Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It's a Leap Of Faith*

Have you ever taken a leap of faith? Figuratively closed your eyes, took a breath and jumped? If you have, then you know that leaps of faith can be nerve-wracking. Sometimes, things turn out very well, and the faith was justified. Other times, they turn out badly. Either way, there’s often a lot of tension and anxiety when someone takes a leap of faith. That suspense is probably one reason that leaps of faith can fit so well in crime fiction. Suspense and tension are an important part of a well-written crime fiction novel, so the fit makes sense.

Violet Hunter takes a dangerous leap of faith in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches. She’s been offered an enticing job as governess at the home of Jephro Rucastle on the condition that she cut her long hair short. Other comments that he makes also make her nervous. She’s unsure of she should take the job, so she visits Sherlock Holmes and asks him what he thinks. He counsels her against accepting the offer, but Violet cannot resist the phenomenally high salary that Rucastle is willing to pay. So she accepts the offer and moves into the Rucastle home to take up her duties. She soon finds herself drawn into an eerie mystery, and discovers that the Rucastles are not at all what they seem to be. Now afraid, she contacts Holmes and asks his help. Holmes discovers that Violet Hunter has been a pawn in an inheritance battle.

There are several leaps of faith in Agatha Christie’s novels. For instance, in Murder in Mesopotamia, Nurse Amy Leatheran takes a leap of faith when she accepts a job at an archaeological dig in Iraq. Dr. Eric Leidner, the archaeologist who’s heading up the dig, hires Leatheran to look after his wife, Louise. Louise Leidner has been having all sorts of fears, and recently says she’s been seeing faces and hearing hands tapping on her window. Soon, Nurse Leatheran finds out that Louise Leidner is afraid for a very good and specific reason: her former husband, long thought dead, may in fact be alive and threatening her life. Amy Leatheran’s leap of faith gets her mixed up in a murder when Louise Leidner is killed one afternoon. Hercule Poirot, who’s traveling in the area, investigates the case and finds out that Louise Leidner’s murder had everything to do with her complicated personality.

In Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), ten people receive invitations to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. Each of the invitations is a bit unusual, but each guest takes a leap of faith and accepts. When the guests arrive, they are surprised to find that their hosts are not there. Still, they are seen to their rooms, and served an excellent dinner. That evening, their surprise turns to shock when each of them is accused of having caused the death of at least one person. Then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Another dies later that night. It’s now clear that there’s a murderer on the island. As other guests die, one by one, the survivors begin to figure out that one of them is the murderer. In this case, taking a leap of faith is a deadly choice.

It’s not always deadly, though. In Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is on trial for her life, accused of poisoning her former lover, Philip Boyes. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and becomes smitten with Harriet. One of the jurors is not convinced of Harriet Vane’s guilt, and her refusal to send down a “guilty” verdict forces a new trial. Wimsey takes advantage of this and visits Vane in prison. He offers to find out who really killed Philip Boyes. At first, Vane is unconvinced that anything can be done. But she takes a leap of faith and co-operates with him. Wimsey, with the help of several of his friends, looks in the case. He finds out the truth about Philip Boyes’ death, and amply justifies Harriet Vane’s faith in him.

In Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel, Agatha Troy is commissioned to paint a portrait of Hilary Bill-Tasmin, a wealthy and successful antiques dealer. Bill-Tasmin is a strong believer in the redemptive power of honest work, so he has taken a leap of faith in hiring former convicts as members of his staff. In fact, all of his staff have served prison sentences. Troy’s visit coincides with the Christmas holiday, so she’s there when Bill-Tasmin hosts a Christmas party for the locals. His uncle F. Fleaton “Uncle Flea” Forrester is tapped to dress up as a Druid and distribute gifts to the children at the party. At the last minute, though, Uncle Flea falls ill and can’t do the job. So his servant Alfred Moult takes his place. Shortly after the gifts are delivered, Moult disappears and is later found dead. Troy’s husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, investigates the case. At first, it looks as though one of the staff members is probably the killer, since Moult had antagonized the staff. But as the case unfolds, we find that it’s not that simple, and that perhaps Bill-Tamsin’s faith in his staff was justified.

Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph also has an interesting example of a leap of faith. Deborah St. James is deeply troubled by the fact that she and her husband Simon haven’t been able to have children. One day, she happens to be in a local museum where she meets Robin Sage, the vicar of Winslough. He gives Deborah some peace of mind and she feels drawn to him. She takes a leap of faith and convinces her husband Simon to take a holiday in Winslough so that she can hear the vicar again. By the time the couple arrives, though, it’s too late. Robin Sage is dead of an apparent accidental poisoning. Simon St. James doesn’t think the poisoning is accidental, though, so he also takes what you might call a leap of faith and enlists the help of his friend Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley in finding out what really happened.

Sometimes, of course, it’s the sleuth who takes a leap of faith. For example, in Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice, Harry Bosch finds out by accident that Calexico “Cal” Moore, a member of an L.A.P.D. undercover drug squad, has died in an apparent suicide. He finds that the evidence doesn’t really add up to suicide and begins to investigate. The police department isn’t interested in a deep investigation, because it’s suspected that Moore might have “crossed” – turned “dirty.” But Bosch has his own reasons for wanting to find out the truth about Moore’s death and besides, if Moore was murdered, Bosch wants to catch the killer. Some clues he finds lead Bosch to believe that there’s a connection between Moore’s death and drug-running from Moore’s home town of Mexicali. So Bosch takes a leap of faith and travels to Mexico to unravel the secret. He also has to take several other leaps of faith. For instance, in his travels, he meets up with two DEA agents who may or may not be trustworthy; Bosch has to take a leap of faith and work with them. He also has to work with a member of the Mexican State Judicial Police who may or may not have been involved in another murder that seems to be related to Moore’s death. In the end, the leaps of faith pay off, and they add a great deal of suspense to the novel.

