Saturday, April 16, 2011

I'll Get Right Back On My Feet Again*

Crime fiction often deals with sadness and tragedy; after all, murder and other crimes are tragic things. Some people fall apart in the face of that tragedy, but others have a great deal of strength and resilience. They suffer as anyone would, but they aren’t defeated. Those characters are often quite likeable; we find it easy to cheer them on as they struggle to cope with what’s happened to them. Of course, creating such characters takes a deft hand. It’s hard to believe a character who isn’t affected at all by life’s blows, and a character who isn’t believable also doesn’t tend to be as likeable. The key is creating a character human enough to be knocked down once in a while, so to speak, but strong enough to stand back up again.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, we meet Elsie Cubitt. Originally from America, she has a rather mysterious past, although she swears to her husband Hilton that she has done

“…nothing she need be personally ashamed of…”

Still, she refuses to tell her husband about her past associations, which have been with some very shady characters. One day, Elsie receives a letter that changes everything. She’s terrified by the letter but won’t confide in her husband. When Hilton Cubitt sees the letter, all he sees is a series of drawings of stick figures. Then, the same sort of stick figures begin to show up as chalked drawings on the window ledges of the Cubitt home. This is when Hilton Cubitt visits Sherlock Holmes to ask his advice. Holmes takes the case and figures out that the drawings are a cipher and that Elsie is being stalked. Then one night, Hilton Cubitt is murdered. Holmes uses the cipher to lure the killer into a confession. In this story, Elsie Cubitt is devastated first by being stalked and then by the death of her husband. Yet she remains resilient and in the end,

“Of Mrs. Hilton Cubitt I only know that I have heard she recovered entirely, and that she still remains a widow, devoting her whole life to the care of the poor and to the administration of her husband’s estate.”

We see the same kind of sturdiness in the character of Honoria Bulstrode, who features in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons. Miss Bulstrode is headmistress of Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school that she co-founded. Shortly after the summer term begins at Meadowbank, newly-hired games mistress Grace Springer is shot one night in the Sports Pavilion. The police begin an investigation but they haven’t gotten very far when there’s a kidnapping. Then there’s another murder. Now Miss Bulstrode begins to see her life’s work falling in ruins around her as student after student is pulled from the school. And yet, she remains strong – rocked by the tragedies, but resilient. One of the students, Julia Upjohn, puts together an important piece of the puzzle and visits Hercule Poirot to ask him to investigate. Poirot agrees and ties together the murders and kidnapping with a cache of missing jewels and a revolution in the Middle Eastern country of Ramat. In the end, we see Honoria Bulstrode pick up the pieces of her school and begin the work of rebuilding it.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn also show quite a lot of personal resilience. In Coyote Waits, they are both devastated when Delbert Nez, a fellow Navajo Tribal Police officer and a close friend of Chee’s, is murdered. As if that weren’t enough, they are also rocked by personal loss. Leaphorn’s beloved wife Emma has recently died and Chee’s lover Mary Landon has left the Reservation and returned to her home in Wisconsin. Both men are strongly tempted to accept superficial evidence when Ashie Pinto is arrested for Nez’ murder. First, Chee saw him near the scene of the crime with the murder weapon. Second, Pinto refuses to deny that he had anything to do with the murder. He also gives no explanation for his presence at the murder scene. But then, Janet Pete, a half-Navajo attorney, is sent by the Navajo Nation’s People’s Legal Services, the Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii (DNA), to defend Pinto and see that he gets a fair trial. Pete believes that Pinto is innocent and insists that the case be carefully investigated so that her client will not be “railroaded.” Both Chee and Leaphorn have been “knocked down” by Dez’ murder and their own personal losses, but they both also know that Pete is right and that Pinto deserves to be treated fairly. So they stand back up, so to speak, and work together to find out who really killed Delbert Nez and why.

And then there’s Martin Clark’s Mason Hunt, whom we meet in The Legal Limit. Mason and his brother Gates have come from a background of abuse and alcoholism, but they’ve made it to adulthood. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity offered him and is now in law school. His brother, a high school star athlete, has squandered his talent and his own opportunities and now lives on drug dealing profits, his girlfriend’s Welfare money and money he gets from his mother. One afternoon, Gates Hunt has an argument with Wayne Thompson, a rival for his girlfriend. Thompson leaves, but the Hunt brothers encounter him later that night. More words are exchanged and before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates Hunt has shot Thompson. Out of a sense of duty and filial loyalty, Mason Hunt helps his brother cover up the crime, and life goes on for both brothers. Then, years later, Gates Hunt is arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s sentenced to prison and begs his brother, who’s now a successful prosecuting attorney, to get him out. When Mason refuses, Gates accuses his brother of the Thompson murder and agrees to help authorities convict his brother if they get him out of prison. He’s so convincing that a grand jury indicts Mason Hunt for a crime he didn’t commit. In the meantime, Mason Hunt has also faced sad personal tragedy. His beloved wife has died, leaving him to raise their daughter Grace. Then, when she’s fifteen, Grace tells her father that she’s pregnant. Mason Hunt is badly wounded by all that’s happened to him, but he gathers his strength and shows real resilience as he fights the charges against him and slowly puts together the pieces of his family life.

Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight focus on Andy and Jenny Sutherland and their children Leona and Jake. In Last Light, the family is called on to tap reserves of strength they never knew they had when the world’s oil supply is cut off. Each of the family members is stranded in a different place, and they struggle against all sorts of odds to get back together. We see even more resilience, especially in the character of Jenny Sutherland, in Afterlight, which takes place ten years later. In that second novel, Jenny leads a small group of survivors who live on an oil rig. We see how strong she has to be when the group’s cohesiveness is threatened after everyone agrees to take in a wounded man who’s been found in a nearby town. The wounded man begins to sow seeds of dissent in the group and now Jenny has to do her best to hold the group together. She also has to cope with the consequences when her son Jake and his friend Nathan decide to go to London, where they’ve heard that another group of survivors has electricity. That journey and the internal threats to Jenny’s group force her to be more resilient than she ever thought she would have to be.

Carl Hiaasen introduces us to Joey Perrone in Skinny Dip. Joey is an in increasingly loveless marriage with Chaz Perrone, a shady manipulator who’s working as a marine biologist for a commercial farm owned by Samuel Johnson “Red” Hammernut. Chaz has discovered a way to manipulate water testing so that Hammernut’s company can pollute the Everglades waters without getting caught. When Chaz begins to fear that his wife has figured out his scheme, he decides to kill her. He takes her on cruise that he says is to celebrate their anniversary and late one night, throws her overboard. The only problem for Chaz is that Joey is a former champion swimmer, so she doesn’t die. Exhausted and wounded by her battle with the water, Joey is rescued by Mick Stranahan, a former investigator for the Florida Attorney General’s office. Joey is physically ill at first and distraught at this attempt to kill her, especially since she can’t figure out the motive at first. She’s also deeply hurt because Chaz has been regularly unfaithful to her. And yet, Joey doesn’t “stay down” for long. She and Stranahan plot to take revenge on Chaz. Together, they concoct a plan to make Chaz think that someone saw him throw his wife overboard and now wants to blackmail him. Chaz soon finds that his plan to kill his wife has backfired badly.

There are lots of other examples of characters who are human enough to get “knocked down” by life’s blows – and strong enough to stand back up. Which are your favourites?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pat Benatar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot.


  1. I am reading mostly lit fiction right now so I would pick JCO from her memoir about her husband's death, Emily, from Emily Alone by Stewart O'Nan and the mother and son who endure such horror in Room by E. Donahue. All survivors.

  2. Patti - Isn't it interesting how we focus on one kind of fiction at a time? You've given me some really interesting ideas for what to read - thanks :-). I've been hearing great things about the JCO, and wanted to read that one. And Room sounds like one of those books that is really making an impression, whether or not one loves it. I should probably try it.

  3. These are great examples, Margot. So many crime fiction books deal with strength in adversity - Julia in Echoes from the Dead (Johan Theorin) is one that I can never forget.

  4. Maxine - Thanks for the kind remarks, and yes, Echoes from the Dead really has a wonderful example in Julia! Thank you for that reminder. As you say, there are a lot of them out there, and that's a superb one.

  5. Just for once I only know one of the characters you have mentioned, Elsie Cubitt.

    Like Maxine, I think Julia is a fine example, and I just ran through my latest reviews. Rebecca Cantrell´s Hannah Vogel (A Trace of Smoke) also struck me as a strong character who suffered at the loss of her brother but did not break down.

  6. Dorte - I'm glad Maxine mentioned Julia, too. She is, indeed, a fine example of the point I'm making. And so is Hannah Vogl, so thank you :-). You are quite right that she is "knocked down" by the loss of her brother, but she does stay strong.

  7. You have already mentioned two of my favourite novels, Echoes from the Dead and A Trace of Smoke. In John Lawton's Second Violin Rod Troy, due to the quirk of fate of being born in Vienna, is interned on the Isle of Man. He bounces back to become a Labour minister in the Attlee post war government in A Lily of the Field. His wealthy parents had forgotten to get him naturalized, and Rod had never got round to it. What a shock it must have been for many who had escaped from Hitler's Germany to find themselves behind barbed wire interned by the British!

  8. Norman - I'd never thought of that, but you're quite right; it must have been a terrible shock, especially after all those people had gone through. I don't know enough about the Isle of Man internment camps, although I know they existed. What a fascinating background for that novel, and what a piece of history. Simple twists of fate like that can make so much difference... Thanks for mentioning those Lawton novels.

  9. Another great post. I'm reading Lisa Scottoline's SAVE ME and I think the main protagonist would fit into this category. From what has happened to her so far, I don't see her giving up easily.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - Thank you :-). I have to read some of Scottoline's work; what you've posted about it sounds interesting, and I am glad you mentioned her. I look forward to your review of Save Me.

  11. Oh Margot, Now I have "Hit me with your Best Shot" running through my head. It'll be with me all day, I'll bet. :-D

  12. Wonderful post, Margot. By coincidence, last night I started reading my very first Carl Hiassen! I'm reading "Lucky". Such a funny writer. And I agree with Barbara, now you've got me singing that silly song. :-)

  13. Barbara - LOL! Well, at least it's a cool song :-). Go with it ;-).

    Bobbi - Isn't Carl Hiaasen terrific? And Lucky You is a great choice to start your journey into his absurd, funny world. I hope you enjoy it. And sit back and relax to the song, too ;-).