Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Turning Over a New Leaf...

No-one is perfect, and most of us are aware of things about ourselves that we’d like to change. And at this time of year, “turning over a new leaf” seems to be an ongoing theme. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s early spring, and new plants and growth are just starting. In the Northern Hemisphere, another school year has begun, with all of its promise and possibility. In the Jewish tradition, it’s Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, where the focus is on new beginnings and personal growth, and in the Muslim tradition, the holy month of Ramadan, with its emphasis on spiritual renewal and purification, is just ending. It seems to be a fairly common wish to want to grow and improve. It may be a matter of shedding an unhealthy habit, learning something new, being more aware of those in need, or spending more time with family. Whatever our resolutions may be, the process of “turning over a new leaf” is a part of many of our lives. So it makes a lot of sense that we see that process in crime fiction, too. After all, the characters in a well-written crime fiction novel are realistic and reflect our own experiences. That’s why they resonate with us.

n Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow decides to start anew. He’s got a devoted wife, two healthy children and a successful career. Yet he feels tied to the past by his feelings for an old love, Veronica Cray, who’s become a famous actress. When Christow and his wife Gerda are invited to spend the week-end at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, Christow meets Veronica Cray again. She’s taken a nearby cottage and “accidentally on purpose” arranges to see him. It turns out that Veronica has never really stopped loving John, and wants to rekindle their romance. After meeting Veronica Cray again, Christow realizes that he no longer loves her, that his relationship with her was never healthy, and that she has no hold over him any more. He determines to treat his wife and children better and, full of resolve, goes to visit Veronica to tell her that the two of them have no future. Furious at the rejection, his old love threatens Christow and when he’s shot later that day, she becomes a suspect in his murder. Hercule Poirot has taken a week-end cottage nearby, himself, and gets involved in the investigation when he comes unexpectedly on the murder scene.

There’s another example of “turning over a new leaf” in Mickey Spillane’s
The Big Kill. William Decker is a former con man and burglar who’s decided to “go straight,” mostly for the sake of his toddler son. He’s trying to live a legitimate life until financial desperation drives him to once again get mixed up with a local criminal gang. One afternoon, he brings his son into a bar where Spillane’s sleuth Mike Hammer is having a drink. Decker quickly downs two drinks himself, leaves his son in the bar and goes outside where a moment later, he’s shot down in the street. Hammer runs outside just in time to see the car carrying the gunman run over Decker for good measure. Hammer’s able to fire off a shot at one of the men in the car, but he isn’t in time to save Decker’s life. So Hammer takes in Decker’s son and determines to find out who killed William Decker and why. Of course, in classic Spillane fashion, Hammer contends with some very nasty people, including local police authorities, who don’t want him meddling. In the end, though, he finds out the truth about William Decker’s death.

George Pelecanos takes up the theme of “turning over a new leaf” in The Way Home. That’s the story of Chris Flynn, a teenager from a wealthy, white home in the Washington, D.C. area. His father, Thomas, owns a successful carpet-installation business, and has high hopes for his son. But Chris gets involved in drugs and other reckless behavior and ends up in Pine Ridge, a juvenile detention center. While he’s there, Chris forms a few friendships and learns the self-protection skills that are needed for survival there. He’s eventually released from the center, as are several of his friends, and Chris goes on to try to lead a “clean” life. Ten years later, he seems to have succeeded. He’s got a steady job at his father’s company, he’s got his own apartment and he has a girlfriend, Katherine. He’s even convinced his father to hire his friend, former Pine Ridge detainee Ben Braswell. Then one day, Chris and Ben find a cache of $50,000 under the floorboards in a house where they are working. The two of them leave the money where they found it, but Ben tells his friend Lawrence Newhouse, also a friend from Pine Ridge, about the money one night. Newhouse steals the money, which puts him up against two newly-released, desperate ex-convicts who’d hidden the money years earlier. When the two ex-convicts realize their money is gone, they go after those they think are responsible, and now Chris has to decide whether to depend on his newly-formed, fragile relationship with his father or on the friendships he formed at Pine Ridge. It’s an interesting case of what happens when the cost of “turning over a new leaf” is friendship.

