There are people, of course, who crave glory. But most true heroes are fairly reluctant about making much of it. In fact, they just want to get back to their normal lives when it’s all over. That’s as true in crime fiction as it is in real life, if you think about it. Plenty of characters end up being reluctant heroes for one reason or another.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp investigate the shooting death of Henry Morley in his dental surgery. One of Morley’s patients is well-known, powerful banker Alistair Blunt. He’s got enough enemies that one very real possibility is that he was the actual target. If that’s the case, then Howard Raikes may be the killer. Raikes is a political radical who wants to get rid of powerful bankers such as Blunt and set up a whole new kind of society. And Raikes was known to be at the dental surgery on the day of the murder. In an odd twist, Raikes turns out to be a hero later in the book. Blunt is spending the weekend at his country place when someone fires a shot at him. Raikes catches the person holding the gun, and there’s a very awkward moment when Blunt has to be grateful to someone whom he knows intensely dislikes him, and when Raikes has to get public attention for looking out for someone he holds in contempt.
In Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York homicide detective Tom Shawn is going for a late night walk when he comes upon a distraught young woman on a bridge. She’s about to jump off, and it takes him a bit of time to convince her not to. But he finally succeeds. When he does, he takes her to an all-night diner where she tells him her story. It turns out that she is Jean Reid, daughter of wealthy and successful Harlan Reid. Although she lost her mother at a very young age, her life had been more or less happy until recently. Through a series of strange events, the Reids met Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who, as he puts it, is cursed with knowing the future. Harlan Reid began to visit Tompkins more and more often, finding that all of Tompkins’ predictions seemed to come true. Then came the day that Tompkins predicted his death on a certain date at midnight. Now his daughter is devastated. Shawn is no hero. He’s not out for glory, and certainly doesn’t want public notice. But he does feel for the young woman. So he does what he can to help. And it turns out that he gets drawn in to a very strange case…
Kate Atkinson’s Martin Canning, whom we meet in One Good Turn, is anything but the heroic type. He’s a retiring sort of person, a crime writer by trade, who happens to be in Edinburgh one afternoon picking up tickets for a lunchtime comedy radio show. While he’s waiting his turn, he happens to witness an accident in which a blue Honda hits a silver Peugeot driven by Paul Bradley. Both drivers get out and start to argue. As you can imagine, the argument escalates until the Honda driver brandishes a baseball bat and begins to hit Bradley. Canning sees what’s happening and, without thinking much, throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. His sense of obligation makes him accompany Bradley to the nearest hospital, to make sure he’ll be all right. That heroism draws Canning into a web of fraud, murder and more. Little wonder he didn’t want to be a hero…
Neither, really, does Kishwar Desai’s Simran Singh, whom we meet in Witness the Night. She is a social worker based in Delhi. Everything changes when she gets a call from an old friend from university who’s now Inspector General for the State of Punjab. He wants her help with a terrible case of murder. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested for the poisoning deaths of thirteen of her family members. Some were stabbed as well, and the house was burned. There are signs that Durga may have been a victim, too, who just happened to escape. But it’s also possible that she is responsible for this set of crimes. The police can’t get much information, because Durga has said nearly nothing since she was arrested. The hope is that if Simran can get the girl to talk, the authorities can find out what really happened that night. Very slowly, Simran gets to know Durga, and as she finds out the truth, Simran ends up being what most people would call a hero. She doesn’t really want that recognition; she doesn’t do anything to get the credit or ‘earn points.’ She works to find out the truth mostly to help Durga if she can.
And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s Dance of the Seagull. In that novel, Vigàta police inspector Salvo Montalbano is faced with a particularly difficult case. One of his team members, Giuseppe Fazio, has gone missing. At the time he disappeared, Fazio was working on a smuggling case, so Montalbano is hoping that if he follows the trail Fazio left, he’ll find out what’s happened to his colleague. It’s not spoiling the story to say that the team members find Fazio, wounded but alive, and get him into a hospital. That’s how Montalbano meets Angela, one of the nurses who works there. She’s a skilled nurse, but she certainly doesn’t see herself as a hero. In fact, she doesn’t really want to get involved with the police or with the case they’re investigating. But as it turns out, she behaves heroically. She doesn’t want credit for it, and she never wanted to be involved in the first place. She just wants to do her job.
And that’s the way it is for a lot of people whom we regard as heroes. They’re people, like us, who do remarkable things. They don’t regard themselves as ‘extra special,’ and certainly don’t look for the situations that make them heroes. It just works out that way.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Zippel and Alan Menken’s Zero to Hero.