Saturday, July 24, 2010

I'm Just Glad to Be Here, Happy to Be Alive*

Some people seem to have the ability to be positive and very much alive, for lack of a better word, no matter what the circumstances. They have a spark of life that many people call joie de vivre, and they savor whatever life has to offer. They can bring zest and an upbeat outlook to lots of different situations, even if they’re not always cheerful, so it’s no wonder that others are often attracted to them. Characters with a zest for life can also add much to crime fiction. Novels featuring a murder investigation focus, of course, on the tragedy of murder, so a character with a love of life can add a welcome positive touch to a novel or series. Of course, there’s always the risk that such a character can come across as too na├»ve or too cheerful, both of which can be off-putting. But a well-written character with a zest for life can be a refreshing addition to a story.

Agatha Christie’s novels feature several characters like this, who just enjoy being alive. In Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), for instance, we meet Theresa Arundell. She’s the niece of Miss Emily Arundell, who dies of what seems at first to be liver failure. When it turns out that Miss Arundell was murdered, Theresa is one of the suspects, and she is a logical possibility. Theresa is very fond of living, and her tastes are expensive. She wants everything that’s coming to her, and she doesn’t want to wait for it. So when she finds out that her aunt left her considerable fortune to her companion, Wilhelmina Lawson, Theresa is incensed and tries everything she can think of to break the will. Not everyone in the village approves of Theresa’s fast lifestyle, but she’s got panache, and her strength of personality is undeniable. Despite what she herself admits as selfishness, Theresa Arundell is also rather a sympathetic character.

In Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Poirot investigates the shooting death of Dr. John Christow, a successful Harley Street specialist. Christow, too, loves being alive. In fact, that’s one of his most appealing qualities. He’s hardly perfect; he’s not exactly been faithful to his wife, he’s fond of being in charge, and he prefers to be the center of attention. And yet, one finds him sympathetic, because he’s also devoted to his work, he’s not malicious and he takes a genuine joy in life. Poirot himself notes this “aliveness” when he arrives on the murder scene. When he gets there, Christow’s just been shot, and hasn’t yet died. Poirot arrives just in time to hear Christow utter his last word, and he notices just how aware and how very much alive Christow seems to be. In fact, Christow’s mistress, Henrietta Savernake, comments on the irony that:

“John, who was so alive, is dead.”

In the end, Poirot and Inspector Grange find out who murdered Christow and why.

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, Queen has rented a home near Hollywood as a sanctuary, so he can write. His plans are interrupted by nineteen-year-old Lauren Hill, who visits Queen to ask his help. Her father, Leander Hill, suddenly died of heart failure, and Lauren thinks his death was deliberate. Before he died, he’d received the grisly gift of a dead dog, with a cryptic message saying more was to come. Hill’s partner, Roger Priam, has also received cryptic notes and “gifts.” Queen reluctantly agrees to ask some questions, if only to placate his guest. When he interviews Roger Priam, though, Queen finds him inexplicably reluctant to discuss the matter. Without help from Priam, Queen knows it’ll be hard to get any evidence of who’s behind what seems to be a bizarre campaign of terror. He’s about ready to give up, but Lauren Hill is not. She has a real zest for life and willingness to go to whatever effort is needed to solve the crime. In fact, she energizes Queen to look further into the matter. In the end, Queen finds out what the meaning is behind the messages and “gifts,” and figures out why Leander Hill was killed.

In Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool, we meet Fern Larter, an Inspector with the Cumbria Constabulary. She’s a friend of DCI Hannah Scarlett, who leads the Cold Case Review Team. Larter and her team are investigating two bizarre deaths; book collector George Saffell and attorney Stuart Wagg have both been murdered in unusual ways, and Larter believes they’re connected. So does Scarlett, who believes those deaths are connected to the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. The two friends pool their resources and, with help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, solve the murders. Fern Larter’s character adds humor and zest to the story; she’s plain-spoken, upbeat and not one to be dictated to. She enjoys her food – especially if it’s not a part of the Constabulary’s Healthy Eating Initiative – and she’s eager for Scarlett to move on with her own life and find some happiness of her own.

And then there’s Lula, who works with Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. She’s a former prostitute who now works at the same bail bond agency that employs Plum. She was originally hired to do secretarial and clerical work, but she goes out on plenty of cases, too. Lula is always willing to go on an adventure, especially if there’s food involved, and she’s fearless. She’s had her share of what people call “hard knocks,” but she’s got plenty of zest, her own style, and lots of energy and love of life.

