Friday, May 6, 2011

This Magic Moment*

Let’s be honest; life is not always easy. It can be annoying, difficult, even tragic. Even days where only little things go wrong (like having to drive behind a slow truck when one’s in a hurry) can be truly irritating. And when things are going seriously wrong, things can get even bleaker. That’s when little moments of happiness can mean even more. You know what I mean, I’ll bet: the first rain after a terrible dry spell; the smell of fresh coffee; an Email from a friend you haven’t heard from in a long time; a terrific book or movie; a rich conversation. Those little things give us the reserves we need to deal with life’s large and small blows. It works that way in real life, and it works that way in crime fiction, too. Well-written crime fiction can get quite bleak; after all, people die, usually by other people’s hands. That’s shattering for the people involved, and difficult for the investigating sleuth, too. Not to portray that would be unrealistic. On the other hand, those “magic moments” can add a welcome “lift” to an otherwise depressing novel. And even when a novel isn’t overly depressing, those moments can help us get to know a character better, develop sympathy for a character, and simply enjoy a good moment vicariously.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas), Simeon Lee invites all of the members of his family to spend the Christmas holiday at Gorston Hall, the family home. Simeon Lee is an unpleasant man who’s treated many of his family members badly; but, he’s also a very wealthy man with a strong personality, so no-one dares refuse his invitation. Everyone gathers at Gorston Hall, but tragedy strikes on Christmas Eve when Simeon Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot is spending Christmas with a friend nearby, and gets involved in the investigation. All of the guests come in for their share of suspicion, and not all of the family members get along. So the atmosphere is tense and uncomfortable. But in the midst of this atmosphere, two of the guests have one of those “magic moments.” Simeon Lee’s grand-daughter Pilar Estravados, and Stephen Farr, son of Lee’s old business partner, discover a storage closet where they find all sorts of Christmas decorations and treats that weren’t brought out because of the tragedy. One of the things they find is balloons. Like two children, they blow up balloons and start tossing them back and forth to each other up and down a long hall. It’s a fun little moment in the midst of an ugly murder investigation.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane has been invited back to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, to participate in its annual Gaudy Dinner celebration She’s not at all sure she should accept the invitation. She’s recently achieved a certain amount of notoriety after being on trial for murder (Strong Poison tells this story) and is not sure of her welcome. On the way to Oxford, though, Harriet has one of those “magic moments.” She’s very glad she’s got her own car, instead of having to go to Oxford by train as she did when she was a student:

“For a few hours more she could ignore the whimpering ghost of her dead youth and tell herself that she was a stranger and a sojourner, a well-to-do-woman with a position in the world.”

That drive to Oxford lifts Harriet’s spirits, and when she gets there, she finds herself much more warmly welcomed than she’d feared. After the celebration, Harriet returns home, only to go back to Shrewsbury a few months later when the Dean of the College asks her to help get to the bottom of a disturbing series of events at the school. In the end, with help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet finds out who’s responsible for the vandalism and other occurrences (including an attack on Harriet herself) that have upset everyone at the school.

Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby has one of those special moments in A Place of Safety. In that novel, Charlie Leathers is out late one night walking his dog when he sees what looks like a murder. Curate’s wife Ann Lawrence is struggling on a bridge with Carlotta Ryan, a troubled teen who’s been living with the Lawrences. Carlotta goes over the bridge and apparently drowns. All is not as it seems, though and very soon afterwards, Leathers himself is garroted. Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate both incidents, and find that they’re related to each other and that there’s more to Carlotta Ryan’s disappearance than it seems. In an interesting sub-plot, Barnaby and his wife Joyce are about to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. There’s much discussion of gifts and so on, and at the end of the novel, the Barnaby family goes out to dinner. They arrive home when Barnaby discovers to his delight that his gift is a new lawn mower. He and Joyce are out in the yard when they hear that Barnaby’s daughter Cully and her husband Nicolas have put music on and are playing it for them. The very last words of the novel really show a special side of Tom and Joyce Barnaby:

“They stood quietly as more and more stars gathered, holding fast against the relentless movement of time that changes all things. And then they began to dance.”

In Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Smelled a Rat, newspaper columnist Jim Qwilleran investigates a series of suspicious fires at old mines. What’s making matters worse is that the area is suffering a terrible drought, so there’s an even greater than usual risk that the fires will spread and wreak havoc. In fact, everyone’s hoping for the arrival of the first major snowstorm of the year. Then a fire brigade volunteer is shot dead in one of the mine shafts. Qwilleran is sure that the murder and the arson fires are connected, and so they are. At the end of the novel, after the case is solved, the weather finally begins to co-operate and when the first lazy flakes of the coming storm fall, there’s an appealing “magic moment” scene when the usually-cynical Qwilleran, entranced by the scene, goes outside and sticks out his tongue to catch snowflakes.

