Lots of crime fiction tells stories of people who try to be kind to someone, only to have it end up going very, very badly. And there’s something to that sort of story; it can be a very suspenseful premise for a plot. You know the sort of thing I mean: driver stops to help when a car is stranded, only to find real trouble. And in deft hands, novels with that plot point can be memorable.
But sometimes it’s also nice to remember that kindness to strangers isn’t always dangerous. In fact, it’s part of the glue that holds us together. And it can lead in all sorts of directions. Here are just a few examples.
In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny. He’s there to look into the death of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger, James Bentley. But Superintendent Spence has begun to think that Bentley was innocent, so he’s asked Poirot to investigate. One of the people he meets is Deirdre Henderson, who is one of the few villagers with a kind word to say for Bentley. It seems that Bentley once helped her rescue her dog from a trap. She hasn’t forgotten, and that’s part of why she isn’t convinced Bentley is a killer. Fans of this series will know that that one kind act has repercussions, which are brought up in another book, Hallowe’en Party.
Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors begins with a gesture of kindness to a stranger. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter are on a road trip one New Year’s Eve when they get into a car accident and left stranded. The Reverend Theodore Venables, vicar of a nearby church, comes upon the two men and helps them get their car to a repair shop. He even offers them lodging at the vicarage until the car can be fixed. Very grateful, Wimsey and Bunter accept, and are soon taken to the vicarage. That evening, Wimsey gets the chance to return the kindness. It seems that one of the church’s bell ringers has gotten ill and can’t do his part of the traditional change-ringing. So Wimsey takes his place, and the change-ringing goes off well. When Wimsey’s car is ready, he and Bunter go their way. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables, asking him to return, and help with the odd mystery of a corpse that has turned up unexpectedly at another person’s gravesite. Although this mystery is really sad in its way, one bright point is the friendship that strikes up between Wimsey and Venables, all because of one kind gesture.
In one plot thread of Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, Buenos Aires police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano and his team are raiding a brothel. Once they’ve made the arrests, Lescano does a final walk-through of the premises. That’s when he discovers a young woman, Eva, who’s been hiding in the house. Without really thinking too much about it, Lescano rescues her and shelters her in his home. Part of the reason is that she looks very much like his wife, Marisa, who has died. But he also doesn’t want to see Eva get into trouble. It’s late in the 1970’s, when just about anything can lead to a person ‘disappearing’ in Argentina. At first, Eva isn’t sure why Lescano hasn’t denounced her, nor what he wants. He doesn’t demand sexual ‘rewards,’ he doesn’t blackmail her, and he continues to protect her. That kind gesture turns out to be very important to the novel as we see what happens to both characters.
There’s also a kind gesture in Wendy James’ The Mistake. That’s the story of Jodie Evans Garrow, who starts life on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. One day, when she’s about eight, she happens to meet a girl about her own age, who’s just gotten some money in a dare. Then, she notices Jodie.
‘‘Hi, there,’ she says breezily. ‘He’s given me a dollar. You can get fifty cobbers for that up at Rafferty’s. You want to share?’’
Jodie’s unaccustomed to such a treat, and happy to accept. The other girl turns out to be Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan, who comes from more money than Jodie has, and much more freedom. The two become inseparable until Bridie moves away. Years later, Jodie has good cause to remember that friendship when Bridie comes into her life again. Jodie has become a social pariah, since a devastating news story has broken about her. It seems that she gave birth to a baby who, shortly afterwards, disappeared. Was the child simply adopted? If so, why are there no records? Did the child die? If so, did Jodie have something to do with it? In the worst of it all, she meets Bridie again, and the two pick up their friendship. In fact, Bridie’s the one person who helps Jodie keep sane, if I can put it that way.
And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief. In one plot thread of this novel, a young boy named François gets into trouble for stealing food from other children. Ordinarily, such a child would end up in the hands of authorities, but this child is different. His mother Karima seems to have gone missing, and the boy is just doing the best he can to eat. It soon turns out, too, that she may be mixed up in a murder investigation that Inspector Salvo Montalbano is conducting. He has sympathy for the boy, and decides to try to take care of him. As it happens, his long-time lover Livia is visiting, and she helps him to look after François. The two bond; and in fact, Livia considers whether she might want to adopt the boy when it’s discovered that his mother has been killed. That plan doesn’t pan out, but the boy is given a good, safe home with the sister of Montalbano’s second-in-command Mimì Augello. The kind gesture of taking care of François ends happily both for himself and for the family who adopts him.
And that’s the thing about kindness to strangers. You never know what will happen. And they happen in real life, too. Picture this – true story, as Wendy James’ Bridie Sullivan would say. It was a sweltering, and I mean sweltering, August day – my first full day of university. Never mind how long ago. I’d spent the morning unpacking my things, and was ready to go get something to eat. So I went to one of the university cafeterias. I was waiting my turn to get food when the heat overcame me and I began to get dizzy. Barely keeping my feet, I stumbled to the nearest table and slumped into a chair, arms on the table, head dropped onto them. I sat there for a few moments that way, thoroughly embarrassed both at my dizziness and the attention I knew it would bring. I’d so wanted to make a good impression on that all-important first day ‘in public,’ and passing out was not what I’d had in mind. All of a sudden I heard a voice beside me, asking me if I was OK. I nodded, hoping desperately that whoever it was would leave me alone and let me slink away.
It didn’t happen. That person saw that I was in need, and went to get me a fruit juice, then sat beside me so I wouldn’t be alone, until I felt better. That glass of fruit juice, and the friendship that started because of it, made all the difference in the world to me. This many years later, we are still friends.
If you’re reading this, you know who you are. You may have forgotten that day, but I never will.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends.