Instant Karma’s Going to Get You*

Mending KarmaIn Hinduism and Buddhism, it’s called karma – bringing upon oneself the inevitable results of one’s own actions. Good deeds tend to mend one’s karma; bad deeds have the opposite effect. Western spiritual traditions have different concepts, but there’s still the underlying principle that what you do comes back to you, if you will.

Many people believe in karma, or something similar to it. So it’s not surprising that we see a lot of fictional characters who try to redeem themselves, especially if they’ve done things of which they’re particularly ashamed. Self-redemption can make for an interesting layer of character development. And it’s effective as a source of conflict in a story, as well. It’s an appropriate fit for crime fiction, too, if you think about it.

One such character is G.K. Chesterton’s Hercule Flambeau. When we first meet him in The Blue Cross, he is a most accomplished and notorious international thief. In this story, he’s after a silver cross covered in precious blue stones. The cross is the property of Father Brown, who’s taking it to a gathering of priests. As the story goes on, we see how Flambeau is pitted against Father Brown and against Valentin, head of the Paris police. As time goes on, Flambeau decides to quit his life of crime. He becomes instead a private investigator – and maintains a friendship with Father Brown. One can’t say that Flambeau makes the conscious decision to mend his karma; still, it’s clear that he sees a way to redeem himself. And he becomes quite good at what he does, too.

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, we are introduced to Davide Auseri. For the past year, he’s been sunk in a deep depression, and spent most of his time drunk. His father has tried several remedies, including rehabilitation facilities, to help him, but nothing’s worked. Then, Davide’s father meets Dr. Duca Lamberti, who’s recently been released from prison, where he served time for euthanasia. Auseri hires Lamberti to try to help Davide, and Lamberti agrees. In the course of some rather unorthodox therapy, Lamberti learns the reason for Davide’s condition: he believes he’s responsible for the death of Alberta Radelli. A year ago, they met by chance and decided they liked one another’s company. After spending a day in Florence, though, Alberta begged him to take her with him, and not return her to Milan. Davide refused, and Alberta threatened to kill herself. He held firm, though, and she was later found dead of what’s been called a suicide. Lamberti comes to believe that the only way to help Davide is for him to redeem himself, if you will, by learning the truth about what happened to Alberta. So he and Davide look into the case. They find that the victim’s death had nothing to do with Davide. Although he doesn’t speak of it in terms of mending karma, Davide undertakes the investigation as a way to do some good after what he feels he’s done.

Fabio Montale, whom we first meet in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, is a Marseilles police officer. In fact, he patrols the area of Marseilles where he grew up. When Montale was young, he and his best friend Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini, and their friend Manu, caused more than their share of trouble in town. One night, what started out as petty crime turned tragic, and that changed everything for Montale. Although he promised to remain loyal to his friends, he re-thought the course his life was taking. He first joined the army, and then returned to his old haunt as a cop. Now he’s trying to do some good as a sort of way to make things right. Then, Manu is murdered, and Ugo returns to Marseilles to avenge his death. When Ugo himself is killed, Montale feels a real obligation to find out what happened to his friends. It’s an interesting case of a man who knows he cannot take back the past, but wants to do his small part in the future.

Although he’s from a very different culture, John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep has a similar motivation in being a Bangkok police officer. Several years earlier, Sonchai and his friend, Pichai Apiradee, killed a drug dealer. Both were extremely remorseful about taking a life, and spent time at a monastery facing what they’d done. Being devout Buddhists, they wanted to mend their karmas. To do that, both became members of the Royal Thai Police. In this way, they would protect lives instead of taking them. Since the novels in this series are written from Sonchai’s point of view, we learn quite a lot about the Buddhist approach to doing right and mending karma.

And then there’s Maura Cody, a former nun who plays an important role in Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. Mara left the convent for good reasons, and carries a burden of guilt for things that happened in her past. This is an important part of the reason she chooses to get involved when she happens to see something as she’s looking out of one of her windows. At first, she’s not sure she should get involved. But she wants a way to redeem herself – to do some good. So she reports what she sees, and becomes a critical witness to two cases that Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Garda Rose Cheney are investigating. Maura’s role in those cases doesn’t erase the past. But it does give her an opportunity to ‘do it right this time,’ if I may put it that way.

There are plenty of other fictional characters who are motivated by that sort of wish for self-redemption and mending karma. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Instant Karma! (We All Shine On).