In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Went Into the Closet, newspaper columnist Jim Qwilleran has rented a mansion in downtown Pickax for the winter months, since his own home is hard to heat and difficult to get to during the winter. The home became vacant when its wealthy former owner, Euponia Gage, decided to retire and move to Florida. Then, Euphonia Gage suddenly dies in what looks like a successful suicide attempt. Her grandson is baffled by the suicide, since she seemed to have had no reason to kill herself. When another death occurs, Qwilleran is sure that something sinister is going on, and begins to investigate. In the course of his investigation, he meets Celia Robinson, a cheerful, zesty Florida retiree who lives in Euhponia Gage’s retirement community. Celia is distressed, of course, by Euphonia Gage’s death, but she’s eager to investigate, and gladly becomes a “secret agent.” Later, she moves to Pickax to be near her grandson, who lives there, and her energy and love for life pepper several of Braun’s novels.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, one of the important “regular” characters is Mma. Silvia Potokwane. She runs the local orphanage, and is a passionate protector of and advocate for the children under her care. She’s a good friend of Mma. Precious Ramotswe, McCall Smith’s sleuth, and the two very much enjoy their time together. Mma. Potokwane has lots of energy and zest for life, and isn’t afraid to use it to get what she thinks “her” children need, even if that means “bullying” others. She also has a spark of creativity and humor. When things get difficult, Mma. Potokwane isn’t one to throw up her hands and admit defeat. Rather, she makes do with what’s available, and tries every solution she can think of when what’s available isn’t enough. Her passion for life adds a lot of fun and energy to the series.

Sometimes, it’s the sleuth who has that love for life. We see that in Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano. He’s sometimes bad-tempered, but despite the sadness and death he sees, he enjoys being alive. He loves good food, he enjoys his relationship with his lover, Livia Burlando, and he pursues his cases with zest and energy. This doesn’t mean, of course, that he’s always cheerful, but he does have joie de vivre.

Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy is also fond of life. He’s an East Anglia antiques dealer with an uncanny sense of whether or not a supposed antique is genuine. He’s also got a real sense of what something is worth. Lovejoy doesn’t always walk the “straight and narrow” path; in fact, he’s sometimes unscrupulous. But he has a love of being alive, of a fine antique, and of adventure. Oh, and there are women, too…

A character who truly loves being alive – who has that “spark” – can add energy and sometimes humor to what might otherwise be a dark story. That trait alone can make such a character memorable and welcome. Who are your favorite characters with joie de vivre?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Traveling Wilburys' End of the Line.


  1. Thank god for the joyful! Particularly in crime fiction which by its very nature can get bogged down in the depths of despair.

    I confess to making a conscious decision to make my main protagonist Sam Shephard an optimist. Part of this was a personal backlash against the vast number of detectives in fiction who were ahem, middle aged divorced males with a penchant for depression and alcohol. Also I wanted to explore how fighting crime would be for an optimist with far too much faith in human nature for her own good. It's been fun. She also as a fondness for pies and custard squares or anything with a chocolate content.

    I do enjoy stumbling across characters when reading who seem to burst with vitality. They are a welcome relief from the often morbid in crime fiction.

  2. Vanda - Oh, I know exactly what you mean! There are plenty of protagonists out there who are depressed, cynical and morbid. I suppose in some ways that's natural; solving crimes can be messy, dirty, ugly and depressing, so it's understandable someone would become pessimistic. But yes, someone who's positive and, as you say, has faith in human nature, can be such a tonic. And of course, chocolate never hurts ; ).

    Vitality in crime fiction can renew our own sense of hope, and that can leave the reader with a solid sense of satisfaction, too, I think. And of course, those "alive" characters can attract the reader just as they do other characters.

  3. Vitality and, I think, humor are so important in mysteries. I'm usually looking to read books that provide a little bit of escape as well as an interesting puzzle--and if the books are TOO dark, I feel more dragged down.

  4. Elizabeth - I agree with you 100%. Vitality adds a lot to a story, especially if it's got some dark elements to it. And humor can be a real tonic, too. As you say, it can be enervating to read a book where there's no-one with that spark of life.

  5. I love Mma Ramotswe and her world - and you are indeed right about Mma Potokwane's zest for life - I've never thought about that before!

  6. Alexandra - I'm a fan, too, of Mma. Ramotswe and the many people she shares her life with. Such terrific stories, aren't they? Whenever I read one, I feel I'm meeting up with friends of mine. I like the way that Mma. Potokwane just loves to be alive. She must have to deal with some very sad realities, but I love it that she doesn't become defeatist about them...

  7. Margot, it's with a large degree of trepidation, and an even larger degree of respect, that I make this contention: You erred with your choice of Lula for the joie de vivre, positive-outlook character in the Stephanie Plum series. It has to Grandma Mazur, who finds equal amounts of joy in funeral home viewings, big handguns, bingo, and younger (do they come older?) men.

  8. Bob - No doubt about it, Grandma Mazur is just fill of the joy of living - and funerals : ). I love her interest in younger men, too. She is just bursting with life. So you are 100% right about here. I believe Lula is, too, so maybe we can say they both do?

  9. In my mysteries, well, in all my novels I try to add a bit of humor no matter what the content. I think it's needed. I think Elizabeth is right, too dark a novel can be too much for the reader. This is such an interesting post.


  10. Clarissa - Thank you : ). And you have a well-taken point. A touch of life and light are really helpful in keeping a mystery from getting too dark. Those touches can add a layer of interest to a story, too

  11. Bob, you're right, Grandma Mazur has provided the moments when I have just about had apoplexy from laughing too much, especially a moment with a big hand gun, and a roast chicken.

  12. Vanda - Thanks for that hysterical reminder. Grandma Mazur really is a wonderful character : ).