Just Trying to Decide*

Difficult DecisionsThere are some decisions that involve real questions of conscience. Those decisions can be among the most difficult to make, because people have such different perspectives on them. Do you take that job with a company you know pollutes the atmosphere (because the money and chances for advancement are good, and maybe you can change it from within)? Do you defend the right of someone whose views you find repugnant to demonstrate? These are just two examples of the kinds of decision I have in mind. There are many, many others.

Such decisions can add an interesting layer of suspense to a crime novel. They’re sources of conflict, and they are realistic. There’s not very much space in just this one post for me to mention them all, so here are just a few. I know you’ll think of many more.

One of the most difficult and painful decisions a person ever makes is whether to have (or perform) an abortion. I won’t get into the moral and political issues involved here. This is a crime fiction blog, not a blog about politics, religion or morality. Suffice it to say that it’s a wrenching decision. We see that in Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need, which he wrote under the name of Jeffrey Hudson. The novel takes place in 1968 Boston, a time when abortion was not legal in the U.S.  Dr. Arthur Lee, an obstetrician at Boston’s Memorial Hospital, is arrested in connection with the death of Karen Randall. The charge is that he performed an illegal abortion which he botched, causing her death. Lee asks his good friend, pathologist Dr. John Berry, to help clear his name. Berry knows that Lee performs abortions, but Lee assures him that Karen Randall’s wasn’t one of them. Berry doesn’t want to see his friend wrongfully imprisoned, so he agrees to see what he can find out. This runs him directly up against the highest levels of authority at the hospital, since the victim was the daughter of a very wealthy and powerful doctor. Berry finds out the truth about Karen’s death; as he does, we see just how controversial the decision to have or perform abortions really is.

I touch on the same issue in my Joel Williams novel Past Tense. It’s out for submission right now (I could really use some happy thoughts, please!), so as you can imagine, elements of it may change. But as it is, a set of bones dating from the early-to-mid 1970s is discovered on the campus of Tilton University. Former police officer turned professor of criminal justice Joel Williams takes an interest in the case when he finds out about it from a colleague. He learns that one of the people who may be involved is another colleague who was a student at Tilton during that time. That’s when she faced the difficult question of what to do when she found she was pregnant. Abortion had recently become legal in the US, so she made the choice to have the procedure. As her story shows, it’s a wrenching decision.

So was the decision about whether to participate in the Vietnam War. There were many young people who took seriously what they saw as their duty to country to serve in that war. We see that in Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night. The protagonist of that novel is octogenarian Sheldon Horowitz, who’s moved from his native New York City to Norway, so as to be nearer to his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband. One day he witnesses the murder of a young woman. She’s left a small son behind, so Horowitz takes the boy with him, since he’s sure the killers will be back for the child. The two of them go on the run, trying to outwit their pursuers. In the process, we learn Horowitz’ backstory. His son (and Rhea’s father) Saul served two tours of duty in Vietnam, and was killed during the second. Horowitz actually encouraged his son to enlist in the military, giving him the message that he should give back to the country that took care of him. Since his son’s death, Horowitz has had to deal with the guilt he feels about that encouragement.

Other people’s consciences didn’t allow them to fight in Vietnam. Instead, they left the country; many went to Canada. In Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier, we meet Andy Smith, and his wife Lucy ‘Lucky’ two ex-pat Americans who moved to Trafalgar, British Colombia so that Andy wouldn’t have to fight a war he thought was immoral. In one plot thread of that novel, a group of citizens wants to create a Peace Garden in memory of those who followed their consciences and refused to fight the war. They’ve got the financial backing they need, too. Others, though, feel that the garden would be too controversial, especially given that Trafalgar is a tourist destination that can use the money that comes from American visitors. Andy and Lucky’s daughter Moonlight ‘Molly’ is a constable caught in the middle of the debate. Her job is to help keep order, and that’s not going to be very easy with feelings running so high.

In Nicci French’s Blue Monday, London psychologist Frieda Klein faces another kind of conscience-based decision. She’s working with a new patient, Alan Dekker, who’s suffering from anxiety problems and other issues. Bit by bit, the two begin to address those issues, and Dekker tells her of a dream he’s had – a dream in which he has his own son. Dekker and his wife haven’t been able to have children, but Dekker resists adoption, so Klein sees a natural connection between Dekker’s personal situation and his dreams. Gradually, they begin working on events from his past that have impacted his current psychological situation. Then, Klein hears of a truly disturbing event: four-year-old Matthew Faraday has gone missing. Despite massive public appeals and police efforts, no trace of the boy has turned up. At first subconsciously, then actively, Klein begins to wonder if there is a link between her work with Alan Dekker and Matthew Faraday’s disappearance. She’s not supposed to reveal anything about her work with her clients, but this is different. So she makes the difficult decision to go to the police, in the form of DCI Malcolm Karlsson, with her concerns.

The decision of whether to give a child up for adoption is addressed in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck, who volunteered there at the New Life Children’s Centre. In order to find out the truth about Maryanne’s death, Keeney looks into what’s going on at New Life. She discovers that in part, its mission is to prepare children who are eligible for adoption for their new homes. As she learns how New Life really works, we learn about one toddler, Kob, who is matched with an American couple. Keeney gets involved with that process, and as she does, we see just what wrenching decisions are made when it comes to adoption.

These are only a few of the difficult choices we sometimes face. They may keep us awake at night, but they also form interesting story strands in crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Babys’ Isn’t it Time. 


Filed under Angela Savage, Derek B. Miller, Jeffery Hudson, Michael Crichton, Nicci French, Vicki Delany

28 responses to “Just Trying to Decide*

  1. A difference kind of choice confronts Poirot at the end of _Murder on the Orient Express_. Yea, conscience doth make cowards (or heroes) of us all.

