Everyone has a different way of coping with grief and loss. And there are dozens of things that affect the way we cope. Culture is one factor. So is the sort of loss it is. So is our individual nature. There are other factors, too.
Realistic crime fiction acknowledges that a murder has devastating effects on the people left behind and shows that. So, there are many, many examples of the different ways people cope with their grief. Here are just a few. I know you’ll think of many other powerful examples – more than I could.
In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings work with Chief Inspector Japp to find a multiple murderer. The victims don’t seem to have much in common, but there are a few similarities. Before each murder, Poirot gets a cryptic warning letter. And an ABC rail guide is found near each body. One of the victims is twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Barnard, whose body is found one morning on the beach at Bexhill. Poirot pays a visit to her family to find out about her, and meets her parents and her older sister, Megan. Here’s Megan’s reaction when she first sees Hastings.
‘‘I don’t think I’ve got anything to say to you. My sister was a nice, bright girl with no men friends. Good morning.’’
She thinks Hastings is a reporter, and she has no desire to air her private grief in the newspapers, or to ‘speak ill of the dead,’ as the saying goes. And her initial response is an interesting example of people’s tendency to deal with loss in that way. It’s not long before Poirot convinces Megan that she’s better off being honest about her sister. And the information Megan provides helps Poirot get a sense of this victim – and in the end, fit her in with the others. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Hollow.
Some people react to grief and loss with anger, even with a need for vengeance. And it’s understandable, regardless of how we may feel about vigilantism. For example, in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson goes missing after a night at a disco. Her father reports the matter to the Glasgow police, in the form of Detective Inspector (DI) Jack Laidlaw. At first, Laidlaw doesn’t share Lawson’s concern; after all, it’s only a few hours since the girl was supposed to be home, and there are plenty of places she could safely be. Then, news comes that the body of a young woman who was raped and then killed has been found in Kelsingrove Park. When the body is identified as Jennifer’s, her father is not just devastated, he’s enraged. And he wants vengeance. In one plot thread of the novel, he goes to John Rhodes, who is unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the body was found. Lawton wants Rhodes’ help in tracking down the killer. Rhodes knows very well what Lawton intends to do if he finds the killer, but he has sympathy for the man. And his willingness to help Lawton makes it all the more of a challenge for Laidlaw, who’s trying to catch the killer in a more legitimate way.
As John Grisham’s A Time to Kill begins, two men, Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard, rape ten-year-old Tonya Hailey and leave her for dead. She survives, and her family, including her father, Carl Lee, finds out what happens. Cobb and Willard are soon caught, and there’s a great deal of local sympathy for Hailey. Still, he’s not sure that the courts will get justice for him. He and his family are black, and the two defendants are white, and this is small-town Mississippi. Besides, he’s enraged at what’s happened to his daughter. So, his grief fuels a plan, and he ambushes Cobb and Willard, killing them and wounding a deputy. Now, he himself is arrested for murder. On the one hand, he did kill two people. On the other, plenty of other folks, including his lawyer, Jake Brigance, admit they might have done the same. This isn’t going to be an easy trial for Brigance, as there are a lot of challenging issues. But he agrees to defend Hailey, and soon finds himself and his client in the middle of a trial in which a lot of powerful, and dangerous, people have a stake.
Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances opens as up-and-coming Saskatchewan politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk prepares to give a speech at a community picnic. Soon after he begins, he collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is at the speech, and watches in horror as Boychuk dies. He was a personal friend as well as a political ally, so she is in deep grief. As a way of coping with that loss, she decides to write a biography of Boychuk. As she gets started, she soon finds that what she’s learning leads her closer and closer to the truth about Boychuk’s death. She also finds a great deal of danger for herself.
Many of our views about grief and loss are impacted by our culture. We see that in John Burdett’s Bangkok 8. Sonchai Jitpleecheep and his police partner, Pichai Apiradee, of the Royal Thai Police, have been on a surveillance operation, tailing a Mercedes. The car eludes them briefly, and by the time they find it again, the driver, William Bradley, is dead. A first look shows that the victim was trapped in the car with poisonous snakes, and likely died of their bites. So it’s fairly clear that this was a murder. Pichai manages to open one of the doors, but when he does, he, too, is bitten and soon dies. On the one hand, Sonchai wants justice for his dead friend. On the other, here is what he says about death:
‘We do not look on death the way you do, farang [foreigner]. My closest colleagues grasp my arm and one or two embrace me. No one says sorry. Would you be sorry about a sunset?
He’s a devout Buddhist who sees death as just another part of existence.
There are as many different ways to grieve as there are people who grieve. And when those different ways are woven into a story, the characters can seem more authentic, especially if it’s not done in too heavy-handed a way. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s I Grieve.