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.