Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Keep Your Dream Alive, Dreaming is Still How the Strong Survive*

What are your dreams? Even the most cynical and pragmatic people often have dreams they’d like to pursue. It seems to be an essential part of our nature to dream and if you think about it, many of the great developments in human history have come about because of someone’s dreams. Dreams can push us to persevere, and they can keep us strong in the face of troubles. They’re such an important part of human nature that it’s not surprising that we see plenty of big dreams and dreamers in crime fiction. Dreams and dreaming can make for a solid plot for a mystery, and dreams can add a layer of real interest to a character. They can also make for a welcome touch of hope in a novel, and that can prevent a novel from becoming too dark. For those who like their crime fiction to be very bleak and dark, shattered dreams can make for an unutterably sad story. Either way, crime fiction certainly has its share of dreamers.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit features dreamer Anne Beddingfield. When her professor father dies, leaving her nearly penniless, Anne agrees to move in with her father’s solicitor and his family while she decides what her next steps in life will be. Anne dreams of adventure, though, and soon finds life with her “adopted” family rather dull. One day, she’s at a tube stop when she witnesses a terrible accident. A man falls onto the tracks and is killed. As his body is being taken away, a paper flutters out of his pocket. Anne picks it up and finds a cryptic message on it. By chance, she discovers that the note refers to a forthcoming voyage of the Kilmorden Castle to Cape Town. On impulse, Anne decides to follow her dream of adventure and buys passage on the ship. She’s soon swept up in a web of international intrigue, stolen jewels, kidnapping and murder. Throughout the story, Anne remains resilient, even though things get very dangerous for her more than once. You could say that it’s in part her dream of adventure that keeps her going.

In Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder in Retrospect), we meet Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. Christow’s got an all-consuming dream: he wants to cure Ridgeway’s Disease, which is fatal. What’s interesting about his dream is that he isn’t pursuing it for fame or glory. He’s intellectually passionate about finding out what causes the disease and how to cure it. Christow’s passion for his dream is a critical part of his character; in fact, his mistress Henrietta Savernake acknowledges that to Christow, his dream is more important than anything else – including her. Christow’s dreams are ended when he’s fatally shot during a week-end stay at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot is staying at a getaway cottage nearby, and happens to come upon the murder scene because he’s been invited to the Angkatells’ home for lunch that day. He works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed Christow and why. Also staying at the Angkatells’ home is Lucy Angkatell’s younger cousin Midge Hardcastle. She lives a much more working-class life than do her wealthy and privileged relations, and she resents the Angkatells for their obliviousness to the hard realities of daily life. Midge has fond memories of Ainswick, the Angkatell family home, from her youth. In fact, she still dreams of the place and of life there with Edward Angkatell, whom she’s loved as long as she can remember. Although Midge’s love of Edward and of Ainswick aren’t the central core of the plot, they make for an interesting sub-plot and they add a layer of interest to Midge’s character.

Kerrie Shawn is a dreamer who features in Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth. She wants to be a Hollywood actress but she hasn’t made it yet. She lives in a run-down apartment with a friend, and is barely making enough money to live. Yet she’s determined to be successful. She tries for every acting job she can, even the smallest “bit part,” and hasn’t given up on what she wants. Kerrie’s life changes when she meets Beau Rummell, Queen’s new detective-agency partner. The agency has been hired by very wealthy eccentric Cadmus Cole to find his only living relations, one of whom is Kerrie Shawn. Queen’s been sidelined by appendicitis, so he sends Rummell to Hollywood in his place. Then, word comes that Cole has died. According to the provisions of his will, Kerrie has to move into Cole’s upstate New York mansion and live there with her long-lost cousin Margo Cole, Cole’s only other relation. Kerrie moves into the mansion, only to be suspected of murder when Margo Cole is shot. Rummell’s fallen in love with Kerrie, and works with Queen to clear her name.

M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Bore features a group of dreamers: people who’ve signed up for writing classes from noted screenwriter John Heppel. When Heppel offers classes to the locals of the Scottish village of Lochdubh, several people are terribly excited that finally, they’ll make their dreams of being published authors come true. On the first night of class, Heppel dashes several people’s dreams by publicly demeaning his students and their work. Heppel’s harshness upsets the students, who are passionate about their hopes. Lochdubh constable Hamish Macbeth tries to warn Heppel not to tread on the locals’ dreams, but to no avail. The students’ anger turns to fury after the second class when Heppel’s barrage of criticism becomes too much. One night later, Heppel is killed. Macbeth is faced with several suspects as he investigates the murder.

