Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Turn and Face the Strain*

Major changes are a part of nearly everyone’s life. Whether it’s a birth, death, marriage, divorce, move or something else, most of us reach these watershed moments. Those moments often bring out strong feelings, both positive and negative, and even the joyful ones are stressful. Little wonder, then, that there are so many watershed moments – major life changes – in crime fiction. After all, it’s often when feelings and stress levels run high that murders are committed. And even when those major changes don’t cause a death, they often cause the kind of reflection that can raise the ghosts of old sins, including old murders.

Sometimes, an impending marriage is the watershed that changes everything. When people are about to be married, there are often old “ghosts” that need to be laid to rest, and we see that in crime fiction quite frequently. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Carla Lemarchant is about to be married to John Rattery. She’s afraid that her marriage will be haunted, so to speak, by the fact that her mother was hanged for murdering her father. Carla believes that her mother was innocent, and wants Hercule Poirot to prove it if he can so that she can start her married life free from the past. Poirot agrees and embarks on an investigation that takes him sixteen yeas into the past, when Amyas Crale, a famous painter and Carla’s father, was poisoned.

A past murder also gets in the way of an impending marriage in Christie’s Crooked House. In that novel, Charles Hayward and Sophie Leonides meet during Wold War II in Cario. They fall in love and agree to become publicly engaged after the war, but when Sophie returns to her family’s home, she finds that her grandfather, Aristotle Leonides, has been poisoned. She’s unwilling to marry until the murder is solved, so Charles begins to investigate. What he and Sophie find is that practically everyone in the family had a motive for the murder.

Sometimes, a wedding or impending wedding can actually cause a murder. After all, a wedding changes everything, including how fortunes may be left. That’s what happens in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, in which Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane investigate the murder of Paul Alexis, a Russian-born professional dancer/escort who’s engaged to wealthy widow Mrs. Weldon. When Harriet Vane comes unexpectedly upon Alexis’ body while she’s on a hiking trip, she immediately summons the police. At first, the death seems to be suicide, but soon enough, it’s shown to b e murder. As it turns out, Alexis’ death has everything to do with his upcoming marriage.

A wedding also wreaks havoc in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide). Gordon Cloade has married much-younger Rosaleen. Two weeks after their wedding, he’s killed in a wartime bomb blast. Now, Rosaleen inherits his large fortune. The problem is, Gerald had taught his brothers, Lionel and Jeremy and their wives, and his sister-in-law, Adela, and her daughter, Lynn, to depend on him financially. Now, the entire Cloade family has lost its financial security. One night, a stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden, comes to the village of Warmsley Vale. When it’s suspected that he may actually be the husband of Rosaleen Cloade, all of Gordon’s relatives believe that his arrival may mean salvation for them. Then, Arden is killed. Hercule Poirot finds himself investigating Arden’s death and later, two others.

Sometimes, it’s a death that marks a major change, and that, too, can spark a mystery. There are far too many stories of deaths where the will leads to murder for me to mention here. Suffice it to say that crime fiction is full of these kinds of mysteries. There are also many interesting mysteries where a death leads to the revelation of old secrets. For example, in Minette Walters The Scold’s Bridle, old Mathilda Gillespie is found dead in her bathtub with her wrists slit and a medieval torture device, a scold’s bridle, clamped to her head and mouth. At first, everyone thinks it’s suicide. Then, when her will is read, everyone’s shocked to find out that Mathilda left her considerable fortune to her doctor, Sarah Blakeney. Now, the rumor is spread that Sarah killed Mathilda for her fortune; Sarah decides she’ll have to clear her own name and find out what really happened to her former patient if she’s going to avoid charges of murder. As Sarah goes through Mathilda’s papers and diary, she slowly puts together the truth about the Gillespie family’s past, and the real reason that Mathilda Gillespie was killed.

Old secrets are also stirred up in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, when landscaper Warren Howe is murdered with his own scythe. For ten years, the police aren’t able to bring charges against anyone, because the main suspect, Howe’s wife, Tina, had an alibi for the time of the murder. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the case when anonymous notes suggest that Tina really was guilty. Together with Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett uncovers Howe’s past and the two of them find out that Howe’s death, along with two others, are directly caused by the revelation of those old secrets that came out after Howe died. Incidentally, this novel also presents other major life changes; for example, this investigation directly leads to an important and life-changing event for Hannah Scarlett.

At other times, death can spur someone to lay old “ghosts” to rest, just as marriage can. For instance, in Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, Andrea Curtin’s husband, Jack, has recently died. As she faces what to do at this watershed in her life, she decides that she wants to find out what happened to her son, Michael. Michael Curtin was living and working on a commune when he disappeared. At first, the police and local trackers tried to find him, but his body was never found. He was finally presumed dead. Now that Jack Curtin is dead, his widow decides to find out what really happened, so she asks Mma. Precious Ramotswe to find out the truth.

Even in crime fiction that isn’t focused on a major life event, those watershed events frequently play a role in a novel or series. For example, Lilian Jackson Braun’s sleuth, Jim Qwilleran, faces a watershed when he nearly commits suicide after an ugly divorce and a bout with alcoholism. He’s rescued by a friend who’s a newspaper editor, and given a job writing features. That second chance leads Qwilleran into a whole new career. When, by a fluke, he inherits a vast fortune, Qwilleran faces another watershed – a major move to tiny Pickax, a small town in rural Moose County. Those major changes lead Qwilleran to a whole new life – and lots of new investigations. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch also goes through several life changes in the course of the novels that feature him. Personal loss, firings, relocation, and marriage are just a few of the watershed events that he faces.

In Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, Inspector John Rebus also faces a major life change – his retirement. That upcoming event spurs him to try to “clean up” as many cases as he can, and he pushes his partner, Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke, to work on those cases. They’re soon caught up in another investigation, though – the murder of Russian dissident poet Alexander Todorov. Rebus’ impending retirement is woven throughout the novel, and at the end, it plays a role in the novel’s final twist.

Major life changes are very important parts of our lives, and so it makes sense that they’re also woven throughout crime fiction novels. As usual, I’ve only touched on a few examples. What do you think? Do you enjoy novels that address those watershed events? Or do you find that they detract from the mystery that is supposed to be at the center of the story?

By the way….those boxes you see in the ‘photo? They are evidence of a major upcoming change in my life. My family and I will be moving this week-end. Not far, so it won’t be a bad move, but you have no idea how many boxes of books I have!! ; )

*Note: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Changes.


  1. I think if we're reading a series, then we expect some life changes for the characters at some point. And I enjoy reading about them, if I've gotten invested emotionally with the characters.

    Good luck with the move! Wow...you've got your hands full right now!

    Mystery Writing is Murder
    Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

  2. Elizabeth - You're right; once readers get involved with characters, especially the sleuth in a series, or a recurring character, they do expect those changes and want to see them. We feel grief-stricken if they lose someone important, and we celebrate their joys. That's often part of what keeps regular readers coming back.

    Thanks for the good wishes, too. It is a busy week, but we're looking forward to the new place.

  3. Pending marriages always lead to very interesting murder stories. There are so many "ghosts" that can come back to haunt both the soon-to-be bride and groom. Not to mention even the in-laws can have skeletons in the closet they don't want out before a major wedding in their family. A very interesting post.

    Good luck with the move. I would hate to have to move all my books, much less everything else.

  4. I read somewhere that starting a new job, moving houses, and divorce caused the same amount of stress on our systems. Not sure if that's valid. But just to be safe, Margot, book yourself into a therapeutic massage for both the stress and for the strain of moving boxes of books. But moving is excellent motivation for getting rid of junk. And those pesky skeletons in your closet... Best wishes.

  5. Mason - You are so right! There can be all kinds of skeletons in the in-law closet. And who knows what the bride or groom may not want coming out, so you have a good point about pending weddings.

    Thanks for the good wishes. At least I will have a good excuse not to go to the gym for a few days - completely guilt-free : )

    Bobbi - I've read that about stressors, too, actually. It's no wonder that so much tends to "explode" during major changes. That massage sounds like a good idea. As you say, though, moving does help one prioritize what's needed and what's junk or donate-able. I've tried to be pretty ruthless, too. Of course nobody is *touching* my beloved books! And about the skeletons??? Ummm...er...let's just keep that between us, shall we? ; )

  6. Moving can be very stressful even Commissaire Adamsberg in one of Fred Vargas book [This Night's Foul Work I think] moves into a house with a ghost.
    Good luck with your move and get someone else to lift those heavy looking boxes.

  7. Yesterday I thought: how does Margot find the time to work, have a family, write fiction and come up with all these delicious blog posts. And now you tell me you are also packing boxes!

    Margot, do you ever sleep? I hope you remember to take care of yourself.

  8. Norman - Thanks for the good wishes. Fortunately, my daughter's boyfriend is a strong young man who's just a little afraid of me (as is, I think, only right ; )). So he and some of his friends are doing the heaviest work. Also thanks for the remdinder of This Night's Foul Work. Trust you to think of the perfect novel to cheer me as I plan the new place : ).

    Dorte - Thanks very much for your good wishes. The move shouldn't be too bad, as we're not moving very far and we'll have help (see my response to Norman). It all does take a lot time, but I couldn't imagine giving up my crime fiction writing or blogging. How else could I have met wonderful folks like you? : ). Plus, I drink my share of coffee...

  9. Terrific as always. YOu must look for a publisher for these. It would be a great resource. And I wouldn't have to print them off!

  10. Patti - Thanks : ). You are a sweetie!! And congratulations on your Kreativ Blog Award - well deserved. Folks, if you're not following Patti's wonderful blog, you're missing out on a real virtual feast : ). I encourage you to follow her.

  11. The wonderful thing about all the events you mentioned is that most people can relate to some or all of them. Now add a murder and the stress level rockets off the scale. Fun ensues.

    Most people see marriage as a new beginning which they want to end happily ever after. Thus, the strain of getting everything perfect can lead to interesting showdowns. A child entering the family is another new chapter which brings up more stress. And then, never forget the sheer 'fun' of divorce with its self-recriminations and broken dreams. No one has ever heard of a 'good divorce', or, at least, no one I know.

    Best of luck with the move. I despise moving with a hot passion. On the other hand, someone hands me a 17th century cottage in England, I'd be packing boxes with a song in my heart.

  12. Elspeth - You are so, so right about the fact that everyone can relate to big events like marriages, children, and the like. As you say, if you toss in a murder or two, you've got a story that keeps the reader turning pages.

    I also like your point about people wanting to get everything right when they marry and have children. I think in both situations, people envision this happy-ending scanrio (holiday gatherings, too) where everything is perfect. It never is. Ever. Little wonder, then, that stress levels skyrocket.

    I agree 100% that moving is no fun - at all! Of course, as you say, there are certain kinds of moves that one would make without a second glance backwards. Yours sounds very enticing : ).

  13. Lovely post, as usual, Margot. I love stories with past secrets. Johan Theorin has only written two novels but he is a master at this theme. I think his novels are wonderfully insightful, as well as being haunting crime mysteries. Interestingly, he loves older characters, whose memories go back a long way.....

  14. Maxine - Thanks : ). I agree; stories where there are past secrets that come back to haunt the present are irresistible, aren't they? Theorin's books seem wonderful, and when you recommended them to me, that made them even more appealing, so they are definitely on the TBR list. Now if I can only find it in the midst of the boxes ; )...