And Good Comes From Bad Anyway*

Can good come out of something as awful as murder? You might not think so; after all, murder is a horrible thing, and it has a lifelong impact on those affected by it. And yet, it is sometimes possible for good to come out of a tragedy. And it can add a welcome note of hope to a story when that happens in crime fiction. It’s got to be done carefully. In real life, people don’t live ‘happily ever after’ in the wake of a murder. But if it’s done well, having something good come out of a tragedy can lighten an otherwise very sad story.

There are several examples of this in Agatha Christie’s stories. One of them is Sad Cypress. Elinor Carlisle is put on trial for murder in the poisoning death of Mary Gerrard. She had motive, too. For one thing, Elinor’s fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, had become infatuated with Mary. He and Elinor grew up with her, but they hadn’t seen her for several years. When they returned for a visit, Roddy was immediately enthralled. As if that’s not enough, Mary stood to inherit a fortune from her patron – and Elinor’s aunt – Laura Welman. It had always been assumed that Elinor would be the beneficiary, but Aunt Laura developed a fondness for Mary. With all of this, plus some other evidence, it looks very much as though Elinor murdered Mary. But the local GP, Peter Lord, doesn’t believe Elinor is guilty. And even if she is, he wants her name cleared, because he’s become smitten with her. So, he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. It’s a very difficult time for Elinor, and at the end, she’s mentally and physically exhausted. So, she takes some time away to stay at a sanatorium. The one person she wants as a visitor is Peter Lord, and we see that their friendship – or could it be more? – is a good thing that’s come out of all that happened.

In Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn reconnects with an old friend, famous artist Sally Love. The Mendel Gallery is planning to open an exhibition of Sally’s work, and Joanne is looking forward to attending, and, perhaps, to re-establishing a friendship that fell apart after Sally left town at the age of thirteen. It’s not as easy as Joanne hoped to be Sally’s friend again, and matters get even murkier when Clea Poole, who owns the Mendel, is murdered. And when Sally becomes a suspect, Joanne is drawn into a dark case that changes the way she views her friend and her own past. As it turns out, Sally has a young daughter, Taylor. At the end of this sad, unsettling story, Joanne takes Taylor in, and in the course of the series, forges a relationship with her and ends up adopting her. It’s one good thing in Joanne’s life (and Taylor’s) that has come from the tragedies in the story.

Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother is the story of Sylvanus and Addie Now. They live in The Beaches, Newfoundland, with their son, Kyle. Their daughter, Sylvie, is grown and has left home. Three years before the events in the novel, the oldest Now child, Chris, was killed in an oil rig accident in Alberta, and the family is still reeling from the loss. They’ve become fragmented, and they haven’t communicated well. Everything starts to change when a local bully named Clar Gillard is murdered. The police begin their investigation, and they soon find plenty of suspects. Gillard was abusive to his wife, and malicious to many other people in town. Gradually, though, it begins to look as though one of the members of the Now family might be responsible for the murder. Each one of the family members comes under scrutiny, as each one could have had a motive. It’s an awful time for all of them. But the one good thing that comes out of it is that the family draws together. The experience of being suspected of murder leads them to depend on each other and support each other. And in the end, this allows them to start the process of healing from Chris’ death.

Greenlight is Kalpana Swaminatham’s sixth book to feature retired Mumbai police detective Lalli. The focus of the novel is the small slum of Kandewadi. The people there have little money, but they do have pride and strong family bonds. The community is badly shaken when a series of its children go missing and are later found dead. It’s a harrowing and terrifying situation for the residents. When the media get hold of the story, there’s pressure to find out who is responsible, so the case is given to Inspector Savio, who has worked with Lalli before, and still consults her on some cases. The truth about the killings is ugly, but some good does come out of the awfulness. There are some real questions raised about the inequities of social class differences, and those questions force the inequities into the spotlight as a result of what happens.

There’s also Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons. The protagonist, also called Finn Bell, reaches a watershed time in his life. His marriage has ended, and a car crash has left him without the use of his legs. He’s hit bottom, so in an effort to start over, he takes a cottage in the small town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island,

‘…almost as close to the bottom of the world as you can get without actually moving to Antarctica.’

He hasn’t been there long when he discovers that tragedy struck the former owners of the cottage. In 1988, Emily and James Cotter’s daughter, Alice, went missing and was never found. A year later, James also disappeared. Bell starts asking questions about what happened, and ends up being drawn into real danger as he turns up some ugly things going on in the town. It’s a very sad story, but some good does come out of it. As Bell investigates, he slowly starts to find his way back to the human race, as you might say, and begins to see some purpose in his life. He also begins to fit in with the other people in Riverton in a way he hadn’t imagined he could.

