Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow*

Hope seems to be an essential human need. We need to believe that things will get better, and that good can come out of even tragedy. Hope gives us resilience and perseverance. Hope also can give us goals and purpose. In crime fiction, hope can relieve the sadness of a murder story, and give readers a sense of positive closure. It can also serve as an effective "bridge" from one book in a crime fiction series to the next. Of course, hope is also a tricky thing in crime fiction. After all, murder is horrible; it's tragic and devastating to those who have to live with its reality. Not to acknowledge that can lessen the impact of a story. Still, a dash of hope can add a welcome touch to what could otherwise be an unbearably sad story.

Agatha Christie's novels often include at least a touch of hope. For instance, in
Death on the Nile, wealthy and beautiful Linnet Ridgeway falls in love with the fiancé of her best friend Jacqueline "Jackie" de Bellefort. Despite her relationship with Jackie, Linnet allows a romance with Simon to develop and the two marry. During their honeymoon cruise, Linnet is shot. Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race of Special Services are on the same cruise and they investigate the case. Jackie de Bellefort is the most likely suspect, since she's also on the cruise and certainly had a strong motive. However, it's soon proven that she couldn't have committed the crime, so the two sleuths have to look elsewhere. In some ways, this story is very, very sad; after all, a beautiful young bride's murdered, a lifelong friendship's torn apart, and before the story's over, there are more deaths. There are also several personal sad stories that Poirot and Race uncover as they investigate. And yet, the story ends with hope. Two shipboard romances are kindled, a dangerous criminal is apprehended and we get the sense that life will go on.

We also see that in Christie's
Sad Cypress. That's the story of the death of Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury, in the town of Maidensford. The mistress of Hunterbury is wealthy Laura Welman, who's always been fond of Mary and had her educated "above her place." When Mrs. Welman suffers a debilitating stroke, her niece Elinor Carlisle and Elinor's fiancé Roderick "Roddy" Welman visit Hunterbury to be with her. Soon after they arrive, Roddy finds himself irresistibly drawn to Mary. In the midst of this personal drama, Laura Welman dies. Shortly after her death, Mary Gerrard is poisoned. The only real suspect in her murder is Elinor, who had both personal and financial motives for wanting Mary Gerrard out of the way. There's plenty of evidence against her, too and in fact, she's arrested and put on trial. Her only real advocate is Dr. Peter Lord, Aunt Laura's doctor. He's fallen in love with Elinor and is determined to clear her name. He asks Poirot to do whatever is necessary to have Elinor acquitted. Poirot examines the case and finds that more than one person had a strong motive to kill Mary Gerrard. There's quite a lot of sadness in this story. There's unrequited love, jealousy, dark family secrets and of course, murder. There's also the trial of Elinor Carlisle and her ordeal. And yet there's hope, too. Poirot finds out who really killed Mary Gerrard, so we get that sense of closure. There's also a strong hint at the end of the story that not only will life go on, but that there's a romance in the offing.

In Dorothy Sayers'
Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is invited back to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, for their Gaudy celebration and dinner. She's not sure of her welcome there, but decides to attend for the sake of an old friend who specifically asked her to go. The dinner goes very well and Vane is glad she went. Then, two months later, Vane gets a letter from the Dean of the college asking for help. Someone's been writing threatening anonymous letters and committing acts of vandalism on campus, and the College authorities would rather not call in the police. The Dean asks Vane to see if she can find out who's responsible for the frightening events. Vane agrees and goes back to the college on the pretext of doing research for a book. The disturbing occurrences continue and in fact, Vane herself is attacked and nearly killed. Lord Peter Wimsey goes to the school to help find out what's going on and he and Vane discover who's responsible for what's happened. There's plenty of sadness in this story, especially when we find out who committed the crimes and why. There's also sadness as Harriet Vane ponders the difference between the life and hopes she had at Oxford and what's happened to her (readers of Strong Poison will know that she's recently been on trial for murder). And yet, there's hope, too. At the end of this novel, Harriet Vane finally accepts Lord Peter Wimsey's proposal of marriage. We also get the sense that life will return to normal at the school.

