Friday, February 18, 2011

Whenever You Need Me, I'll Be There*

One of the interesting things about crime fiction is the way it teaches us about ourselves. That’s one reason I love the genre I as much as I do; the whole of human experience is right there. So is the whole set of human values and range of human emotions and the issues that we face. To take just one example, think about the way we define “family.” It used to be that the only people who really counted as family were people with whom one had a blood relationship or a relationship-by-marriage. Now, people create families in all sorts of ways, including adoption. Adoption’s been around for a long time, of course, and it’s interesting to see how it’s been perceived as time has gone by.

For instance, Agatha Christie treats adoption in a few of her stories. In the short story Dead Man’s Mirror, which appears in her collection Murder in the Mews, Hercule Poirot receives what amounts to a Royal Summons from Sir Gervase Chevinix-Gore, an old-fashioned, family-proud “country squire” type who believes that someone may be swindling him. Despite his pique at Chevenix-Gore’s arrogance, Poirot travels to his home. A very short time after Poirot’s arrival, Chevenix-Gore apparently commits suicide. But there seems to be no motive for the suicide and Sir Gervase was emphatically not the kind of person who’d think he’d be better off dead. So Poirot has to search for a murderer. There’s more than one suspect, too. Sir Gervase had a dangerous habit of arranging others’ lives to suit his purposes, regardless of what they might want, and he held the purse strings. One of the interesting characters in this story is Ruth Chevenix-Gore, adopted daughter of Sir Gervase and his wife Vanda. At one point in the story she says of herself that she’s “only adopted” (as opposed to a “real” child), and although it’s not specified, her adoption seems to be more acceptable because she’s the biological daughter of a distant family member. It’s a fascinating “snapshot” of a society’s attitude.

Adoption is also a theme in Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, written some thirty years later. In that novel, Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny, where a local charwoman was murdered, allegedly by her unpleasant lodger. Superintendent Spence doesn’t believe the man is guilty, though, and asks Poirot to look into the case. In the course of his investigation, Poirot meets the villagers, several of whom might have had a motive for murdering Mrs. McGinty. The topic of adoption comes up one night at a cocktail party when Maureen Summerhayes, who runs Long Meadows, a local guest house, mentions a letter to the local paper. The writer asked whether it was better to give up a baby for adoption if that meant the child would have all sorts of advantages, or to keep the baby. It’s an interesting discussion and leads to the revelation that Maureen herself is adopted. Opinions vary on the topic, but it’s certainly discussed more openly in this novel than in the previous story. More than one thing is let slip at this party, and one of them is an important clue to the murderer. In the end, it turns out that Mrs. McGinty found out more about the background and real identity of one of the villagers than it was safe for her to know.

In today’s society, adoption is a very common and openly-discussed way to build a family. That doesn’t mean it isn’t without its challenges, but it’s really interesting to see how the topic’s addressed in modern crime fiction. For instance, in Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, Deborah St. James is despondent; she’s desperate for a child, but she’s had six miscarriages, and her doctors have advised her that she’s in real physical danger if she tries again too soon to have a child. Her husband Simon is interested in adoption, but Deborah won’t hear of it. Terribly upset, she goes to a museum one day where she encounters Robin Sage, vicar of Winslough. He gives Deborah a real sense of peace and she’s drawn to that message. So she persuades Simon to take a holiday at Winslough so they can spend more time with the vicar. When they arrive, though, it’s too late. Robin Sage has been poisoned in what looks like a tragic accident. But it’s not long before Simon begins to think Sage was murdered. He asks his friend Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley to investigate. As Lynley, Simon and Deborah search for the truth, they uncover several secrets that various villagers have been keeping. And in the process of finding out who really killed Sage and why, Deborah St. James learns much about what it really means to be a parent.

Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children also deals with the topic of adoption. In that novel, Commissario Guido Brunetti becomes aware of a possible baby-trafficking ring that’s connected to a group of fertility clinics. He begins his investigation after the Caribinieri enter the home of Dr. Gustavo Pedrolli and his wife, Bianca Marconi and take their toddler son Alfredo away from the couple because they suspect that the child might have been trafficked, rather than adopted legitimately. Brunetti finds out that the Caribinieri have taken several other children in the same way, and that the children will become, at least for the present, wards of the government. There’s a very real question raised as to whether it’s better to take that action (since the children were not, in fact, legitimately adopted), or to leave them with the caregivers who’ve been loving them and raising them as parents do. Throughout the novel, we see Pedrolli’s love for his son as Brunetti compares that with his own devotion to his own two children.