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has a “magic moment” in The Serpent Pool, in which she and her Cold Case Review team investigate the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. It turns out that this case is related to two more recent murders – the deaths of book collector George Saffell and attorney Stuart Wagg. Those two murders are being investigated by Scarlett’s friend and co-worker Fern Larter. The two agree to have breakfast one morning at the Beast Banks Breakfast Bar to discuss the cases and indulge in deliciously unhealthy food. The scene gives the reader some important information about the cases, but we can also see that that visit to the restaurant gives both women a needed lift. It’s a warm conversation between friends, and Fern, especially, lightens the mood of the story at that point.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe has learned a great deal about savouring those “magic moments.” In many of the novels in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, we see how Mma Ramotswe takes the time to relish a walk, a cup of bush tea, the view from a window or the taste of a meal. It’s an interesting perspective on life, and awfully appealing.

But what do you think? Do you reach out for those “magic moments?” Do you think they have a place in crime fiction, or do you think they take away from the story? Which are your favourite “magic moments” in the novels you’ve read?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.


  1. I vote for magic moments. Anywhere I can find them!

  2. What would life - and literature - be without the magic moments?.

    Let me whisper to you that one of my magic moments is when Harriet Vane suddenly realizes she is in fact in love with Lord Peter Wimsey (romantic old fool I am).

    A similar gem is from a Danish series (not translated) featuring a detective who also loves his wife dearly. In one of them she dies, which is extremely sad, of course, but he tells the reader about her last morning. She has just had a shower and stands in front of him, naked and around 70 years old when he says, "and here we have Rigmor in all her glory". I can hardly read that scene because it is so beautiful.

  3. Dorte - Oh, I love that Harriet Vane "magic moment," too! And if that makes us old romantic fools, well, so what!? It's a great moment :-).

    And thank you for sharing that Rigmor scene. I got a big lump of tears in my throat just reading that little bit that you shared. I can only imagine what a wonderful scene it is in full and in the original Danish.

  4. Your blog provides a "magic moment" Margot.

  5. José Ignacio - Oh, that's so very kind of you *blush*. I really appreciate it. And now you have just given a "magic moment," too :-).

  6. First of all, your granddaughter is amazingly adorable!

    As for your post, I think that that crime fictions NEEDS magic moments. Why does it have to be gore and murder and mayhem all the time. The special moments take the story to the next level. I hope I remember to place at least one in every story.

  7. Clarissa - How nice of you :-)! I think she's amazingly adorable, too, but then.... I'm biased ;-).

    You have a really well-taken point, too, about those moments. I think crime fiction needs to portray the sadness and tragedy of murder if it's going to be authentic, but like everything else, there's a balance to think about. Some of those special moments do add so much to a story, and keep the reader engaged. And after all, that's what it's all about, isn't it?

  8. She's such a beautiful baby! So happy, too! :)

    I love any little moment in a mystery that lifts the tension (because I'm no fan of tension that lasts too long...I want reading to be an escape.)

  9. Yes, it is a beautiful photo, Margot. I love your Barnaby account and quote, how uplifting. Thank you.

  10. Elizabeth - I think she's beautiful, too, but then, I'm biased ;-). And she does have a great temperament.

    You make a well-taken point about tension, too. It's so important in a novel, but it's so nice when it's lifted, too. I think lifting the tension sometimes is more engaging than not doing it.

    Maxine - Thanks :-). I was proud, though I say it myself, that that shot came out as well as it did. And that Barnaby scene/quote is one of my favourite moments from crime fiction. I just love it and I'm glad you enjoyed it, too.

  11. As soon as I saw that happy baby, I wondered if she was your granddaughter. So cute, great smile.

  12. Barbara - She is, indeed, my grand-daughter :-). I am very lucky :-) :-). And I agree, she does have a terrific smile, doesn't she? But then, I am biased.... ;-).

  13. Of all those you mentioned, I love Precious Ramotswe the most. Wouldn't it be fun to sit down and have a cup of tea with her. I'm sure I would learn so much. Magic moments definitely have a place in crime fiction.

  14. Pat - Whoops! Sorry it took so long to respond to your comment! And you are so right; I would love to sit down and have a cup of tea with Mma. Ramotswe. She is a great character with a lot of wisdom.

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