Nothing Really Matters to Me*

ApathySome people respond to life’s stresses and strains by becoming completely apathetic. They give up, if you want to put it that way, and just don’t seem to be passionate about anything. Sometimes it’s due to a particular trauma. Other times it’s the result of a gradual wearing down of that ‘spark of life.’ Either way, those people ‘go through the motions’ without really participating in life. It’s not easy to create characters like that, actually. It’s hard to make them interesting and memorable. But there are plenty of them in real life, and we see them in crime fiction, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), for instance, we learn about Caroline Crale. Sixteen years earlier, she was convicted of poisoning her husband, famous painter Amyas Crale. A year later, she died in prison. Her daughter Carla Lemarchant has always been convinced her mother was innocent, and now she wants Hercule Poirot to clear her name. Poirot agrees, and interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from them. His interviews also include a few people such as attorneys and law clerks who attended the trial. From those interviews and accounts, Poirot deduces what really happened to Amyas Crale. Throughout the story, we learn a lot about Caroline Crale. She was lively and passionate, with a strong personality. But after her arrest, everything changed. As one character puts it,

‘…she retreated into her world of half lights and shadows.’

At that point, nothing much seemed to matter any more, and one character even mentions how difficult that made things in court. She wouldn’t defend herself or ‘come alive’ for the jurors.

K.C. Constantine’s The Blank Page is the story of the murder of Janet Pisula, a student at Conemaugh County Community College. Rocksburg (Pennsylvania) Chief of Police Mario Balzic gets a call from Cynthia Sumner, who owns the rooming house where Janet lives. She hasn’t seen Janet lately and is concerned about her. When Balzic checks into the matter, he finds that Sumner’s concerns are more than justified: Janet’s body is found on the floor of her room. Oddly enough, there is a blank sheet of paper on the body. As Balzic begins to investigate, he finds out that the victim was rather detached from life. She didn’t make friends, didn’t date, and wasn’t involved in the college social scene. She struggled with her schoolwork, although one of her instructors thought of her as having a bright and original mind. Not much about this murder makes sense – especially not the motive – until Balzic checks into Janet’s background. He discovers that she lost her parents in a terrible car accident when she was young. After that, she had little interest in life and simply disengaged herself from it. And in the end, the effect of that trauma led to her murder.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water, Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. His body is discovered in a notorious place outside of the town of Vigàta. Called ‘The Pasture,’ it’s a place where prostitutes meet their clients and small-time drug deals are made. At first, Luparello’s death looks like the result of a massive heart attack that happened at a very inopportune moment. But Montalbano isn’t so sure, and wants to investigate further. He’s given two days to ask some questions. At one point, Luparello’s widow contacts Montalbano, asking to see him. She is neither broken up and devastated nor relieved, really, about her husband’s death. She’s more detached than that, and certainly objective about her husband. While she’s not apathetic in the sense of being withdrawn, she is disengaged from any sense of grief. But she’s interested in the investigation, and provides Montalbano with some valuable information.

In Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, Dorchester (Massachusetts) PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro take on a heartbreaking case: four-year-old Amanda McCready has gone missing. As you can imagine, there’s a massive effort to find her, with dozens of police, all sorts of media attention, and lots of public interest. But so far, no trace of the child has been found. Amanda’s uncle, Lionel McCready, and his wife Beatrice, ask Kenzie and Gennaro to investigate. At first, the PIs are reluctant; after all, what can they do that the police and media can’t? But Beatrice McCready, especially, is insistent. So Kenzie and Gennaro agree to at least meet with Amanda’s mother Helene. From the very first, she gives an unfortunate impression. She seems strangely apathetic about the whole thing, although at one point, she does give way to a tear or two when Amanda’s smile is mentioned. Eerily, her next conversation – almost immediately afterwards – is about whether O.J. Simpson was guilty of murder. In fact, Kenzie and Gennaro are so put off by Helene that they turn to leave. Beatrice blocks their way, begging them to stay for just one more hour. Here is Helene’s reaction:


‘‘Patrick, right?’ Helene looked up at me. ‘That’s your name?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Think you could move a little to your left, Patrick?’ Helene said. ‘You’re blocking the TV.’’


Only the thought that Amanda may be in grave danger or worse keeps the detectives going after they’ve met Helene.

