This is My Quest*

QuestsOne of the timeless of plot contexts in literature is the quest – the purposeful journey. That journey may be literal or figurative; the purpose of it may also be literal or figurative. Either way, quests promise rewards that, at least for the protagonist, make the journey worth the effort. And they pose great risks. That combination can make for suspense, conflict and character development, all of which are elements of a high-quality crime novel. So it really shouldn’t be surprising that there are quests all through the genre. You could even argue that investigating a crime is a quest, and you’d have a solid basis for that argument. But even leaving that aside, many crime novels involve quests.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the murders of Enoch Drebber, a recent arrival to London from the US. At one point, his secretary Joseph Stangerson is suspected. But when he, too, is killed, it’s clear that someone was actually targeting both victims. And so it proves to be. As Holmes and Watson learn, this case has its roots in the past. Both Drebber and Stangerson had something to hide – something for which the killer wanted revenge. And it all has its start in a quest for a place of safety.

Agatha Christie’s short story Manx Gold also involves a quest, this time for a treasure. Engaged couple Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker learn that Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles has died. They travel to the Isle of Man to hear the reading of his will, only to learn that he’s arranged a competition. According to the will, there is buried treasure on the island. Each of the possible heirs to the fortune will receive the same clues to the treasure’s location. The one who finds the treasure first gets to claim it. Very soon several potential heirs are off on the quest for the treasure. Then there’s a murder. Now Fenella and Juan begin to wonder whether someone might be targeting the heirs in order to be assured of a win. Interestingly, Christie wrote this story on commission to increase tourism to the island. Visitors were given copies of the story, which was printed in instalments. Their quest was to find four identical snuffboxes, each of which contained a Manx penny. The prize for the person who could succeed on this quest was to be £100, but no-one was ever able to claim it.

Jonathan Gash’s The Judas Pair introduces readers to antiques dealer and expert Lovejoy. The last thing on his mind is to become a detective (other than hunting down antiques), but everything changes when he meets George Field. Field is looking for a particular pair of antique dueling pistols called the Judas Pair. They’re the stuff of legend among antiques dealers and collectors, and most don’t even think the pistols exist. Certainly Lovejoy doesn’t. But Fields says they do; in fact, one of them was used to shoot his brother Eric. Fields believes that if he can find the Judas Pair, he’ll find his brother’s killer. So he asks Lovejoy to track down the pistols. Lovejoy isn’t overly drawn to the case by the thought of catching a killer, but the pistols themselves are another matter altogether. So he agrees to start looking. The quest for the pistols takes Lovejoy through the antiques and collecting communities, and puts him in very grave danger.

Arnaldur Indriðason’s series features Reykjavík Inspector Erlendur and his team. Fans of this series will know that Erlendur is haunted by a tragedy that occurred when he was a boy. He and his brother Bergur were caught in a blizzard one day. Erlendur survived, but Bergur was never found. No-one has even discovered his body. On one level, Erlendur feels a powerful sense of guilt over not protecting his brother, and over surviving when his brother did not. On another level, he wants to know what happened to his brother. So, in one story arc in this series, Erlendur goes on a quest to find out anything he can about that day and about what might have happened to Bergur

There’s a different sort of quest in Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride). Gundar Jormann has lived all his life in the Norwegian village of Elvestad. He is no longer a young man, but he’s still presentable. He’s also hardworking and reliable – the steady kind. So he sees no reason why he shouldn’t be able to find a wife. His sister Marie is shocked when Gundar tells her that he is going to travel to India to find a bride. He goes to Mumbai, where he meets Poona Bai, who works in a café there. The two are soon taken with each other, and it’s not long before Poona agrees to marry him. The plan is for Gundar to return to Norway, where Poona will join him soon, after she finishes up her life in India. On the day of Poona’s arrival, Marie is involved in a terrible car crash, and Gundar cannot leave her. So he asks a friend to meet Poona at the airport. The two miss each other, though, and Poona never makes it to Gundar’s house. When her body is found in a field not far from the house, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. They find that they have to penetrate a proverbial ‘wall of silence’ in order to find out the truth about that day.

And then there’s Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom. British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann is given a very difficult assignment. He’s told to go to Thailand and recover a lead-covered black box from the Andaman Sea. Apparently the box was on board a ship that was sunk, and is still under the water. This is going to be an especially challenging quest for Swann. The last time he was in Thailand, he was involved in another operation where he had a dangerous encounter with powerful crime boss ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song. Although he saved Tuk-Tuk’s life that day, he ended up killing Tuk-Tuk’s son Arune, and wounding his ‘right hand man’ Choy Lee. So he will not be welcomed warmly in Thailand. He can’t avoid Tuk-Tuk, either because the man is too powerful. If Swann is going to launch the kind of operation he’ll need to recover the box, he’ll need people, material and support that only Tuk-Tuk can guarantee. So he’s going to have to make his peace with the crime boss. This quest takes on a whole new dimension when there two attempts on Swann’s life. Then two of his friends are brutally murdered. Now he’s up against an enemy he didn’t really know he had, and whom he can’t even identify.

