Try to Find Equilibrium*

equilibrium-and-disequilibriumIf theorists such as Jean Piaget are right, it’s human nature to want equilibrium. We want things to be in balance and to make sense. We want some sort of order. If you think about it, that drive for equilibrium arguably fuels many of our actions. We’re curious (which throws us into disequilibrium because we don’t know something). So, we seek to learn, or to find out about something. Or, perhaps we move to a new home. That throws us into disequilibrium until we unpack, put our things where we want them, and find out where the local library and the grocery stores are. Then, as we settle in, we impose new order on our lives and are back into equilibrium. And the list of examples could go on.

For any story, the drive for equilibrium can be an effective way to construct the action. The protagonist starts out in equilibrium, a conflict happens (which throws the story into disequilibrium), and the protagonist seeks to restore order. Or, perhaps, the story starts out in disequilibrium, and the protagonist sets out to restore equilibrium. There are other possibilities, too. And we see this very obviously in crime fiction. After all, in crime fiction, there’s usually a murder or other crime (disorder), and an investigation (the attempt to explain it and restore order). But even if you put that overarching conflict aside, there are a lot of other ways in which we see the drive to restore equilibrium.

For instance, in Agatha Chrirstie’s Sad Cypress, we are introduced to Mary Gerrard. She’s the daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterby, the home of wealthy Laura Welman. As it happens, Mrs. Welman has taken a particular interest in Mary, and has educated her ‘above her station.’ This decision has upset what you might call the social equilibrium of the village where they live. For one thing. Mary no longer feels sure of where, exactly, she belongs, if I can put it that way. For another, it’s upset those who feel that Mary is now ‘above herself.’ In fact, one day, Mrs. Welman’s niece Elinor Carlisle gets an anonymous letter that hints that Mary is actively manipulating the situation to ensure that she, not Elinor, inherits when the older woman dies. Elinor and her fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ decide to go to Hunterby and see for themselves what’s going on. This further upsets the equilibrium when Roddy finds himself smitten with Mary. With her engagement broken and her comfortable assurance of money in question, Elinor has more than one motive for wanting Mary out of the way. So when Mary is poisoned, she’s the most likely suspect, and she’s duly arrested and charged. Local GP Peter Lord wants Mary’s name cleared, and he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. In this novel, it’s not just the whodunit and whydunit that reflect that drive for equilibrium. I know, I know, fans of Ordeal by Innocence. Yes, indeed, fans of Taken at the Flood.

In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, we are introduced to Emma la Roux. She’s watching television one day when she sees a news story on television about a man named Cobie de Villiers, who’s wanted in conjunction with the murder of a traditional healer and three other men. The man the newscasters call de Villiers looks eerily like Emma’s brother Jacobus, who disappeared twenty years earlier. At the time, everyone said he was killed in a skirmish with poachers. Now, though, it seems he may still be alive, and that throws Emma’s world into disequilibrium. She wants to make sense of it all, so she hires professional bodyguard Marin Lemmer to accompany her from Cape Town to the Lowveld. As they search for answers, they find that this case goes deeper than just a man who may have stayed under the proverbial radar. It involves murder, fraud, and corruption in very high places.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist/academician. She is also the mother of four children, and of course, cares about them deeply. So she’s quite concerned when, in The Wandering Soul Murders, her son Peter’s old girlfriend, Christy Sinclair, comes back into his life. For several reasons, she’d thought Peter was well rid of Christy, and life had gotten back into equilibrium. But one day Christy re-appears. She invites herself along on a family trip to celebrate the engagement of Joanne’s daughter, Mieka, and even says that she and Peter are getting back together. Needless to say, this is discomfiting for Joanne. Then Christy dies in what looks like a successful suicide, but turns out to be murder. And Joanne discovers that this murder is related to another case that’s been proverbially dropped into her lap.

Equilibrium is particularly important for those who have autism and other spectrum disorders. We see that in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This story is told from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone, who has autism, although he functions on a high level. One day, he comes upon the dog that belongs to the people next door. The animal’s been killed, and its owners think he might be responsible. Christopher knows he’s not, though, and sets out to prove it, just like Sherlock Holmes. Along the way, he makes a personal discovery that throws his carefully-ordered life into complete disequilibrium. And one important plot thread in this novel is how he reacts to that change, and what happens as a result.

Wendy James’ The Mistake introduces readers to Jodie Evans Garrow. Although she’s from the ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ Jodie has made a very good life for herself. She’s smart and attractive, and is married to a successful attorney whose name is being suggested as the next mayor of their small New South Wales city. She’s got two healthy children, and life is content – even idyllic. Then, Jodie’s daughter Hannah is involved in accident that sends her to the same Sydney hospital where, years ago, Jodie gave birth to another baby girl. She’s never told anyone, even her husband, about that other baby. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. When Jodie says she gave her up for adoption, the over-curious nurse looks into it, but can find no records of a formal adoption. Now, questions start to come up. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? Jodie’s well-ordered life falls into disarray as an investigation begins to loom. In this novel, there is certainly the plot thread of the mystery surrounding the baby. But there’s also the plot thread of what happens to the Garrows when they are thrown into disequilibrium, and have to find some sort of order in it all.

Human nature seems to be like that. We like equilibrium and balance. We want things to make sense. So when they don’t, this drives us to want to put things right. And that drive can add a lot to a crime novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bush’s The Sound of Winter.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Deon Meyer, Gail Bowen, Mark Haddon, Wendy James

32 responses to “Try to Find Equilibrium*

  1. I rather like those books where it’s made clear that, although you do reach a new sense of equilibrium at the end, it’s not quite the same thing as at the beginning. Life will never be the same after a murder, even if the perpetrator is brought to justice.