Sometimes, of course, it’s the sleuth who “turns over a new leaf.” For instance, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse doesn’t start out as a police officer. He’s planning a career as an academician and begins his studies at Oxford. Everyone has high hopes for him, including his mentor, Oliver Browne-Smith. Then, as we learn in
The Riddle of the Third Mile, Morse meets and falls in love with Wendy Spencer. When Wendy ends their relationship, Morse falls into a deep depression and neglects his work. He eventually has to leave Oxford. With his father’s help, Morse “turns over a new leaf” and joins the police force. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In Sam Hilliard’s The Last Track, we meet Mike Brody, a former Special Forces operative who now owns and operates an extreme adventure tour company. Brody and his wife, investigative reporter Jessica Barrett, have had serious marital problems and have decided to divorce. Mike hasn’t really stopped loving Jessica, though, and there is the matter of their eight-year-old son, Andy. So even though they’ve divorced, Mike and Jessica go ahead with their plans for a long week-end with Andy at the Pine Woods Ranch, a Montana dude ranch. They no sooner arrive than Brody gets involved in the desperate search for fourteen-year-old Sean Jackson. He’s run away from the ranch after witnessing a murder, and is afraid the killer is after him. So Lisbeth McCarhty, a local police detective, asks Brody to find Sean before the killer does. In searching for the boy, Brody finds out that this case is far more involved than he thought, and as he matches wits with the elements and the killer, Brody’s own life is soon in danger. Throughout the case, Jessica uses her background in journalism to find out the history of the dead man and to make vital connects to other threads of the case. In the end, their work together helps to salvage their relationship. You could say, really, that this case helps both “turn over a new leaf.”

And then there’s Leonid McGill, Walter Mosley’s sleuth, whom we meet in
The Long Fall. McGill is a boxer and, in another life, he’s done a lot of other jobs, most of them illegal. But now, he’s trying to “go straight.” He works as a New York private investigator who’s trying to make an honest living. But he also has to pay the rent, which is how he’s hired by a somewhat shady character to find four men. The only clues he has are the street names they were known by during their adolescence. And then, the men he’s searching for start turning up dead, and it seems that McGill has really un-knowingly found a set of murder victims for a killer, and he’s very likely going to be next on the murderer’s list. So McGill decides to do what he sees as the right thing and stop the killer.

The process of “turning over a new leaf” is sometimes difficult, and it can take time. Crime fiction teaches us that it’s not always successful, either. But that effort – that determination to grow – can add a fascinating layer of interest and even suspense to a novel. It can also help readers identify with a character who’s trying to start anew. What’s your view? Which novels have you enjoyed where characters are trying to “turn over a new leaf?”


  1. I didn't know that about Morse. Thank you for talking about it.

  2. Thought provoking post Margot. Can I have your memory please?

  3. Nan - Morse is rather reticent about his past; I had to pay quite a lot for that detail ;-).

    Kerrie - Thank you :-). That's very kind of you. You can tell how unhealthily-obsessed I am with murder and mayhem ;-)

  4. I'm currently reading Tim Hallinan's A Nail Through the Heart in which his character Poke Rafferty is trying to reinvent his life by marrying Rose, a former bargirl, and adopt Miaow, a street urchin. Naturally, he's running into all sorts of conflicts with his desired family and assorted bad guys.

  5. Firstly I'm with Kerrie - I'd love to have your recall of all the books you've read.

    On turning over a new leaf I think of Tom Rob Smith's book Child 44 - the protagonist is Leo Demidov who at the beginning of the book is high ranking official of the country's security services who believes in all the nastiest practices the government undertakes. By the end of the book Leo is a very different person, having been forced to confront his beliefs and make some very hard decisions. Quite aside from the mystery element of the novel (which in itself is interesting) Leo's efforts to change himself and the struggles it presents him are fascinating.

    I also can't help thinking of books set in countries which are turning over a new leaf, in particular things like Deon Meyer's books set in South Africa since the end of apartheid - these offer some really interesting insights into how entire cultures essentially turn over a new leaf - it is one of the things I really enjoy about his writing.

  6. Hey, I know an example of someone trying to turn over a new leaf...literally. It always made me laugh when Hercule Poirot thought of settling down and starting a garden to plant marrows. I loved the scenes when Hastings would walk in Hercule's flat and Hercule was yelling because his marrow experiment didn't go as planned. Well, that's how I remembered it anyway.

    I love the look at different books you had here. I haven't read most of these.


  7. John - Thanks for mentioning Hallinan. I'd heard that was a good book, but hadn't gotten to adding it to my personal Mount TBR. But that's exactly the kind of thing I meant with this post. "Turning over a new leaf" is not as easy as it seems.

    Bernadette - Thank you :-). Some people call it memory; others call it a very disturbing obsession. I must be stopped ;-).

