Tuesday, March 15, 2011

When Life Hands You Lemons...

….so the saying goes, make lemonade. Today is the 15th of March – the Ides of March that proved to be so unlucky for Julius Caesar. Of course, most people don’t have the misfortune, as Caesar did, of being murdered. But we all do have to deal with some bad luck at times. Plans get spoiled because of weather, the Internet service we’ve come to depend on goes down, and so on. It really isn’t a question of whether we have bad luck, really. We all do. The question is what we do with a bad situation. In crime fiction, for instance, sleuths run into all sorts of bad luck and awkward situations as they investigate. One thing they seem to have in common, though, is that they find ways to “make lemonade from lemons.”

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot is staying at Long Meadows, a very badly-run Guest House in the village of Broadhinny. He’s there to investigate the murder of a local charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her unpleasant lodger James Bentley. Superintendent Spence doesn’t think Bentley is guilty, though, and asks Poirot to look into the matter. Unfortunately, the only place to stay in Broadhinny is Long Meadows, a Guest House run by Maureen and Johnnie Summerhayes. The couple have little money to spend on the place, so doors and windows don’t stay shut, the couple’s Irish Wolfhounds have the run of the place, the furniture is uncomfortable and the food inedible. To make matters worse, neither of Poirot’s hosts is organised; they both leave things in the most unlikely places. And yet, although he certainly isn’t happy at Long Meadows, Poirot finds a way to turn the situation to his advantage. He learns some interesting things about some of the villagers that give him clues to the mystery. He also finds two important physical clues to the mystery right there at the Guest House. In the end, he figures out who really killed Mrs. McGinty and why.

In Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), Poirot finds himself in the middle of a World War II air raid alert situation at his club. Alarms are going off and people everywhere are afraid. To take his mind off the situation and make the best he can of it, he begins to pay attention to a long story that’s being told by club bore Major Porter. Porter tells the odd story of knowing a man named Robert Underhay, who’d been married to a young woman named Rosaleen, who’d come with him to Cape Town. When Rosaleen became miserable in Cape Town, she left. According to Major Porter, Underhay wanted to free his wife to marry again, and hinted at faking his own death. The air raid ends and most people forget about the story. But Poirot remembers it a little over a year later when it seems that a widow named Rosaleen Underhay has married wealthy Gordon Cloade. Shortly after the marriage, Cloade is killed by a bomb. He never made a will, so his wife is set to inherit his considerable fortune. Then, a mysterious stranger appears in the village of Warmsley Vale, hinting that Robert Underhay is alive. If so, then Rosaleen cannot inherit Gordon Cloade’s money. Then, the stranger is killed. Now Poirot is caught between Rosaleen Cloade and her brother David Hunter on one side, and the “well-born” but financially-strapped Cloade family on the other. Poirot investigates the murder and finds out the surprising truth.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Mervyn Bunter have quite a bit of bad luck when car trouble strands them near the village of Fenchurch St. Paul on New Year’s Eve. The two are given shelter by the Rector of Fenchurch. Everyone makes the best of the bad weather and in fact, Wimsey’s unexpected appearance proves to be of great help to the Rector when one of the local bell-ringers, Will Thoday, falls ill and is unable to perform his part of the traditional New Year’s bell-ringing. Wimsey willingly takes Thoday’s place and is drawn into further events at Fenchurch some months later when Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire, dies and an unexpected corpse is found in her part of the family grave. Wimsey investigates the death and finds out that it’s related to a cache of stolen emeralds.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is faced with some bad luck in The Wench is Dead. He’s laid up with a bleeding ulcer and confined to a hospital room. Never one to be idle, Morse decides to make the most of an unpleasant situation by making use of the hospital’s library. One of the books he reads tells the story of the 1859 death of Joanna Franks, whose body was found in a local canal. Two men were arrested and hung for the murder but as Morse reflects on the story, he comes to the conclusion that they may not have been guilty. So he decides to “make lemonade” and undertake a new investigation himself. In the end, he discovers what really happened to Joanna Franks and why she died.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch makes the most of a very bad situation in The Last Coyote. In that novel, Bosch has been suspended indefinitely for shoving a superior officer through a window. He’s also told that he’ll need a psychiatric evaluation and therapy. As if that weren’t enough, he’s dealing with a romantic breakup and with the destruction of his home by an earthquake. Bosch takes advantage of his enforced time off by investigating a thirty-year-old murder – his own mother’s. Bosch’s mother was a prostitute who was killed when he was eleven years old. At the time, no-one really bothered to make any serious investigation into what happened to her, but Bosch resolves to change that. He makes the most of a spate of bad luck by solving an old crime and putting together some of the pieces of his own past.

