Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Take for Granted That You're Always There*

We take thousands of little (and not so little) things for granted without even thinking about it. There are some things, like airline departures and arrivals, that we know can be undependable, so we prepare for delays and so on. But we usually take for granted that the car will start when we turn the key, or that when we put our bank card into the slot at an ATM, we’ll get money (assuming there’s money in the account ; ) ). There are more fundamental things, too, that we take for granted. That makes sense, if you think about it. It’s hard to imagine being afraid of everything that could possibly happen, so we just take some things for granted, you might say, for sanity’s sake. But what happens if something we’ve always taken for granted simply disappears or turns out not to be true? What happens when we can’t depend on what we’ve always taken for granted? In real life, this can be awfully unsettling; for example, if you’ve ever had your home broken into, you know what it’s like when you can’t take the safety of your home for granted. In crime fiction, the shock, trauma and even paranoia that can happen when the proverbial rug is pulled out from under a person can add a rich layer of tension to a story.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), we meet the Cloade family. Wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade has always taken care of the family financially, and made it clear that he was planning to provide well for the family at his death. Then, he suddenly tells the family that he’s gotten married. As if that weren’t enough, he’s killed in a tragic wartime bomb blast before he’s able to rewrite his will. This means that his young widow Rosaleen will now inherit his fortune. Now, the members of the Cloade family have to re-think everything. The tension caused by their resentment of Cloade’s widow adds an interesting layer to this story. So does the changed relationship between Rowley Cloade, one of Gordon Cloade’s nephews, and his fiancĂ©e, Lynn Marchmont. The two got engaged before World War II, and Rowley had always taken their marriage and life together for granted. So had Lynn. But when Lynn returns from the war, she meets David Hunter, Rosaleen Cloade’s brother, and finds herself attracted to him. Now, everything Rowley and Lynn have taken for granted, both financially and in their relationship, has been changed. In the midst of all of these unsettling events, a stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden arrives in town. Arden drops hints that he may be Rosaleen Cloade’s former husband, long thought dead. If so, that would mean that Rosaleen cannot inherit, since she was already married at the time of her wedding to Gordon Cloade. Hercule Poirot is called in to find out whether this stranger is, indeed, Rosaleen’s first husband, but then the stranger is murdered one night, and Poirot gets involved in the investigation.

In Christie’s Third Girl, Poirot and his friend, novelist Ariadne Oliver, investigate what may or may not be a murder when a young woman, Norma Restarick, visits Poirot, claiming that she may have committed a murder. As Poirot and Oliver begin to look into the case, they find out more and more about Norma’s father, Andrew Restarick, and his wife, Mary. Gradually, we find out that much of what Norma had always taken for granted about her life and her family is not true. In fact, those things Norma has always believed are at the core of this mystery. In the end, Poirot and Oliver find out who Norma believes she may have killed, and what the truth really is.

In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone takes several things for granted about his life. He has established routines for going to school, for what happens at school, and for what happens at home, too. In fact, he depends heavily on those routines because he’s autistic. One night, everything Christopher takes for granted begins to fall apart when he finds his neighbor’s dog’s been killed. Christopher doesn’t know who’s responsible, but he’s always loved classic detectives, especially Sherlock Holmes. So he decides he’s going to be a detective himself and find out who killed the dog. Christopher’s father doesn’t want him to get involved, but Christopher persists and in the process, discovers that he can’t depend on several things he’s always taken for granted. In the end, Christopher finds out what happened to the dog. He also finds out that he’s able to function even after he has to completely re-think his entire conception of the world.

There’s an interesting look at taking one’s family background for granted in Rita Mae Brown’s Murder at Monticello. In that novel, archeologist Kimball Hayes is leading a team that’s excavating a cottage on the property of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. In the process, they find a man’s skeleton, and the team begins to research who the man was and why he might have been there. The closer Hayes and the team gets to finding out the truth, the more is revealed about some of the people who live in and near tiny Crozet, Virginia. For one of those people, the discoveries at the cottage change everything, so that nothing about family background can be taken for granted any longer. Pulling the proverbial rug away proves too much for this person, who shoots Kimball Hayes rather than face the truth. Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Crozet’s postmistress and Brown’s sleuth, investigates the shooting and in the end, connects his murder to another, long-ago killing.

