Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sleuths as humans, not "machines"....

Murder is traumatic for the people involved in it. It’s a tragedy that can shake people to their very foundations. Even the detectives who regularly investigate murders can’t help but be affected by being exposed on a regular basis to what happens when one person kills another person (or more than one other person). Sleuths are human, like the rest of us, and in real life, they are sometimes very deeply affected by what they do. The same is true in crime fiction. Whether a sleuth is an amateur or a police detective, murder leaves its mark on the sleuth.

Sometimes, of course, a murder leaves a very personal mark on the sleuth. That’s what happens in Elizabeth George’s With No One As Witness, in which Inspector Lynley investigates a series of murders of young boys. No-one pays much attention to the first three murders, and it’s hinted strongly that that’s because the victims are not white. When a fourth boy, this time a white boy, is found dead, Scotland Yard sends in Inspector Lynley and his team. At the end of the story, Lynley’s life is rocked by a devastating personal tragedy, and his response to it is very human shock and grief; George follows up on that theme in the next Lynley/Havers novel, What Came Before He Shot Her, which depicts the events that led up to the tragedy in With No One As Witness.

Carol O’Connell’s sleuth, Kathleen, “Kathy” Mallory is similarly devastated by a murder that strikes close to home in Mallory’s Oracle. As a child, she was taken in and sheltered by New York City detective Louis Markowitz. Years later, Mallory has become a police detective herself, with Markowitz’ help. One day, Markowitz’ dead body is found next to that of an elderly woman who’s the third in a series of killings of older, wealthy women. Mallory is truly devastated by this tragedy, and sets out for vengeance. In the end, she finds out the secret that Markowitz had discovered that led to his killing.

In Martha Grimes’ The Old Contemptibles, Inspector Jury has to deal with more than just the loss of someone important to him. He’s fallen deeply in love with Jane Holdsworth, a widow he met at Camden Market, and after seeing her for only a few weeks, he proposes marriage. When she’s found dead, it looks at first as though she’s committed suicide. Soon, though, it’s clear she was murdered, and Jury becomes a suspect. Since he’s not free to investigate Jane’s death, Jury sends Melrose Plant to the Lake District where the Holdsworths live. Plant does his own investigating and finds out that the Holdsworth family has a history of odd deaths, and there are plenty of suspects in Jane’s.

There are certainly many other fine novels and series where the detective/sleuth is deeply affected by a murder that strikes close to home. One example is Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole. In The Redbreast, Hole and his partner, Ellen Gjelten, are investigating a Neo-Nazi group with links to arms-trafficking. As they get closer to the truth, Harry’s life is turned upside down when the killer strikes his partner. I have to confess that I’ve not yet read this novel (although I like the Harry Hole series). I felt, though, that this one was too good an example of the kind of personal mark that murder leaves on the sleuth not to at least mention it.

Even when the sleuth isn’t personally touched by a murder, it can still leave its mark. There’s an argument that that’s one reason for which there’s a stereotype in crime fiction of the alcoholic police investigator. For instance, Carol O’Connell’s Kathleen “Kathy” Mallory is mentored by Detective Riker, who’s an aging, alcoholic cop who used to be her foster father’s partner. Riker’s much than a stereotype; he’s got a strong character and several redeeming qualities. Still, he’s a solid example of the effect of a lifetime of dealing with the stress of murder, and I’m sure that you can think of lots more examples like him.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has also been dealing with murder for many, many years. Although on the surface, it can sometimes seem as though he’s untouched by what he’s seen, that’s not always true. There are several mentions throughout Christie’s novels of Poirot being affected by a murder. For instance, in Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Poirot investigates the murder of the 4th Baron Edgware. In the course of the investigation, another murder, that of American actress Carlotta Adams, is committed. As Poirot stands at her bedside, he is visibly affected and makes a vow to find her killer – which he does. In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders), Poirot ‘s own dentist is murdered, and he and Inspector Japp unravel the mystery behind that killing. That death is soon connected to two other deaths, including one that’s not discovered until two months after it occurred. When Poirot arrives at the spot where the body is discovered, he feels as queasy as anyone else might when he sees the body. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Poirot investigates the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger. Poirot is soon convinced that her lodger might be innocent, so (despite a very human dislike of the lodger), he looks into the case. One night, another character hints that she may know who committed the murder. She won’t discuss her suspicions with Poirot, although he warns her that it isn’t safe to play a lone hand. When she’s murdered the next night, he gets angry at her death, and it’s obvious that he’s upset that he wasn’t able to protect her.

