Friday, March 25, 2011

Every Cloud...

…has a silver lining, or so the saying goes. But can good really come from something horrible, even a terrible tragedy like a murder? Many people’s first answer would be, “No.” Murder devastates lives, puts intolerable strain on those who investigate it, and can haunt one forever. And yet, in crime fiction at least, there is sometimes good that can be salvaged from the horror. I’m not talking here about mysteries where the victim is a detestable person who made the lives of everyone else miserable. In those mysteries, it’s obvious (perhaps too obvious) that good can come from such a murder. I’m talking about other kinds of “silver linings.”

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Captain Arthur Hastings visits his old friend John Cavendish at the Cavendish family home Styles Court. While Hastings is there, Cavendish’s stepmother Emily Inglethorp suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Hastings has by chance discovered that Hercule Poirot, a recent refugee from Belgium, is staying in the nearby village. Hastings asks Poirot to investigate and Poirot is only too happy to oblige, as Mrs. Inglethorp sponsored his immigration and that of his fellow refugees. At the time of Emily Inglethorp’s death, the Inglethorp/Cavendish home is not a really happy one. John Cavendish and his wife Mary are having marital problems. The entire family is upset by Emily Inglethorp’s decision to marry her second husband Alfred Inglethorp. There are other strains on the family, too. You would think that a murder investigation would make things even worse. But this one does bring a “silver lining.” When suspicion falls on both John and Mary Cavendish, they realise how much they’ve meant to each other. This is the first, major step towards putting their marriage back together. There are other “silver linings,” too, but I don’t want to give away spoilers. In this case, the “silver linings” aren’t because Emily Ingelthorp was a particularly nasty victim. She wasn’t. But still, good things do come out of this investigation.

They also come out of the murder of Dr. John Christow in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). Christow and his wife Gerda are invited to spend the week-end at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Also invited are several other Angkatell relations, including Lucy’s cousin Henrietta Savernake (who is also Christow’s mistress), another cousin Edward Angkatell, and another cousin Midge Hardcastle. Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a getaway cottage nearby, is invited to the Angkatell home for lunch on the Sunday. When he arrives, he’s very annoyed to find what looks like a tableau set up for his “benefit.” There’s John Christow’s body, lying by the pool, and the gun in the hands of the killer. But it only takes a moment for Poirot to see that the scene is all too real and that Christow has been shot. He and Inspector Grange work to find out who killed Christow and why. The murder takes a toll on everyone, but it does have a “silver lining.” There are several tangled relationships among the Angkatells. For instance, Midge Hardcastle has always loved Edward Angkatell, who is in love with Henrietta Savernake, who loved John Christow. When Christow is murdered, the investigation leads all of these people to a resolution of those complications.

In Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson is poisoned. The most likely suspect is music master Charles Thom, who was Davidson’s rival for Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter. Thom is duly arrested. He begs his friend, grammar school undermaster Alexander Seaton, to clear his name. Seaton has his own problems; he had been a candidate for the clergy until he was disgraced. Now, he does his best to stay as inconspicuous as possible. Still, Thom is his friend, so he agrees to help. Seaton begins to ask questions and look into the case. Then, Marion Arbuthnott dies of what is first thought to be suicide. Soon enough, it’s clear she was poisoned. Now Seaton has two deaths to investigate. As he searches for answers, Seaton makes some startling discoveries about himself and about who his real friends are. He also finds out who really killed Charles Thom and in the process, makes a new and unexpected life for himself. In the end, as tragic as the two murders have been, good is salvaged from them.

Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest also shows that there can be a “silver lining” when murder strikes a family. In this case, it’s a large Irish family whose matriarch, known only as Mam, is determined to arrange the lives of her children and their spouses as she sees fit. Two of them, brothers Kevin and Patrick, are married with children. One of them, Bridget “Bridey” has been in a convent for ten years. Yet another, DeeDee, has married, but doesn’t yet have children. The fourth, Virginia, stays at home and looks after her mother. From Mam’s perspective, all is well. But the reality is quite different and it becomes clear that Mam is in denial when Bridey returns from the convent after it closes. The family has all sorts of seething resentments because of the denial that’s been an important part of the family structure for a very long time. There are also a few secrets from the past that this denial keeps hidden. One terrible day, though, everything changes. Most of the family members are visiting at Mam’s house when DeeDee takes a fatal fall down a flight of stairs. Her fiancé James believes that she was pushed, but no-one is willing to accept that at first. As the various members of the family begin to ask questions, it becomes clear that James was right. As the family begins to deal with the fact that one of them is a killer, we see that one piece of good that comes from DeeDee’s death is that the family is finally willing to face reality and deal with the older secrets as well as the current resentments. There is a great deal of sadness and tragedy in this family, but we also see that “silver lining.”

