Tuesday, April 12, 2011

You Give My Life Direction, You Make Everything So Clear*

We’re all faced with ethical dilemmas at times. Not every choice is easy and sometimes it’s difficult to know which choice is the right one. That’s why many people turn to a “moral compass” to guide them. That “moral compass” may be a set of spiritual or religious traditions or another person who can give one’s conscience a voice. Either way, “moral compasses” can be very important as we face dilemmas. Crime fiction is full of moral and ethical dilemmas, and that’s not surprising. Questions of right and wrong, even when it comes to the taking of a life, are sometimes very thorny issues in real life, so it makes sense that they appear in crime fiction, too. It also makes sense that we’d see the sleuth turning to a “moral compass” for guidance. That’s a very human thing to do.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot serves as a “moral compass” in more than one of the stories featuring him. For instance, in the short story Wasp’s Nest, which appears in the collection Double Sin and Other Stories, he pays a visit to an acquaintance John Harrison. Poirot tells Harrison that he’s come to prevent a murder. He then brings up the subject of Claude Langton, who was formerly engaged to Harrison’s fiancée Molly Deane. Harrison brushes off Poirot’s warning, saying that all is well between him and Langton, and that there’s no reason to worry. Poirot doesn’t give up, though, and insists that there is a real possibility of a murder. In the end, he does keep a killer from giving in to temptation, so to speak, but not the murderer we imagine.

In Christie’s Death on the Nile, we meet another “moral compass,” Cornelia Robson. She’s a not-very-well-off young American woman who gets the chance of a lifetime to travel when her wealthy elderly cousin Marie Van Schuyler invites her on an international trip. Tragedy strikes Cornelia’s adventure while she and her cousin are taking a cruise of the Nile. Linnet Doyle, a wealthy and beautiful bride who’s on her honeymoon on the same cruise, is shot. Hercule Poirot is also taking this cruise, and he gets involved in the investigation of Linnet Doyle’s murder. In the course of the investigation, we get to know the other passengers on the cruise. One of them is Mr. Ferguson, who’s a vocal opponent of any sort of wealth or privilege. In fact, he says that in his opinion, women like Linnet Doyle aren’t good for much anyway, and are better off dead. His views are extremely controversial, and Cornelia isn’t afraid to tell him that he goes too far.

“‘Then you’re wrong,’ Cornelia blazed out at him. ‘And it makes me sick to hear you talk and talk, as though nobody mattered but you... as for Linnet Doyle – well, apart from everything else she was just lovely. I’m homely myself, and that makes me appreciate beauty a lot more…And when anything beautiful’s dead, it’s a loss to the world. So there! ’

Mr. Ferguson is quite surprised and disconcerted by Cornelia’s lack of spite and jealousy, and it certainly brings him up short. In fact, he tells Cornelia she’s the nicest person on the ship and asks her to marry him. It’s an interesting example of a “moral compass” making one think.

Sleuths often need “moral compasses” themselves. They are frequently faced with serious ethical dilemmas, and they benefit from having what you’d call another conscience. For instance, in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins faces several ethical dilemmas. He’s in very serious tax trouble, but he’s been given a way out. If he’ll help the FBI catch a suspected Communist, his FBI contact will make sure his tax problems go away. Rawlins has been raised to believe that Communism is wrong and Communists are bent on world domination. So at first, he doesn’t have much trouble agreeing to the deal he is offered. Soon enough, though, he begins to have doubts. First, he’s asked to volunteer at the First African Baptist Church, where his FBI target spends a lot of time. As Rawlins sees it, that puts his own people at risk and makes them vulnerable, something he doesn’t want to have happen. As if that weren’t enough, his target turns out to be a very sympathetic person. The target is Chaim Wenzler, a former Polish Resistance fighter. As he gets to know Wenzler, Rawlins begins to like the man and in the end, the two become friends. This friendship makes Rawlins question his assumptions about Communism and Communists, and makes him wonder whether what he’s doing is the right thing. Then, there three deaths, two of which take place at the church. Now, Rawlins has to make some difficult choices as he tries to get out of his tax problems, clear his own name as a murder suspect, and find out who the murderer is. Strangely enough, it’s Wenzler who serves as Rawlins’ “moral compass” in this novel and keeps him focused on what really matters.

Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee also make use of “moral compasses.” For Leaphorn, that conscience takes the form of his wife Emma. Leaphorn and his wife are both members of the Navajo Nation, but Emma is the more traditional of the two. She’s also compassionate, level-headed and loving. More than once she points Leaphorn in the right direction, so to speak. Even after her death, Leaphorn often thinks about what Emma would have done in certain situations, and that guides him. For example, in Coyote Waits, Leaphorn gets a visit from Professor Louisa Bourbonette, whose specialty is Native American lore and history. With her she brings Mary Keeyani, a Navajo who’s got a difficult problem. Mary’s uncle Ashie Pinto has been arrested for murder – a murder Mary is convinced he didn’t commit. The two women want Leaphorn to help clear Pinto’s name, and they’ve come to him specifically because Pinto is a kinsman of Emma’s. The dilemma for Leaphorn is that the victim is Delbert Nez, a fellow Navajo and a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. There’s plenty of evidence, too, to suggest that Pinto is guilty of the murder. Leaphorn is reluctant to get involved, but he also knows what Emma would have him do. She would have had him try to find out what happened. So he contacts Jim Chee, the investigating officer and a close friend of the victim’s. Together, the sleuths find out who really killed Nez and why.

Chee himself is sometimes in need of a “moral compass.” He’s a traditional Navajo; in fact, in the earlier novels that feature him, he’s studying to be a Navajo healer. So he often relies on Navajo spirituality and the Navajo Way to guide his decision-making. He also sometimes seeks guidance from his mother’s brother Frank Sam Nakai, who is a Navajo healer himself. Chee’s uncle often provides him with a “push” in the right direction.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Paola Falier. She is married to Commissario Guido Brunetti and often serves as his “moral compass.” Although she has a wealthy and titled background, Paola has a strong passion for social justice, and no patience for corruption. In fact, it’s she who encourages Brunetti in his attempts to, as she puts it, clean up the “Augean Stables” that is Venice and the Venice Questura where Brunetti works. Paola is so committed to her principles that in Fatal Remedies, she knowingly commits a crime to call attention to a serious injustice. Early one morning, she’s arrested for throwing rocks through the window of a travel agency. She’s committed this vandalism to call attention to the fact that this travel agency sponsors sex tours of Thailand and is involved in sex trafficking, and she wants this practice to end. The problem is that the agency is owned by Paolo Mitri, who is wealthy, well-placed and influential. So as a punishment, Brunetti is placed on administrative leave. Although Paola realises that her strong beliefs may have taken her too far (she did break the law, and she’s gotten her husband in very deep trouble) and she regrets that, she also is committed to justice. This passion is also a guide for Brunetti.

Shona MacLean’s Alexander Seaton thinks he’s got the perfect “moral compass – “ his religious beliefs. In fact, he was even a candidate for the ministry. But in The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, he discovers that there are larger ethical issues involved when his friend Patrick Davidson is poisoned. The most likely suspect is another friend Charles Thom, Davidson’s successful rival for Marion Arbuthnott, the local apothecary’s daughter. Thom claims innocence and begs Seaton to help him clear his name. Seaton agrees and investigates. Along the way, he is greatly assisted by the local physician Dr. Jaffray, who in many ways gives a voice to Seaton’s conscience and helps him sort out the mystery. In the end, it’s Jaffray who helps Seaton to discover the difference between giving “lip service” to justice and being truly just. Jaffray is also helpful in a practical way in helping Seaton find out who killed Davidson.

Most of us need a “moral compass” to help us navigate difficult ethical issues. That’s as true in crime fiction as is it in real life. Who are your favourite fictional “moral compasses?”

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s Can’t Fight This Feeling.


  1. I don't know why your post made me think of this but I was watching an episode of house this morning and House was discussing the issue of euthanasia. And without batting an eyelash, said he would end his friends life when the time came and that happened on The Mentalist the other day as well. I think the moral compass of today's world and Poirot has changed a lot. Or maybe it's just more acceptable to throw it into our faces.

  2. Clarissa - You have an interesting point. Our morals and beliefs have most definitely changed over the years, and so have what "counts" as moral compasses. It's really interesting to look, too, at how crime fiction has looked at morals, right and wrong, and so on and how that has changed. That's a very interesting question, and those moral issues have been important in lots of crime....

  3. Great post, Margot!

    To me, Hercule Poirot (as you mentioned) had such a strict code of ethics and served as a moral compass in each case. Sometimes his methods were a little unusual...and a couple of times his ethics were a bit unusual, too, but I always sensed his goodness as a character.

  4. Elizabeth - Thanks :-). And I agree; Poirot has a very strong "moral compass." I agree that his ethics are unusual at times, but he has the greatest good in mind, and we learn in the end how his sense of justice succeeds.

  5. In reading your post, my first thoughts were of Jim Chee and the struggles he handles between his duty as a policeman and his study to his Native American beliefs. Characters such as you mentioned are enjoyable to read about.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - I like that aspect of Jim Chee's character, too. He wants to be a good cop, and he is one, but his real "moral compass" is his set of Native American traditions and beliefs. That gives him a very interesting perspective, I think, on his job.