Some 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.