Here’s the Moral and the Story*

My guess is that most crime fiction fans don’t want their stories to include moral lessons. That focus can take away from the plot, and pull the reader out of the story, even if the reader agrees with the point of the lesson. That said, though, there are plenty of well-regarded crime novels that, in their way, make certain points. Those points can serve as themes, or they can simply help to tie a story together. When it’s done well, making a point in that way can add to a story without turning it into a ‘morality play.’

For instance, as Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile begins, two residents of the village of Molton-under-Wode are having a conversation about beautiful, wealthy Linnet Ridgeway. One of them says,

‘It seems all wrong to me – her looking like that. Money and looks – it’s too much…Got everything, that girl has. Doesn’t seem fair…’

His words are almost prophetic. When Linnet meets Simon Doyle, she’s immediately drawn to him, although he is engaged to her best friend, Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. Linnet and Simon marry, and take a honeymoon trip, which includes a Nile cruise. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. Jackie is on the same cruise, so she’s an immediate suspect. But it’s soon proven that she could not have committed the crime. So, Hercule Poirot (who is also on the trip) has to look elsewhere for the killer. As he does, he learns about Linnet, and about the sort of person she was. Her life of privilege blinded her, you might say, to others’ views and perspectives, and it had a lot to do with the reason she was killed. So, you might argue that one point made in the novel is that wealth and privilege do not entitle one to everything – or, at least, they shouldn’t. There are other points made, too, but I don’t want to get too close to spoilers…

In Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, we are introduced to Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson. They make the long trip from Scotland, where they’ve been living, to Alistair’s native Victoria with their nine-week-old son, Noah. The flight is nightmarish, so they’re both glad to leave the airport in Melbourne and head towards Alistair’s hometown. Along the way, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of their baby. They make a police report, and there’s soon a massive search for Noah. All sorts of websites and online commentaries are devoted to finding him, and there’s lots of media coverage. There’s a great deal of sympathy, too, for the distraught parents. Then, some questions begin to be raised. Before long, there’s talk that Alistair and/or Joanna may have had something to do with Noah’s disappearance. Popular opinion is particularly hard on Joanna. As the truth is slowly revealed, we see just how destructive rushing to judgement can be, especially in these days of easy online access. While Fitzgerald doesn’t overburden the novel with moral lessons, there’s a very clear point to be made about the impact of rushing to judgement.

We all have secrets, or at the very least, things we keep private. And most people would say there’s nothing wrong with that (do you really want to know all of the details about your work colleague’s marriage?). But keeping certain secrets can have dangerous consequences, especially when they are secrets kept from partners. That point is explored in a lot of crime fiction. For example, in Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room, we meet Laurie and Martha, who have a successful marriage and three healthy children: Hope, Ana, and Jack. They’re by no means perfect people, but they have a good life. For Laurie, their life offers the peace and normal (if there is such a thing) existence she didn’t have as a child. Laurie was raised in a cult, and she didn’t leave until she was a young adult. So she’s grateful for the solid life that she and Martha have built. Everything changes when someone from her past – someone she’s been deliberately avoiding – finds her. Now, Laurie has to find a way to keep her family safe if she can. It doesn’t help matters that she never told Martha about this part of her past, or about what’s happened. And it turns out that Martha isn’t telling Laurie everything, either. Those secrets could now have tragic consequences. It’s tempting to call out, ‘Just tell her about it!’ But then, what might that do to the story…

There are many crime novels that explore the dangers of obsession. You could almost argue that the moral of these stories is to avoid unhealthy attachments. There are lots to pick and choose from; I’ll just mention Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger. Fabien Delorme is informed that his wife, Sylvie, has been killed in a car crash. He also finds out that she wasn’t alone in the car. She was having an affair with man named Martial Arnoult, who was also killed in the crash. When Delorme learns that Arnoult left a widow, Martine, he becomes determined to find her. Then, when he does locate her, he becomes obsessed with her, and in fact, starts a relationship with her. As you can imagine, things spin out of control, and the end result is disaster. James M. Cain also wrote several stories that focus on obsession, and on characters’ choices not to let go (or inability to let go, depending on how you see it). I’m thinking, for instance, of The Postman Always Rings Twice and of Double Indemnity.

There are a lot of other crime novels in which there’s a point made – perhaps a moral if you want to call it that. It’s tricky to pull that off effectively. If it’s not done well, a story can turn into a moral lecture, and most crime fiction fans aren’t interested in that. What do you think? Do you notice when a story has a sort of lesson in it? If you’re an author, do you include those points in your writing?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dion DiMucci’s Runaround Sue.

 

 


4 thoughts on “Here’s the Moral and the Story*

  1. In some ways, you could argue that the crime novel (at least in its classic form) always makes a moral point, with the great detective (Holmes, Poirot etc) returning everything to normal and putting the world to rights. However, there was certainly a move away from that in later years with more modern writers giving us plenty of protagonists who were the bad guys. Interestingly, I think some of the older books occasionally mixed things up (and certainly Raffles was no saint). I think a moral can certainly work if it’s in the background, but I’m not fond of that element when it’s laid on with a trowel!!

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    1. You make a really interesting observation, KBR, about the difference between GA books (and classic crime novels, too) and more contemporary novels. As you say, Raffles was no saint, but by and large, the classic crime novel does focus on re-establishing order. There are plenty of exceptions to that, of course, and that does make that sub-genre interesting! I wonder if today’s readers want protagonists who are more well-rounded, including some rough edges? And I agree; if there’s going to be a moral, the author shouldn’t use a trowel; that just takes away from a story, from my point of view.

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  2. Ha, same book I mentioned last time. John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night serves as a reminder of the stupidity of racism and the need to not make rash judgments and generalisations about people based on the colour of their skin.

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    1. That’s an excellent book, Col, so I think it serves as an example for a lot of things that make crime fiction tick. Certainly it does for this one. I think Ball explores the consequences of racism and rushing to judgement really effectively, and without bashing the reader over the head with it.

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