Friday, July 9, 2010

It's the Little Things...

You might think that when people are facing a tragedy, especially one like murder, they’d focus on that tragedy – maybe even to the point of obsession. Interestingly enough, though, that’s not always the case. Even in the midst of tragedy, people sometimes think about and focus on the ordinary, everyday, mundane things of life. Perhaps it’s because those ordinary things, like shopping, eating or holes in one’s socks keep us grounded. They help remind us that the world keeps going on, and that can, in its way, be a comfort. Those mundane, everyday things remind us that the world hasn’t ended. Ordinary, everyday things in the midst of tragedy can make us feel more stable, so we cling to them; it’s no surprise that that happens in crime fiction, just as it does in real life.

We see how this happens in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), in which tragedy strikes two families: the Angkatells and the Christows. In that novel, successful Harley Street physician John Christow and his wife, Gerda, are invited to spend the week-end with Lady Lucy and Sir Henry Angkatell at their home in the country. Just before lunch on Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a nearby cottage for week-ends, has been invited to lunch and arrives just in time to come upon the murder scene. At first, he thinks it’s a scene artificially arranged for him. Soon enough, though, it’s very clear that this is a real murder. As the fact of murder begins to really “sink in” to the various members of the Angkatell family, Lady Lucy Angkatell begins to muse aloud about what to do for lunch, since the shooting occurred just before everyone was to gather for lunch. On one hand, her comments seem rather callous. On other, as another character observes, people do get hungry. They do think about eating, even in the midst of tragedy. It’s a very interesting example of how life goes on.

There’s another example in Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner). Famous American actress Jane Wilkinson asks Poirot to help her get rid of her husband, the 4th Baron Edgware. She’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton, and wants to marry him, but, she tells Poirot, her husband won’t grant her a divorce. Poirot agrees to speak to Edgware about the matter, and is granted an appointment. When he and Hastings arrive for their meeting with Edgware, though, they find out that, much to their shock, Edgware has no objection to a divorce. In fact, he’s even written his wife to that effect. Poirot and Hastings leave, thinking the matter is settled. That night, Edgware is shot. At first, Jane Wilkinson is the most likely suspect, since she wanted to get rid of her husband, and had even threatened him. However, on the night of the murder, Jane Wilkinson was seen at a dinner party in a different part of London. In fact, all of the dinner guests, and the hosts, are prepared to swear that she was there. Interestingly enough, when the police, Poirot and Hastings visit Jane to talk to her about the murder, she seems completely focused not on her husband’s murder, but on how black looks on her. The same is true later when Poirot and Hastings visit her again. In fact, she doesn’t even seem to be concerned with finding out who killed her husband.

In Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate a series of traumatic events that take place when a group of American tourists makes a stop in Oxford. One of the tourists, Laura Stratton, brings with her the Wolvercote Tongue, part of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle on display at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Her plan had been to donate the Wolvercote Tongue to the Ashmolean, but on the day of the tour group’s arrival, Laura Stratton suddenly dies. Then, the Wolvercote Tongue disappears. The next day, Dr. Theodore Kemp, curator of the Ashmolean, is murdered. Morse and Lewis believe that Kemp’s murder is connected to the Americans’ visit and the disappearance of the Wolvercote Tongue, and they’re right. But the events aren’t connected in the way they think. In the end, and after some false starts, Morse and Lewis find out who committed the murder and what happened to the Wolvercote Tongue. In the midst of all of the drama surrounding this tour, it’s interesting to see how tour leaders John Ashendon and Sheila Williams try to maintain some semblance of normalcy for the group. They’re as focused on how to salvage what they can of the tour as they are on helping Morse and Lewis do their jobs. There’s an interesting scene, for instance, in which Sheila Williams is scrambling to find someone to take Kemp’s place at a talk he was supposed to give (meanwhile, he’s been murdered); her concern is a smooth-running “show,” while all around her, the tour is falling apart.

In Michael Robotham’s Shatter, psychologist Joe O’Loughlin is on the trail of a serial killer who seems to be able to manipulate people into committing suicide. He’s drawn into the case when he’s called to the scene of a suicide attempt to try to persuade Christine Wheeler not to jump off a bridge. O’Loughlin fails, and is soon approached by Darcy Wheeler, Christine’s daughter. Darcy believes that her mother was coerced into committing suicide and, although O’Loughlin finds that hard to believe, he agrees to look into the matter. With help from his friend, Detective Vincent Ruiz, O’Loughlin finds out who the killer is and what the killer’s motive is, but not before his own family is put at terrible risk. Throughout the story, O’Loughlin’s wife, Juliana, tries desperately to maintain some semblance of normalcy in the family, even as her husband is drawn more into the case. She doesn’t want her husband’s work to affect the family. Then, everything changes when the killer targets the family. At the end of the novel, there’s a very interesting scene where Emma O’Loughlin, the O’Loughlins’ younger daughter, is having a birthday. Both adults try very hard to make the party a success, despite the trauma they go through in the novel and despite the widening gulf between them. It’s an interesting look at the struggle to stay, “normal.”

