There’s been a lot of bad news from all over the world lately. At times like this, I think it’s helpful to remember that people are also capable of great kindness (and OK, the cute ‘roo in the ‘photo is an extra bonus 😉 ). I’d bet you’ve experienced kindness in your own life, and shared it with others. It’s all over crime fiction, too.
It’s not easy to write a ‘kind’ scene in a crime novel. After all, those stories are about things that people do to one another, and crime fiction fans don’t want their books too ‘sugary.’ But there are ways to weave such scenes into a crime novel. And, when done well, they can add a welcome bit of light into an otherwise sad novel. For the writer, they can move the plot along, too, and add character development.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), we are introduced to Heather Badcock. She lives with her husband, Arthur, in a brand-new council housing development in St. Mary Mead. Heather’s far from perfect, but she has what’s sometimes called a big heart. So one day, when she sees an elderly lady stumble and twist her ankle, she’s only too happy to help. That lady turns out to be Miss Marple, who is quite grateful for the kindness of a stranger. That’s partly why she gets involved in the case when Heather later dies of what turns out to be poison. Miss Marple is not at all blind to Heather’s faults and weaknesses, but she also sees her good qualities. It’s an interesting case of a character whose positive qualities turn out to have a negative side, if I can put it that way.
In Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte travels to the small town of Merino to investigate the death of itinerant stockman George Kendall. In order to get as much information as possible, he goes undercover as ‘just another swagman.’ With the help of Sergeant Marshall of the local police, he arranges to be jailed for ten days for vagrancy, loitering, lying to the police, and interfering with the police. He’s in his jail cell when he meets eight-year-old Florence Marshall (who usually goes by Rose Marie), the sergeant’s daughter. Florence brings the ‘prisoner’ tea, and strikes up a friendship with him, and Bony is grateful for her kindness. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t condescend to her, which endears him to her. Later in the novel, Bony’s able to repay her kindness.
Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in Haystack begins as Buenos Aires police officer Venancio ‘Perro’ Lascano and his team raid a brothel. They have to be careful about, too. On the one hand, the ruling far-right junta (the novel takes place in the late 1970s) wants to put on a show of being tough on such crimes. And it’s as much as a death sentence to go against them. On the other, several important community leaders are patrons of the brothel. Still, the police carry out their duty. As Lascano is making one last pass through the establishment, he discovers a young woman hiding there. She’s not one of the brothel workers; rather, she’s using the place as a refuge. Lascano escorts her to safety, where he finds out that her name is Eva. He gives Eva temporary shelter in his home; and at first, she assumes he’s going to want something in return. But he asks neither for information nor sexual attention. In fact, as the novel goes on, he continues to treat her with kindness with no apparent ulterior motive. In the end, that kindness saves her life. This isn’t the main plot of the novel, really. But it does show how a kind gesture can add a ‘lift’ even to a noir story such as this one, where people generally can’t trust one another.
Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief includes a sub-plot regarding a young boy named François. When his mother, Karima, disappears (her reasons are a part of the main plot), he’s left more or less alone in the world. Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano has compassion for the boy and takes him in temporarily. That’s mostly at the behest of Montalbano’s longtime lover, Livia, who’s visiting at the time. Livia and François, especially, form a bond that benefits both of them. In the end, that kindness allows François to build a new life.
Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind is the story of Stephanie Anderson. When she’s fourteen, her younger sister Gemma goes missing during a school picnic/barbecue. Despite a massive search, no trace of Gemma is ever found. Seventeen years later, Stephanie is just finishing her training in psychiatry in Dunedin. She gets a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, who tells her a story that’s eerily similar to Stephanie’s own. Elisabeth’s sister Gracie also disappeared, also with no trace. Against her better judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest, and goes in search of the person who caused so much hurt to both her family and the Clarks. So she travels back to her home town of Wanaka. Along the way, she stays for a short time with Elisabeth’s father, Andy. Although she’s a stranger to Andy, really, he makes her welcome at the Guest House he owns, and treats her with kindness. So do other people she meets along the way. That kindness doesn’t catch the person responsible for the disappearances, but it shores Stephanie up during her journey. And it helps her do some healing.
And then there’s Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings, which introduces Victoria newspaper columnist Nell Forrest. One night, Nell gets a visit from the police, who tell her that there’s been a fire at the home of her mother, Lillian ‘Yen.’ What’s more, a man’s body was found in the ruins of the garage, where the fire started. He is Dustin Craig, who lived next door. At first, the police think that he died in a terrible accident (although there is some question about what he was doing at the next-door house late at night). But soon, it’s proven that he was murdered. Now, Yen herself comes under suspicion, and there’s good reason for that. Nell starts to ask some questions, and discovers that several other people have strong motives for murder. In the course of her search for the truth, Nell herself gets into grave danger. Despite that, though, she finds a way to be kind to another character who’s also in danger. That kindness doesn’t exactly cement a friendship. But it does show that even when things look terrible, people can be kind.
And that’s the thing about kindness. It doesn’t have to be ‘sugary sweet’ (Nell’s isn’t, for instance). And in a crime novel, most readers wouldn’t want such saccharine anyway. But kindness can add a touch of relief to a novel. And in real life, those little kindnesses can make a difference. It doesn’t take much to reach out. And it can be an antidote to everything going on in the world…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jewel Kilcher’s Hands.