In the End, Only Kindness Matters*

OnlyKindnessMattersThere’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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Upfield, Ernesto Mallo, Ilsa Evans, Paddy Richardson

48 responses to “In the End, Only Kindness Matters*

  1. Pingback: In the End, Only Kindness Matters* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. Tim

    Related to your “kindness” theme, I sometimes need a break from some styles and return to reading early hard-boiled because I enjoy the “smart ass” wise-cracking banter that characterizes some of the sleuths’ language. Both Hammett’s and Chandler’s novels come to mind. Okay, it ain’t “kindness” but its beats the hell out of the slash-and-gash psychopaths in too many contemporary “masterpieces.” But back to “kindness,” since you brought it up, I have always appreciated the kindness and tolerance Poirot extends to Hastings. I don’t know that I could be so patience with someone so obtuse.

    • Actually, Tim, I’ve always liked Poirot’s capacity for kindness, too. He shows in several stories, and to several characters. On the surface he may not seem so, but he really is compassionate. And I agree with you about some of today’s serial killer psychopaths and the novels in which they appear. I’ve gotten to the point where such a novel has to be exceptional in every way before I’m willing to even consider reading it. As you say, the old-school wise-cracking PI may not be exactly what you’d call ‘kind,’ but many of them do have a compassionate side.

  3. Tim

    Correction: make that “patient” rather than “patience.” Sloppy keyboarding undermines me again! Please, be kind and forgive the sloppiness.

  4. I really liked this post!

  5. Conflict is so much easier in a crime novel, you’re so right. As for what’s happening in the world I dispair, particuarly with my own country at the moment. Going off topic slightly but I have no idea how men like Johnson, Farrage and Trump are managing to gain such an audience for their lies and hateful rhetoric. It’s very scary. No wonder I find murder mystery safer :-/

    • Yeah, me, too, D.S.! It is cause for despair at the moment. And it’s scary indeed to see how many people listen to such rhetoric. I only hope that wiser, kinder voices will prevail. I heard the House of Commons’ website was crashed by a 200,000-strong petition for another referendum. We’ll see what happens. And as for Trump? A real cause for shame. But again, let’s hope wiser voices are heard. Yup – mystery novels are much safer. And you’re right; it is easier to write conflict that kindness. That’s what makes those moments of kindness so rich when they’re done well.

      • It did, half a million was the last count. I doubt they’ll allow another referendum it will make a farse of the firsr one. Perhaps the people who didn’t vote thinking we’d stat in should have pulled their finger out. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and it appears that ignorance is king at the moment. I just hope there’s some way through this mess and that kindness prevails instead of xenophobic stupidity. Sorry I’ll stop ranting 😦

        • Don’t stop on my account, D.S. I think a lot of people voted without thinking, or as you say, didn’t vote because they didn’t think it would matter. I’m sure there are other reasons, too. It’ll be interesting to see what Parliament does with this surge of interest in a new referendum, even if they don’t approve another. In the meantime, yes, I do hope there’s a way out of this. We’ll all have to move forward as a world society.

      • News just in, the counts up to 2 million now and a labour MP has been trying to encourage the government to reject to referendum result as it would be a disaster and it’s not a legally binding vote. Who knows what will happen but I fear much of the damage has already been done!

        • Well, well, well!! This is interesting! No matter what happens, at least it’s clear that there’s a lot of upset about this. I’ll be interested to know what the government does next.

  6. A timely post, Margot. I believe kindness is chronically undervalued and we could all do with giving and receiving more of it. When I think of kindness in crime novels, the first thing that comes to mind is the near-closing scene in Geoffrey McGeachin’s first Charlie Berlin novel, The Digger’s Rest Hotel. I can’t go into any detail without spoiling the ending, but Berlin’s opts for what I see as a great act of kindness in the way he handles the case. McGeachin creates a credibly empathetic but unsentimental character in Charlie, who is himself in need of kindness, being traumatised by his war experience.

    • I really like the Charlie Berlin series, Angela, so I’m very glad you mentioned McGeachin’s work. You’re quite right about that scene, too. It shows real kindness. Folks, if you haven’t read the Charlie Berlin novels, I recommend them. And you’re right: we can all use some kindness. It costs nothing and makes all the difference in the world.

  7. Keishon

    Great post, Margot and interesting topic. Can’t think of any others off the top. Kindness is hard to find in a crime novel. I do wonder what happened to the third book in the series by
    Ernesto Mallo. I enjoyed the first two books so much.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Keishon.
      I’d have liked to see another Mallo novel, too. I think Lascano is an excellent character. And you’re right: kindness in a crime novel isn’t easy to do well or to find. But I think it can work.

      • Keishon

        Oh yes, it can work alright.

        So the Lascano series wasn’t a trilogy? Bummer, I thought it was.

        • As far as I know, Keishon, there’s only Needle in a Haystack and Sweet Money. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong. I’d have liked to see more, too.

  8. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    In these troubled times, mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg has an interesting observation. Check it out!

