Thursday, November 18, 2010

There’s Just Too Much That Time Cannot Erase*

It’s a sad fact of life that we all get hurt. Most of the time, those scars can heal, and we go on with life. We may not forget what’s happened to us but we can pick up our lives and move forward. There are some hurts, though, that run so deep that we find it hard to “bounce back.” Some people never do. For those people, their lives are so permanently affected by what’s happened to them that it colours everything they do and how they see the world. As crime fiction shows us, it’s only natural to feel that hurt. Characters who do can resonate with readers and become sympathetic. But it can be dangerous – even deadly – to let those wounds – even the serious ones – rule our lives.

There’s a really interesting case of how those old scars affect our lives in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the death of a charwoman who lived and worked in the village of Broadhinny. Everyone believes that her unpleasant lodger James Bentley is responsible, and there is evidence against him. In fact, the evidence is so strong that he’s been convicted and is scheduled to be executed. Superintendent Spence thinks Bentley is innocent, though, and asks Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees, travels to Broadhinny and begins to look into the case. He finds out that some of the people in Broadhinny have been keeping some secrets, and that Mrs. McGinty found out one of those secrets. It’s that secret that got her killed. Interestingly enough, another character in the novel has been, as you might say, scarred by that secret and actually came to the Broadhinny area for that reason. It’s admittedly a sub-plot in the novel, but it adds a layer of interest to that character.

In Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side), Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry investigate the poisoning death of Heather Badcock. The death takes place shortly after Heather gets the chance to meet her screen idol Marina Gregg at a fête hosted by Marina and her husband Jason Rudd. At first, it’s assumed that Marina Gregg was the intended victim. She’s certainly made her share of enemies, among them rival actress Lola Brewster. Besides, the cocktail that killed Heather Badcock was originally Marina Gregg’s. It’s soon evident, though, that Heather was the intended victim all along. Now, Miss Marple and Dolly Bantry try to find out who would want to kill a seemingly harmless woman, and why. They discover that Heather Badcock was murdered because someone had an old scar that had never healed.

In Håkan Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark, Detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the shooting death of Ryszard Malik, who was murdered inside his own home. There’s not much evidence to go on, so the team is faced with quite a difficult challenge. Then another murder occurs. It’s very soon clear that this killer has a specific agenda and is going to strike again. So the team has to not only find and catch the killer, but also prevent further deaths. In this case, we know who the murderer is from the beginning of the novel. As the story unfolds, we also learn what the killer’s motive is, too. What we discover is that this killer is motivated by a terrible scar that never healed. This novel is a fascinating case of the frightening lengths to which we could imagine going after a traumatic, terrible hurt.

We also see that in Simon Lelic’s Rupture (AKA A Thousand Cuts). DI Lucia May is called in to investigate some terrible shootings at an exclusive London school New history teacher Samuel Szajkowski walked into a crowded auditorium and shot three students and another teacher before turning the gun on himself. May is under intense pressure to put these dreadful deaths down to the work of a man who had simply “snapped,” as the saying goes. She’s expected to “rubber stamp” the official explanation that the murders were the work of one tragically unbalanced person. As she begins to interview the students, teachers and administrators of the school, though, May learns that the explanation for the killings isn’t nearly that simple. In fact, they were caused by some terrible hurts that hadn’t healed. What’s compelling about this book is that the case May is investigating is, in a way, mirrored by workplace “scars” that May herself has to endure.

May isn’t the only sleuth, either, who has to deal with very deep scars. Carol O’Connell’s Kathleen “Kathy” Mallory has a deeply troubled background. So troubled, in fact, that she ended up alone and homeless on the streets of New York City. At the age of eleven, Mallory was taken in by New York City police detective Louis Markowitz. In Mallory’s Oracle, we learn that Mallory still carries serious scars from her experiences, but she’s become a police officer and has managed to create a life for herself. Those wounds come back to haunt Mallory, though, when her surrogate father Markowitz is murdered. His body is discovered near one of a series of wealthy elderly female victims of a killer he was hunting when he died. Mallory takes up where Markowitz left off and with his former partner, Detective Riker, searches for her “father’s” killer.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch also has some serious scars. His mother was murdered when he was eleven years old. His father, a well-known attorney, wasn’t a part of his life until he became an adult. Bosch spent much of his childhood in foster care, orphanages and other institutions. All of these scars have profoundly affected Bosch’s outlook, attitudes and his way of dealing with life. We see this in several of the novels that feature him. Bosch’s old wounds and scars take center stage in The Last Coyote, in which Bosch loses control of himself and pushes a superior, Lt. Pounds, through a window. For that, he’s taken off active duty and ordered to undergo psychological counseling before he can return to duty. Bosch is at first unwilling to go through with the mandatory counseling sessions, but he soon accepts the fact that he’s not going to be able to do his job if he doesn’t. As Bosch begins to explore the scars and wounds he carries, he also opens one of them in a very real way: he re-opens the thirty-year-old murder of a prostitute – his own mother.

There’s also James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, who carries plenty of deep wounds and scars. In several of the novels that feature Robicheaux, we learn about the way he’s been affected by his experience in Viet Nam. In fact, more than once he has flashbacks from that time, brought on by the stress of the cases he investigates. Robicheaux has also suffered great personal loss. For instance, his mother abandoned his family when he was a boy. His father died in an explosion on an oil rig. His wife, Anne Ballard, was murdered. All of these scars profoundly influence Robicheaux’s life.