Sometimes, it’s the basics of life, such as easy access to food, water, heat, and so on that we take for granted. When those are gone, the result can add another level of tension to a story. That’s what happens in E.X. Ferrars’ Something Wicked. Professor Andrew Basnett makes an agreement with his nephew, Peter Dilly, to take Dilly’s cottage during the winter while Dilly’s away. The agreement makes sense for both of them, since Dilly wants his cottage occupied during the winter, and Basnett wants a quiet place to write while his own flat is being remodeled. Basnett arrives at the cottage and is welcomed by Dilly’s neighbors, who soon fill him in on the local gossip about Pauline Hewison, a widow whom everyone thinks killed her husband six years earlier, although nothing was ever proven. Basnett’s curiosity gets him interested in the murder, and he’s just beginning to put some of the pieces together when a severe winter storm strikes, knocking out all of the power. Now, the heat and food that Basnett’s come to take for granted aren’t as easily available, and he has to depend on his neighbors for help. Then, in the midst of the storm, another murder occurs in the cottage where Basnett’s staying, and he’s drawn more and more into the mystery. The effort to stay fed and warmed is woven throughout this novel, and adds an interesting layer of tension to it.

Alex Scarrow’s Afterlight offers a very fine example of what happens when we cannot take even the basics of life for granted. In that novel, the Sutherland family has to cope with the realities of life in England after oil has run out. They live at this point in a makeshift community where the only power comes from “homemade” sources, and it’s only available for a few hours a day. One of the main themes of this novel is the ways in which the “focus” group of survivors copes with the loss of everything they’ve taken for granted. That includes government, fuel, even food. I confess I haven’t finished this one yet, but it was just too good an example of taking things for granted for me not to mention it. Here is an excellent review of the novel from Maxine at Petrona.

Finding out we can’t take things for granted can turn our worlds upside-down. That experience can also add memorable layers of interest and tension to a good crime fiction novel. Which novels have you read where this is a theme?

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Hello It’s Me, from Philadelphia’s own Todd Rundgren.

On Another Note...

Please stop by Crime Scraps and check out Parts 2 and 3 of my Choices for the Dartmoor Dozen : ). Thanks again, Norman, for hosting me : ).


  1. The "Taken at the Flood" plot came back to me when you described it. Yes, I think they were VERY taken aback in that family! But it makes for a great set-up for murder...having the rug pulled out from under you. :)

  2. Elizabeth - You're right; the whole Cloade family has, as you say, the rug pulled out. But I think that makes for a really interesting background for a murder. I think it's also realistic; when people find out that something they took for granted is gone, that kind of stress - even trauma - is perfectly natural.

  3. I think for me, crime fiction is wonderful because every novel explores the reactions of people when tragedy strikes. I think it's wonderful to read well-written characters who go through a range of emotion especially if it can make the reader go through the same emotions.


  4. Clarissa - That's one of the appeals of crime fiction for me, too. Murder itself pulls the rug out from under people, so to speak, so it does allow the author to explore people's reactions to that kind of trauma. And I agree; if characters are really well-written, the reader travels right along with them as they go through all of the emotions one feels when everything one's taken for granted is gone.

  5. It's the not knowing what will happen next when life changes for us. When that comfort rug is pulled out, we can either fall flat or just stumble. It's always interesting to see how the characters will react to these events and to see if we can predict how they'll react as well.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. When something you've always counted on is taken away, you have to find someone to blame (because it's never your fault). Enter tension. Enter stress. Sometimes, enter murder. It's a wonderful, identifiable theme.

  7. Mason - You've said that so very well! When life falls upside down for us, we do stumble, and sometimes we fall flat. But sometimes we rise and we're that much stronger for it : ). I like it, too, when we see how characters react to those circumstances.

    Elspeth - Ohhhh, yes! People do find it easiest to blame others, or blame circumstances, when thins go wrong. That's only human. And yes, that most definitely leads to stress, tension and an absolutely delicious background for murder...

  8. The Cloade family peaks my interest. Thanks!

  9. Patti - Oh, my pleasure! It's actually a very interesting book on several levels. I think you'll like it.

  10. After a very long time, blogger is allowing me to comment, so I am going to catch up on the comments I wanted to leave but couldn't.

    This is such a fantastic post. Fantastic, because I never thought of looking at those stories in the light in which you look at them. Third Girl I read very recently, and while my take away from the book was quite different from this, you are perfectly right to look at it from a new angle.

    You know what I would love- for you to analyse one book at a time, taking recommendations from us. I am sure you will show us so many things we never even suspected existed in all of them.

  11. Rayna - Thank you so much for taking the time to read over my posts. That is so kind of you : ). That's the thing about reading, isn't it? We all look at books in different ways, and each of us takes something unique from the process. That's why I like it best to discuss and think about books in groups, where each of us can share our views.

    And thank you for your idea about shining the spotlight on one book at a time. That's a very intriguing idea! I'll have to think that one over : ).