Filed under G.K. Chesterton, Gene Kerrigan, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Jean-Claude Izzo, John Burdett

27 responses to “Instant Karma’s Going to Get You*

  1. I can’t better your examples, as you have taken a few of my favourites right there. Which reminds me: I have to try and get hold of the last volume of Izzo which is missing from my collection. And I have another book by Burdett on my e-reader, so must get to that soon.

  2. What goes around…a firm believer in Karma. Interesting article and examples. Thanks so much. x

  3. Like Jane, I’m a big believer in karma. Sometimes I wish it would bite some people quicker, but it always has a way of coming around to those who deserve it. 🙂

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  5. Great examples Margot – I do like books that deal with the issue of redemption as the idea is woven into our culture under a different guise to Karma but the message is the same and a surfacing belief in the principles it can make people behave in ways they haven’t in the past.

    • Thank you, Cleo. You’re right that redemption is woven into our culture. We may not call it karma, but the whole notion of trying to do the right thing as a way to ‘fix things’ has a long history. And it really can make people change the way they behave.

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  7. I always enjoy stories about redemption – it allows the protagonist to be flawed but still likeable, somehow. Can’t think of any crime novels to add to your list off the top of my head, but I thoroughly enjoyed Kate Summerscale’s recent The Wicked Boy – true crime about a boy who murdered his mother when he was twelve. Summerscale devotes a large part of the book to showing the period after he was released from Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane, and tries to answer the question as to whether he found any kind of redemption through the way he lived his later life. An original aspect in a true crime book, I thought.

    • Oh, it is, FictionFan. And I’m very glad you mentioned The Wicked Boy. It’s on my wish list! It sounds like a very interesting and realistic portrait of that particular case. I’d love to know what happens to young people like that when they have a chance at self-redemption. You also make an interesting point about the way redemption can make a character seem more likeable. In my opinion, the best characters are just that: flawed, but appealing.

  8. Margot, I never thought of fictional characters answering to their karmas and redeeming themselves, and I certainly can’t think of any examples. This is a wonderful theme. I don’t know whether to believe in karma or not, because, to put it simplistically, it flies in the face of bad things happening to good people and, conversely, good things happening to bad people. For example, why do crooked politicians thrive as well as they do? And yet, I also believe that what goes around eventually comes around, and that it’s very important to listen to one’s conscience — keep the slate clean and that sort of thing. For without a clear conscience, one is nothing.

    • You put that very well, Prashant. On the one hand, we do see crooked politicians get away with their crimes. And we see other examples like that, too. On the other hand, there is something important and vital to our humanity to have some sort of conscience. A sense of wanting to put things right is really a critical part of our makeup, I think. And thank you for the kind words.

  9. In Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero, there’s a story at the start featuring Superintendent Battle’s daughter – it seems unconnected, but it helps him see something later. And then there’s the story of Angus, whose past, with all its problems, turns everything round for the future. It’s a very English form of karma – restrained and not spelt out or spiritual – but I think it’s there…

    • Oh, I think it’s there, too, Moira, and I’m glad you brought that one up. Among other things, it shows Christie’s skill at bringing in those past events. She does it subtly, and without much ‘fanfare,’ but effectively.

  10. Col

    Izzo (heavy sigh), I still haven’t read him yet. I still think of that Kerrigan book, Rage.

    • I know what you mean about not getting to an author yet, Col. That happens to me, too. There’s just not enough time for all the reading we want to do. I do recommend Izzo’s work when you get the chance, though.

  11. kathyd

    I don’t think that karma gets “bad” people in the end. What about those who initiate wars that cause temendous loss of life and destroy countries? There’s 20-20 hindsight and criticism years later, but no one responsible gets in trouble.
    And I wish karma would hit certain billionaires who are political candidates, who are not telling the truth, don’t pay their employees, have bigots as endorsers and campaign officials and lie like crazy.
    Anyway, I have to remind myself to read “Rage,” which I have been meaning to read (sigh).

    • The interesting thing about karma, Kathy, is that it was originally related to the Buddhist and Hindu belief in reincarnation. So if the impact of one’s deeds doesn’t come back to on in this life, it will in another. But on the surface, yes, it looks as though people do get away with sometimes horrible things. So yes, I understand your point.

      As for Rage? I do hope you’ll get the chance to read it. I think it’s an excellent book.

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  13. Two books here I have and want to read: A Private Venus and The Rage. Thanks for the reminder.

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