    • I like that plot point, too, Marina Sofia. Even smaller instances of disequilibrium (like getting a new office) mean things aren’t going to be the same. So much more with murder, where there is that awful grief, loss and devastation. And as you say, that happens even if the killer faces justice. Reflecting that sense that nothing will be the same just seems authentic to me.

  2. There is another way of looking at this topic. Some very old dramatic theories posited the quite sensible notion that stasis in comedy and tragedy are always disrupted at the outset, and the whole trajectory of the drama thereafter is a return to stasis. Yes, the concept of stasis (equilibrium) is (nearly) as old as the hills. Only the careless writers proceed without that concept in mind.

    • You make a strong point, Tim. Going from stasis, to lack of it, to an attempt to return to stasis, is essential to creating a story. And that’s been true for as long as people have been telling and writing stories.

  3. As always you make some very valid points and back it up with some equally good examples – I’m so glad you included The Mistake which as you know I read on your recommendation.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Cleo. I’m really glad you like what you find here. And about The Mistake? That’s the sort of book with so many layers, characters, and the like that I’ve found it works as an example for many different topics. It’s a fine, fine novel.

  4. I love books that mess with the main character’s equilibrium. Blood Safari sounds like my kind of crime novel. Thanks, Margot! Adding it to the list.

    • Blood Safari is, in my opinion, a terrific read, Sue. And as I see it, Meyer is one of the truly fine thriller writers out there. If you’ve not tried his work, you’re in for what I think will be a great experience.

  5. I have most of those books, but the only one I have read is the one by Gail Bowen. Will have to get to the others. My life seems to be in disequilibrium most of the time (on a comparatively minor level of course).

    • I think a lot of people who have busy lives like yours feel that sense of disequilibrium, Tracy. And I know just what you mean about having books you’ve not gotten to read yet. I have too many of those…

  6. An interesting insight into what makes for good fiction, Margot – thank you! I think the same argument could be made for what makes lit-fic work too, and is perhaps part of why I find ‘plotless’ novels so unsatisfying – there the emotional starting point tends not to change, so it becomes simply a description of a static state rather than showing a change from or to equilibrium.

    • You put that beautifully, FictionFan! That’s exactly why disequilibrium is a part of what makes good fiction (lit-fic, crimefic, or anything else) so important. It’s part of what keeps the reader’s interest.

  7. Nice post, Margot. Wendy James has a knack for writing stories of ‘ordinary’ families whose lives are thrown into disequilibrium. ‘The Lost Girls’ (2014) is another good example of this.

    • Thank you, Angela. And you are so right about Wendy James. She does such a good job with that sort of character and plot point. And yes, The Lost Girls is a fine example of that. Folks, do check it out if you’ve not read it.

  8. Col

    The Meyer sounds familiar, I’m pretty sure I’ve read it. He’s a fantastic writer.

  9. Keishon

    Yep, that’s the whole drive of crime fiction. To upset the equilibrium and then work diligently to make it right again. Although not everything can be made whole again, we try to get as close as we can to it and learn to live with it.

    • You put that beautifully, Keishon. That is, indeed, one of the driving forces in crime fiction. And you’re right, too; the new equilibrium may never be what we had before, but we get as close as we can.

  10. Margot, you always give me a new way to look at a book. We do crave balance in our lives and in our reading. Maybe that’s why a set of scales is used to represent justice – balance of right and wrong.

  11. I’m okay as long as I realize (in my reading and life) that striving for equilibrium should not be mistaken for reaching it.
    Sorry I’ve been gone so long – missed you!

  12. Margot, I need to find equilibrium with reading the books in my collection and reading some of the terrific ones you recommend every day. A lost cause, as I see it!

  13. kathy d

    Isn’t a main goal of mysteries to get justice in the end for a perpetrator in order to regain social equilibrium?
    I know that Donna Leon, writer of the Venetian-set Guido Brunetti series, often has a rich, powerful culprit. And her perpetrators rarely get arrested or get justice. They’re usually highly connected in some way. When asked about this by readers, Leon says that reflects real life.
    From what I’ve read, European readers are fine with crime fiction endings where justice and equilibrium are not gained.
    But U.S. readers get upset when this does not happen.
    Maybe the experience of two world wars in Europe changed consciousness, so that people don’t expect it, see that life is more layered and complicated than that.

    • I think you have a point, Kathy. The very act of finding out whodunit and bringing that person to justice is a form of restoring equilibrium and order. I wonder if that’s part of the appeal of crime fiction; it gives readers a chance to see that order restored. It’s interesting, too, about the difference among readers. Certainly culture and history have a lot to do with how people perceive things, so perhaps they affect people’s level of cynicism, too.

  14. I like the crime fiction trope where an outsider arrives to disturb the equilibrium, and everyone just wishes them away – you mention Ordeal by Innocence, a great example. Particularly telling is the fact the incomer (rather naively) thinks everyone will welcome him. He hasn’t thought it through….

    • Exactly, Moira. And Christie does that very well in Ordeal by Innocence, doesn’t she? That trope can be really successful, too, if the outsider has her or his own history that can add to the book.

  15. Pingback: Happy News: New Harry Hole Book | avidbookreader

  16. Over my head, whatever equilibrium is.

    • If researchers are right, Wolf, then we all want things to make sense. When things happen that don’t make sense, we want to find out why. That throws us off-balance – into disequilibrium. When we once again make sense of things, and get our answers, we’re again in equilibrium.

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