There’s a really clear example of dreaming keeping a person strong in Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo. In that novel, we meet thirteen-year-old Tenille Cole. She lives in a dilapidated, lower-class block of London council flats called Marshpool Farm Estate. Tenille lives with her Aunt Sharon, who resents being responsible for her, and who in any case is too involved with her series of boyfriends to pay much attention to her niece. Despite her lower-class background and unpleasant living situation, Tenille’s got big dreams. She loves poetry and writing, and dreams of someday being a writer herself. The only person she confides in is her neighbour Jane Gresham, a post-doctoral teaching assistant and Wordsworth scholar with dreams of her own. When one of Aunt Sharon’s “friends” tries to rape Tenille, she turns to Jane for help and before long, she’s caught up in Jane’s search for a missing Wordsworth manuscript.

And then there’s thirteen-year-old Eugene “Huge” Smalls, the protagonist of James W. Fuerst’s Huge. He’s a troubled student who can’t seem to keep himself in school or out of trouble. He dreams of being a famous detective, just like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. Huge gets his chance when his grandmother offers him ten dollars to find out who defaced the sign at the nursing home where she lives. Huge takes the case eagerly and begins to investigate. His dreams of “cracking the case” help him through being beaten in more than one fight, awkwardness around a girl he’s attracted to, social ineptness and rows with his sister. In the end, Huge finds out who defaced the sign and why – and learns quite a lot about himself in the process.

Riley Adams (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) introduces us to dreamer Mildred Cameron in Delicious and Suspicious. Mildred is an aspiring writer who dreams of becoming famous and well-known. For years she’s been working on and refining a romance novel. So when famous Cooking Channel scout Rebecca Adrian comes to town, Mildred thinks she has her chance to make her dreams come true. She’s introduced to Rebecca at Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, a restaurant Rebecca is scouting as a finalist for the Cooking Channel’s Best Barbecue in Memphis award. Rebecca wants to impress the locals, so she claims to know all sorts of important people. Mildred’s taken in by this façade and asks Rebecca to promote her manuscript to New York publishers. Instead of being helpful, Rebecca ends up humiliating Mildred by insulting her and her writing in public. Mildred is crushed, and actually becomes a suspect when Rebecca Adrian is poisoned. Aunt Pat’s owner Lulu Taylor wants to find out who killed Rebecca Adrian; the victim died shortly after a visit to her restaurant, and there’s a cloud of suspicion on the restaurant and the staff. Lulu doesn’t really think Mildred killed Rebecca Adrian, and she’s re-affirmed in her belief when Mildred confesses that she’s still following her writing dream: she’s going to turn the experience into a mystery novel.

Dreams can be risky, but they can give us strength and motivation. What dreams will you pursue in 2011?

ps. The beautiful little dreamer in the picture is my daughter at about age three.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Huey Lewis’ Once Upon a Time in New York City.


  1. Wonderful picture!

    And my own dream? That some agent or publisher will like "The Cosy Knave" so I can get it out there.

  2. Dorte - Thank you :-). And I wish the same dream for you. The Cosy Knave is a terrific story and I can't wait to hear your announcement that it's been picked up for publication.

  3. What a cute little girl! I hope her dreams came true. I hope your dreams are coming true. Great examples.

    Side note: It's "Grave" Tattoo not "Ghost" Tattoo. But, I love the example in that book. Love that you featured it on Monday.

    I have a question for you, have you read McDermid's Fever of the Bone? I'm having a hard time getting into it, I was wondering if you found the book interesting.


  4. Your daughter is beautiful!! What a cutie :)

    I'm going to pursue the dream of balance. I need to learn the art of saying No so I have more time for my family and my personal dreams. It's a tough word to learn!

  5. Clarissa - First, thanks for pointing out that I wrote that Val Mcdermid title wrong *blush.* I've fixed it. I was thinking of another book with the word Ghost in the title, and I suppose my brain just muddled them.

    And thanks for the kind words about my daughter; hard to believe that she'll be 20 in the spring! I'm very much hoping her dreams come true, too :-).

    As far as Fever of the Bone goes, I found parts of it a bit slow going, to be candid, but really, I did enjoy it. I honestly would not say it's among the very best. Still, I liked some of the Tony Hill character development an awful lot.