And then there’s C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. In that novel, Jack and Melissa McGuane are the loving and devoted adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. Then, Jack is shattered when the couple’s adoption attorney tells them that Angelina’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, never waived his parental rights and is now planning to assert them. The McGuanes decide to fight the case, especially since Garrett Moreland has never shown the least bit of interest in the baby before, and Jack suspects his motives. They’re up against considerable odds, though. Moreland’s father is a powerful judge who’s taken his son’s side in the case. The court declares that the McGuanes must relinquish Angelina within twenty-one days. When they get that news, they determine to do whatever is necessary to keep Angelina. It turns out that “whatever is necessary” goes much further than either McGuane had ever imagined. It’s a gripping look at how strong the bond is between adoptive parents and their children.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe becomes an adoptive parent in Tears of the Giraffe when her then-fiancé (later husband), Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, meets Motholeli and Puso, a sister and brother who live at a local orphanage. Mma. Sylvia Potokwane, who runs the orphanage, wants the children to go to a good home. She persuades Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take them and he agrees, although he knows he should discuss it first with Mma. Ramotswe. When Mma Ramotswe finds out what her fiancé has done, she is upset but as she says, “only for a moment.” She also realises what a good man she has chosen, to take two orphans and provide a home for them. As the novels progress, the four become a very united family.

As crime fiction shows us, adoption can be a very strong bond that forges families in a unique way. I should know. Those ‘photos you see are of my own lovely daughter, who has enriched my husband’s life and mine since we adopted her at the age of nine months, nineteen years ago. Happy “Airport Birthday” to my wonderful child.

The Answer (To an adopted child)

Not flesh of my flesh,
Nor bone of my bone,
But still miraculously
My own.
Never forget
For a single minute:
You didn’t grow under my heart,
But in it.

Fleur Conkling Heyliger

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Jackson 5's I'll Be There.


  1. Oh, you saved the best for last. Congratulations to all of you!

  2. What a great poem. I often think about adoption but I know it would be difficult on my family. I like the children sent abroad and sent back to London later in life. That happened in: Elephants Can Remember and Five Little Pigs.

  3. Clarissa - I love that poem, too :-). Adoption isn't an easy thing, and requires lots of planning and real commitment, as any parenting does. And thanks for reminding me about Five Little Pigs and Elephants Can Remember. You are absolutely right that both of those novels involve children sent away and then returning later. Good point!

  4. I love the poem, so beautiful and true. Happy birthday to your daughter, as well.

    Adoption in a story can be that extra layer of intrigue. It can be used as a red herring or the source of the killer's rage.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Mason - Thank you :-). We consider ourselves so fortunate to have her in our lives. And I agree - the poem is wonderful.

    You're quite right; the fact of adoption can lead to all kinds of plot twists, like identity, protecting a killer, and lots more. When it's done well, it can be very intriguing!

  6. Happy "Airport" Birthday to your gorgeous daughter. I always wanted to have one child and adopt another, but after my first child, I was not sure if I would love another child the same way as I did him.
    Always admire people who adopt a child and make a success of the relationship. You are really amazing, Margot, and all three of you are lucky to have the other.

  7. Rayna - Thank you :-). And yes, our lives are so much richer because we have each other. I know mine is.

    You make such an interesting point about how parents feel about their children, especially when they have more than one. Each child is unique, so loving and caring parents like you love them for that uniqueness. That means they love them in different ways. Not more or less - different.

  8. What a delightful post! I believe in the great extended family of those we are connected to by blood or choice. My step-daughter is one of the true loves of my life, definitely right there with my bio-kids and my grand-kids. As well I was a parent to a friend's child for about three years (until the friend found a mate) and I still adore her beyond all reasoning!

  9. Jan - Why, thank you! Your experience is exactly the kind of thing I was thinking as I wrote this. Family bonds and connections don't require DNA. And I'm sure both your step-daughter and your friend's daughter have benefited immensely from having you as a mom in their lives.

  10. Congratulations to the whole family!

    I found Missing Joseph and Three Weeks to Say Goodbuy captivating mysteries, and I also enjoyed Sophie Hannah´s Little Face with a related theme. In the latest Camilla Läckberg I read there were just two many babies, pregnancies and adoptions - so many that you almost lost track of the crime plot.

  11. Dorte - Thank you so much :-). And thanks for reminding me of Little Face. You're quite right about that novel. It's got a real psychological edge of suspense to it, too! I admit I haven't read as much Läckberg as I should, and I haven't read her most recent; I know what you mean, though about having so many events that they can take away from the crime plot.

  12. What a special post! Love the pictures. Hope your daughter had an amazing birthday. :)

  13. Elizabeth - Thank you :-). Yeah, she's a special person and I am so lucky she chose my husband and me :-). And yes, I think she's had a good birthday.

  14. Three Weeks to Say Goodbye is the only one of these I read, but it was chilling.

    Thank you for the pictures of your precious daughter, Margot. What joy she must have added to your lives.

  15. Patricia - She certainly has brought joy into our lives from the moment we met her. :-)

    And I agree with you; Three Weeks to Say Goodbye is a truly chilling story. Part of what makes it that way is just how real the characters are.