He’s not the only one who reacts in anger at a murder. Hugh Pentecost’s Pierre Chambrun, manager of New York’s posh Beaumont Hotel, reacts in the same way in The Fourteen Dilemma when twelve-year-old Marilyn Watson is murdered while she and her family are enjoying an all-expenses paid week on the exclusive 14th floor. He and his public relations specialist, Mark Haskell, find out who the killer is, but in order to catch the killer, Chambrun has to do what he sees as being dragged down to the killer’s level. The last scene of the novel shows us how angry and upset Chambrun is at that reality, despite having caught the killer. It’s actually a very absorbing scene.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is also sometimes very much affected by the murders he investigates. For example, in Coyote Waits, he explodes in anger when his friend Delbert Nez is shot while on an investigation. In fact, his anger leads him to arrest the wrong man, and at first, he’s unwilling to believe that the man could be innocent. In both People of Darkness and The Ghostway, Chee has another reaction to being exposed to murder. He’s a Navajo who tries to observe the traditional Navajo ways, so he chooses a traditional Navajo response to murder; he undergoes cleansing ceremonies that are designed to heal and bring the person undergoing them back to hozro, or the Navajo conception of beauty and balance.

We also see some very human reactions when well-written sleuths confront a killer. It can be terrifying to come face-to-face with someone that’s killed and, presumably, would kill again. There are many examples of well-written scenes where the detective/sleuth has to deal with fear. I’ll just mention a few of them. In Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn tracks down the killer of Luis Horseman, a Navajo who runs off because he thinks he’s killed someone. When Horseman is found dead, with sand in his mouth and no tracks or other evidence of a killer, it looks very much as though his death was almost supernatural. Leaphorn isn’t particularly religious, so he starts immediately to find very human murderer. In one of the book’s later scenes, Leaphorn and the killer are tracking each other, and Leaphorn is as afraid of dying as anyone might be.

That’s also true of Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, who tracks down the killer of several prominent members of the Crozet, Virginia, business community in Wish You Were Here. During the climactic scene in the novel, Harry’s trapped with the killer in a cave, and her fear is very, very real. When the killer is caught, she’s as drained and frightened by the experience as an. During the climactic scene in the novel, Harry’s trapped with the killer in a cave, and her fear is very, very real. When the killer is caught, she’s as drained and frightened by the experience as anyone else would be.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover has the same reaction when she comes face-to-face with a killer in Pretty Is As Pretty Dies. Beautiful but toxic Parke Stockard is murdered in the local church sanctuary, octogenarian Myrtle Clover decides to find the killer, as much to prove that she’s still independent as for any other reason. At the end of the book, after Myrtle finds out who killed Parke, there’s a very well-written and suspenseful scene in which the killer tries to put an end to Myrtle. The two are interrupted just in time, and then, as the killer is taken away, Myrtle has a very human and believable reaction to having come up against a murderer.

What’s your view? Do you enjoy books that show how being around murders and murderers affects the sleuth? Or do you think that’s too melodramatic?


  1. I think showing how the murders and murderers affect the sleuth can add another layer to the story. However, I guess as readers we don't want the story to be too much like "real life" and have the sleuth fall apart because of the murders.

    The sleuth is suppose to be "strong, in control and in charge." The sleuth can show some emotions, but if the emotions are the main focus then it gives the story a different direction altogether.

