Friday, April 15, 2011

I Will Protect You From All Around You*

The instinct to protect others, especially (but not always) friends and loved ones, is an important part of human nature. In a way, it’s a reminder that we are a social species. At some level, we seem to know that the loss of one person is a loss to all of us, and we want to prevent that. It’s as though vulnerability in a person brings out the altruistic side of many people’s natures. We hear all sorts of stories of this protectiveness in real life, and it’s there in crime fiction, too. Sometimes, that protectiveness saves someone’s life.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is not much of a one for emotional ties, even with Dr. Watson, whom he considers a friend. However, in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Holmes has a feeling of protectiveness towards Violet Hunter, a governess who comes to him for advice. Violet’s been looking for a position and has been offered a very lucrative job by Jephro Rucastle, who lives with his wife and six-year-old son in a rather isolated country home. Violet isn’t sure whether she should accept the job and comes to Holmes for advice. Holmes has serious doubts about the Rucastles, especially when he learns that Rucastle has some rather odd things of his new governess. Holmes counsels his client not to take the position, and she listens to what he has to say. But when Rucastle increases his salary offer, Violet Hunter can no longer resist the offer, and takes the position. Holmes tells his client that if she needs him for anything, to let him know. It’s not long before she takes him up on his offer. The Rucastle home is a strange and unhappy one, and Violet things some eerie things must be going on. Holmes goes right away to see what he can do to help – just in time to save his client’s life.

We also see that streak of protectiveness in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table. Hercule Poirot has been invited to a very strange dinner party by the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. Also invited to the dinner are three other sleuths: Ariadne Oliver, Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race. Shaitana has also invited four other guests, each of whom he hints has committed a murder but never been suspected of it. After dinner, everyone but Shaitana settles down to play bridge. The four sleuths are in one room, and the four other guests in another. At some point in the evening, someone stabs Shaitana while the other guests aren’t looking. There are only four suspects; each has a motive and each had an equal opportunity to commit the murder. So the four sleuths have to look into each suspect’s background and psychology to find out who committed the crime. At one point, one of the suspects confesses to the murder. Poirot knows that suspect is not guilty and has the wrong sort of psychology for the kind of crime it was. He’s quite right and when he brings that point up, the suspect admits to lying and claims to have been an eyewitness when another suspect actually committed the crime. It turns out that the confession was made out of a desire to protect the other suspect.

Lord Peter Wimsey’s protective instinct is brought out in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Posion. Mystery novelist Harriet Vane has been arrested for the poisoning murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. The case looks very bad for her, too; not only did she have a supply of arsenic, which has been identified as the weapon, but also, she was the last person known to have given Boyes anything to eat or drink. Wimsey attends the trial and becomes smitten with Vane. He determines to clear her name and when the jury can’t reach a verdict, he gets his chance. With help from some friends and his valet Mervyn Bunter, Wimsey finds out who really killed Philip Boyes. Wimsey feels a strong sense of protectiveness towards Vane, and she’s grateful for his help. However, she doesn’t think that that sort of protectiveness/gratitude is the right basis for a relationship. So although Wimsey tells her right away that he means to marry her, Vane doesn’t accept his proposal until the end of Gaudy Night. In that novel, in which Vane is asked to find out who’s behind some disturbing events at her alma mater, she gets into serious danger and Wimsey’s sense of protection is aroused again. For Vane, it’s an interesting emotional dilemma between making herself vulnerable to Wimsey and denying the fact that she loves him.

There’s a really appealing theme of protectiveness in James W. Fuerst’s Huge. Twelve-year-old Eugene “Huge” Smalls has his share of difficulties fitting in, both at school and in his neighbourhood. He’s small for his age, has problems controlling his anger, and has a lot of difficulty making friends. But Huge is brilliant. And he wants to be a detective, just like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He gets the opportunity to try his skills when his grandmother offers to pay him to find out who defaced the sign at the nursing home where she lives. Huge agrees and begins to investigate. One of his suspects is a boy Huge suspects of taking advantage of his older sister Eunice “Neecey.” Huge tries to warn Neecey about this boy, and when Neecey doesn’t listen, Huge follows her one night to a party. When he thinks he sees Neecey in danger, Huge tries to rush in to protect her. In one way, it’s a comical scene because what’s happening is not what Huge thinks is happening. In another, it’s really appealing to see Huge’s sense of loyalty and protectiveness. Neecey tries to protect her brother, too; she knows he has a hard time making friends and being accepted, and she tries to use her own social “clout” to help. In the end, Huge finds out who defaced the sign, and in the process, finds out quite a lot about himself.