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has to make the best of a bad situation when she is more or less demoted to service on a newly-formed Cold Case Review team in The Coffin Trail. It’s supposed to be a “second class” assignment, but Scarlett determines to make a success of it. Then, an anonymous tip generates renewed interest in the death of Gabrielle Anders, who was murdered near the village of Brackdale years earlier. Oxford historian Daniel Kind has taken a nearby cottage that happens to have once been the home of Barrie Gilpin, the young man who was suspected of the murder. Gilpin died of a tragic fall, though, before the police had the chance to question him. Scarlett, whose former partner Ben Kind helped to investigate both deaths, was never convinced that Gilpin was guilty. Neither was Daniel Kind, Ben’s son, who’d known Gilpin when the two were boys. Each in a different way, the two look into the deaths again and discover some long-hidden secrets that someone is all too eager not to reveal.

And then there’s Joey Perrone, who’s thrown overboard by her husband Chaz while they’re on a cruise in Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip. Joey’s husband, marine biologist Chaz Perrone, has plotted to throw her overboard because she’s tumbled onto his scheme to help wealthy and powerful “Red” Hammernut cover up the amount of pollution he and his company are creating in the Florida Everglades. The novel begins with Joey adrift at sea, at risk of drowning and knowing that her husband has tried to killer her. When she’s rescued by former Florida investigator Mick Stranahan, Joey decides to make the best of her very bad situation. She persuades Stranahan to help her convince Chaz that someone saw him throw her overboard. The two put their plot into action; the more unsettled Chaz gets, the more dangerous life gets for him as the police get closer to the truth and as Hammernut begins to worry about just how dependable Chaz really is.

Being able to “make lemonade out of lemons” is an important skill for sleuths. How do your favourites manage to do it?


  1. You have the most intriuging posts!

    I just finished Liar Society - debut YA by Lisa & Laura Roecker - and the main character is constantly being thrown lemons in her quest for the truth. She refuses to catch the lemons, instead she plows on through :)

  2. This is such an amazing post. And so pertinent too- I guess the difference between a person who does something meaningful and someone who doesn't is their attitude towards having lemons thrown at them.
    Somewhere at the back of my mind is a story where someone (like DCI Hannah Scarlett) was sidelined to a department that nobody wanted, but in cleaning up that place stumbled onto the solution to the problem everyone was talking about. But for the life of me, I can't remember which book it is- or if it is a book at all (or just a fragment of the many stories lying unwritten in my brain).

  3. Great examples, Margot! Especially the Inspector Morse one--he's not ordinarily a "sunny side of the street" kind of guy, but I love that he spent his hospital time reading about a cold case that he went on to investigate. :)

  4. Jemi - Why, thank you :-). And thanks for introducing me to Liars Society. I wish I were more familiar with YA than I am. That one sounds like a great read!

    Rayna - Awww..thank :-). And you put that so well! The real difference among people has much to do with the way they handle life's "lemons."

    I wish, too, that I could think of which story you mean. I've read quite a lot of them that have as the premise someone who's given what's supposed to be a "throwaway" job, only to have it turn out to be crucial. If you think of more details, do let me know.

    Elizabeth - Thank you :-). And you're right; Morse is hardly "Mr. Bright Side," but he really does do a good job of turning a bad situation to the good in The Wench is Dead.