There are some decisions that involve real questions of conscience. Those decisions can be among the most difficult to make, because people have such different perspectives on them. Do you take that job with a company you know pollutes the atmosphere (because the money and chances for advancement are good, and maybe you can change it from within)? Do you defend the right of someone whose views you find repugnant to demonstrate? These are just two examples of the kinds of decision I have in mind. There are many, many others.
Such decisions can add an interesting layer of suspense to a crime novel. They’re sources of conflict, and they are realistic. There’s not very much space in just this one post for me to mention them all, so here are just a few. I know you’ll think of many more.
One of the most difficult and painful decisions a person ever makes is whether to have (or perform) an abortion. I won’t get into the moral and political issues involved here. This is a crime fiction blog, not a blog about politics, religion or morality. Suffice it to say that it’s a wrenching decision. We see that in Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need, which he wrote under the name of Jeffrey Hudson. The novel takes place in 1968 Boston, a time when abortion was not legal in the U.S. Dr. Arthur Lee, an obstetrician at Boston’s Memorial Hospital, is arrested in connection with the death of Karen Randall. The charge is that he performed an illegal abortion which he botched, causing her death. Lee asks his good friend, pathologist Dr. John Berry, to help clear his name. Berry knows that Lee performs abortions, but Lee assures him that Karen Randall’s wasn’t one of them. Berry doesn’t want to see his friend wrongfully imprisoned, so he agrees to see what he can find out. This runs him directly up against the highest levels of authority at the hospital, since the victim was the daughter of a very wealthy and powerful doctor. Berry finds out the truth about Karen’s death; as he does, we see just how controversial the decision to have or perform abortions really is.
I touch on the same issue in my Joel Williams novel Past Tense. It’s out for submission right now (I could really use some happy thoughts, please!), so as you can imagine, elements of it may change. But as it is, a set of bones dating from the early-to-mid 1970s is discovered on the campus of Tilton University. Former police officer turned professor of criminal justice Joel Williams takes an interest in the case when he finds out about it from a colleague. He learns that one of the people who may be involved is another colleague who was a student at Tilton during that time. That’s when she faced the difficult question of what to do when she found she was pregnant. Abortion had recently become legal in the US, so she made the choice to have the procedure. As her story shows, it’s a wrenching decision.
So was the decision about whether to participate in the Vietnam War. There were many young people who took seriously what they saw as their duty to country to serve in that war. We see that in Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night. The protagonist of that novel is octogenarian Sheldon Horowitz, who’s moved from his native New York City to Norway, so as to be nearer to his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband. One day he witnesses the murder of a young woman. She’s left a small son behind, so Horowitz takes the boy with him, since he’s sure the killers will be back for the child. The two of them go on the run, trying to outwit their pursuers. In the process, we learn Horowitz’ backstory. His son (and Rhea’s father) Saul served two tours of duty in Vietnam, and was killed during the second. Horowitz actually encouraged his son to enlist in the military, giving him the message that he should give back to the country that took care of him. Since his son’s death, Horowitz has had to deal with the guilt he feels about that encouragement.
Other people’s consciences didn’t allow them to fight in Vietnam. Instead, they left the country; many went to Canada. In Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier, we meet Andy Smith, and his wife Lucy ‘Lucky’ two ex-pat Americans who moved to Trafalgar, British Colombia so that Andy wouldn’t have to fight a war he thought was immoral. In one plot thread of that novel, a group of citizens wants to create a Peace Garden in memory of those who followed their consciences and refused to fight the war. They’ve got the financial backing they need, too. Others, though, feel that the garden would be too controversial, especially given that Trafalgar is a tourist destination that can use the money that comes from American visitors. Andy and Lucky’s daughter Moonlight ‘Molly’ is a constable caught in the middle of the debate. Her job is to help keep order, and that’s not going to be very easy with feelings running so high.
In Nicci French’s Blue Monday, London psychologist Frieda Klein faces another kind of conscience-based decision. She’s working with a new patient, Alan Dekker, who’s suffering from anxiety problems and other issues. Bit by bit, the two begin to address those issues, and Dekker tells her of a dream he’s had – a dream in which he has his own son. Dekker and his wife haven’t been able to have children, but Dekker resists adoption, so Klein sees a natural connection between Dekker’s personal situation and his dreams. Gradually, they begin working on events from his past that have impacted his current psychological situation. Then, Klein hears of a truly disturbing event: four-year-old Matthew Faraday has gone missing. Despite massive public appeals and police efforts, no trace of the boy has turned up. At first subconsciously, then actively, Klein begins to wonder if there is a link between her work with Alan Dekker and Matthew Faraday’s disappearance. She’s not supposed to reveal anything about her work with her clients, but this is different. So she makes the difficult decision to go to the police, in the form of DCI Malcolm Karlsson, with her concerns.
The decision of whether to give a child up for adoption is addressed in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck, who volunteered there at the New Life Children’s Centre. In order to find out the truth about Maryanne’s death, Keeney looks into what’s going on at New Life. She discovers that in part, its mission is to prepare children who are eligible for adoption for their new homes. As she learns how New Life really works, we learn about one toddler, Kob, who is matched with an American couple. Keeney gets involved with that process, and as she does, we see just what wrenching decisions are made when it comes to adoption.
These are only a few of the difficult choices we sometimes face. They may keep us awake at night, but they also form interesting story strands in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Babys’ Isn’t it Time.