Most people have heroes – those they look up to and admire. Those heroes may be people we know, or famous people, or part of a group of people we admire, even if we don’t know their names. What’s interesting is that most of us put heroes in a different category from ordinary people; we think of heroes as people who give up their lives for others, or fight bravely or do something spectacular. I know that’s how I’ve thought of heroes. The fact is, though, that heroes are people, just like the rest of us. They see something that needs to be done, and they have the courage, compassion and sense of ethics they need to do it. The good thing about heroes being “just people” is that any one of us can be a hero. We see that in real life (and I’ll get to that in just a bit) and we see it in crime fiction, too.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, we meet two people whom you could call heroes. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of Grace Springer, games mistress at the exclusive Meadowbank girls’ school. Meadowbank is the pride and joy of its two founding partners, Miss Bulstrode and Miss Chadwick, so when Miss Springer is murdered, they want the murder solved as soon as possible. As it turns out, though, this case goes deeper than just the murder of a games mistress. Miss Springer’s death is tied up with international espionage, a revolution in a small Middle Eastern country and a missing cache of jewels. Just as the police are beginning to sort out the clues, there’s a kidnapping and then another murder. That’s when Julia Upjohn, a student at Meadowbank, decides to take action. She’s been slowly putting some of the pieces of the puzzle together, and takes what she knows to Hercule Poirot, an acquaintance of her mother. Julia takes some real risks as she visits Poirot; even though she’s an ordinary young girl, you could say that she acts heroically. So does Miss Chadwick. At the end of the novel, just after Hercule Poirot identifies who’s behind the events at Meadowbank, Miss Chadwick takes heroic action that you could say saves the school. She, too, isn’t a person one would have classified as a hero, although she becomes one.
In Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill, William Decker becomes a hero, at least as far as his son’s concerned. Decker is a former con man and safecracker who’s “gone straight,” mostly for the sake of his toddler son. One day, he brings his son into a bar where Mike Hammer, Spillane’s sleuth, is having a drink. Decker quickly downs two drinks himself, then says “goodbye” to his son, leaves the boy in the bar and walks outside – into a hail of bullets. Hammer dashes outside just in time to see the car carrying the shooter run over Decker for good measure. Hammer isn’t in time to find out who’s behind the killing, so he takes the boy in and determines to get to the bottom of the case. In true Spillane tradition, Hammer goes up against nasty gangsters, police who don’t want Hammer to meddle in “their case” and corrupt government officials. At first, it seems that Decker, desperate for money, had gotten involved again with local gangsters and was killed because he bungled a safecracking job he was doing for them. Hammer finds, though, that the case is more complicated than that. As it turns out, Decker acted heroically. You might say it was that heroism that led to his death.
Margaret Billy Sosi acts heroically in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway. She’s a sixteen-year-old Navajo girl who’s attending a boarding school when she receives a cryptic warning to be careful from her grandfather. Fearing for his safety, Margaret slips out of her school and goes in search of him. When she gets to his home, she finds that he’s disappeared. Margaret then sets off to find him and find out what’s behind his warning. Along the way, she runs afoul of a Los Angeles car theft ring and gets herself into quite a lot of danger. Jim Chee, a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, has been assigned to find Margaret and return her safely to her family’s home. He thinks her disappearance is related to the murder of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s returned to the Navajo Reservation. So Chee combines his search for the truth about Gorman’s death with his search for Margaret Billy Sosi. He finds that the two cases are, indeed related, and he does locate the missing teen. However, in a climactic dénouement, it’s Margaret who acts heroically.
And then there’s Donna Leon’s Signorina Elettra Zorzi. She’s the assistant to Vice-Questore Guiseppe Pappa in Leon’s Guido Brunetti novels. Signorina Elettra is very well-connected and also has quite a lot of computer skill, and it’s how she uses her connections and skills that you could say makes her a hero. She regularly risks her job and the wrath of her boss to help Commissario Brunetti get to the bottom of the cases he investigates. She uses all of her skills to uncover the corruption that’s frequently behind the crimes that Brunetti encounters. Although Signorina Elettra has quite a lot of de facto power in the office, she hasn’t become a glory-seeker. Rather, she does what she can to help “clean up” Venice. In fact, to take that literally, Signorina Elettra has recycling trashcans set up at the Venice Questura, and insists that everyone use them. Admittedly, she doesn’t run into a barrage of “bad guy” bullets, but in her own way, she acts heroically.
There are lots more “ordinary heroes” in crime fiction; I’m sure you can think of as many as I could. That’s the thing about heroism. It doesn’t have to mean risking one’s life (although some heroes do that). It doesn’t have to mean wading into gun battles or rescuing hostages (although some heroes do those things, too). Heroism, at least to me, really means putting one’s own needs and wishes aside and doing something for others. That “something” can be very big or very small, but it all makes a difference.
To show you what I mean, let me share with you, if I may, a few examples of people who, to me, do heroic things, because they make a difference. For instance, there’s Rayna at Coffee Rings Everywhere, who taught her son an important lesson about helping those in need. Because of her lesson, her son gave up a much-coveted birthday party at Pizza Hut, so the money the family saved could go to the poor. I still owe him a Pizza Hut dinner :-).
And then there’s Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, one of the most well-read and interesting crime fiction bloggers I know of. She gives up her time and passes on her passion for reading to young children. If even one young person learns to love books because of her effort, that’s a pretty noble accomplishment.
Ingrid at The Conscious Cat works tirelessly to promote animal welfare, pet adoption and pet safety. Her efforts have, I’m sure, been responsible for many adoptions of pets who otherwise would have been doomed, and her knowledgeable blog is a must-read resource for pet owners.
Kathleen at From Cop to Mom and the Words in Between spent twenty-one years as a police officer, where she put herself at risk for others more than once. Now, she uses her blog to promote safety, encourage good police/community relations and support her fellow police officers. That’s a noble accomplishment, too. She’s also a rich resource, by the way, for true-crime information.
I’ve only mentioned these examples because I happen to know about them. My guess is that all of you who are kind enough to read my blog do things to make the world better. If you do, you are heroes, too.
Even if your life doesn’t allow you to spend hours and hours of time volunteering, etc., you can still make a difference. I’d like to offer you one way you can do that. Did you notice the two flags on my sidebar? One’s the flag of Haiti and one is the flag of New Zealand. Both places have been hit by terrible earthquakes, the most recent being the one near Christchurch, New Zealand. If you click on those flags, you’ll be taken to reputable sites where you can make donations and find out how you can help. Heroes aren’t just characters in crime fiction novels…
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings.
This post is dedicated to the memory of the hundreds of police, firefighters and volunteers who gave their lives to save others during the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
It is also dedicated to the memory of those who risked and gave their lives to rescue others in the March, 2004 Madrid train bombings, the 7 July 2005 London Underground bombings and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. May the day come when we no longer need fear terrorism.