  9. Margot: I thought of Maisie Dobbs of the series by Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie would have likely remained a servant despite her obvious intelligence had not her employers, Lady Rowan and Lord Julian, and their friend, Maurice Blanche, kindly given her the opportunity for a formal education. Your post made me reflect that I could not point to a personal act of kindness by myself in recent memory.

    • You’re quite right about Lady Rowan and Lord Julian (and Maurice Blanche), Bill. All of those characters treat Maisie with kindness and support her. I’m glad you thought of that example; I’ve a real liking for those characters and that series. And I’ll bet you’ve been kinder than you think.

  10. Great post! 🙂 I am reminded of the last scene in Christie’s Death In The Clouds, when we realise Poirot makes a donation to the Duponts simply so that Jane can go on the expedition, but pretends to be indifferent and businesslike.

  11. kathyd

    Yes, kindness is very important. Even a little bit can turn around a bad day.
    I think of Bridie Sullivan’s kindness to Jodie Garrow in Wendy James’ The Mistake. I think of Lotty Hershel’s kindness to V.I. Warshawski in Sara Paretsky’s books.
    And then there is the kindness to everyone by Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith’s series set in Botswana — that is, except for the culprits, although she is outwardly polite.

    • Those are great examples, Kathy. I’m glad you mentioned them. And in all of those cases, the kindness is naturally woven into the story, so that it doesn’t feel in the least bit forced. And I agree with you: even a small act of kindness can make a big difference.

  12. kathyd

    Even running into a person looking for the library can lead to five minutes of nice conversation about books, which can last the entire day. Or having a 15-minute vacation in a car with a/c, playing classical music and having the best ball bearings. So it’s smooth, cool and musical.
    Or a smile on the street. I try to remember to do this; it’s so nice to receive it in return. Or a thank you to someone who least expects it like a sanitation worker, Con Ed employee, the postal delivery person, etc.

    • You’re absolutely right, Kathy. Those little things can make such a difference. A smile, a conversation, all of those little things can be such welcome gestures.

  13. I think the greatness kindness of all is expressed by a smile. When someone smiles at me at the grocery store or the library, wherever, it makes my whole day better. I try to do the same for others. If we can brighten just one person’s life per day, we’ve made a dent in this scary world.

  14. Using acts of kindness is also a fantastic way to show the good, or even tender, side of your antagonist. I played with this in Wings of Mayhem to give my killer a more Hannibal Lector feel (more the series than the books, although he did show his softer side with Clarice), and I’m so pleased readers have picked up on it. Now, I’m continuing that in other novels, too. I think it really rounds off the villain and makes him/her more believable.

  15. What a timely post Margot – I think these days we witness far more unkindness because we are all connected via the internet/social media etc and this tends to overshadow the kindness that is also present. At the moment we need to promote kindness! You’ve reminded me that I really must read Paddy Richardson, I’m very interested with the snapshot you give here of Hunting Blind.

    • Thanks, Cleo. To be honest, I can’t recommend Paddy Richardson highly enough. She is one of my top authors; I’ve read four of her novels, and consider each one excellent. Hunting Blind is a standalone, too, so you don’t have to wonder if you have the time to invest in another series. Highly, highly recommended.

      You’re right, too, about our modern-day connections. With so many people on social media, I sometimes think the kind voices can get drowned out by the bullies and naysayers and stories of what people are capable of doing to each other. But there is much kindness, too, and I think those little kind gestures, however small, are important.

  16. Margot, I can’t recall examples of kindness in crime fiction I have read previously. However, in a more recent book, “Presumption of Death” by Perri O’Shaughnessy, lawyer Nina Reilly rescues the younger brother of a prime arson-murder suspect and reveals his no-good older brother’s sinister move to harm children in Carmel Valley. Nina is compelled to act out of kindness even as she is fighting to prove another young man’s innocence. I think most police detectives and private investigators are portrayed as being very nice and kind in crime fiction, often going out of their way to defend people. We see this in the movies too.

    • That’s an excellent example, Prashant, of exactly the sort of thing I had in mind with this post. Nina really does act out of kindness in that instance, doesn’t she? And you’re right; plenty of other crime-fictional sleuths do that sort of thing, too.

  17. kathyd

    Another yes vote for Hunting Blind and all of Paddy Richardson’s books.

  18. In Josephine Tey’s Shilling for Candles, the young woman Erica is kind to the suspect on the run: she helps him lie low. But Tey also gives us an example of something minor that shows her thoughtfulness: Erica travels to several different shops to find the type of chocolate that Robert, the suspect, prefers, even though he’s glad of any. Erica thinks it is important to be considerate. It’s a tiny incident that has stuck in my mind for years.

    • That is an absolutely fabulous example, Moira – thank you. And it’s interesting how it’s those small kindnesses and courtesies that make all the difference. You’re right, too: those sorts of little instances stay in the mind…

  19. All of those books sound good, Margot. I love that title, Nefarious Doings.

  20. Col

    No examples springing to mind I’m afraid. i’ll have to settle for reading Mallo’s book!

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