And that’s the thing about quests. They can get very dangerous at times. But they do add suspense to stories, and they are an important part of the human experience. They’re a part of our literary heritage too.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s The Impossible Dream.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jonathan Gash, Karin Fossum

30 responses to “This is My Quest*

  1. Keishon

    I love these types of stories.

  2. Thanks for this, Margot. I’m going to look up Death in the Kingdom.

    I ran a workshop recently for writers on structure, and we looked at the so-called Hero’s Journey/Quest as one of the classic narrative structures. I think it can be overdone, but there’s no denying its appeal when done well – as in the examples you use.

    • I’d have liked to be at that workshop, Angela. I’ll bet that it was fantastic. And you’re right; the Hero’s Journey/Quest can certainly be overdone, and definitely melodramatic. But when it works well – when it’s in deft hands – it can also draw the reader in. As to Death in the Kingdom, it’s an interesting look at Bangkok and at Thailand, actually. It’s quite different to the perspective you take in your Jayne Keeney novels. But I think you’ll find some aspects of it familiar given your own experiences. If you do read it, I’ll be keen to know what you think.

  3. One of the most famous quests in crime literature is Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon – the quest for that priceless jewel-encrusted “black bird” costs a fair number of lives in the course of the novel.

  4. In a sense most detectives are on a quest. Or at least it feels that way. That their calling emanates from some injustice or issue from their youth.

    • Oh, that’s an interesting point, Patti! You’re right, too. A lot of detectives are on a personal quest. It may be for justice, for healing, for redemption or something like that. Thanks for that perspective.

  5. Not treasure exactly, but the young boys who take centre stage in Peter May’s Runaway are on a kind of quest as they travel from Glasgow to London in search of fame and fortune. And many years later, their older selves repeat the quest – but this time to find out the truth behind the tragedy that ended their first trip.

    • Oh, FictionFan, that’s a great example. Treasure or no, they are indeed on a quest. And May deals with a couple of quests in the Lewis trilogy, too. He does that sense of searching quite well, in my opinion. Thanks for including this.

  6. Oh the quest! I never really thought hard about this as a motive before but it’s a really interesting one. In fact, the next Blake I’m outlining could definitely be considered to have mini quests within it. It’s made me look atvit quite differently, thanks Margot 🙂

    • Glad to hear you’re working on a new Blake story, D.S. I’ll be looking forward to reading it. And it’s interesting how many stories have quests in them. I think it comes up more than a lot of think it does.

  7. I like this post, a more unusual underlying motive. I’d like to through Jefferson Tayte into the mix, he is on a quest for the truth about the past, particularly in To The Grave where the contents of the suitcase send him on a quest.

    • Oh, that’s a good example, Cleo. Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte is a genealogist, so his profession involves searches and quests. That’s really quite true and I hadn’t thought of it before. Thanks.

  8. Sometimes it’s the quest that draws me in the quickest

  9. I haven’t read that Agatha Christie short story…I’ll have to look it up!

  10. I think most novels are, at their heart, quest novels. I think of The Wizard of Oz as the meta-fiction – Dorothy wants a home, and then the rest – heart, brain, courage. I really like The Hero’s Journey as a template for a novel for that reason. What was the invitation to the quest? Just re-read a Kate Atkinson mystery A Good Turn – and the whole thing is based on an incident that happens in the first four pages. It is the invitation for every character to find what they are after – revenge, truth about the past, etc… definitely a quest, though many wouldn’t see it that way.

    • You really have a point there, Jan, about the quest in novels. Part of nearly all plots is someone (or many someones) wanting something. That’s part of what drives characters. And it’s a flexible enough narrative structure that it can be adapted for just about all stories. You’re right about the Atkinson novel, too. That accident is the catalyst that gets everyone going on those individual quests.

  11. Col

    The Grant book sounds good, but again probably no time!

  12. The story behind Christie’s Manx Gold is absolutely fascinating. I wonder if people still look for the boxes. Do you know if the treasure maps still exist?

  13. I love your examples, and I love the idea of the quest. Not a crime book, but in the UK in the 70s there was a treasure hunt revolving round a beautiful illustrated book about a hare: it was called Maskerade. I think you might be interested in looking it up, the whole story is interesting and strange, with a rather sad aspect to it (possible cheating).

  14. Hi Margot, Another great topic, very much pertinent to the crime & mystery novel. I suppose one could say the quest motif also applies, at least sometimes, to related genres like espionage fiction. As you point out, in one sense all mystery fiction is a kind of quest: to solve the crime. But the classic American PI novel especially seems to invoke the quest theme, either overtly or covertly (here Les beat me to the punch with his noting Maltese Falcon). Also, with his knight-errant status, Marlowe is especially a good example. However …. even though the PI may solve the case – or (frequently) not – the larger existential issues of the quest seem to elude him.

    • That’s a very well-taken point, Bryan. Especially in the case of characters such as Marlowe, they often seem to be on quests – almost philosophical quests – that transcend the mysteries they solve. This, to me, can add some real richness to the novel. And that aspect adds to their characters, too.

  15. tracybham

    Arnaldur Indriðason and Karin Fossum are two of the Scandinavian authors I have had for years and not read their books. Need to move on that.

    • I actually like both authors’ work a whole lot, Tracy. I try to be objective when I discuss authors, because everyone’s taste is so different. But I do recommend both of these writers highly.

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