As this is posted, it would have been Amelia Earhart’s 124th birthday. Whatever the truth is about her disappearance and death, there’s no doubt that she was an adventurous person who wasn’t afraid to take risks. Perhaps that’s part of why she pushed the limits she did, and became an aviation pioneer. Not all of us have that craving for adventure, but those who do often have memorable experiences. And an adventurous spirit can make one open to all sorts of experiences that others might miss.
In crime fiction, adventurous characters can add to a story. They often have interesting histories, and the author has a lot of flexibility in the sorts of things that happen in the story. And adventurous characters can be fascinating in themselves.
Agatha Christie’s Anne Bedingfield, whom we meet in The Man in the Brown Suit, is an adventurer. When her professor father dies, Anne is left an orphan with little money. She has no interest in a secretarial or other job – the kind women had while they waited for a husband. And she wants to experience life. She gets her wish and more when she witnesses a fatal accident. A man is pushed under an oncoming train, and there’s very little in the way of evidence to show who’s responsible. Anne ends up with a note that was in the dead man’s pocket. She deduces 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 lot more adventure than she’d imagined, with international intrigue, stolen jewels, and murder.
Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is the fictional retelling of the real-life story of Maggie Heffernan. In 1900, at the age of 19, she was convicted and sentenced to be executed for the murder of her infant son. The truth is a lot more complicated than that, though, as James shows. The story begins in rural Victoria, where Maggie lives with her very respectable family. She’s been raised to be a ‘good girl,’ but everything changes when she meets Jack Hardy, who’s in the area visiting relatives. It’s not long before conversation becomes flirting, which becomes more. Before long, they’re seeing each other as much as possible, and Jack proposes marriage. He says they’ll need to keep their engagement a secret, though, until he can find work that will support a family. He then leaves for Sydney to look for a job. Soon enough, Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant. She writes to Jack to tell him, but he doesn’t respond. She knows very well that her family won’t accept her, so she leaves and goes to Melbourne, where she finds work at a guest house. It’s not an adventure she wanted, but she makes the best of the situation. When the baby is born, she thinks she finds a place to go: a home for unwed mothers. Then, she gets a letter telling her where Jack is. So, she goes on another adventure to find him. When she does, he completely rejects her, even telling her she’s crazy. That night, with nowhere to stay, Maggie tries six different rooming houses, not one of which will take her in. That’s when the tragedy with the baby happens. Maggie didn’t have much of an interest in being an adventurer, but she ends up becoming one anyway.
Séan Haldane’s The Devil’s Making is the story of Chad Hobbes. It’s 1868, and Hobbes has just completed his degree in Jurisprudence at Oxford. He wants to see some of the world before he settles down with a ‘proper’ wife, so he travels to Victoria, BC. With some help from a letter of introduction to the Governor, he’s given a job as a constable under the supervision of Augustus Pemberton. Most of the work involves breaking up drunken quarrels and occasionally removing prostitutes. Then, a group of Tsimshian Indians discovers the body of Richard McCrory, an American ex-pat who billed himself as an alienist, a mesmerist, and a phrenologist. It’s immediately assumed that the killer is a Tsimshian named Wiladzap, and he had motive. It seems that McCrory was having an affair with his partner. But the police have to make some sort of investigation, if only to prove that they are acting fairly. So, Hobbes is tasked with asking questions of anyone who might have known the victim. He soon finds that this case is not nearly as clear-cut as it seems on the surface. It turns out that there are plenty of people who wanted McCrory dead. And what started out as an adventure turns into a complicated case.
Stark Holborn’s Nunslinger: Book 1 is the first of ten stories that feature Sister Thomas Josephine. It’s 1864, and Sister Josephine is making her way from the St. Louis convent where she lives to Sacramento, where she’s hoping to make a new start. The wagon train she’s joined is attacked in Wyoming, and she’s left stranded. She’s rescued by Lieutenant Theodore Carthy and his men, part of a group of Federal troops in the area. She’s no sooner safe, though, when she’s taken hostage by a grifter named Abraham Muir. She gets to know Muir a bit, though, and learns that things aren’t always what they seem to be. And she gets drawn into some very dangerous life-or-death adventures.
And then there’s Jock Serong’s Preservation. It’s 1797, and Lieutenant Joshua Grayling has been given a very strange case to investigate. It seems that the Sydney Cove wrecked near what is now Tasmania. Seventeen men survived the shipwreck, but only three made it to the ship’s original destination of Sydney Harbour. It’s Grayling’s business to find out what happened during the journey to Sydney. So, he talks to the survivors: William Clark (supercargo of the ship); his manservant; and Mr. Figge (a tea merchant who was a passenger). As he learns the truth about the trip, we get each survivor’s viewpoint, and we get a sense of the adventures and dangers involved in the trip from Tasmania.
Some people are naturally adventurous; others end up on adventures they’d never planned and didn’t want. Either way, the stories can be memorable, and they can serve as solid plot points for crime novels. And adventurers can make interesting protagonists. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Denver’s Calypso.
4 thoughts on “The Things That You’ve Shown Us, the Stories You Tell*”
I did enjoy the Nunslinger series, Margot. It was very entertaining. I have a few of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series on the pile. I wonder if they fit the bill, or if there’s not enough ‘crime’ present?
I sometimes wonder, Col, just how much ‘crime’ has to be present in a novel for it to be classified as ‘crime fiction.’ But even if the Fraser Flashman series isn’t considered crime fiction (although crimes do happen in the books), he still does have a number of adventures. He himself might be a bit of a coward, but all sorts of things end up happening to him. I hope you’ll enjoy the series when you get there. And I agree about the Nunslinger series; I’m glad you featured it on your blog and introduced me to it.
Chad Hobbes in The Devil’s Making is on an adventure that, being set on Vancouver Island, is almost as far as you can physically be from London in the mid-19th Century when there was no transportation across Canada and ocean travel has to go around South America. The isolation from England is profound in life as well as distance. The English population of Victoria is a minority amidst the Americans and indigenous people. I would say he experiences culture shock.
I enjoyed your other examples and noted that none feature contemporary adventurers. From almost a century ago to even more distant years the characters are adventuring in times when there was still much to discover in the world. In our world of information saturation I think there is little adventuring left that is unique.
Thanks for adding the context to The Devil’s Making, Bill. It’s quite true that going from London to Vancouver in the 1860s wasn’t anything like it is today. There is a sense of isolation, and I think Haldane does an effective job of showing what an adventure it really is. You make an interesting point about culture shock, too. I’d say that’s an apt description of Hobbes’ experience. Add to that the distance from home, and it must seem like a new planet to him.
You make an interesting point about adventures of time gone by, and today’s world. I think one would have to look long and hard to find a place to go with really genuine adventures. That’s especially true given how ‘wired in’ people are in these times. I wonder how that impacts us as people…