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?”