We’ve all had the experience, I’ll bet: those cringe-worthy moments that you really hope no-one’s seen. At least, I hope I’m not the only one… Most of us have those embarrassing moments. If we’re lucky, nobody sees, or, at least, nobody who knows us sees.
Those moments don’t make for the happiest of memories, but they can be effective in crime novels. For one thing, they can lighten up what may be a dark novel. For another, they are very human. So, when a character has one of THOSE moments, we can identify with that character a little.
We don’t often think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot as having cringe-worthy moments. But even he is not immune. In the short story The Chocolate Box, Poirot recounts to Captain Hastings a case of which he is not particularly proud. During Poirot’s years with the Belgian Police, he investigated the death of French deputy Paul Deroulard, who was living in Belgium. He followed the leads, but, in the end, named the wrong person as killer, and that person was arrested. It wasn’t until the real killer summoned him and explained everything that Poirot really learned the truth about the matter. He still regards this case as one of his failures and asks Hastings to remind him of it if he ever gets too conceited. Of course, that doesn’t take very long, and Hastings reminds Poirot of that cringe-worthy case.
Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning begins with a cringe-worthy moment for Edinburgh journalist Jack Parlabane. He wakes up with a serious hangover, only to notice that there’s a lot of noise coming from the flat downstairs. So, dressed only in his boxers and a T-shirt, he goes down to try to get whoever’s making all the noise to stop. He’s forgotten, though, that the door of his own flat locks automatically when it closes, so he’s locked out of his home. When he gets to the downstairs flat, he sees that it’s the scene of a brutal murder. As you can imagine, he doesn’t want to mixed up in the case, although his journalist instinct wants information. He’s hoping that he can sneak through a window from the downstairs flat, and crawl through the corresponding window in his own flat. It doesn’t work out that way, though, as he’s seen by Detective Constable (DC) Jenny Dalziel. It’s bad enough that he’s in his underwear. Things get even more difficult when he has to explain what he’s doing at a murder scene…
In one plot thread of Donna Malane’s Surrender, Wellington-based missing person expert Diane Rowe discovers that James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson has been murdered. This death is important to her, because, a year earlier, her sister, Niki, was murdered, and everyone has always believed that Snow was guilty. In fact, just before he was killed, Snow admitted he was the killer, and said that someone paid him to do the job. Rowe reasons that, if she can find out who paid Snow, she can also find out who killed her sister. At one point, she happens to be passing by the home that Snow shared with his two sisters and decides to go in and see if she can find any clues. She gets stuck going through a window, but makes it in – only to be stopped cold by a cricket bat. As it happens, Snow’s sisters were at home, and Rowe has found herself in a very cringe-worthy situation. Fortunately for Rowe, Snow’s sisters want to find their brother’s killer as much as Rowe wants to find her sister’s killer. So, they agree to help each other. And it turns out that each proves useful to the other.
Paul Levine’s Solomon vs Lord introduces his protagonists, Miami-area lawyers Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord. When we meet them, they’re on opposite sides of a case. Lord is prosecuting Amancio Pedrosa for illegally smuggling in some of the animals he sells in his shop. Solomon is defending Pedrosa. At one point in the trial, Solomon brings a cockatoo into the courtroom as part of his trial strategy. During the proceedings, the bird flies to Lord, lands on the arm of the expensive suit she’s wearing, and leaves a distinctive token of its visit on her sleeve. As it is, she’s on edge; her boss has just publicly humiliated her, firing her in front of everyone in court. This cringe-worthy moment just makes everything that much worse. Rather than take advantage of Lord’s distress, Solomon has sympathy for her. And the two end up working together on a very lucrative case in which they defend Katrina Barksdale against the charge of murdering her husband.
And then there’s Brad Parks’ Carter Ross, whom we meet in Faces of the Gone. He’s a journalist for the Newark, New Jersey Eagle-Examiner. One morning, his boss sends him to Ludlow Street, where four bodies have been discovered in a vacant lot. The police theory is that a local bar owner had them killed, because one of them robbed his bar, and the others were accomplices. But Ross doesn’t think that’s what happened, and he starts to ask questions. At one point, he makes contact with a local gang that he thinks might have information. The only way they’ll trust him enough to talk to him is if he smokes marijuana with them, so he does. He comes back to the newspaper office later, still under the influence, and he feels lucky that he isn’t fired for it. His colleagues find out about it, and soon, his area is decorated with copies of High Times magazine, pictures of marijuana plants, and more. It’s a cringe-worthy experience for him, but he takes it in good spirit.
And sometimes, that’s what you have to do when you have one of THOSE moments. These are just a few examples from crime fiction. I know you’ll think of more.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roxette’s Fool.