Thursday, May 5, 2011

It's Too Late to Apologise*

A well-written post by fellow author Patricia Stoltey has me thinking (again) about why it is that some people feel the need – or the right – to feel stronger by bullying. Not being a psychologist, I’m not really qualified to answer the question of exactly why one or another person bullies. And if you ask people whether bullying is acceptable, most of them will tell you that it’s not. And yet bullying has been a part of many cultures for a long time, and continues to be a part of life for too many people. One reason this happens is likely that cultures and societies accept it – even condone it. But whatever else is at the core of why bullying happens, one thing seems clear: bullying can have frightening outcomes. A quick look at crime fiction is enough to show what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, for instance, we meet Mrs. Boynton, an American widow who’s brought her three step-children and her daughter on a tour of the Middle East. Mrs. Boynton is a bully and a tyrant who delights in enforcing her will through fear. She’s got her family so cowed that not one of them would dream of crossing her. Matters come to a head during the family’s trip to Petra. Late one afternoon, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what looks at first like heart failure. But Colonel Carbury, who’s in charge of the investigation, isn’t so sure. So he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s traveling in the area, to look into the matter and Poirot agrees. He finds that Mrs. Boynton was poisoned, and sets about finding out who the murderer is. As it turns out, Mrs. Boynton was killed because she had taken her bullying too far.

Bullying also plays a role in Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town. In that novel, Queen goes to the quiet New England town of Wrightsville to get some peace and quiet to write. While there, he stays in a guest house on the property of wealthy bank president John F. Wright and his wife Hermione, the undisputed social leaders of the town. Queen isn’t there very long before he’s drawn into the Wright family’s personal drama. The Wrights’ eldest daughter Lola no longer lives in Wrightsville because she dared to get divorced at a time when “nice girls,” especially from “nice” families, just simply didn’t do that. In fact, it’s the bullying of the town’s opinion, as it were, that’s driven Lola away. Then, youngest daughter Nora Wright faces a personal drama of her own. Three years ago, she got engaged to up-and-coming banker Jim Haight. Then, Haight mysteriously disappeared. The family never quite forgave him for breaking Nora’s heart, but life went on. Suddenly, Jim turns up again and soon, he and Nora re-kindle their relationship. In fact, they marry, although several people predict doom. Sure enough, a few months later, disaster strikes when Jim’s obnoxious sister Rosemary comes to visit and ends up staying. On New Year’s Eve, she’s poisoned at a party at the Wright home, and Jim is blamed for the crime. He’s under even more suspicion when it turns out that the poisoned cocktail might have been meant for Nora. Now, the whole town turns against Jim Haight and later, against Queen when it becomes known that Queen believes Jim Haight is innocent. It’s an interesting but troubling picture of what happens even among “the best families” when bullying is condoned. In the end, Queen finds out who the real killer is, but more in spite of the town than because of anyone in it.

Peter Robinson’s Gallows View features bully Mick Webster. Like many bullies, he relies on brute strength and others’ fear to get what he wants. When Trevor Sharp, who doesn’t seem to really “fit in” at his school, begins to spend time with Mick, it’s enough to concern Trevor’s father Graham, who warns his son to stay away from Webster. Trevor doesn’t listen, though, and the boys’ friendship ends in tragedy. DI Alan Banks and his team get involved when they investigate complaints of a voyeur who’s been making life miserable for several local women, as well as a series of housebreakings and a murder. Bit by bit, Banks puts the pieces of these puzzles together and finds out how Trevor Sharp and Mick Webster fit it. Bullying, and what it’s done to Trevor, plays an important role in the novel.

