A recent post from Cathy at Kittling: Books has got me thinking about what happens when people are a bit at loose ends. It’s always nice to have a rest and a break from routine, but most of us like to have some purpose to our days. We like to have something to do that keeps us occupied and challenged. So, being at loose ends can be uncomfortable. In her post, Cathy reviews a book in which the main character is in exactly that situation, and she’s got lots of company. There are plenty of novels in which the sleuth or main character is at loose ends. That feeling can add to character development to a story.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to Anne Bedingfield. Her father has recently died, leaving her with very little money. She’ll have to do something with her life, but she’s not interested in any of the jobs (such as receptionist or typist) that are open to women at the time. So she’s very much at loose ends. One day, she witnesses an accident in which a man falls or is pushed under an oncoming train. She ends up with possession of a paper that was in the dead man’s pocket, and works out that it refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On a whim, she books passage on the boat, and ends up drawn into a web of international intrigue, stolen gems, and murder.
Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair begins as Gilbert Hand moves to a highly respectable London hotel. He’s still mourning the death of his wife Rachel, and has been advised to have a change of scene and routine. Still, he’s at loose ends, and not exactly sure what he’ll do next. Soon after he moves in, he discovers a package in the davenport in his room. When he opens the package, he finds a long coil of hair. He learns that the last occupant of the room was a man named Freddie Doyle, and he determines to find out more about the man. In the meantime, Doyle himself returns to the hotel, looking for something he ‘left behind.’ Now uneasy, but thoroughly intrigued, Hand refuses to give up the hair. But Doyle fascinates him, and he decides to find out who the owner of the hair was, and whether Doyle may have killed her. Hand’s curiosity leads him into a dangerous obsession, and he starts believing he’s having to match wits against the man. If you’re a crime fiction fan, you know that this will not end well…
One of Kerry Greenwood’s series features Melbourne-based accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman. She loves what she does; to her, bread is real. It means a lot to be able to bake and provide for the community. That’s why it’s especially hard for her in Trick or Treat, when an ergot contamination forces all of the local bakeries to shut down temporarily. She’s very much at loose ends during the shutdown, and in one plot thread, works to find out where the ergot came from and who’s responsible. The other plot thread involves Greek treasures stolen by the Nazis and found underwater near a local camping area. The two plot threads are related, and in the end, we find out what’s behind it all. I can say without spoiling the story that it shows just how difficult it can be to be at loose ends.
Mick Herron’s Down Cemetery Road introduces Sarah Tucker. As the story begins, she and her husband Mark are living in Oxford, where they’re doing well enough financially. But Sarah’s a bit bored with the life of a housewife, and her marriage is failing. As it turns out, Mark is not the man she thought he was, and it’s hard for her. She’s at loose ends, and not sure exactly where her life will go next. Then one evening, a house nearby explodes. Sarah learns that it was owned by Thomas Singleton and his wife, Maddie, who were the parents of four-year-old Dinah. Soon enough, some things about this explosion raise questions. For one thing, both adult Singletons are confirmed dead, but Dinah has not been located. What happened to her? Then, it comes out that Thomas Singleton died four years earlier. So, who is the dead man if it’s not Singleton? If it is, who was killed four years ago? Sarah wants very much to find out what happened to Dinah, so she starts asking questions. She ends up involved in a very dangerous case – so dangerous that she has to go on the run. In the end, she finds out some ugly truths about people in some high places.
And then there’s Finn Bell, whom we meet in Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons (yes, the author and his protagonist share a name). Bell is at a crossroads in his life. His marriage is over, he’s lost the use of his legs in a car crash, and he’s getting past an alcohol problem. Wanting to make a new start, he takes a cottage in the small South Island, New Zealand town of Riverton. He’s at loose ends there, as he doesn’t really know anyone, and isn’t sure what his next steps will be. Then he learns that the previous owners of his cottage have a tragic past: two of them (father and daughter) went missing and never returned. Bell’s curious about what happened, so he starts asking questions. Before long, he begins to discover some long-hidden, very dark secrets about the town’s past.
That ‘loose ends’ feeling can happen whenever we end one part of our lives and move on to the next, or our ‘normal’ lives are disrupted. And that feeling can serve as an interesting plot point, not to mention a solid bit of character development. If you’ve ever been at loose ends, I’ll bet you know the feeling…
Thanks, Cathy, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s I Have Confidence.