When something tragic or traumatic happens, it can be hard to start over again. There are, of course, people who react to life’s blows by looking for comfort at the bottom of a bottle. But a lot of people find other ways to come back to life, so to speak, when something terrible happens. People’s ways of starting to feel alive again can vary quite a lot, depending on the person.
Those different ways of starting to heal can add an interesting layer of character development in a story. They’re realistic, too. People do try to start over again – and not always in self-destructive ways – when terrible things happen. And they’re a natural fit for a crime novel, since there’s often tragedy in those stories.
In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, for instance, Elinor Carlisle is arrested and tried for the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. And there’s plenty of evidence against her, too. For one thing, Elinor’s former fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, had fallen in love with the victim (hence, the end of the engagement). For another, Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura had become very fond of Mary, and there was a real possibility that Mary might inherit the old woman’s fortune instead of Elinor. But local GP Dr. Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her acquitted. He asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. As you can imagine, it’s a horrible and traumatic experience to be tried for murder, and it’s not spoiling the story to say that at the end of it, Elinor needs desperately to start over. So, she decides to spend some time in a sanatorium, where she can have peace and quiet. The implication is, too, that she and Peter Lord will stay connected.
James Lee Burke’s police detective Dave Robicheaux sometimes wants peace and quiet, too, when he needs to heal – which is often. In A Morning For Flamingos, for instance, he and his police partner, Lester Benoit, are transferring two prisoners to Louisiana’s state prison at Angola, where they are slated to be executed. During the trip, the prisoners escape, and one of them kills Benoit and leaves Robicheaux for dead. Not only is Robicheaux badly injured, but he’s grieving the loss of his partner. He needs to heal, so he decides to take some time to go fishing, spend extra time with his daughter, Alafair, and do routine tasks at the police department when he’s physically ready for that.
‘My life became as bland and unremarkable as the season was soft and warm and transitory.’
Connecting with the outdoors, with his daughter, and with an almost humdrum routine helps Robicheaux start to put some pieces together. His healing time doesn’t last, though, as he’s recruited to help bring down a New Orleans crime boss named Tony Cardo.
Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation, and of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). Although he negotiates the dominant-culture world when he has to, Chee is, in many ways, traditional. In fact, at the beginning of the series, he is studying to be a yata’ali – a singer/healer. Even later in the series, when that study is less of priority, Chee follows many of the traditional Navajo ways, and that helps him heal when life hurts him. More than once, readers follow as he uses Navajo rituals to regain focus, heal, and reconnect with nature. They help him to feel the peace and harmony with the world’s rhythms that he needs to come back to life.
In a similar way, Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon feels the need to reconnect with nature. In Track of the Cat, the first in the Anna Pigeon series, we learn some of her backstory. She and her beloved husband lived in New York City, where she lived a socialite’s sort of life. Then, her husband was tragically killed. Devastated by her loss, she needed to find something to help her put herself back together. So, she connected with animals and the rest of nature, and became a US Park Ranger. As the series goes on, she starts to come back to life, and develops a real feel for nature’s rhythms. That focus helps her to feel alive again.
And then there’s Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons. In it, we are introduced to thirty-seven-year-old Finn Bell, who has come to a crossroads in his life. His marriage has ended, and he admits that a lot of the reason for that is his own fault. He’s also lost the use of his legs as the result of a car crash. He needs to start over, so he buys a cottage in the small town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island. He soon gets drawn into a murder mystery when he learns about the history of his cottage, and how it’s related to a missing child and her father. One of the ways in which he starts to put the pieces together again is through a game called Murderball (wheelchair rugby). Through it, he meets others, gets some exercise, enjoys the competition, and finds a healthy outlet for his bitterness and anger. Playing Murderball doesn’t solve all of his problems. And it doesn’t solve the murder mystery. But it does help him start to heal.
And that’s the thing about gardening, or a sport, or nature, or…. When tragedy strikes, we all need to start over and find something to connect us again. And it’s interesting to see how that process happens in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Until the Night.