Bullying plays a crucial role in the life of Sabine Kroese, who tells her story in Simone van der Vlugt’s The Reunion. Sabine and her friend Isabel were always close, until they got into their teens and Isabel joined the “cool crowd.” When that happened, she and her friends began to make Sabine the butt of their jokes, and to bully her. One night, when Sabine was fifteen, Isabel disappeared and no-one knows exactly what happened to her, including Sabine. In fact, Sabine has very few memories of that night. Now, nine years later, she’s just returned to work after recovering from a nervous breakdown. She finds that her new workplace environment is stirring up old feelings, especially when Renée, a co-worker whom she herself recruited and who’s since been promoted, starts to make Sabine’s work life increasingly difficult. This new kind of bullying, plus a newspaper announcement of an upcoming school reunion, stir up the past, and Sabine decides to actively find out what exactly happened to Isabel on the night she disappeared. The more she explores her own past, and her gradually recovering memory, the more Sabine comes to believe that she may know the truth about Isabel’s disappearance, and the more she learns about herself.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest is bullied when she decides to investigate the murder of Albert “Doc” Ozolins in Gunshot Road. She’s a newly-appointed Aboriginal Community Police officer (ACPO), and is expected to fall into line, so to speak, and do as she’s told. That’s not Tempest’s way, though, so she soon runs up against her new boss Bruce Cockburn when she suspects that Ozolins’ murder wasn’t the result of a drunken quarrel, as the “official story” claims. It doesn’t help matters that Tempest is neither white nor male. Still, Tempest decides to investigate in spite of the pressure on her not to do so. The closer she gets to the truth, the more danger she finds herself in, and more than once, she’s bullied. In fact at one point, she’s brutally attacked. Still, Tempest persists, and in the end, she finds that Ozolins had discovered something that some very powerful and dangerous people didn’t want anyone to find out.

For a powerful and unflinching look at what bullying does to its victims and its perpetrators, I recommend Simon Lelic’s Rupture (AKA A Thousand Cuts). In that novel, newly-hired history teacher Simon Szajkowski walks into a crowded auditorium at the school where he works and shoots three students and a fellow teacher before turning the gun on himself. DI Lucia May is assigned to take statements from everyone. It’s assumed that May’s work will just give a “rubber stamp” to the theory that Szajkowski was a troubled individual who simply “snapped.” The frightening truth is deeper than that, though, as May discovers. It turns out that the school’s culture has tolerated – even condoned – bullying, and that this has quite a lot to do with the tragic events May is investigating. May also comes to realise that the school’s culture is very much like her own workplace culture, where she’s the regular target of bullying and harassment because of her status as the only woman on the team.

Most of us would be quick to say that bullying is wrong. And yet as long as a culture or a society condones bullying, however subtly, it will continue. And as crime fiction novels (and real life) show us, it can have tragic consequences.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from OneRepublic’s Apologise.


  1. Bullying is more publicized now but it has always been with us.
    It certainly gives novel some interesting twists.

  2. GigglesandGuns - Oh, you're right about that. Bullying has been a part of a lot of cultures for a long. And as you say, it can add an interesting layer to a story.

  3. I agree that the Simon Lelic book (whatever it's called where you live) is a terrfic insight into how bullying can impact people and society in general.

    I was angry about a lot of things when reading Box 21 by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom recently but one of the things that made me angry was the way the main policeman bullied a woman who had witnessed a crime then been threatened not to give evidence. He was so mean to her and she had already been through so much...(he was also being a giant hypocrite but that's not the point here). People in power really can abuse that power in so many ways and I do not believe that the end justifies the means.

  4. Bernadette - You put that so very well! It does seem to be that those in power so easily fall into the trap of abusing that power and it can be, plain and simple, bullying. I can see completely why you got angry at a police offer, with all of the power, using it to bully a witness. And behaviour like that is often passed off - even condoned - because people think the end justifies the means. As you say, it doesn't. You made your point so well I don't really think anything else I said would add to it :-).

    Folks, check out Bernadette's terrific Review of Box 21

  5. And then there are the hilarious bullies like Plant's Aunt Agatha in the Richard Jury series. Quick note because it finally stopped raining long enough for me to get some yard work done!

  6. Barbara - You're quite right about those bullies who are meant to be comic figures. Of course, Aunt Agatha never really completely cows Melrose Plant, but she sure does like to boss people around, doesn't she? I hope you enjoy(ed) your yard work :-).

  7. What a great post. No wonder it made you think. I love that AC novel you mentioned. It does show what bullying will do. I love novels where characters are pushed to the limits and then in the end, they push back.

  8. Clarissa - I really liked Patricia's post, too, and yes, it sure does make one think. And it is really interesting, isn't it, to see what happens when characters get pushed to the limit. All too frighteningly often, they do push back. You could say it's Newton's Law as applied to humans...

  9. Thanks for the nod to my post on bullying, Margot. Sorry to be late to the party, but I'll be trying to catch up for weeks, I think.

    In crime fiction, it's often the bully who ends up being a victim instead of being the killer. There's a lesson there, I think.