Everybody Take Responsibility*

taking-responsibilityEver had the feeling that most companies and their representatives are only too happy to hide behind ‘company policy’ instead of providing good customer service? Yeah, me, too. And it can get disheartening.

But I’m here to say that it’s not always that way. Some people do take personal responsibility for what their companies do and what their customers need. Case in point: something that happened to me. Recently I had a situation with the auto insurance carrier I’ve had for decades. Without boring you with details, I’ll just say that there was a lapse in customer service – one that really disappointed me. But the story doesn’t end there. A few hours after dealing with the issue, I got a call from the representative who’d been working with me. She took personal responsibility for the choice her employer made, and took it upon herself to make things right. And she did. Among other things, it shows that there are people who do their jobs conscientiously and with integrity. It also made me an even more loyal customer. Thanks to that employee who had a sense of personal responsibility. Thanks, Liberty Mutual, for supporting that kind of integrity.

The whole situation got me to thinking about how integrity and conscientiousness can be woven through a genre such as crime fiction, in which we read about the horrible things people can do to each other. It’s got to be done deftly, or the result can be too ‘frothy.’ But it can be done.

Aaron Elkins’ Loot, for instance, introduces readers to Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. He gets a call one day from his friend, pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. It seems that Pawlovsky’s just gotten a painting he thinks might be very valuable, and he wants Revere to give him a sense of its worth. Revere agrees and goes to the shop. Much to his shock, the painting appears to be a priceless Velázquez. Revere is concerned about such a valuable item left in a pawn shop, and asks to take the art with him while he does some further investigation. This Pawlovsky refuses to do, and, in the end, Revere doesn’t fight him on the subject. He leaves for a few hours of research. When he gets back, he finds that Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Revere feels a real sense of responsibility that he didn’t work harder to keep his friend safe, so he decides to at least find out who killed him. The trail leads all the way back to World War II, when the painting was originally ‘borrowed for safekeeping’ by the Nazis.

In Giles Blunt’s 40 Words For Sorrow, Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Detective John Cardinal learns that a body has been discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. It’s soon established that it’s the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, who went missing five months earlier. Cardinal was assigned to that original case, and was never able to solve it. He takes personal responsibility for that, and goes himself to visit her mother and tell her the news – something that must be extremely difficult. He also takes responsibility for this new angle on the case, and follows the leads he gets. In the end, he’s able to discover who the killer is.

Peter Temple’s Bad Debts is the first in his series featuring sometimes-lawyer Jack Irish. He’s just coming back to life, so to speak, after the murder of his wife, and has been spending quite a bit of time at the bottom of a bottle. Unfortunately, that’s the state he was in when Danny McKillop was arrested for a drink driving incident that ended in the death of a Melbourne-area activist named Anne Jeppeson. Now McKillop’s out of prison, and wants to meet with Irish. But by the time Irish gets to it, McKillop’s been shot. Irish already feels responsible for McKillop’s imprisonment; he did a horrible job of representing him and he knows it. So he does what he can now to at least make things right for McKillop’s family. He digs into the case more, and finds that McKillop was framed for Jeppeson’s death, and that this ‘accident’ was quite deliberate.

In one plot thread of Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier, Trafalgar (British Columbia) Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith discovers that her best friend, Christa Thompson, is being stalked by Charlie Bassing. Smith advises her friend to swear out a complaint and get a restraining order, but that doesn’t go very well. What’s more, Smith’s dealing with a murder case at the moment, and it’s occupying her time. So she doesn’t really follow up. Then, the stalking turns very ugly. Smith feels responsible for what’s happened, and believes that the system (and she!) should have done a better job of protecting Thompson. So she takes it on herself to try to make things right. It’s extremely awkward and difficult, because the whole thing has ruptured the friendship. But Smith isn’t satisfied to just ‘put it in the files.’

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has a similar feeling in The Hanging Tree. One day she gets a call from Orla Payne, who wants her to investigate the twenty-year-old disappearance of Orla’s brother, Callum. Unfortunately, Orla’s drunk when she calls, and not particularly coherent, so Scarlett puts the matter aside. Then one day, she learns that Orla has committed suicide (or was it?). She feels a real sense of responsibility, especially since she’d brushed the victim off. Now Scarlett takes it on herself to dig into the mystery of Callum Payne’s disappearance, and find out what happened to him, and how that might be linked with his sister’s death.

And then there’s Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood, in which we meet London investigator Catherine Berlin. She’s been gathering background information on an illegal moneylending racket run by Archie Doyle. As a part of that, she’s been working with an informant who goes by the name of Juliet Bravo. One day, ‘Juliet’ is found dead in Limehouse Basin. Berlin knows that the victim’s safety was her responsibility, and she’s determined to try to make things right by at least finding out who killed her contact. That conscientiousness puts her at odds with her employer, and in very grave danger.