There's hope, too, in
Alan Orloff's Diamonds for the Dead. Josh Handleman's life has been coming to pieces. His marriage has broken up, he's lost his job, and he's gotten word that his father Abe has had a fatal fall down a flight of stairs. Josh returns from San Francisco to his native Northern Virginia to arrange the funeral and see to his father's estate. When he begins to sort through things, he find out that his father was actually much wealthier than anyone really knew. What's more, Abe Handleman had been collecting diamonds for years and had a valuable cache. Then, a friend of his father's tells Josh that Abe was murdered. At first Josh doesn't believe it, but when it turns out that the diamonds are missing, it seems that Abe's friend may have been right. As Josh begins to search for the diamonds and for the truth about his father's death, he also finds himself more and more in danger. There's certainly real sadness in this story; Josh and his father had a difficult relationship, and we feel both his sense of loss and his sense of remorse that their relationship wasn't mended before Abe's death. There's also the reality that Abe was murdered. And yet, this story's got dashes of hope, too. There's a hopeful resolution to the question of what happened to the diamonds. There's also hope in the form of Rachel Rosen, a local teacher whom Josh knew as a boy and who proves to be helpful both in solving the case and in helping Josh to heal.

Michael Connelly's
9 Dragons has a great deal of sadness in it. In that novel, Harry Bosch investigates Chinese tongs - Mafia-like gangs - when a liquor store owner is shot. The owner had been paying extortion money to a gang, and Bosch believes that the gang's leaders are responsible for the shooting. Then, Bosch gets word that his daughter Maddie, who now lives in Hong Kong, has been kidnapped. Bosch begins a panic-stricken search for Maddie that ends up in more than one death, a heavy burden of guilt and personal tragedy for Bosch. And yet, at the end of this novel, there is also hope. Bosch starts a new role in his life, you might say, and we get the strong feeling that life will go on.

And then there's
Martin Edwards' The Serpent Pool, in which DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. Scarlett's search for answers leads her to the conclusion that this death is related to two more recent murders that are being investigated by a team led by Scarlett's friend Fern Larter. The two work together to find out how the deaths are related, and as they get closer to the truth, Oxford historian Daniel Kind gives Scarlett valuable insight into why the murders happened. One one hand, there's a great deal of sadness in this novel. There are, after all, three murders. There's personal disappointment and sadness for Scarlett, too. But at the same time there's hope. For one thing, Daniel Kind has returned to the Lake District and there are obvious hints that he and Scarlett may have a future. In fact, the last sentence of the novel expresses this hope quite effectively.

"Tomorrow would be another day."

Martin Clark's
The Legal Limit is another example of hope that eases the sadness of a story. In that novel, the Hunt family is torn apart when Gates Hunt, a former high school athletic star who's wasted his adulthood, shoots his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Gates hadn't planned the killed, but a heated argument spiraled out of control. The only witness to the argument and killing is Gate's brother Mason, an attorney who's made the most of every opportunity he's had. Out of a sense of loyalty and duty, Mason helps his brother hide the evidence of the crime and life goes on for both brothers. Then, Gates Hunt is arrested for cocaine trafficking and sentenced to a long prison term. He begs his brother to get him out of prison, and Mason refuses; Gates has proved himself to be a lying, thieving drug-abuser, and Mason knows he'll never change. When Gates finds out his brother won't help, he accuses Mason of the long-ago shooting. Now, Mason's facing an indictment for a crime he didn't commit. In this story, we see the sorrow of a family torn apart, the ravages of alcoholism, domestic violence and drug abuse, and the sorrow of death and loss. And yet, there is a sense of hope, too. We see the strong relationship that Mason Hunt has with his daughter Grace and later, with his grand-daughter. We also see the loyalty he's shown by people who are his real friends.

What do you think about dashes of hope in crime fiction? Do you find them welcome? Do you think they're too unrealistic?

