Looking Like a True Survivor*

Most of us have to cope with sorrow and sadness in our lives; some cope with real trauma. Whether we like it or not, the question isn’t whether these things happen. It’s what we do when they happen. Since a lot of crime fiction involves trauma of some sort, it’s not surprising that many crime-fictional characters have to find ways to deal with it and become stronger. There are too many such characters for one blog post to do justice to them, but here are a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle has to face multiple blows. To begin with, she learns that her Aunt Laura may be the victim of someone who’s trying to lay hands on her considerable fortune. If that’s true, then it may mean Elinor wouldn’t inherit that wealth, as she’d always thought. Then, when she and her fiancé Roddy Welman visit Aunt Laura, Roddy becomes infatuated with Mary Gerrard, daughter of Aunt Laura’s lodgekeeper. As if that’s not enough, Aunt Laura dies, and Mary is poisoned. Elinor is charged with Mary’s murder, and suspected of having found a way to kill Aunt Laura. Fortunately, Aunt Laura’s GP, Dr. Peter Lord, has fallen in love with Elinor, and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. The whole experience causes real trauma for Elinor, and she copes with it by taking some time away at a sanatorium where she can escape from the pressure and the press of people.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy introduces Copenhagen police detective Carl Mørck. As the novel begins, he is just returning to work after a line-of-duty incident in which he was badly wounded. One of his colleagues was killed, and another left with paralysis, so Mørck has to cope with a more than his share of trauma. His first response is to deal with it by getting back to his normal work routine, but that’s not successful. He’s hard enough to work with under the best of circumstances, and now, he’s so difficult that no-one wants to be on his team. So, he’s tapped to head a new department, ‘Department Q,’ which will be charged with looking at cases that have gone cold. Little by little, Mørck does come to terms with the trauma of being badly injured and losing a colleague. In part it comes from being able solve some difficult cases. In part it comes from the psychological help he’s forced to seek. And, of course, Mørck is hardly the only fictional character who deals with trauma by getting (or being required to get) counseling.

Psychological help is a plot point in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, too. Stephanie Anderson is beginning her career as a psychologist in Dunedin. One day she gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark. Elisabeth’s younger sister Gracie went missing several years ago, and Elisabeth has struggled with that trauma since that time. Her story is eerily similar to Stephanie’s own sad history. Seventeen years earlier, her younger sister Gemma also went missing. In both cases, thorough searches never yielded any evidence, not even a body. When she hears Elisabeth’s story, Stephanie decides to face her own trauma and try to find the person who wrought such havoc on both families. So, she returns to her hometown of Wanaka. The empowerment she feels from finding out the truth, and from confronting what happened, does much to help her cope with the trauma and face life.

Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons introduces readers to his protagonist, also named Finn Bell. He’s at a very difficult time in his life. His marriage is over, a car accident has left him in a wheelchair, and he’s very much at loose ends. So, he decides to make a major move, and takes a cottage in the small South Island New Zealand town of Riverton. Before long, he learns of a family who had the house before he did, and it turns out there’s a mystery connected with them. Alice Cotter disappeared in 1988; a year later, her father James went missing, too. No-one’s been able to find out what happened to them, but Bell is curious about the case. So, with a new sense of purpose, he starts to look into the matter, and becomes involved in a very dangerous case with deep roots. For Bell, solving the case offers a sort of redemption that helps him to cope with his trauma. So does belonging to a Murderball – wheelchair rugby – club. He also gets some help from his assigned therapist, Betty Crowe.

And then there’s Tina Shaw’s Make a Hard Fist. Lizzie Quinn has a fairly solid teenage life. She’s a successful runner, has good friends, and a boy who’s in love with her (although it’s awkward that she doesn’t feel the same way about him). She’s even saving to buy a car. Then, she starts getting disturbing notes from someone who seems to be stalking her. That’s unnerving enough, but one day, she is attacked while she’s on her way home from a walk. It’s a terrifying experience for her, and it has a real impact on her. She becomes quieter and more afraid of everything. And the notes continue. Lizzie decides she wants to do something to get her life back. So, with the help of one of her teachers, she arranges for a self-defense instructor to come to the school and offer some lessons. She learns some important things about taking care of herself, and the confidence that can come with that. But she still has to deal with her stalker. And that will test her newfound strength.

There are a lot of ways people cope with trauma; some of them are healthier than others. And that plot point can add an interesting layer to a crime novel. It’s realistic, too, since real people sometimes have to deal with trauma.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s I’m Still Standing.


12 thoughts on “Looking Like a True Survivor*

    1. Thanks, Sue. Loss really can be a powerful too, can’t it? Authors can explore how a character deals with it as a means of character development. And you’re right that we can connect with characters who deal with sorrow and trauma. We’ve all had loss; that’s part of being human.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. In The Reckoning by John Grisham, Pete Banning, a WW II hero cannot cope with the emotional pain of a betrayal and kills the man he considers responsible. His pain is so internalized he will not say why and refuses to defend himself. It is an agony that overwhelms and devastates the lives of his family and the victim’s family. I have to hope in the 75 years since WW II ended he would have gained the help he so desperately needed to deal with his trauma.


    1. I would hope so, too, Bill. That sort of trauma can lead people to do all sorts of things they wouldn’t do otherwise. It’s a reminder that the pain is there, whether it’s internalized or not. Your comment reminds me of Ferdinand Von Schirach’s The Collini Case. That one also features a character who kills, will not say way, and doesn’t try to defend himself. There’s a similar feeling for his loss and trauma, too.


  2. You’ve reminded me of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder, Margot. He is a cop and interrupts an armed robbery. One of his shots goes wild and kills a seven-year old girl. He cannot get over that and resigns. When the series starts. he is leading an aimless life, living in one room in a cheap hotel.


    1. That’s a great example, Christine, and one I’m glad you mentioned. Scudder has to deal with this tragedy always, and you can see the trauma he’s suffered. I like it that he lights a candle for the little girl whenever he’s in a church. My guess is that that sort of thing never leaves you, really.


  3. I loved Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy. Carl Mørck is a wonderful character. I really need to get to Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons. I am having a hard time finding it. Is it published under another title?


    1. I think Mørck is a great character, too, Tracy. He’s human and flawed, but not your stereotypical ‘demon-haunted detective.’ And I do like the interactions among the characters. As for Dead Lemons, I did a little looking. It’s been published in the US under another title, The Killing Ground. If you do get the chance to read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.


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