Going through physical or mental trauma takes all of the reserves most of us have. It takes time – sometimes a long time – to get back to anything resembling a normal life, and even then, things aren’t the same. We all know that this happens in real life, but it’s a bit trickier to manage when it comes to crime fiction. On the one hand, readers want their stories to reflect reality. On the other hand, too much detail about the healing process can make a story seem plodding. And recovery is often a sad, difficult, painful journey that can make a story seem too dark if it’s overdone. Still, there are ways to strike that balance.
Some authors do it by placing the beginning of recovery at the end of a novel. That way, readers can use their imaginations without the story being bogged down. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle is arrested and tried for the murder of Mary Gerrard. There’s evidence against her, too, as she had two separate motives. The local GP, Peter Lord, has fallen in love with Elinor, and wants her name cleared. So, he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. As the novel goes on, we see how the whole process saps Elinor. At the end of the story, she is in real need of healing and restoration, so she takes some time at a sanatorium. We’re not told how long she’s there, nor about the details of her stay. It’s left to the reader to imagine her recovery, so the novel itself isn’t bogged down by too many details.
The same sort of thing is true in Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances. In the novel, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is devastated by the murder of her friend, up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. As a way of facing her grief, she decides to write Andy’s biography. As she does the research, she also finds out about Andy’s life – and about what led to his murder. In one plot thread of the story, Joanne begins to feel ill. At first, it doesn’t seem like much, but her symptoms don’t go away. In fact, they worsen, and she begins to lose weight too quickly. The reason for her illness is discovered, but that doesn’t mean she is magically better. It takes time, medical intervention, and rehabilitation, to say nothing of her need for emotional recovery. But the novel isn’t bogged down with those details. Instead, at the end of the novel, Joanne makes a reference to the work she’s doing to get better. Readers are invited to imagine for themselves what Joanne’s recovery will be like.
Some authors weave the reality of trauma and healing through a series in a story arc way. That approach lets the author get on with the major plots, yet still acknowledge that recovering from something serious takes time and a lot of effort. For instance, Geoffrey McGeachin has written a short series featuring Charlie Berlin, a Melbourne-based cop who served, as so many did, in WW II. As the series begins, with The Diggers Rest Hotel, Berlin has recently returned from service. Not only did he see plenty of action in the war, but he was also taken prisoner for a time. He bears a lot of pain and has what we would now call PTSD. Very slowly, he starts to recover, but it’s a long process, and Charlie would rather just get on with life. It’s not that easy, though, and we see how he has to balance wanting to move ahead with still having to face his demons. As the series goes on, with Blackwattle Creek and St. Kilda Blues, Charlie continues with his life. He marries, has children, investigates cases, and so on. The novels themselves keep the focus on the individual plots, rather than Charlie’s journey. At the same time, there are scenes that remind us that it is a journey, and that recovery from something traumatic is not easy.
That’s also the approach David Marks takes in his Detective Sergeant (DS) Aector McAvoy series. MacAvoy has had more than one traumatic thing happen to him (just one example is the destruction of his home). What’s more, he’s not always comfortable exploring the impacts of the things that have happened to him. This means it takes time, therapy, and sometimes medical help as he recovers when things happen. Marks doesn’t overburden his novels with, for instance, long, drawn-out therapy sessions or discussions of how he’s progressing. Instead, there are mentions of recovery, some short scenes in the therapist’s office, and so on. As the series goes on, we see how McAvoy learns to handle the things that have happened to him, and to confront his ghosts. But these things are story arcs.
Håkan Östlundh’s novels The Viper, The Intruder, and Terror feature Gotlund police inspector Fredrik Broman. He’s good at his job, dedicated, and has a fairly functional home life. Everything changes when, in The Viper, he is badly wounded. He returns to duty in The Intruder, but it is a slow, painful process. And we see how his colleagues aren’t exactly sure how to interact with him. He’s not always sure himself. He wants to get back to work, like normal, but things are not normal, and that’s hard on him. It’s hard on his marriage, too, as it means a complete renegotiation of his relationship. The novels don’t put a lot of emphasis on his recovery, although it’s a part of his story. Rather, the focus is on the cases at hand, and the stories behind them. At the same time, Östlundh acknowledges that it’s not easy to recover from serious trauma, and that it impacts the lives of everyone involved.
That’s not an easy balance to strike in a novel. Readers want to stay engaged in the story; yet they want realistic characters who face realistic challenges. When that balance is right, though, it can make for deeper characters and a more believable story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Carole King and Toni Stern.