In Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings meet Magdala ‘Nick’ Buckley. A short conversation is enough to suggest to Poirot that she may be in danger for her life. And he finds a piece of evidence that strengthens that conviction. That sense of coming to her rescue, if you will, gets Hastings and Poirot involved in her life. In fact, Poirot warns Nick to be careful, and urges her to have someone stay with her. She obliges by inviting her cousin for a visit. One night, Nick hosts a dinner party, where the guests will watch a display of fireworks afterwards. Poirot and Hastings are invited, so they’re on the scene when Nick’s cousin (who happens to be wearing one of Nick’s shawls) is shot. Now more convinced than ever that Nick’s at risk, Poirot takes further steps to try to protect her. At the same time, he and Hastings work to find out who shot Nick’s cousin.
Poirot is by no means the only sleuth who gets drawn into a case because someone needs what I’ll call rescuing. It’s a natural human reaction to want to help someone who’s in trouble, and it’s a useful tool for an author to draw a sleuth into a case, especially a sleuth who’s not a professional detective. So, it’s little wonder we see this plot point in a lot of crime fiction.
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe feels a similar sense of protectiveness in The Big Sleep. In that story, he’s hired by General Guy Sternwood to stop a blackmailer. It seems that book dealer Arthur Geiger sent Sternwood an extortion letter that mentioned his daughter, Carmen. Now, Sternwood wants Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him. By the time Marlowe gets to Geiger’s shop, though, it’s too late: he’s been murdered. Carmen is in the room when Marlowe finds Geiger’s body, but she is too dazed, or too drugged, to be coherent. Marlowe gets her away from the scene as quickly as possible, to avoid mixing her up in this murder. That decision to rescue Carmen Sternwood draws Marlowe deeper and deeper into the family doings, and into more trouble and danger than he’d bargained for at the outset.
In Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, we are introduced to Corinna Chapman, a Melbourne accountant-turned-baker who has her home and shop in a large Roman-style building called Insula. In one of the story’s plot lines, the building gets a new resident, Andy Holliday. He doesn’t really mix with the other people who live there and has very little to say for himself. When Chapman visits him to introduce herself, she finds that he’s in a bad way. He’s left most of his things in boxes – except for a bottle of scotch, a glass, and cigarettes. It’s not long before Chapman learns what’s making Halliday miserable: his teenage daughter, Cherie, ran away because her parents didn’t believe her when she told them she was being molested. Andy wants very badly to try to patch things up with Cherie, but he has no idea how to find her. Chapman barely knows the man, but she sees that he needs help, and she steps in. They find a way to reach out to Cherie, and it’s not spoiling the novel to say that Andy and his daughter reconnect.
Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red features Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s gained a good reputation as host of a television show called Saturday Night, but she knows there are younger, ‘hungry’ journalists out there. So, she would love to find the story that will establish her at the top of New Zealand journalism. And she thinks she finds it in the case of Connor Bligh. He’s been in prison for years for the murder of his sister, her husband, and their son. Only their daughter survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the murder. Now, little pieces of evidence suggest that Bligh was innocent. If that’s true, it would make exactly the sort of story Thorne wants. So, she starts to pursue the story, and almost immediately runs into obstacles. There are several people who are absolutely convinced that Bligh is guilty. They are not at all willing to help Thorne. But she persists, partly out of a desire to get the story, and partly because she feels a desire to rescue Bligh, if I may put it that way, if he’s in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And she finds herself getting closer to the story then she thought she would.
And then there’s Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Digger’s Rest Hotel, which is the first of his Charlie Berlin novels. It’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned to Melbourne from military service in Europe, where he was a POW for a time. He wants to get on with life and get back to work as a police officer, so he’s seconded to Wodonga to help the local police stop a motorcycle gang that’s been committing a string of robberies. While he’s there, Berlin meets Rebecca Green, who’s doing a story on the robberies for the Argus. Both see the wisdom of working together, rather than as adversaries, so they share the information that they can. As they get to know each other, Green sees that Berlin is suffering from what we would now call PTSD. He’s not really a fragile person, but he has his share of demons, and Green feels a sort of protectiveness towards him. You might even call it the urge to rescue him.
A lot of people have that urge to protect and rescue, and sometimes, it’s a very sound instinct. After all, it’s been responsible for saving a lot of lives. But sometimes, the instinct to rescue and protect can get a person into much more than it seems at first.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chicago’s Rescue You.