S.J. Bolton’s Clara Benning, whom we meet in Awakening, also bears scars – quite literal ones. She’s a reclusive wildlife veterinary surgeon who’s very much more comfortable with animals than with people. In fact, she avoids people whenever she can. That’s mostly because her face was badly scarred from an awful childhood tragedy. Benning has a lot of knowledge about reptiles. So when several frightening incidents involving snakes begin to occur in her village, she’s called in to help. Against her instinct to avoid people, Benning works with Assistant Chief Constable Matt Hoare and television personality/reptile expert Sean North to find out the truth about these terrifying events.

Some scars seem not to heal, and their effects stay with a person throughout life. Characters who bear those scars can be compelling – even haunting. They can also be cliché and contrived if the character isn’t well-drawn. As with anything else in crime fiction, this is a case of balance. But what do you think? Do you think this sort of character is too cliché?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Evanescence’s My Immortal.


  1. Great post Margot. I'm really impressed to see how each day you are able to come up with a different topic, keeping a very high standard on all your blog posts.

  2. José Ignacio - You are very kind - thank you :-) *blush*. I suppose it is a symptom of being addicted to crime fiction ;-).

  3. This post is great timing for me as I have just launched into writing my next novel, which involves a protagonist who is very scarred. I shall make sure he is of the compelling and haunting ilk, not the cliched!

  4. Oh, goody, I have another one for you. Betty Webb's Lena Jones was found by the road with a bullet in her head when she was only four years old. She's left with physical and emotional scars, unsure who her parents are and raised in a series of abusive foster homes. The series is excellent, but the best one (IMHO) was "Desert Wives," which deals with young girls in a community of polygamists.

  5. Vanda - I couldn't imagine you writing a clichéd character. My guess is that your character will be terrific. Just from your short description, he sounds that way :-).

    Patricia - Oh, wow! Thanks for that suggestion. Lena Jones sounds like an absolutely fascinating person. Characters like that often have such unique ways of looking at the world; I'll bet she's really interesting. I'm going to have to check that series out. I'm very glad you mentioned it.

  6. I don't think a character who is "scarred" is cliched--someone like that can be a cliche, but only if the rest of their personality is that way.

  7. Golden Eagle - Oh, well-made point! If the character is interesting to begin with, this certainly can prevent her or him from becoming clichéd.

  8. Another fascinating post, Margot! You always give us so much to think about, and so many fine examples. I wasn't aware of Mallory's Oracle, it sounds like a great read.

    All of the stories you've mentioned in this post include compelling characters, and most have more than one "scar." I think that's what keeps it from being cliche, since the characters' backgrounds are so intricately drawn, they are unique. In addition, they all respond differently, too!

    I just finished listening to an audiobook of Donald Westlake's 361. The main character gets a bunch of scars (literally) and painful losses one after the other, in "present" time, which pushes him to act and react in a certain way.

    Patricia -- I was fortunate to hear Betty Webb speak at the Public Safety Writers Conference in las Vegas in 2009 and chat with her during lunch one day. She's a talented lady who writes some fascinating stories.

  9. I agree with Jose, each post is so well done. So when do I get my degree in crime fiction? What!? This isn't a university course? ;)

    I think that scars are so important. I think more for the main characters than the characters that last one novel. However if they cross in a novel, that's even better.


  10. Kathleen - You are fortunate that you heard Betty Webb speak; I'd have liked to.

    Thanks for that suggestion about 361. Westlake has written some interesting hardboiled stories, and I'm glad you liked this one. You make a good point, too, about scars pushing characters to act in one way or another. Sometimes, that is exactly what happens, so I'm glad he makes that clear in the novel.

    And...thanks *blush* for the very kind words. That means a lot to me! :-).

  11. Clarissa - LOL! I ought to think think about degrees... - just kidding! ;-). But I'm not kidding when I say "Thanks" for the kind words :-).

    And I agree with you. Scars can make a character unique, can make a character human, can make a character fascinating. As you say, it's the main character who really has to hold our attention. If the others do, too, so much the better, but yes, the main character has to be interesting...

  12. Patti - *Blush* You are dangerously good for my ego!

  13. Note back to Kathleen and all who love Betty Webb -- her new Gunn Zoo series is good, too. She is a very entertaining speaker, especially when she starts talking about the research she does for her books. Good stuff.

  14. Patricia - Thanks :-). Much appreciated

  15. The books you mentioned are wonderful examples of a scared character. I enjoy books that has a character like that. There are so many possibilities whether the character is the good guy or the bad. I think books with these type characters make us stop and think a little about how far we would go when faced with their past scares. Another amazing post. I may not always comment, but I do always enjoy reading your post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  16. Mason - You're really awfully kind :-). Thank you *Blush*. You've got a really well-taken point, too. When there is a character who bears scars, we see how that character's been affected and then we can wonder how we might react in the same situation. That draws the reader in. You've also got a very well-taken point that characters like that open up all sorts of interesting plot possibilities. So the reader can be surprised as the story goes on.

  17. I'll have to leave this 'til later Margot - I'm kind of caught up reading this mystery about a dead violinist (see tomorrow's blog post). Hope all is well...

  18. Craig - Oh, exciting! That's very kind of you :-). I shall definitely check your blog tomorrow as I always do.

  19. How do you come up with the topics that you do come up with. This is a class post, on a great topic.
    Yes, some scars never seem to heal, and some people never want their scars healed.

  20. Rayna - Oh, you are so right!! Some people do not want to let go of the past and heal. What a terrific insight!!! For some reason, there are people who carry their pain around.

    And thank you for the kind words :-) *blush*