In Deborah Crombie’s Now May You Weep, Hazel Cavendish invites her friend and former housemate DI Gemma James for a cookery weekend at the Innesfree Guest House in the Scottish Highlands. What Gemma doesn’t really know is that that Hazel’s past life is intimately wrapped up with those of John and Louise Innes, who own the guest house, and with that of Donald Brodie, another guest. It turns out that Donald Brodie is Hazel’s former lover; the two were from rival distilling families, but they had a passionate affair. Even though Donald and Hazel have ended their relationship, Brodie is still convinced she is his, and is determined to get her back, whatever the cost. When Brodie is shot, Hazel is the most likely suspect, and she’s arrested for the crime. Gemma believes her friend is innocent, and that there is more to Brodie’s shooting than it seems on the surface. So she takes a leap of faith and asks her lover, Scotland Yard detective Duncan Kincaid, to join her and help investigate. As they look into the case, they find that very little in this case is a as it seems on the surface. It takes Gemma’s faith in Hazel and Duncan’s faith in Gemma to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Leaps of faith can cause a lot of anxiety and tension, so they often serve as effective sources of tension in crime fiction. What’s your view? Which novels have you enjoyed that use this plot point?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John and Tim Rice’s The Circle of Life.


  1. I think that many detectives have to take a leap of faith. I think of DR. Watson having to trust that Sherlock has his best interests at heart and often Poirot pulls Hastings into situations he doesn't know the outcome to and they take leaps of faith trusting the men they work with.


  2. Clarissa - Oh, you are so right! When those sleuth-assistants work with the sleuths, they really do have to take leaps of faith. Thanks for bringing that up.

  3. Margot I can't remember any novel in this sense right now, but I find interesting your point and I'll think about it.

  4. Jose Ignacio - Thank you :-). I'm glad you find the topic interesting and I am always interested in your thoughts.

  5. I love this post! I think that a detective has to trust their intuition to be really good at their job and that means taking a leap of faith. When they second-guess those leaps and hold back they are just being plodders. I think this is why so many literary detectives get in trouble too, because they don't play it by the book. Yay for our rebels!

  6. A leap of faith can often be equated to "trust" in books. Detective partners take leaps of faith all the time--trusting each other in dangerous situations. I suppose criminal partners do as well!

    And the reader him or herself has to take a big leap of faith when reading a book. We writers are asking our readers to trust us, go on this journey with us, "suspend your disbelief" as I read one blogger put it, and trust that we will take you somewhere.


  7. Jan - Thank you :-). And I really like the way you put that, too. Sleuths really do have to trust their instincts, take leaps of faith and sometimes, do what they know is right. Yes, it gets them into trouble (hence the suspense in a book). It would probably make for much more boring reading if the detective never took that leap.

    Michele - What a well-taken point! Sleuth partners have to trust each other, even when they would rather not. And I'm sure that criminal partners do, too. In fact, I'll bet that's one reason a lot of criminals prefer to work alone. One has to trust fewer people that way.

    Thanks also for pointing out the leap of faith that readers have to take. They do, indeed, every time they open a book. I think the finest writers are aware that their readers trust them for a good journey (love that word!) and a good experience. Abuse that trust and a writer loses readers.

  8. Love the photograph- so evocative.

    And I guess at one level or the other, every mystery involves a leap of faith of some kind. The detective needs to believe witnesses, people need to trust others. And whether they were well founded or not, that's the story.

  9. Rayna - Thanks :-). Coming from such an expert photographer as you, that means a lot. You're right, too, of course. The detective needs to decide to believe witnesses, witnesses need to decide to trust the detective with the truth. And when sleuths work together, they have to trust each other. That's a well-taken point.

  10. The leap of faith is interesting when it's the detective who has to believe in something or someone he's not really sure of. I guess that's where a lot of people call 'going with your gut' to give someone a chance or the benefit of doubt. Another thought provoking post and very good examples. Thanks.

    Thoughts in Progress

  11. Mason - You're very kind :-). And I agree with you; it really is interesting when the sleuth has to take that leap of faith. I think that adds so much tension to a story as the sleuth has to figure out how much to trust or not trust what people say. You make a good point that sometimes, one has to "go with the gut."

  12. Great post! Love that song by Elton and Tim, and loved the movie. The picture with the shoes and the leap of faith title grabbed me right up front! Reminds me of that moment, that instant in time when a trapeze artist must let go of one trapeze and have nothing but air between them and the next trapeze. THAT'S a leap of faith--and the only way to get to the other trapeze. The power is in just that moment.Sylvia Dickey Smith

  13. Sylvia - Thank you :-) - Isn't that a great movie? And thanks for the kind words about the 'photo. I really like your analogy to the trapeze artist, too. I hadn't thought about that before, but it really is true. There's that moment in time when the artist has to jump from one to the next ring, and trust that she or he can do that. And as you say, that's the only way to move along. A great metaphor for life...

  14. A leap of faith is only possible if the leaper believes in themselves (or someone else) and their abilities. Self-trust or trust of others must be present. For some, achieving this might be the more difficult task - whether from issues of trust or, perhaps, from issues arising from such an inflated ego that belief that anyone else's opinion could be the correct one would be met only with scorn and ridicule.

  15. Elspeth - Oh, you raise a very good point! When people do not have faith in themselves (or the person they need to trust), a leap of faith isn't really likely. And because there are so many different kinds of personalities, with and without faith in themselves and others, it, makes, I think, for fascinating character exploration...