And then there’s Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall.  Early one morning, Gurdial Singh is on his regular rounds, delivering the Globe and Mail to his regular customers in Toronto’s exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. When he gets to the home of popular radio host Kevin Brace, he notices right away that something is different. The door is half-open and Brace himself is not there as usual to get the paper and say hello. Singh knocks on the door, and when Brace gets there, he says,

‘‘I killed her, Mr. Singh. I killed her.’’

After that, he says nothing else. Shortly afterwards, Singh discovers the body of Brace’s common law wife Katherine Thorn in a bathtub, and alerts the police. Brace goes quietly when he’s arrested, doesn’t try to defend himself, and seems to stop caring completely. The only thing he does do is request that solicitor Nancy Parish represent him. She takes the case, but almost immediately finds that her client isn’t going to be much help. He doesn’t even deny his guilt or offer any explanation for anything. Parish has her work cut out for her as she tries to clear Brace and find out what really happened to his wife.

There are other characters, too, who simply don’t seem to care. Creating them and making them interesting isn’t easy, but they can add to a story.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Dennis Lehane, K.C. Constantine, Robert Rotenberg

27 responses to “Nothing Really Matters to Me*

  1. Ye, that is a difficult one to make interesting – I suppose authors mainly do it by not having that character as the main focus. I don’t know that the murderer in Ferdinand von Schirach’s ‘The Collini Case’ is precisely apathetic, but he’s completely fatalistic about his future, and doesn’t provide any help to his defence lawyer in explaining the motivation for the crime. In that one, von Schirach makes the lawyer the main focus.

    • Oh, FictionFan, that’s such a good example of what I have in mind! The …Collini Case murderer really is detached from the case, isn’t he? As you say, perhaps not precisely apathetic, but certainly removed in a lot of ways. I think you have a well-taken point, too, about the focus of novels with this sort of character. If the focus is on another character, well and good. You can even make that apathetic character a little enigmatic, too, and add a hint of mystery. But otherwise it’s hard to keep the reader’s interest with an apathetic character.

  2. Love Queen, love those lyrics.

    All of your examples sound very interesting. I have not read Gone Baby Gone or Constantine’s The Blank Page yet.

    • I think Gone, Baby, Gone is a very well-written novel, Tracy. If you read that one, I hope you’ll like it. Constantine has said that he doesn’t think The Blank Page was good, but I’ve always liked it. And as to Queen? Great group!

  3. Margot: And don’t forget that Brace will only communicate with his lawyer in writing. How Rotenberg resolved that plot line certainly surprised me.

    Arthur Beauchamp in Trial of Passion by William Deverell is approaching 63 and is worn out from a bad marriage and demanding decades in the criminal courts of Vancouver. He retreats to a Gulf Island uninterested in city life and law. What brings a spark back to his life occurs on the island.

    • Right you are, indeed, Bill, about Brace and his insistence on writing everything. I thought Rotenberg handled that quite effectively, actually. And as to Arthur Beauchamp, he’s a character I’m just getting to know a little. So I can’t comment intelligently. But I do like the way Deverell writes of that apathy if you will that comes from burnout.

  4. I just finished Karin Fossum’s ‘The Drowned Boy’ last night in which the parents of a drowned 16 month old child react in unexpected ways to the tragedy, which triggers Sejer’s suspicions. The mother just wants to forget and get on with her life, the father becomes apathetic and start drinking heavily. The book seems to me to be also a comment on grief, and how people react differently to it and how hard it can be to cast judgement. Some of the chapters are from the POV of the strangely detached, disengaged parents.

    • You know, you bring up an important point, Marina Sofia. People do cope with grief in all kinds of ways. Withdrawing is one of them, and so is that desire to just forget it all. As you say, it can be very hard to judge because of that. I’ll confess I’ve not yet gotten to this one, although I am very much a Fossum man. I think she does great work. It sounds, though, like a great example of what I had in mind with this post.

      • Thanks Marina, for reminding me of yet another book I should read. Yes, different reactions to grief sometimes cause suspicion to fall unfairly on family or friends, but it’s something you can’t predict. I loved Gone, Baby, Gone; I’d like to see the movie but never had the chance. I’ll look out for it.

        • It is a well-done film, Crimeworm. I hope you’ll enjoy it if you do see it. And you’re absolutely right; grief can be very unpredictable, and can make people act in ways that raise suspicions. I think that’s why the police have to be very much aware of how grief can impact us.