    Jemi - Thanks so much for the kind words :-). And I know exactly, exactly what you mean about learning the power of the word, no. We do need to achieve balance in our lives, and I think all of us have to find a way to do that. I wish you well finding yours.

  6. It's nice to see your daughter.Love to read all your posts. :)

  7. Your daughter is a beautiful little dreamer there. Dreams for the coming year would have to include dreaming of becoming more organized, that would be most helpful. Hope all your dreams for the 2011 come true.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Margot, what a lovely photo of your beautiful dreamer!

  9. Great picture! If the dreams of such an innocent mind come true; the world will be a beautiful place. :)

    Initially, I just read the word "dream" from the title and assumed that this one would be about specific dreams and the role they play in a mystery. (Something like the one designed by Salvador Dali for movie "Spellbound" by Alfred Hitchcock. Scientific irregularities apart, I loved that movie)

    Dreamers who believe in their dreams are a powerful force (good or evil) because the dream is often central to their very existence. There are very few motives stronger than a threatened dream! Great for mystery plots.

    May everyone find strength to realize their dreams in the new year.

  10. Sixret - Thank you :-); That's very kind of you.

    Mason - Thanks for the kind words :-). I know just what you mean about wanting to be more organized. People are doing so much these days that it's just about impossible to keep everything straight and get it all done. I wish you well getting to that goal.

    Norman - Why, thank you! :-)

    Amey - That's very kind of you; thank you :-). You know, I'd thought about doing a post on exactly that: the dreams that people have, and how they figure into crime fiction. Your example from Spellbound is the kind of thing I thought of. But I went for a slightly different focus this time. I'm going to do that post about dreams another time...

    And you are right about the power of dreams. Sometimes a person's dreams are so strong that they do become central to that person's existence; that can be dangerous. In fact, I can think of an Agatha Christie novel where the murderer kills to help make a dream come true.

    I, too, wish everyone the imagination to have a dream and the strength to realise it next year.

  11. I love that picture, too - what a lovely little sleeping beauty! In my opinion, Val McDermid's novels, while always very professional, are somewhat uneven - some feel as if they were somewhat written on autopilot whereas others are much better. I am pleased she seems to have stopped writing very gruesome stuff nowadays, at least.

    Rebecka Martinson (Asa Larsson novels) is a dreamer - she is a financial lawyer in the first book but really is not happy in this role and perhaps one day will be able to follow her dreams...

  12. Maxine - Thank you :-). They grow so quickly, don't they, so I will always treasure that moment...

    I actually agree with you about McDermid. Her work is, indeed, professional always. It's well-researched and well-structured, and so on. And yet, yes, some are most definitely more engaging and really absorbing than others are. And as I'm not one for truly gruesome scenes, I'm glad, too, that there are fewer of them in her more recent work.

    And thanks for reminding me of Rebecka Martinson. What I like about her character is that so many people dream of being lawyers because they've seen unrealistic depictions of the lives lawyers lead on television, or read badly-written legal novels. But Rebecka knows the reality of it. It's a nice dose of real life and a reminder of that old saying about all that glitters...

  13. Dreams and dreaming are so important in life aren't they? Be they simple ones or complicated ones. And so much of crime fiction happens because people try to take a short-cut to achieve a dream.

    Your daughter is quite the dreamer (my older son is too), and I do hope the world allows them to hold onto their ability to dream.

    My dream for the year? Just one really- I want to be around for the children as much as they need. Last year, I was hoping for a miracle on the job front - I was in job that did not satisfy me, but which allowed me flexibility to manage my home. I am glad, I took the risk and moved to something that gives me more satisfaction, even if I am having to work longer hours from home). I now want to be able to put aside anything else that I need to put aside to have time for the kids.

  14. Rayna - Oh, you put that very well! People try to take short cuts and yes, that often leads to real trouble, doesn't it? But still, dreams are a very important part of our lives. They sustain us.

    I think it takes a strong person to hold onto that ability to dream because as you say, the world can be very hard on dreamers. But I'll bet with you as a mother, your son will be able to follow his dreams and make them happen.

    I admire your dream for the coming year. I have so much respect for you for putting your children first. Thirty years from now, you will not be asking yourself regretfully, "Why didn't I spend more hours on the job?!?" You would, I think (or at least I would) ask yourself regretfully, "Why didn't I spend more time with my boys when they were young?" At least that's always the way I've thought about it.