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?