Friday, March 5, 2010


Well-written crime fiction shows us how believable, real people might react in the face of a violent crime like murder. The act of murder is traumatic, to say the least, and it’s not realistic to believe that a person wouldn’t be affected by it. In fact, crime fiction can be more compelling and certainly more authentic when we get to see how the people involved in a murder rebuild their lives when the unthinkable happens. Some people find it easier to put their lives back together than others do, and it’s also very interesting to see the differences among the ways that people move on after a murder and investigation.

There’s a fascinating set of contrasts in the process of rebuilding in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Amyas Crale, a famous painter, was poisoned to death. His wife, Caroline, was almost immediately arrested for the murder and convicted of the crime. There was plenty of evidence against her, too. Crale, who wasn’t a faithful husband, had admitted that he was about to leave his wife for another woman. Also, Caroline Crale was known to have possessed the poison that killed her husband. She’d also threatened him. So the jury’s verdict was reasonable. However, their daughter, Carla Lemarchant, who was five years old at the time of the murder, doesn’t believe her mother was guilty. So, sixteen years after the murder, she asks Poirot to clear her mother’s name if he can. Poirot agrees, and arranges interviews with all five of the people who were present at the time of the murder. When he meets them, we get to see how each of them has moved on (or not) after the crime. Oddly enough, those who seemed to start out with the most advantages have seemed to suffer the most. For instance, Caroline Crale herself seemed to fall apart after the murder. She put up nearly no defense and died in prison a year after her conviction. Elsa Greer, the other woman in Crale’s life, was young, beautiful and rich at the time of the murder. She was also very much alive. When Poirot meets her, she’s got only a shadow of her former verve. She herself says that “it’s so stupid…never to feel.” By way of contrast, we find that Cecilia Williams, who lost her well-paid position as a governess after the murder, seems to have rebuilt her life. She still has very little money, but she’s alert, interested in life, and offers a unique perspective on the murder and trial.

Christie directly addresses the process of rebuilding in Cat Among the Pigeons, in which Poirot investigates the murder of Grace Springer, a games mistress at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. Honoria Bulstrode, the Headmistress of Meadowbank, and one of its founders, has enjoyed great success, and so has Meadowbank. Then, one night, Grace Springer is found shot in the brand-new Sports Pavilion. The police and, later, Poirot investigate the murder, and find out that this murder is connected with something much larger. Before the police and Poirot can find out what’s really going on at Meadowbank, two more mistresses die, and most of the parents have pulled their daughters out of the school. In fact, Miss Bulstrode has to close the school for the rest of the term. Faced with the ruin of years of hard work, Miss Bulstrode refuses to give up. After the case has been solved, she invites another mistress to help her rebuild the school and slowly return it to its former prestige. It’s a fascinating study in making the best of a disastrous situation.

We also see this rebuilding in Dorothy Sayer’s Harriet Vane. When we first meet Harriet in Strong Poison, she’s in the dock, accused of the murder of Philip Boyes, her former lover. Lord Peter Wimsey, who attends her trial, is immediately smitten with her and resolves to clear her name. In the end, he’s successful at finding the real killer. Once Harriet’s cleared, she goes on a hiking holiday, which we follow in Have His Carcase. In that novel, Harriet finds the body of Paul Alexis, a professional dance partner who’s had his throat cut. At first, it looks as though he committed suicide. Soon enough, though, it’s clear that he was murdered. Lord Peter soon arrives to take part in the investigation, and he and Harriet work with the police to find out what really happened to Alexis. In the course of the novel, we see Harriet begin to rebuild her life after Philip Boyes’ murder and the trial. Although Wimsey makes it clear that he’s in love with her, Harriet Vane is unwilling to risk a relationship, given the emotional toll that the trial took on her. But we see her work on this case, and begin to return to some sense of normalcy. As the series goes on, she continues to be stronger, and in the end (in Busman’s Honeymoon), she and Lord Peter Wimsey finally marry.

Sometimes, it’s the sleuth who has to rebuild after a murder. That’s what happens to forensic anthropologist Dr. David Hunter in Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead. That novel begins right after the traumatic ending of Written in Bone, where Hunter’s been severely injured in a violent confrontation with a murderer. He also has just ended a relationship. Hunter decides to take some time away from London, in fact, and visits Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, otherwise known as The Body Farm. While Hunter’s there, a decomposed body is found not far from the laboratory and hospital, and Hunter is soon drawn into another investigation. This investigation brings back frightening memories of his previous experiences, and there are a few instances where Hunter has flashbacks, panic attacks and other symptoms of stress disorder. We also learn that he’s still healing from his physical injuries. Hunter’s struggles to come to terms with his trauma and breakup and move on make him all the more human and likable.

The same is true of Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole. In The Redbreast, he and his partner, Ellen Gjelten, are investigating a Neo-Nazi group and its ties to illegal arms smuggling. They’re closing in on the people behind the case when Ellen is murdered. We can truly sympathize with Harry as he deals with his grief, loss and sense of guilt at her death. In Nemesis, we see Harry’s struggles to come to terms with Ellen’s murder and his former girlfriend, Anna’s, attempt to convince him that Ellen’s death wasn’t his fault. It’s a very believable portrait of how one rebuilds after a murder, and even though Harry Hole is far from perfect, this makes him that much more sympathetic.