There’s a similar tension in Sam Hilliard’s The Last Track. Former Special Forces operative Mike Brody now owns an extreme-adventure company. He ‘s been having problems in his marriage to journalist Jessica Barrett and the two have separated. However, they’d planned a vacation in Montana, and had promised their son Andy that the trip would happen. So the three of them arrive at the dude ranch where they plan a peaceful stay. They’ve only just arrived when Mike’s asked to help locate fourteen-year-old Sean Jackson, an asthmatic teen who ran off when he witnessed a murder. Before they know it, Mike’s drawn into a complex case involving a murder, a drugs ring, corruption and a missing teen who’s lost somewhere in some very unforgiving country. Throughout the story, Jessica tries to keep things as normal for Andy and herself as she can, even as she and Mike, each in a different way, work desperately to uncover the truth behind the murder.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum tries frequently to keep focused on “normal” things, even as very dangerous things happen to her. For instance, in Two For the Dough, she’s on the trail of Kenny Mancuso, who skipped bail after allegedly shooting a gas station attendant in the knee. When Plum is sent out to find him, she ends up getting involved in a plot that involves arms smuggling, longstanding resentments and murder. Plum faces all sorts of dangers in the novel, but there are also some almost comic scenes where she’s trying to live what passes for a “normal” life in her area of Trenton, New Jersey. For example, she finds a pair of impossibly impractical shoes in a department store and finds herself unable to resist them. That purely “normal” scene in the store is an interesting contretemps to the growing danger that surrounds her in the novel.

There are many crime fiction novels in which the characters cope with the trauma, the sorrow and the grief of murder by trying to focus on little, “normal” things. Which are your favorites?


  1. Hi, I found your blog through Clarissa Draper's blog. I'm struggling to figure this blog thing out, so I'm making the rounds to find out who has great blogs and what makes them great.

    I enjoyed the post. You bring up some of my favorite mysteries. I grew up reading every Agatha Christie, and she gave me a lifelong love of mysteries.

    Wonderful post. And we do resort to the normal things when life has thrown us a loop. I'm trying to think of characters who do that, but I'm drawing a blank. Doralynn

  2. Unlike you, I can't grab at books in my memory...But I do agree that, in the midst of tragedy, we cling to the things that stabilize us.

    Southern City Mysteries

  3. Doralynn - Thanks for coming by : ). Isn't Clarissa's blog great?! I'm glad you're a fan. I know I am. It's also very nice to "meet" a fellow Christie fan. She is most definitely my favorite mystery author : ).

    And thanks for the kind words about the post; you are absolutely right that normal things just seem so safe and secure when life goes haywire.

    Michele - I like the way you put that: In the midst of tragedy, we cling to the things that stabilize us..I'm going to remember that : ).

  4. It's so ironic that I'm reading your post just after my daughter and I watched Inspector Morse in The Remorseful Day. Didn't realize until we got into it that it's the very last story in the series; he dies at the end. In the midst of tragedy (four murders and the knowledge that his health is precarious) the inspector clings to his job that he doesn't want to retire from; the one thing in his life that stabilizes him. What is he going to do when he retires? Sadly or not so sadly he doesn't have to find out. But he finishes his course as he points Lewis to the final murderer.

  5. Ann - Oh, what a wonderful example of what I'm getting at in this post! If you haven't read the novel, I recommend it highly, too. You're absolutely right, also, that in the midst of the chaos of the murders and Morse's health, he does stay focused on the job. It really is the only thing that centers him, isn't it : ). I'm so glad you brought this one up : ).

  6. If a writer doesn't add those scenes in, they are missing a key part of their novels. IMHO. I think that readers need to see the characters (often working jobs larger than life) doing mundane things like buying shoes and fighting with their mother-in-law.


  7. Clarissa - Oh, well-said! A well-rounded story does include characters driving to work, picking up dry cleaning, and paying the utility bills. That's part of life, too, and in the midst of something as awful and traumatic as murder, those mundane things can hold the pieces of a person's life together.

  8. The mundane things are what make the stories realistic. Sometimes I think when tragedy strikes we go on auto pilot and do things that are normal for us without realizing we're doing it. A small part of us thinks that by doing the "normal" then the tragedy won't be real. Another great post, thanks.

    Thoughts in Progress

  9. Mason - You're very kind. And you put your finger on something really interesting. It makes a lot of sense to believe that we try to hide, in a way, from tragedy by doing mundane, everyday things. We don't have to, say, face the tragedy of death if we're doing laundry. I also like your point about going on "auto-pilot." Sometimes I think we do that even if tragedy hasn't struck. We do things like going to the grocery store and dropping off the dry cleaning without even thinking about what we're doing sometimes.

  10. It has been a long time since I've read a Nero Wolfe mystery, but wasn't he a master at carrying on his routine no matter what was going on around him? In his case, the trauma was rarely a personal one, but even if it had been, I don't think he would have allowed it to take over his life. Dealing with everyday tasks is a defense mechanism that protects us from those things too horrible to face head on.

  11. Patricia - Oh, well-said! Those everyday tasks really are a good defense mechanism. And thanks for bringing up Nero Wolfe; you're absolutely right that he had his very specific, set daily routine that didn't vary a lot. It didn't matter what he and Archie Goodwin were investigating; he still had his routine.

  12. It definitely makes sense to include little everyday activities in a mystery. It's chilling when the *murderer* does it, but I guess he's trying to cope with stress, too! :)

  13. Elizabeth - Oh, yes, indeed - the murderer! I agree completely that it's creepy when the murderer does those little things. I think it's just an eerie hint that the murderer seems not to care that s/he's killed. But, as you say, murderers get stressed, too....