In Tess Gerritsen’s The Mephisto Club, Detective Jane Rizzoli and Dr. Maura Isles get involved in the investigation of several brutal murders. The key to them seems to be Lily Saul, a young woman who went to school with two of the victims. Lily, though, has disappeared. With the help of a mysterious group called The Mephisto Club, Rizzoli and Isles find out why Lily has disappeared, what has happened to her, and who the murderer is. In one of the novel’s sub-plots, Isles has begun a very problematic romantic relationship. Rizzoli is worried about her and tries to warn her friend. Isles, who has her own conflicts about the relationship, feels that her friend is being judgmental. This tension adds an interesting layer to the novel and shows how much Rizzoli cares about her friend, even though she isn’t what you would call demonstrative.

We also see protectiveness in Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road. Emily Tempest has just started her job as an Aboriginal Community Police officer. With her boss Tom McGillivray ill and out of commission, she’s under the supervision of Bruce Cockburn. The team gets called to Green Swamp when the body of prospector Albert “Doc” Ozolins is found in his shack. Lying on the bed in a drunken stupor is John “Wireless” Petherbridge. The two had a quarrel in the local pub, and Cockburn is convinced that Wireless is guilty of the murder. Tempest doesn’t think so, though, and begins to ask questions. As she searches for the truth, she begins to earn the grudging respect of her team-mates. In fact, at one point, Tempest settles on a suspect, and her team-mates warn her that this suspect is a dangerous person. Tempest is happily surprised by this protectiveness, especially because it’s not condescending. Of course, being Emily Tempest, that warning doesn’t stop her, and she ends up being brutally attacked. As she’s recovering, we see the protective side of her father, “Motor Jack” Tempest. When he learns what’s happened to his daughter, he comes very close to attacking her boss for not protecting her better. In the end, Emily finds out who really killed Doc and what’s behind the murder and Doc’s strange behaviour in the weeks before his death. Interestingly, one of the keys to the mystery is a young teenager whom Emily herself has been trying to protect, mostly from himself.

There are lot of other examples in crime fiction of the instinct nearly all of us have to protect those who are made vulnerable, even if they aren’t friends of loved ones – far too many for me to mention here. Which ones have you enjoyed?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Phil Collins’ You’ll Be In My Heart.


  1. Hm. This is late night for me so the only example that springs to mind is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie where Flavia goes to great lengths to protect the people she cares about.

  2. Great post, Margot. I must read Gunshot Road.

    It's odd how people will protect others at great risk to themselves. In Ngaio Marsh's A Surfeit of Lampreys, Roberta, a visiting New Zealander, in an act of great loyalty lies to Alleyn to protect her friends. Fortunately for her Alleyn sees right through her.

  3. Dorte - Late night or not, that's a terrific example and I'm glad you mentioned it :-). You're quite right that Flavia "pulls out all the stops" out of a sense of protection.

  4. Vanda - Thank you :-). And yes, please read Gunshot Road. Seriously. Please read it.

    And thanks for mentioning A Surfeit of Lampreys. I'll confess that I'd forgotten about that terrific novel when I was writing this post but you're quite right. Roberta is a terrific example of someone who tries hard to protect someone else.

  5. Margot thanks for remind me of that excellent novel, Gunshot Road. And a very fine post by the way.

  6. Margot excellent post as usual. I haven't read Gunshot Road yet [on the TBR pile] but a plot line can be inspired by the failure to protect loved ones. For example Harry Hole in the Oslo trilogy and The Snowman fails to protect first his partner then his lover leading to feelings of guilt and a descent into drink and drugs.

  7. José Ignacio - Thank you :-). And I agree; Gunshot Road is a truly fine novel. Folks I really recommend it.

    Norman - Thanks very much. And you're quite right about not protecting. The Oslo trilogy is a fine example of that, too. Some of Michael Connelly's work picks up that theme, too. That's worth a separate post, actually; I'll have to think about that...

  8. Great post, Margot!

    And who is that gorgeous baby in the picture? :) Looks like there's a furry baby that's determined to be a protector!

  9. Elizabeth - Awww....thank you :-). Hard to believe my little grandbaby is already a month old! And yes, our doggy Indy is already taking her job as protector very seriously. She just loves the baby :-).

  10. Wonderful post. Stories like these make the read more realistic. Have a couple of new books to add to my 'must read' list now. Love the photo.

    Thoughts in Progress

  11. Mason - Thanks :-); I like that 'photo very much, too. And thanks for the kind words about the post, too. I think you've got a solid point - protectiveness is a natural kind of human instinct, so it can make a story more realistic, too.