Today (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this), has been set aside as 1000 Voices For Compassion Day. The idea is to focus on the compassionate and good things that we do for one another. I think that’s a great idea. Of course, we don’t need a special day to be compassionate; it’s never out of style or out of season. That said though, it is good to be reminded of how important compassion is. It helps both the person in need of compassion and the person who offers it.
You wouldn’t think you’d see a lot of compassion in crime fiction. After all, crime stories are usually about people who kill other people – not a very compassionate thing to do. But you’d be surprised how often it shows up. I’ll just offer a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is not what you’d call a particularly sentimental person. But he shows compassion at times. For instance in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Lady Eva Brackwell hires Sherlock Holmes for a very delicate case. She is being blackmailed by the notorious Sir Charles Augustus Milverton over some indiscreet letters she wrote several years earlier. Milverton has threatened to give the letters to Lady Eva’s fiancé unless she pays him a huge sum of money; and he’s the kind of blackmailer who won’t think twice about continuing to harass her until she has nothing left. Holmes takes the case and soon learns that Milverton is unyielding. So he and Dr. Watson take a novel approach to the case: they sneak into Milverton’s home one night, with the goal of finding out where the letters are hidden and taking them. They’re in the midst of carrying out their plan when they encounter another of Milverton’s victims, who has her own way of solving her problem. It’s an interesting example of the way Holmes sometimes shows that human, compassionate side of himself.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot does not, as he puts it, approve of murder. In his view, no-one ‘deserves to die.’ In that sense, he shows compassion for those who are killed. In fact, fans will know that in several stories, the death of a particular victim is upsetting to him. He also shows another kind of compassion. In some stories, he really does feel compassion for the killer. In fact, there’s even one story in which he agrees to give the police an account of a murder that lets the killer get away with the crime.
Arthur Upfield’s Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte shows compassion too. As just one example, in The Bushman Who Came Back, Bony is sent to Mount Eden, the ranch home of Mr. Wootton, when Wooton’s housekeeper Mrs. Bell is found shot. Worse, her seven-year-old daughter Linda has disappeared, presumably abducted by the killer. All signs point to a bushman nicknamed Ol’ Fren’ Yorky (usually called Yorky), and with good reason. He knows the area very well, and bootprints found at the back of the house are identified as his. What’s more, he hasn’t been seen since the killing. So although he’s popular in the area, a lot of people believe he’s responsible for Mrs. Bell’s death. Bony knows he’ll have to find Yorky as soon as he can, before anything happens to Linda. In this novel, we see how Bony shows compassion for several people as he gets to the truth about the killing. There are a lot of other classic/Golden Age novels in which we see that sort of compassion (I know, I know, fans of G.K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown).
In Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, we are introduced to accountant-turned baker Corinna Chapman. One day she gets a visit from a teenage street child who says his name is Jase (Jason). He asks if she has any odd jobs available, and she puts Jase to work mopping the bakery floor. He’s clumsy at first, not well-rested and not well-nourished. But he does the job. Bit by bit, he starts to come by more often to do other chores, and soon he’s more or less an employee. Chapman finds out that he’s a heroin addict who’s recently stopped using, and he’s trying to get his life back together. It’s not easy, and there are moments when Chapman wonders whether she made the right choice to take Jason under her wing, as the saying goes. But he proves himself to be a real asset to the bakery, and in fact, he makes better gourmet muffins than Chapman does. This is a clear example of a case where compassion benefits everyone involved.
We also see compassion in Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders. Early one morning, her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, gets a disturbing call from her daughter Mieka. The body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin, who was one of Mieka’s part-time cleaning employees, has been found in a trash bin. Finding a body would be enough to upset and distress anyone, particularly if one knows the victim. But in this case, Mieka and her mother also have compassion for Bernice, who’d had a very unfortunate life. So both of them want this case solved, to at least give the victim some sort of dignified closure to her life. Another plot thread of this novel concerns Christy Sinclair, the former girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son Peter. Christy’s had her share of issues, and Kilbourn was relieved when she and Peter broke up. Now she’s come back into the family’s life, and at one point even says that she and Peter are getting back together. On the one hand, this is not good news. On the other, Kilbourn does have compassion for Christy, and she treats her kindly, ‘though with eyes wide open, so to speak.
Compassion and treating others kindly is an essential aspect of many spiritual traditions, among them Buddhism. We see that connection between Buddhism and compassion in Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, which takes place mostly in Bangkok. We also see it in John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series; Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police and an observant and dedicated Buddhist. There’s also a thread of this compassion woven into Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney novels; they too take place in Thailand.
But you don’t need to just read about compassion. The whole point of putting a focus on being compassionate is to remind us of how much good there is in the real world, and how much we can add to that good, just by showing concern and compassion for others. Simple, small gestures of humanity and compassion can make a huge difference, and they benefit everyone. Want to be a part of 100 Voices For Compassion? You can check it out here. Rather not? That’s fine too. You can be compassionate anyway.
I’d like to take a moment and thank all of you for the support you’ve given the charity anthology In a Word: Murder. Since the anthology was released a year ago, proceeds of £250 have been donated to the Princess Alice Hospice. Your compassion is much appreciated. To those who contributed stories to this anthology, my continued humble thanks; you made the anthology possible.
Haven’t had a chance to check the anthology out yet? Now’s a good time (a-hem, for those celebrating Mothering Sunday, it’s only a few weeks away…). It’s a terrific collection of crime stories having to do with writing, publishing, editing and blogging, and it’s all in aid of Princess Alice Hospice. A group of highly talented authors contributed some memorable stories – you don’t want to miss ‘em! You can read more about the anthology on my ‘Writing’ tab, or click the picture on my side bar. Yes, that one.
This anthology is in memory of Maxine Clarke, devoted friend of the genre, who is still sorely missed.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Two Thousand Years.