Murder is awful and tragic. But sometimes, in real life and in crime fiction, some good can be salvaged from the sorrow. And when that happens, it can make the fact of the killing just a little easier to bear.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lucy Dacus’ Map on a Wall.

 


16 thoughts on “And Good Comes From Bad Anyway*

  1. Interesting, Margot! I think GA crime definitely does often look for good outcomes – and in fact some of the classics I’ve read recently have had particularly unpleasant victims that seem set up for murder. I guess this is possibly make us accept the fact that a terrible crime is at the heart of the book. I don’t read so much modern crime writing, but I suspect more recent books are less likely to always have positive outcomes – more aligned to our current real life!

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    1. Thanks, KBR! You make a really well-taken point about GA crime fiction as opposed to more contemporary crime fiction. Most of the GA novels I’ve read do have some sort of positive outcome. Either the murder victim is, as you say, a horrible person, or a young couple pairs up, or someone inherits a fortune, or something. There’s a push now for books to reflect real life, and real life is seldom that way.

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  2. Intriguing post, Margot. You don’t stop and think about any good that can come from tragedy, but it does happen. It may be a slow process, but I think that helps the healing of losing someone. We all definitely need that tiny ray of hope something good gives us. Hope you and your family have a safe and wonderful holiday weekend.

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    1. Thank you, Mason! Enjoy the holiday weekend, too! I think you’re right that when something good comes of tragedy, this helps the healing process. Being able to focus on that little bit of good can keep a person a little saner, if I can put it that way. And I think a lot of readers like their stories to have at least some good come out of tragedy.

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  3. Margot: Your example of Taylor having a good life with Joanne Kilbourn and Zack Shreeve is a powerful example of something good coming from a murder. It is hard to say politely but the life of Taylor’s mother, Sally, was such a mess it is hard to believe Taylor would have done well in Sally’s care. Some people are ill-suited to being parents. Even in fiction I wish Sally had not been killed but I remain grateful Taylor grew up with Joanne.

    Another series featuring a young woman moving because of the death of a parent is Harry Bosch’s daughter, Maddie. If her mother, Eleanor Wish, had not been killed I doubt Maddie would have moved to L.A. to live with her father. Their relationship deepened after the move.

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    1. I don’t know that there is a polite way to say it, Bill; Taylor would not have done well at all if Sally had raised her. As you say, Sally had a lot of problems, and she was a real mess. She would not have given Taylor a good life. I wish Sally hadn’t been killed, too, but Joanne and Zack have been able to give Taylor the sort of life she needed.

      And thanks for mentioning Maddie. I liked Eleanor Wish as a character, and in that sense, I was sad at her death. But it’s a very good thing that Maddie has had the chance to develop a good relationship with Bosch.

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  4. This is something I definitely think the Golden Agers were better at. Their victims tended to be deeply unpleasant, very elderly or with no relatives, so that the reader doesn’t have to spend too much time with people who are grieving. That sounds harsh, but it is supposed to be a form of entertainment and, for me at least, grief is not entertaining. Christie in particular often has a romance built in, so that at least two of the characters have a chance of happiness at the end. As you’ve shown in your examples, some contemporary crime writers find a way to have a good outcome, but they do tend much more to focus on the realities of murder and all the trauma that goes along with it, and I often find that makes the stories too grim to be fun. Call me shallow! 😉

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    1. I wouldn’t call it shallow at all, FictionFan. You make a really well-taken point that people read fiction in order to be entertained. And I don’t know anyone who thinks that grief is entertaining. You’re right, too, that Christie did a really effective job of using a romance to lighten the fact that someone in the novel is dead. Some writers tend to focus a bit too much (well, for my taste, at any rate) on the romance, but Christie balanced it all quite well.

      Contemporary writers do tend to be realistic when they write. There’s pressure from publishers, editors, and so on to create characters who are ‘real,’ and real-life characters grieve when they lose someone. I wonder if that makes today’s writers more likely to really explore the grim side of things. Hmm…..interesting ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks.

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  5. Very nice post, Margot. As others have pointed out, Agatha wasn’t the only one to do this. I have just finished Allingham’s Flowers for the Judge and that too has what is really a happy ending in more ways than one (and a great last line). In his wonderful book, Writing Crime Fiction, H R F Keating suggests having a little upward twist at the end of a crime novel and I think this is still good advice.

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    1. I think it is, too, Christine. And I think there are ways to do it that don’t have to sugarcoat the tragic things that happen. To me, anyway, it’s more of an affirmation that life can go on, if that makes sense. And thanks for mentioning the Allingham. I like her writing, but haven’t read much of it lately. I should get back to it.

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      1. Yes, I agree about the affirmation. I do recommend Flowers for the Judge. I think it is one of her best.

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