her career, and would love to find the story that will establish her at the top of her profession. That story comes in the form of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Everyone assumes that Bligh really was guilty, and nothing in the records indicates that the police were anything but conscientious and careful. But little pieces of evidence also suggest that Bligh might be innocent. If he is, this could make for an explosive story. So Thorne pursues it for all she’s worth. She finds out the truth about the case, but it comes at quite a cost. And when all is said and done, she knows she needs to make some apologies:

‘I’m sorry. So sorry. I behaved unforgivably.’

In the end, we see that life will go on, and Thorne starts over. But the apologies are very hard.

They often are. But they can help heal relationships. They can also be the stuff of rich character development and even story arcs in novels.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Shameless.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Brian McGilloway, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

16 responses to “It Should be Easy For a Man Who’s Strong to Say He’s Sorry or Admit When He’s Wrong*

  1. Apologising sincerely is very important and you’ve found some good examples – I’m a big fan of The Nameless Dead and you’ve reminded me that The Mistake is the next Wendy James book that I want to read!

    • You’re right, Cleo; apologies are an important part of keeping relationships going. I’m excited you’re planning to read The Mistake. I think it’s a great read! And the Ben Devlin series is terrific too.

  2. Margot: Apologies are so hard to do well. I hear them often in court. I provide them for clients who find it hard to speak in public. It took me a long time to learn that if “but” appears in an apology it is not a true apology.

    • Quite, true, Bill. ‘But’ really does take away from the sincerity of an apology. And you’re right about how hard they can be. People may not think at first about the impact of what they’ve done. It can be hard when that hits. Then there’s the ‘humbling’ factor, which is hard for a lot of people. I suppose the sort of self-preservation that goes with ‘but’ isn’t surprising under those circumstances, even for people who accept that they’re in the wrong.

  3. Just this morning in the book I’m reading I reached a place where an executive who’s bullheaded must apology to his business partners. He’s grappling with how to go about it, and these tense scenes are filled with will he? won’t he? moments. Great subject, Margot! And so timely.

    • Oh, that is timing, Sue! And we didn’t even know how much alike we were thinking! That’s the thing, too, about ‘apology’ scenes. They can indeed be tense and can lead in a lot of possible directions.

  4. In Zoran Drvenkar’s book ‘Sorry’ the entire premise is based on how hard it is to apologise. Four young people set up an agency where they offer to apologise on other people’s behalf. All goes well, until they are hired by a murderer to say sorry to his victims – they don’t want to do it, but it’s made clear to them that if they don’t they might just find themselves on the victim list themselves. Dark, dark, dark and quite disturbing, but a great read.

    • Oh, that does sound intriguing, FictionFan! It really is hard to apologise, isn’t it? And when you’ve murdered…well…I can see why you’d rather someone else did the work for you. Interesting concept for a business, too. I may have to look for that one next time I’m ready for a very dark book.

  5. Col

    Another reminder or two to dig out Maitland and McGilloway from the stacks.
    I’ve probably read a few books where small misunderstandings and the lack of an apology causes a rift and eventually a feud between two families which festers through generations. Usually climaxing when the offspring of one falls for the offspring of the other.

    • Both Maitland and McGilloway are worth digging out when you get the chance, Col. And it’s true that more than one fictional feud starts when there’s a small misunderstanding and no apology. Even those small things can really escalate.

  6. Kathy D.

    I don’t know that apologies are hard to do in real life to help with human relations on a day to day basis. I’ve never had a hard time doing that. Politeness is so important. “Thank you” is a crucial part of our daily interactions.
    So are apologies very important. One can be really upset; if someone says “I’m sorry,” it can alleviate a lot even if someone bumps into you or causes you to trip (this happens all the time in my crowded city). Or if worse things happen.
    But for a person guilty of a horrendous crime, even murder — how sincere is an apology? If it’s done in court to try to reduce a penalty, how sincere is it. If it shows genuine remorse, it’s another.
    Sometimes the perpetrator shows no remorse and there are no apologies.
    Sometimes he/she apologizes and it is heartfelt.
    When a man hear Detroit who shot a young woman through his door and killed her, he was sentenced to years in jail — but he apologized, and I think felt genuinely remorseful. He had heard about his life and seen and heard her parents and other relatives in court talk about her.
    But so often the apologies are hollow.

    • Kathy – I think there are some apologies that are indeed easy enough. For instance, it’s not hard to give an apology for something like bumping into someone and making them drop a bag. And I agree, apologies help us to interact with each other. They’re as important as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ – perhaps more so. Some apologies though, when you’ve deeply hurt someone you care about, for instance, can be harder. And public apologies can be extremely difficult.
      As you say, there are a lot of public apologies, whether in court or on camera, so to speak, really do sound hollow and often turn out to be. One can’t always know how sincere an apology is until time goes by and you see whether it is.

  7. In one book I read recently, the murder victims included two of the maids in a country house. When finally apprehended, the guilty party apologizes for having killed them, ‘when I know how hard it is to find good household staff at the moment.’ Pretty hardcore apology!

  8. Interesting topic, Margot. I am sure apologies are needed often in murder mysteries. I have read a couple of books by both Maitland and McGilloway, but need to read more of their books.

    • Thanks, Tracy. I agree; there are a lot of crime-fictional situations where people do things that require a apology. And sometimes I think they can be very hard to give. And I only wish I had the time to read everything I should…

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