: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin's


  1. The song was also in Annie wasn't it Margot?

  2. Kerrie - It was, indeed; Strouse and Charnin wrote the music/lyrics for that show.

  3. I love any relief in the tension of a crime fiction novel--whether it's comic relief, a romantic subplot, or just a glimmer of hope at some point in the plot. :)

  4. I think the promise of hope adds to a crime fiction novel, it makes it more realistic. For the most part, we humans need hope - hope that good will win over evil, hope that the world will be a better place for our children, hope that the girl finds the guy of her dreams, hope that in the end the story will have a happy ending.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Elizabeth - I think that's just it. One of the real benefits of having some glimmer of hope in a plot is that it does relieve the tension. And when a book is really suspenseful and there is a lot of tension, that can be most welcome!

    Mason - You make such a well-taken point! We humans do seem to need hope. We don't always expect to get everything we want (and we probably shouldn't, anyway ;-) ), but just the idea that everything will all work out does seem to keep us going. So in that sense, yes, I can see your point that some hope adds realism to a crime fiction story.

  6. Yes life would be a bit grim without hope...I agree that Alan Orloff's book (which I just read today) has a decent helping of it.

    I think I finally 'got' noir last year when I read my first Ken Bruen novel - it was pretty grim but all along the way there was a vague sense of hope that things might have turned for the better for the hapless protagonist. Until the very end of course. But without the hope along the way the ending wouldn't have been nearly so gut-wrenchingly good

  7. Bernadette - I'm glad you got a chance to read Diamonds for the Dead. I liked (among other things) the thread of hope that runs through it.

    You make a good point about noir, actually. When there is hope in a noir novel, it stands out against the bleakness. So yes, when the end comes crashing in, so to speak, it's all the more affecting. A well-written noir story (and Bruen does it well) uses hope almost as a tool. Or seems to.

  8. Now I *know* that what I want from crime fiction is credibility, not necessarily stark realism. I like cosies and police procedurals because you can expect a movement from order to caos to order - and for me, reading crime fiction is escapism. So give me my happy ending, that´s what I came for ;D

    I do read thrillers or noir now and then, but if there is too much misery and despair, I really need something lighter afterwards.

  9. Dorte - I know exactly and precisely what you mean! I like novels, too, that give one order, that promise that something good may come out of what's happened even if the novel has a lot of sadness. After all, as you say, we read stories (including crime fiction) to escape as much as for any other reasons.

    I also like your distinction between credibility and stark realism. There is a difference between something we could imagine will happen and the starkness of some realism. Sometimes it's a subtle difference but it's there.

  10. What a great post! I think that's one reason I love reading mystery novels is there's always a solution. In the real world, we HOPE things get resolved but they often don't. In the mystery novel, we hope things have a happy ending and they often do. I keep hoping things in Mexico will get less violent, so far, it's not really. But, there's hope.

  11. Clarissa - Thank you :-). I think hope sustains us in the real world, too. I read about the situation in Mexico and like you, I have hope that it'll get better. So far, perhaps not, but as you say, there is hope. And I think a lot of people agree with you; the hope that there's going to be a solution to the mystery and that the "bad guy" is going to get caught is definitely one reason people love crime fiction.

  12. Gaudy Night has always been a particular favorite and Harriet Vane, a wonderful character.

  13. Patti - Isn't Harriet Vane a great character? I've always liked her very much! And yes, Gaudy Night's a good 'un. Maybe it's that I'm an academic, so I like that academic context...

  14. I am pretty sure I would not like a book which ends without any hope. Hope is what keeps us going, sustains us. And that is the one thing I look for in any book. Which probably is why I like mysteries- they mostly end on an upbeat note.
    And I liked that the last line of a book where the MC is called Scarlett is "tomorrow would be another day"!

  15. Rayna - It's funny you would mention that last line of The Serpent Pool. Just before that moment, Hannah Scarlett thinks of exactly that! Thinking of Scarlett O'Hara is what leads her to the thought that tomorrow will be another day.

    I agree with you, too about an element of hope in books. I like that, too. I can certainly appreciate it if a truly bleak, hopeless book is well-written. But as you say, hope sustains us, and I really find it important to look for it in novels.