  2. Michael Connelly does a good job of this. He makes Harry Bosch synonymous with his the reader- we should feel what Bosch does, about the murder, the murderer and the victim. It is like a guideline for our emotions as we read. And this is a good way to lok at how much we should be told about the detective's reaction.

    I had not broken down Agatha Christie's books before. How interesting! And I have heard so many people mention Elizabeth George, but you are the first to make me want to read her.


  3. Maseon - There is definitely a fine line between having the sleuth be human and, therefore, affected by murders and having her or him fall apart to the point where, as you say, the storyline changes completely. I think it is a matter of how much focus in the novel is on the sleuth's reaction to what happened, and how that reaction is handled.

    Michele - No doubt about it, Harry Bosch is a very good example of a sleuth who is human, and therefore, affected by the murders (and murderers) he encounters. Yet, as you say, Connelly doesn't cross the line between humanity and melodrama, and he certainly keeps the focus on the mystery at hand.

    I'm glad you're interested in Elizabeth George. Her Lynley/Havers series is engrossing, and the characters are interesting and complex without weighing down the stories. They aren't what you'd call light reading, but they are compelling.

    And as far as Agatha Christie goes, well I'm very strongly biased : ).

  4. Thanks for the mention!

    Funny you should be covering this today...my agent just told me a week ago that she thought I should revise Myrtle's reaction to a murder for the next book. Thought Myrtle was too unaffected.

    Although Myrtle didn't *like* the victim (and isn't a very sentimental character in the first place), I've taken her advice and am making Myrtle a little more concerned. A little. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. Elizabeth - Isn't it interesting how the same thing comes up in different places? I actually thought you did a great job of depicting Myrtle's "aftershock" if you want to put it that way, when the killer in Pretty Is As Pretty Dies is taken away. As you say, Myrtle's not overly sentimental and doesn't fall to pieces easily anyway, but in my opinion, she reacted much as I would think someone like that would. But what do I know? I'm not an agent..

  6. Seriously, Margot, you are putting these into a ms. form, I hope. It reads like a really helpful book on the genre day after day. Bravo.

  7. Patti - What a sweetheart you are to say such nice things : ). Oddly enough, I do write all of my posts up in Word before I post, so that editing's easier. Odd you should mention that...

  8. You can't have your sleuth living in a vacuum; no one does unless they're a hermit. Even recluses like Morse or Richard Jury are affected by the cases they investigate. It's true that not every victim is lovable, but each of them have caused someone to be pushed to murder. No one is completely unmourned, even if the only one mourning is their pet. The method of death will also illicit a reaction. A quick and painless death will not be as affecting as a slow and painful one. Unless your sleuth is made of stone, I can't imagine them not being moved by a death; I don't think, even for a professional, death ever becomes routine.


  9. Elspeth - You put that so very eloquently: "I don't think, even for a professional, death ever bcomes routine." Even the most hardened sleuth, like the "hardboiled" private detectives, and the most veteran of professionals, like Morse, Jury, or Barnaby, is affected by death. You're also right, I think, that the way a person dies makes a difference in terms of how much the sleuth is affected. So is the age of the victim (i.e. Young children tend to burn themselves into the sleuth's memory than do older ones). Well-made points!

  10. Elizabeth: please don´t make Myrtle too soft! Tell your publisher that I love her exactly the way she is!!!

    Margot: obviously policemen learn to cope with death in a professional way, just like undertakers and vicars have to learn it (don´t remember if I have told you I am a vicar´s wife). But even the toughest professionals take it to heart when children die or when the victim is someone they cared for. So to make crime fiction credible it is quite natural to show that the detective is not an indifferent superman.

  11. Dorte - I didn't know you're a vicar's wife! How interesting! Then you really have a good perspective on how those who deal with death do so in a professional way. Still, as you say, in real life, police officers and other professionals like that are not inhuman, especially when a child or friend, etc, dies. So you're right; it's perfectly natural and authentic that crime fiction would show the sleuth as a human being who's capable of being deeply affected by death.