  5. I can see where creating these type characters could be difficult. You don’t want to have anything to do with them because they don’t seem to care, but at the same time you want to know why they don’t care.

    • Well-put, Mason! That’s exactly it. When that sort of character is well-drawn, the reader wants to know why the character is so detached. But at the same time, that apathy casts the character in shadows, if I can put it that way.

  6. Interesting topic, Margot. A character that lacks motivation is hard to write in a believable way and yet so many of us often do things for no other reason than, ‘just because’. As always fiction has to make sense, life doesn’t!

    • Ah, yes, D.S., that is definitely the truth. It is, as you say, hard to write a character who just doesn’t seem to care. Even if you make it clear that the reason has to do with some particular incident (so as to generate sympathy), it’s hard to make people care about that character. But you’re right; in real life, we do find ourselves behaving that way sometimes. So at least apathetic characters can be made believable.

  7. Sometimes life or a traumatic event beats a character into the ground, making them live on auto-pilot. I did this in Marred, and had a lot of fun forcing her to fight for something rather than wallowing in self-pity. But it took countless revisions to make someone other than me say, “I love her.” From a writer’s perspective, it’s a lot more difficult when you start with an apathetic character, but like you say, there are real people in the world who live this way. They should be represented in crime fiction, too. Did you see the movie Gone, Baby Gone? It was excellent, but I’m sure the book is better.

    • I have, indeed, seen the film, Sue. I liked it very much, but you’re right; the book is better. Well, I think it is. You’re right that it’s difficult to create a character who’s stopped caring, especially if that character is going to be a major character. But there are real-life reasons for which people get to that point, and it is possible, as you found with Marred, to create a backstory, etc., that makes those characters interesting.

  8. Margot, I admire you for the themes you come up with and to me this seems to be more complex than others. Good recollection of characters who “go through the motions without really participating in life.”

    • Thank you, Prashant. And I think it really is a complex matter. How do you create a character who is interesting enough to keep readers engaged, but is also detached. Characters who, as you say, ‘go through the motions’ really can be interesting, but I think it takes a deft hand to do it well.

  9. I recently read Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca, and there is a splendid character called Maud who is portrayed as very dull,and uninterested in everything, yet is somehow a great comic creation, whose every line eg a placid remark about housekeeping, makes the reader smile.

    • That’s exactly the kind of character I had in mind with this post, Moira! And it shows that when those characters are well drawn, they can keep the reader engaged and interested, even if they aren’t really engaged themselves. Heyer had a great sense of wit, and I’m convinced that helped her. You can do it in other ways; that was her skill, in my opinion.

  10. Keishon

    Great topic and one that’s hard to pull off like you said. I think in Jo Nesbo’s The Redeemer, the killer in there is a war refuge and a contract killer who targets and kills the wrong person but then stays in Oslo and tries to fix the error. That’s what got me was his determination and Nesbo gave him a interesting backstory, too. That character is described as having a blank, empty stare. While these characters are uncaring of their fate, they make the most interesting antagonists and usually are the most deadliest types of characters because they’re driven and determined and don’t really care.

    • That’s quite true, Keishon. Those who have nothing to lose, or don’t care what happens to them are often the most dangerous types. They’re the ones who will take risks that others won’t. And that’s e good example of that sort of character.

  11. Kathy D.

    The murdered in The Collini Case is not apathetic at all. He had been angry about what happened for decades and could not get justice. So, out of pain, despair, anger, and revenge, he exacts his own retribution. But he is far from apathetic, as no real person would be either, given his history. He carried out what was his life’s goal.
    He does the deed and is prepared to take the consequences, whatever they are. So he does it and waits for the consequences and then has had enough pain. No one does what he did out of apathy. It was deep, long-term feelings.

    • And that’s the trick, Kathy, to creating this sort of character. You’re absolutely right that h feels things deeply and certainly has his reasons for doing what he does. This helps the reader understand why he is willing to go along when he’s arrested, and why he seems apathetic on the surface. That duality – resigned on the surface, but much more beneath the surface – makes that sort of character deeper and more interesting.

  12. Col

    I’m tempted by the Rotenberg book – but probably shouldn’t. Lehane’s book is one that stays long in the memory.

    • The Lehane is definitely one that stays with the reader, Col. I agree on that one. As to the Rotenberg, I know what you mean about ‘probably shouldn’t;’ it is a good -un, though if you get the chance.

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