    Thanks for mentioning Child 44. That one's on my Mount TBR, but I hadn't read it yet. Leo Demidov's personal changes throughout the novel really do sound fascinating, and the challenges he faces sound realistic. That kind of change is not easy. Folks, please do check out Bernadette's excellent review of Child 44.

    And I hadn't thought of "turning over a new leaf" on a larger scale, but you are absolutely right. That is an appeal of Deon Meyer's work. It's also an appeal of Jassy Mackenzie's work. In both cases, we get an "inside look" at a society that's trying to re-create itself, and the struggles it faces as it does so. Really interesting point!

  8. Clarissa - Oh, thank you for that reminder of Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd ! You're absolutely right that Poirot tries to "turn over a new leaf" and become a quiet vegetable marrow gardener. As we all know, that didn't happen. And you're right, too. He mentions it in more than one subsequent book.

  9. I'm with Kerrie. This is a very thought provoking post and I'm amazed at your details of the various books. It's wonderful. Turning over a new leaf does put a twist in the story when it's the killer who's trying to forget his past.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - *blush* Thank you :-). You've put a really interesting twist on this, too. What if it is the killer who's trying to "turn over a new leaf?" Most killers don't start out liking to take lives. At some point, they may, indeed, want to start over. Interesting point...

  11. I always find it sad that jus thwen you decide to turn over a new leaf, you end up getting yourself killed. What a waste :-(
    Another great post.

  12. Rayna - Thank you :-). Isn't it sadly ironic when a murder victim is killed just after he or she has "turned over a new leaf?" You're right that that really is a waste...

  13. Hi Margot -- And then we had all those ex-alcoholic cops and detectives, a "new leaf" trend that got old after a while. I can't even think of any of their names at the moment, but I have this image in my mind of the older cop sitting in a bar, drinking club soda with a twist.


  14. I love the line "Crime fiction teaches us that its not always successful, either". So true. Thanks for sharing an excellent discussion.

  15. Patricia - Oh, you are so right about that! There are plenty of crime fiction novels and series where the sleuth is a recovering alcoholic. Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder is an example. Lilian Jackson Braun's Jim Qwilleran is one, too. And the list goes on...

    Cassandra - Thanks : ). It's really true, I think; there are a lot of examples of crime fiction where that are focused on characters who try to "turn over a new leaf" and can't.

  16. Great post Margot. I'm with the others, your memory is amazing, such recall!
    And of course there are all those other characters who toy with the idea of turning over a new leaf, but never quite do it . . .

  17. There is something about this time of year that makes people want to refocus, isn't there? I always find I make far more resolutions in September than I ever do on January 1st. Do you think making a resolution to 'write better' would work? I seem to be spending days searching for my tiny talent. I suspect its hidden somewhere in my basement. I'm hoping it's there.

  18. As my trilogy progresses, a couple of the bad guys want to leave the group and turn over a new leaf. Easier said than done. As Michael Douglas says in the upcoming movie Wall Street, Money Never Sleeps, "Its easier to get in than it is to get out (paraphrase)."

  19. These were very interesting examples and made me want to read a few of these books I was unfamiliar with. Thanks.

  20. Buddhapuss - Thanks for your kind remarks :-). I think you've got an excellent point, too; it's just as fascinating when a character makes a resolution to do thinks differently... and doesn't. All kinds of forces at work there.

    Elspeth - I think your talent is far from tiny, and I love the resolution you have already made to give that talent the time and energy it deserves. I think it's quite possible to make a resolution to write more, or to focus more on it. Writing better, too, if by that you mean practicing more. Interesting point!! Thanks for the lesson :-).

    Stephen - It sounds like your trilogy is really focusing on this very issue. Interesting!!!! The more I read about it, the more I'm intrigued. And you are so right; it is far easier to get into a bad situation that one wants to change than it is to get out of it...

    Patti - That's very kind of you. With all that you've read, I take that as a compliment. Thanks :-).

  21. While I don't know yet what will ultimately happen between Mike Brody and Jessica--their relationship generally works until it doesn't--they tend to find their way back to each other over time.

    I wholly concur with other comments about the superlative nature of your memory, though you also command razor sharp analytical skills.

    Towards that end, I'll be rereading The Big Kill.

  22. Sam - Thank you so much for the kind words :-). That means a lot to me. And thanks very much for the "inside look" at Mike and Jessica. I'm really interested to see what happens with them, as I think you've created a likeable, believable pair. Whether or not they stay together permanently, it's easy to feel sympathy for them and see them as real people. I like Andy, too.

    And I know what you mean about re-reading books; I do that, too, especially if it's been awhile since I experienced it.

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