  2. Internal conflict is always a good story driver. Great subject Margot and I’ve got my fingers crossed for Joel. It sounds like a goodun 🙂

  3. Kathy D.

    Sounds like Joel’s new mystery is a good one and certainly one I’d like to read about, having been a women’s rights activist for years. Can’t wait to read this one. So, am sending good vibes.
    This is quite a topic. Some good examples of ethical questions faced by many people.
    I like Lucky Smith and was interested in the Molly Smith series when I found out that that Molly’s parents went to Canada to avoid the draft. That did happen frequently during the war in Vietnam.
    Norwegian by Night delivers a very powerful punch about that war, leading Sheldon Horowitz to feel terrible guilt. I was perturbed about his urging his son to enlist but Sheldon’s ghosts come home to roost.
    And The Half-Child is disturbing in the issue over adoption, but in that story, the agency was coercive, unscrupulous and unethical. Profit-making should not be part of this situation, but unfortunately it often is, even though adoption itself is a good way to help many people.
    Angela Savage’s other books, especially Behind the Night Bazaar, also discuss moral questions.

    • Thanks for the good wishes, Kathy. We shall see whether there’s any interest in the book. You’re right, too, about the difference between adoption agencies that have the priority of really helping children and their families, and those that are only there to make a profit. Sometimes they are very unscrupulous indeed. And I like Lucky Smith, too. 🙂

  4. Past Tense is a wonderful title, Margot, and I am thinking good thoughts for you. The plot description sounds very interesting.

    I look forward to reading Norwegian by Night sometime this year.

    • Thank you, Tracy – on all counts 🙂 . Though I say it myself, I like the title, too. About Norwegian By Night, it’s not everyone’s cuppa. But I hope that if you do get to it, you’ll enjoy it.

  5. Margot: Your illustrations set out challenging decisions. I think Bernie Gunther in the series by Philip Kerr had the most difficult of choices as he was posted to a German military unit that would be part of the Holocaust in Russia.

    • Oh, that’s a terrific example, Bill, of the kind of difficult choice I had in mind with this post. Thanks for that. Hey, folks, if you’re not familiar with the Bernie Gunther series, I recommend it.

  6. I love reading as well as writing a good moral dilemma, Margot, and there are a few books here I’d like to suss out, including the new Joel Williams. Past Tense is a great title and I’m sending vibes for a bidding war and movie deal 🙂

    • Thank you, Angela 🙂 – much appreciated! And you’re right: a compelling moral dilemma can add richness to a story. You do them very well in your Jayne Keeney novels.

  7. Wonderful selection of moral dilemmas! I was also thinking of Bernie Gunther and also Kappe from the Berlin series by multiple authors – I just read the 1934 book and it was a time when law and order was turning into interpretation and politics. But this is always going to be a struggle for detectives working under authoritarian regimes – do they seek out the truth and follow their own moral principles, or do they follow the party political guidelines and preserve their careers and in some cases their family? I can think of many examples like that, including Montalban’s Pepe Carvalho, Leo Demidov in Tom Rob Smith’s series set in Stalinist Soviet Union, Carlo Lucarelli’s Inspector De Luca in Mussolini’s Italy.

    • Thank you, Marina Sofia. And as I read the terrific examples you offered, I was thinking how absolutely right you are about the fictional sleuth who works under an authoritarian regime. You’ve put me in mind of Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano, too. William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev is another example. All of these characters are faced with that question of whether they will do what their own principles dictate, or whether they will follow the party line. Thanks for this delicious ‘food for thought.’

  8. Kathy D.

    I didn’t read the De Luca books but I saw the TV episodes. I did so because I wanted to know what a police officer does under a fascist regime. i was pondering that question for quite awhile until I saw the programs. De Luca is a cop, then he is sent to Rome during Mussolini’s regime before the war. He is asked to identify people who were caught escaping who were said to be in the anti-fascist resistance. He sees the photos, then discards the one of a friend. Then the light fades and next seen De Luca is running from the anti-fascists in 1945. So, one can conclude what he did.
    There is no way someone working for a fascist state can be neutral. I always ask what does a police officer do if ordered to arrest dissidents or in WW II, Jewish people or Roma, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Resistance members, protesting students? They can’t refuse and keep their jobs. in fact, they might put themselves in jeopardy is they don’t follow orders.

    • That’s exactly the kind of dilemma they face, Kathy. It’s one reason I think it must be so very difficult to be a principled police officer in a regime like that. I admit I’ve not seen the TV adaptation of the De Luca stories, but it sounds well done.

  9. Margot, I’d love to read “Past Tense” and see what Joel Williams is like. I’m sure he is an interesting protagonist. I will also keep an eye for Derek B. Miller’s “Norwegian by Night.”

  10. Col

    Struggling for examples, but I quite look books where criminals/gangs/crimelords etc – the kind that wouldn’t usually talk to the police – are so affected by a crime or event, they “co-operate” albeit on their own terms to help catch the perpetrator. Poacher turned gamekeeper.

  11. I’ve just started listening to VIOLENT CRIMES by Phillip Margolin and one of the characters in it faces a difficult decision. She’s been asked to present the company’s financial statement to a potential client, but when she examines it, she finds the books have been doctored. She has to decide whether to go with the flow which will advance her career or point out the difference which will probably cost her her job. This type conflict does add depth to a story.

  12. Oh good luck with the book, Margot! Past Tense is a great title, and it sounds like an intriguing plot. Hope the submission goes well… 😀

  13. When it comes to conscience and difficult decisions, the one that stays in my mind is Denis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone: the investigators face a very difficult choice at the end of that one.

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