One of the timeless of plot contexts in literature is the quest – the purposeful journey. That journey may be literal or figurative; the purpose of it may also be literal or figurative. Either way, quests promise rewards that, at least for the protagonist, make the journey worth the effort. And they pose great risks. That combination can make for suspense, conflict and character development, all of which are elements of a high-quality crime novel. So it really shouldn’t be surprising that there are quests all through the genre. You could even argue that investigating a crime is a quest, and you’d have a solid basis for that argument. But even leaving that aside, many crime novels involve quests.
For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the murders of Enoch Drebber, a recent arrival to London from the US. At one point, his secretary Joseph Stangerson is suspected. But when he, too, is killed, it’s clear that someone was actually targeting both victims. And so it proves to be. As Holmes and Watson learn, this case has its roots in the past. Both Drebber and Stangerson had something to hide – something for which the killer wanted revenge. And it all has its start in a quest for a place of safety.
Agatha Christie’s short story Manx Gold also involves a quest, this time for a treasure. Engaged couple Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker learn that Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles has died. They travel to the Isle of Man to hear the reading of his will, only to learn that he’s arranged a competition. According to the will, there is buried treasure on the island. Each of the possible heirs to the fortune will receive the same clues to the treasure’s location. The one who finds the treasure first gets to claim it. Very soon several potential heirs are off on the quest for the treasure. Then there’s a murder. Now Fenella and Juan begin to wonder whether someone might be targeting the heirs in order to be assured of a win. Interestingly, Christie wrote this story on commission to increase tourism to the island. Visitors were given copies of the story, which was printed in instalments. Their quest was to find four identical snuffboxes, each of which contained a Manx penny. The prize for the person who could succeed on this quest was to be £100, but no-one was ever able to claim it.
Jonathan Gash’s The Judas Pair introduces readers to antiques dealer and expert Lovejoy. The last thing on his mind is to become a detective (other than hunting down antiques), but everything changes when he meets George Field. Field is looking for a particular pair of antique dueling pistols called the Judas Pair. They’re the stuff of legend among antiques dealers and collectors, and most don’t even think the pistols exist. Certainly Lovejoy doesn’t. But Fields says they do; in fact, one of them was used to shoot his brother Eric. Fields believes that if he can find the Judas Pair, he’ll find his brother’s killer. So he asks Lovejoy to track down the pistols. Lovejoy isn’t overly drawn to the case by the thought of catching a killer, but the pistols themselves are another matter altogether. So he agrees to start looking. The quest for the pistols takes Lovejoy through the antiques and collecting communities, and puts him in very grave danger.
Arnaldur Indriðason’s series features Reykjavík Inspector Erlendur and his team. Fans of this series will know that Erlendur is haunted by a tragedy that occurred when he was a boy. He and his brother Bergur were caught in a blizzard one day. Erlendur survived, but Bergur was never found. No-one has even discovered his body. On one level, Erlendur feels a powerful sense of guilt over not protecting his brother, and over surviving when his brother did not. On another level, he wants to know what happened to his brother. So, in one story arc in this series, Erlendur goes on a quest to find out anything he can about that day and about what might have happened to Bergur
There’s a different sort of quest in Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride). Gundar Jormann has lived all his life in the Norwegian village of Elvestad. He is no longer a young man, but he’s still presentable. He’s also hardworking and reliable – the steady kind. So he sees no reason why he shouldn’t be able to find a wife. His sister Marie is shocked when Gundar tells her that he is going to travel to India to find a bride. He goes to Mumbai, where he meets Poona Bai, who works in a café there. The two are soon taken with each other, and it’s not long before Poona agrees to marry him. The plan is for Gundar to return to Norway, where Poona will join him soon, after she finishes up her life in India. On the day of Poona’s arrival, Marie is involved in a terrible car crash, and Gundar cannot leave her. So he asks a friend to meet Poona at the airport. The two miss each other, though, and Poona never makes it to Gundar’s house. When her body is found in a field not far from the house, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. They find that they have to penetrate a proverbial ‘wall of silence’ in order to find out the truth about that day.
And then there’s Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom. British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann is given a very difficult assignment. He’s told to go to Thailand and recover a lead-covered black box from the Andaman Sea. Apparently the box was on board a ship that was sunk, and is still under the water. This is going to be an especially challenging quest for Swann. The last time he was in Thailand, he was involved in another operation where he had a dangerous encounter with powerful crime boss ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song. Although he saved Tuk-Tuk’s life that day, he ended up killing Tuk-Tuk’s son Arune, and wounding his ‘right hand man’ Choy Lee. So he will not be welcomed warmly in Thailand. He can’t avoid Tuk-Tuk, either because the man is too powerful. If Swann is going to launch the kind of operation he’ll need to recover the box, he’ll need people, material and support that only Tuk-Tuk can guarantee. So he’s going to have to make his peace with the crime boss. This quest takes on a whole new dimension when there two attempts on Swann’s life. Then two of his friends are brutally murdered. Now he’s up against an enemy he didn’t really know he had, and whom he can’t even identify.
And that’s the thing about quests. They can get very dangerous at times. But they do add suspense to stories, and they are an important part of the human experience. They’re a part of our literary heritage too.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s The Impossible Dream.