We can also almost feel sympathy for the character of Edward Armstrong in Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk. Armstrong is a neuroscientist who’s persuaded to work for a new company, Genentech, at developing a new psychotropic drug. When he and his research team discover an ergot that seems to hold a great deal of promise, they make the fateful decision to test the drug on themselves before it’s gone through the usual long series of trials. At first, it seems that the drug is a “wonder drug.” The team members enjoy greater concentration, heightened senses and more energy, among other positive affects. It’s not long, though, before some terrible side effects become evident. Armstrong’s girlfriend wants him and the team to stop the trials, but, hopeful for a breakthrough in the treatment of depression, Armstrong refuses. What follows has disastrous consequences for Armstrong and his team. In the end, after more than one violent death, Edward Armstrong and one of his team members have suffered what seems to be permanent brain damage, and must do their work in a carefully-confined laboratory that’s as much a prison as it is anything else. They try their best to rebuild; in fact, they spend their time working on a treatment for their conditions. In a way, we sympathize with the losses that they’ve suffered, and we can respect them for trying to make the most of their situation.

It can also be interesting when characters seem not to be able to face the trauma of murder so that they can rebuild. That’s what happens in Marion Babson’s Untimely Guest. In that novel, Kevin and Eleanor, who are part of a large Irish family, prepare to host Kevin’s sister Bridget (Bridie), who’s just returning from ten years in a convent. They’re not really comfortable with the idea, but after all, Bridie is Kevin’s sister, and there’s nowhere else for her to stay. To complicate matters, another sister of Kevin’s, DeeDee, has also returned to the family group with her new fiancé, James. The problem is, DeeDee’s ex-husband, Terence, is still very much a member of the family, and is convinced that DeeDee will “come to her senses” and come back to him. The family is dominated by Kevin’s mother, Mam, who’s verbally and mentally abusive and demanding. One night, DeeDee dies when she falls down a flight of stairs. Just before she dies, several family members hear her say that she was pushed. Only James really believes her at first, and wants an investigation. Everyone else in the family avoids this trauma by denying that DeeDee’s death was murder (although as it turns out, it was). In the end, several members of the family remain in denial, even after another death follows DeeDee. They rebuild their lives by pretending that there’s nothing to rebuild.

People deal with trauma such as murder in different ways, and some are better able than others to put their lives back together and rebuild. The characters who have the strength to face what’s happened and move on can be fascinating, and we can identify with the struggles they face as they begin the process of healing. Who are your favorite “rebuilders?”


  1. Your examples were great! And my brain isn't working this morning yet. I'll have to ruminate on that. I think the characters who are absolutely devastated by the experience...the murder, being suspected of the crime, etc...are the ones who stand out more to me. But there are characters who become stronger afterwards.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - Sometimes it does truly affect the reader, doesn't it, when someone falls apart after a crime. We can either feel sorry for the character or annoyed with the character for "going to pieces." Either way, it's fascinating. As you say, some people do get stronger, and I've found myself cheering for people like that.

  3. My favourite rebuilders, Harriet Vane and Harry Hole, and Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther. While in real life the Italian writer Massimo Carlotto came back after being on the run for a crime he did not commit. In fact some of the inspiring real life "rebuilding" I have seen would strain one's credulity in a novel.

  4. Miss Bullstrode, Harriet Vane and Harry Hole are very fine examples.

    I had another one when I started reading your article, but I got carried away, and do you think I remember it now? Gone with the wind. I may be back if I remember it later.

  5. It's must be Saturday fog day because I can't remember the book or the author, but there was a movie The Bone Collector where the detective had been severely injured by a murder and goes on to solve cases from his bed with the help of an assistant. They do make for very interesting reads.

  6. Norman - You really have a well-taken point about real-life rebuilding. In fact, a lot of things that have happened in real life are a lot stranger than the crime fiction that I've read. I agree with you, too, about Harry Hole; I truly do like that character!

    Dorte - I think you're right; Harriet Vane and Miss Bulstrode are definitely strong examples of characters who've rebuilt their lives after disaster. Both of them were created, too, at a time when women were not socially expected to be as strong as men. Those writers were ahead of their times. You're right, too, of course, about Harry Hole : ). And don't worry; I forget things all the time. You're welcome in my "living room" any time if you think of another.

    Mason - Thank you for that reminder of the Jeffrey Deever novel (also called The Bone Collector). His sleuth, Lincoln Rhyme, certgainly does have to rebuild after a shattering injury. That's such a good example; since I didn't think to include it, I'm glad you did : ).

  7. As usual an excellent post, and a reminder to me of why I like what is often termed "psychological" crime, in other words, where the effects of crime are shown to have great impact, as I am sure must be the case, rather than being part of an impersonal puzzle. It is too long ago that I read Agatha Christie, so I can't really remember, but Harry Hole is a great example. Arnaldur Indridason's Erlunder is similarly struggling with the long-ago tragedy of the loss of his brother in a snowstorm. Although this event happened years ago, Erlunder has never got over it, and in the latest novel to be translated, Hypothermia, we learn a bit about how it affected his decision to marry, which itself had very long-lived consequences, not least on his daughter.
    I think these dark aspects - how one comes to terms with some disastrous event - are what makes crime fiction so appealing (or one reason, anyway!).

  8. Masine - Thank you : ). You really are kind : ). I agree with you, too, that those psychological aspects of the impact of crime are truly fascinating. I can't imagine, either, how one can lose a loved one, or be exposed to violent crime, and not be affected. For instance, here in my area of Southern California, we've recently been shocked and saddened by the discovery of the remains of two teenage girls. The admitted killer of one of them led police to the remains of the other in exchange for some sort of "deal" on his sentence. The whole case is so deeply sad that it's affected all of us - and I don't even know the girls, their familes or the killer. It has to be so much worse when one does.

    I'm not as familiar with Indridason's Erlunder as you are, although I do agree that he's been deeply affected by his past. We also see that in P.D. Martin's Sophie Anderson, who's never gotten over the fact of her brother's abduction years ago. It haunts her still. Those lasting effects, and how one faces them, really are compelling, and yes, they make crime fiction that much more interesting.