We all have stories, I’m sure, of people who didn’t have that sense of personal responsibility and integrity. I know I do. Once in a while, it’s nice to remember that there are people who act conscientiously – even in crime fiction…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Nylons’ Human Family.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Annie Hauxwell, Giles Blunt, Martin Edwards, Peter Temple, Vicki Delany

20 responses to “Everybody Take Responsibility*

  1. Col

    A couple there I ought to read – Peter Temple and Giles Blunt. Thanks for another reminder!

  2. R. T.

    Taking responsibility…..Exhibit A……Murder on the Orient Express…..what a conundrum there….

  3. Another shining post, Margot. I believe the bumbling and flawed protagonist in Sarah M. Chen’s recent CLEANING UP FINN would fit right in with the examples you’ve given us.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Michael. And thanks for the suggestion of the Chen. I admit I’ve not (yet) read that one, but I hear good things about it. It’s now on the list.

  4. I usually enjoy when a protoganist is acting out of a sense of responsibility – it can add some depth to the characterisation. I’ve recently been reading the reissues of Gil North’s Sergeant Cluff books – in the first one, Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm, a woman dies. Cluff feels some responsibility because he, like the rest of the town, knew her husband was making her very unhappy and did nothing. When it’s decided she committed suicide, Cluff isn’t happy and decides to pursue the case on his own…

    • I think it adds depth, too, FictionFan. And I like your example of Sgt. Cluff. That’s just the sort of thing I had in mind with this post, so I’m glad you mentioned it. I think that sense of personal responsibility adds a certain welcome maturity, if I can put it like that, to a character.

  5. Pingback: Everybody Take Responsibility* | picardykatt's Blog

  6. Margot: The Chamber by John Grisham explores personal responsibility and integrity in a way I believe is unique. Young Chicago lawyer, Adam Hall, goes to the American South to help represent his grandfather, Sam Cayhall, as he tries to avoid execution for murder. Cayhall is a violent member of Ku Klux Khan. Hall works for a Jewish law firm. Hall’s sense of responsibility and integrity as a lawyer are tested by his grandfather’s actions and attitude. When combined with the feelings coming from being grandfather and grandson there is a strong story.

    • You’re absolutely right about The Chamber, Bill. It’s a very strong story, and it explores the concept of personal responsibility in an innovative way. And I think it’s interesting the way that Grisham addresses the topic from several different perspectives. I’m glad you reminded me of this one, as it’s one of the really good Grishams, I think.

  7. I think a person’s integrity (or lack of it) shows their true character and so I do enjoy it when it is demonstrated in crime fiction as it lends a real sense of reality to the characters – that said despite racking my brains I can’t give you an alternative example today – but you have reminded me that I purchased a few Martin Edwards books months ago and still need to read them!

    • Oh, I do recommend that series, Cleo. Edwards is very talented, and I do enjoy his Lake District novels. I agree with you, too, that integrity shows. In fiction, it can add a solid layer of character depth. It can add to the plot, too.

  8. I would say that feeling responsible is one of the main characteristics of author Louise Penny’s protagonist, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. It’s one of the things that makes him so realistic to me.

    • He does have a strong sense of responsibility, doesn’t he, Mason? I like his character very much for that reason, and I’m glad you brought him up. Thanks for filling in that blank.

  9. I’m reading Silenced Justice by Joe Broadmeadow. When the story flashes back to 1972 it shows a total lack of integrity (and empathy) on the detectives’ part, including blatant racism and unlawful acts to “make their case”. It adds a great deal to characterization of the protagonist, though, because he (who has integrity-plus) learns what not to do when he makes detective someday.

  10. Margot, your mention of “integrity,” “conscientiousness” and “personal responsibility” reminded me of the character of human rights activist Tessa who takes on big pharma in Africa, in John le Carré’s THE CONSTANT GARDENER. The novel is a crime fiction of sorts as Tessa is killed and we have her distraught British diplomat-husband desperately looking for answers.

  11. kathy d

    Glad that John Grisham was raised in this discussion. Very often, his lawyer characters take personal responsibility and have integrity, in the face of great opposition. For instance, Jake Brigance is opposed by many racist townspeople and the Ku Klux Klan in A Time to Kill. This book set off Grisham’s career as a writer.
    Also, Sara Paretsky’s character, V.I. Warshawski, is principled when she investigates a past case of police brutality and finds out her own father was involved. But she keeps on investigating anyway.
    And Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon’s Venetian police investigator, keeps on detecting to find culprits even when warned off by his superior officer. He will find out the truth no matter who says what, even if threatened.

    • You have a point, Kathy, about Grisham’s characters. Many of them really do act out of a sense of responsibility and conscientiousness. I like that about them. And Warshawski and Brunetti do, too.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s