We’re living through very difficult times right now, and it’s taking a toll on everyone. It’s good to be reminded that people can be decent, too, even though they may have faults (as we all do). It’s a little tricky to weave that decency and even kindness into a crime novel. If it’s not done well, the story can become saccharine. But when it’s handled effectively, those simple acts of decency can add to a story.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone is convinced that she was killed by her lodger, James Bentley. In fact, he’s been convicted of the crime and is due to be executed. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence thinks Bentley may be innocent, and he’s asked Poirot to look into the matter. In order to find out more about Bentley, Poirot talks to various people who live in the village. So does detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, who’s there collaborating with a playwright on an adaptation of one of her works. They find that, unlike the rest of the villagers, Deirdre Henderson has a very positive view of Bentley. It seems that her dog, Ben, had caught his paw in a trap, and Bentley freed the animal. It was a simple, kind gesture, and meant a lot to her. The incident isn’t related to the murder, but it shows an interesting side to Bentley’s character.
Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman sees Queensland Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte travel to the small town of Merino to investigate the death of itinerant stockman George Kendall. In order to get as much information as possible, Bony goes undercover as a stockman after first briefing Sergeant Marshall of the local police. He arranges to have himself ‘arrested’ for ‘vagrancy,’ and spend ten days in custody while he investigates. In the process, he meets Marshall’s young daughter, Florence, who prefers the name Rose Marie. From the beginning, she’s kind to Bony, bringing him tea and snacks and making sure he doesn’t need anything. Bony is treated well, but he still appreciates Florence’s kindness, and forms a sort of bond with her.
Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos is the story of Marseilles police officer Fabio Montale. He now patrols in the same area where he grew up, so he knows the people who live there. He also has a certain compassion for the down-and-out, and those who don’t always get fair treatment. One of the people he knows is Moulourd Laarbi, who immigrated with his family from Algeria to France. It’s been difficult for the family, not least because they are from a different culture and have faced their share of prejudice. Despite the challenges, though, Laarbi’s daughter Leila has done well in school, and has been accepted to university. Laarbi hasn’t heard from her in several days, though, and he’s worried. Montale’s not required to do anything about this, but he cares about the Laarbi family, and he cares what happens to Leila. So, he starts asking questions. And the fact that he’s willing to take on the case and find some answers means a lot to the family.
In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, Stephanie Anderson is just beginning her career as a psychologist in Dunedin. One day, she gets a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, who’s struggling with a real tragedy in her past. It seems that her younger sister, Gracie, was abducted several years earlier, and was never found. Not even a body was discovered. Elisabeth’s story reminds Stephanie of a tragically similar incident in her own past. Seventeen years earlier, Stephanie’s younger sister, Gemma, also went missing. A massive search turned up no leads, and the family has been devastated because of it. Against her better judgement, Stephanie decides to search for the person who wrought so much havoc on her family’s life and on Elisabeth’s family’s life. So, she journeys from Dunedin to her hometown of Wanaka to find some answers. Along the way, she stays for a few days with Andy Clark, Elisabeth’s father. He and his wife own a B&B/inn, and they make Stephanie welcome. They show her a great deal of kindness and take extra steps to pamper her – pampering she wasn’t even aware she needed. For Andy’s part, he’s grateful that Stephanie is trying to find out the truth about Gracie. For Stephanie’s part, Andy and his wife show her the sort of kindness that helps her start the work of healing.
Anthony BIdulka’s Going to Beautiful introduces Toronto-based Canadian celebrity chef Jake Hardy. He seems to have it all – an enviable career, a loving husband, Eddie, and a healthy, happy son, Connor. Then, everything falls apart. Eddie is killed in a tragic fall from the balcony of their luxury condominium. At first it looks like a terrible accident, but the police soon begin to believe it might have been murder. And Jake is a prime suspect. The police establish that he’s not guilty, but that doesn’t change the gossip spreading about him on social media. He decides to take a break from it all and start to cope with his grief by following up an intriguing clue to Eddie’s past. Eddie had written a list of his last wishes – the I’m dead. Now what? list. On that list is the word ‘Beautiful.’ After a short time, Jake works out that Beautiful refers to Eddie’s hometown in Saskatchewan. So, Jake and his friend, Baz, travel to Beautiful so that Jake can find those pieces of Eddie that he’s been missing. While they’re there, they stay at a local convent with only one occupant, Sister Genowefa. She charges them no money, feeds them well, and provides them with rooms, towels, and so on. She takes care of them out of kindness and a sense of responsibility. And, in fact, that’s what the spirit is in Beautiful. People help each other not because they must, but because it’s the right thing to do. That sense of compassion is helpful to Jake as he faces his loss, and as he finds out the truth about Eddie’s death.
Acts of kindness and decency are certainly important in real life. They also have a role in crime fiction. Even in noir stories, they can add a layer to a story or to a character. And they’re a small bit of hope in what can be a very sad novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don Henley’s The Heart of the Matter.
8 thoughts on “We All Need a Little Tenderness*”
Thanks for the reminder of Upfield, Margot. I did buy something of his to read and haven’t got around to it yet. I need to read more from Izzo too.
I ought to read more of Izzo than I have, too, Col. And I’ve always liked Upfield’s sense of place very much. Bony is a great character, too.
Such great reminders that there are always some little glimmers of hope and kindness even in the darkest of novels… or situations.
Thanks, Marina Sofia. I think it helps – well, it helps me – to remember that people are capable of decency and kindness. It gives me hope.
Margot: In rural Saskatchewan there is a tradition that if a farmer dies during the growing seasons his neighbours will gather together to harvest the grain even if the family could manage to do the harvest. It happened twice in my youth at Meskanaw. The neighbours are not called by the family to help. The neighbours will leave their fields for a day and come with their combines and trucks to take off the crops of their deceased neighbour. The event brings a powerful sense of community and compassion.
I love that tradition, Bill, and I’m very glad that you shared it. It is, as you say, a powerful way to show community and compassion. And it reminds the family that others care. That in itself helps as the family faces their loss. I’m sure that experiencing that must have made a really strong impact on you.
I appreciated, Margot, your last lines on the role of acts of kindness and decency in crime fiction. I find myself moving away from crime novels which are too graphically violent. I recently listened to a podcast on books where the podcasters rated five stars to books which were gory and incredibly violent. It is becoming more and more discouraging to see how that kind of violence is so popular. Hurrah for acts of kindness and decency!
I’m with you, Carol, about stories that are graphically violent. To me, there is no reason for that sort of gore. It doesn’t add to the story, or make me care any more about the characters. I choose to read other sorts of crime fiction. As you say, though, that sort of violence in stories is popular, and it really is discouraging. I think our capacity for kindness and decency is a crucial part of what it is to be human. It’s possible to acknowledge that, even in a crime novel.
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