That’s also the case in Alan Orloff’s Diamonds for the Dead. Josh Handleman returns to his native Northern Virginia when his father Abe has a fatal fall down a flight of stairs in his home. At first, Abe Handleman’s death is put down to a tragic accident. But then, Abe’s friend Lev Yurishenko tells Josh that his father was murdered, and that Abe’s boarder Yassian is the culprit. Josh doesn’t believe it at first. Then, he discovers that his father had been collecting diamonds for years and was much wealthier than anyone had known. When Josh opens his father’s safe deposit box, he finds that the diamonds are missing. Now it seems clear that Lev Yurishenko was right and that Josh’s father was murdered. Josh decides to find out who killed his father and what happened to the diamonds. Bit by bit, he discovers more about his father and finds out things about him that he never knew. This does much to heal their relationship, even though Abe is dead now. Josh also learns some things about himself and as the novel ends (and yes, he does find out who the killer is), one good thing that comes of Abe Handleman’s death is the restored sense of family we see in the novel.

In Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Delicious and Suspicious, we meet the Taylor family. Family matriarch Lulu Taylor owns and runs Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, a finalist for the Cooking Channel’s Best Barbecue in Memphis award. Food scout Rebecca Adrian’s been sent to Memphis to choose the winner, and her visit to Aunt Pat’s is greeted with much excitement. Then, a few hours after she eats there, Adrian dies of what turns out to be poison. Her death rocks the family in more ways than one. First, gossip begins to spread that the food at Aunt Pat’s is dangerous, and the restaurant begins to lose some of its base. Then, several of the Taylor family members fall under suspicion. Lulu is determined to clear her family’s name and restore her restaurant’s reputation, so she investigates the murder. In the end, and even after another death, some good does come out of the tragedy. One member of the Taylor family gets some badly-needed help. And one of Lulu Taylor’s friends is able to get out of a difficult, scary personal situation.

There are other examples, too, of course, where the tragedy of murder can yield some good. In real life and in crime fiction, murder is tragic. Not to acknowledge that is not to be realistic. But sometimes, good can be salvaged even from the saddest circumstances. It’s a difficult balance in a novel, though; a novel that focuses too much on the “silver lining” doesn’t acknowledge the horrible reality of murder. Novels and series that have no “silver linings,” though, can be very, very bleak, and that’s not to everyone’s taste. What’s your view on this balance? If you’re a writer, how do you strike it?

6 comments:

  1. I love it when good comes from evil. Like when people who lived in miserable circumstances before the murder can find love and happiness. They make heart-warming stories. Even for mysteries. Great post, Margot. Have a great weekend.

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  2. Clarissa - Thank you :-). I hope you enjoy the week-end, too. And I agree completely; it is so nice when the real tragedy that is murder can end up in at least something that's good. It can be romance, a more intact family, self-knowledge, whatever. It is nice when at least something good comes out of something horrible.

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  3. Christie was especially adept at dispensing with evil or selfish characters in her books.

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  4. Patti - She certainly was! In that sense, her novels have lots of examples of "silver linings."

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  5. In Love You More, I guess you could say a murder and the investigation leads to a silver lining between Trooper Tessa Leoni and her estranged father. It would depend on how the reader interrupts a brief conversation between the two. Silver linings do add another layer to the story.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  6. Mason - Oh, now you've intrigued me. I agree with you, too, that when it's done well, a "silver lining" can definitely add interest to a story. And for those who aren't much for very bleak fiction, a "silver lining" can keep the reader engaged and interested.

    Folks, do check out Mason's review of I Love You More. I'll bet your interest will be piqued, too.

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