There’s always a lot we can learn from others, especially from those who are more experienced and perhaps have more wisdom. I’m not referring here to mentorship per se; often the relationship between someone younger and less experienced and someone who’s more experienced is more informal than that. Really, I mean being open to learning from someone else, and being open to ‘reaching back’ and being available for support. It’s sometimes a humbling experience to reach out, but if we keep ourselves open to developing those relationships, they can be very rewarding.
Those relationships can add character depth (and even plot points) to a crime novel, too. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, Anne Bedingfield faces a crossroads when her beloved father dies. He’s left her with very little money, so she’s going to have to work out what to do. But she does know she doesn’t want to stay in London. One day, she witnesses a Tube accident in which a man falls (or is pushed) to his death under an oncoming train. Anne ends up with a piece of paper that was in the man’s pocket and finds that it’s a reference to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, she books passage on the boat, and ends up drawn into a web of international intrigue, stolen jewels, and murder. During the trip, she meets wealthy Suzanne Blair, who’s older than Anne and quite worldly in her way. She begins to trust Suzanne, and they develop a friendship. Anne comes to depend on Suzanne, who turns out to be very helpful as Anne unravels the threads of the mystery.
Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice introduces Thea Farmer, former high school principal. She’s bought the perfect home on a perfect piece of property in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains and is ready for the next chapter in her life. But bad luck and poor financial planning mean that Thea has to sell her dream home and move into the house next door, a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ Matters are made worse when Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington – a couple Thea calls ‘the invaders’ – take the home that Thea still considers hers. Then, to add even more, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with him and Ellice. At first, Thea thoroughly resents Kim’s presence. But gradually, she and Kim form an awkward sort of friendship, especially when they discover they have a common interest in writing. Thea sees real promise in Kim, and even takes her along to attend a writing class. In spite of herself, Thea begins to feel protective of the girl. That’s why, when she begins to suspect that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea decides to take action. She contacts the police, but there’s not much they can do. So Thea makes her own plans.
Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice, Quiet Holiday features Judge Harish Shinde and his clerk Anant. As the novel begins, the two are making their way to Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. The Judge has been invited to take a two-week holiday at the home of his old friend Shikar Pant. There are other guests, too, including Pant’s cousin, well-known author Kailish Pant. On one level, it’s a congenial enough house party. But there are simmering undercurrents. Two of the guests, the Mittals, run an NGO with the mission of raising awareness of HIV/AIDS, and helping prevent its spread. That doesn’t sit well with some of the other guests, who are more conservative in their outlooks. The tension gradually rises, and the Mittals are even taken into custody. Still, everyone’s hoping to get through the holiday. Then, one afternoon, Kailish Pant is found stabbed. Inspector Patel is in charge of the investigation, and when he learns who the Judge is, he asks for his insights. The Judge and Anant work with Patel and slowly put the pieces of the case together. Throughout the novel, we see the relationship that’s developed between the Judge and his clerk. Anant learns a lot from the Judge, who does what he can to nurture his clerk’s skills and help him develop.
Stina Jackson’s The Silver Road takes place mostly in the small Swedish town of Glimmersträsk, where Lennart ‘Lelle’ Gustafsson is a schoolteacher. Three years before the events of the novel, his teenage daughter Lina went missing, and Lelle blames himself for her disappearance. He spends hours at a time, whenever he can, searching for her. In the meantime, seventeen-year-old Meja has recently moved to Glimmersträsk with her mother, so that her mother could move in with her new partner. Meja didn’t want to move in the first place, and definitely doesn’t feel that she fits in. But, not having much of a choice, she does the best she can. Her story and Lelle’s intersect, and as the novel moves on, they begin to develop a sort of friendship. It’s a little awkward, and it’s not exactly a mentorship, but Meja sees that Lelle is a person she can talk to, and Lelle finds his interest in life re-awakened as he tries to be there for Meja. And just in case you’re wondering, no, they do not become romantically involved and it’s not the relationship you might be thinking. But they are there for each other.
There are fictional sleuths, too, who have those sorts of relationships in their lives. For instance Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee turns to his Uncle Frank Sam Nakai when he needs some wisdom. Nakai is a Navajo ya’atali – a singer/healer. As the series begins, he’s helping Chee learn to be a ya’atali himself. And even aside from the rituals, he supports Chee’s growth and lends his wisdom.
The same is true of Ian Hamilton’s Chow Tung, usually called Uncle, who owns a Hong Kong company that helps people recover stolen money. Clients have, in general, been defrauded and are desperate to get their money back. They can’t go to the police, so this is their last resort. One of Uncle’s employees is Ava Lee, a Chinese Canadian who is an expert forensic accountant. She can follow just about any ‘money trail,’ and is good at getting money back for clients. Uncle is fond of her and supports her development. She listens to his wisdom, too, and learns a great deal from him.
There are a lot of other examples, too, of this sort of quasi-mentoring relationship in crime fiction. It’s an interesting way to develop characters and move plots along. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mark London and Don Black’s To Sir, With Love.
8 thoughts on “A Friend Who Taught Me Right From Wrong*”
Some interesting examples, Margot. That kind of relationship, with a somewhat naive protagonist and a more experienced sidekick, can make for very interesting storylines. Christie certainly does that kind of thing well!
Thanks, KBR. It’s true that this sort of relationship offers a lot of possibility to an author. And I think you’re quite right: Christie portrayed that sort of relationship really well!
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I was thinking Maurice Blanche in the Maisie Dobbs series of books but I think he is more of a mentor and she actually refers to him as that. I read The Maid a couple of weeks ago and the person Molly relied on most in her life, ‘Gran’, has died and left her completely adrift. She thinks she has the support of a young man she fancies, Rodney (?), and that he’s there for her, but because she’s clearly on the spectrum her judgement is not great and we can see he’s no support at all. The people she should trust , who do have her best interests at heart, she’s ignoring. Very thought-provoking book. I felt like I gained a lot of insight from it.
I see your point about Maurice, Cath. I see him, too, as more an ‘official’ mentor than anything else. Perhaps Lady Rowan is a bit more like it? In any case, thanks for mentioning The Maid. I’ve been wanting to read that, and I appreciate the reminder of it. It’s good to know that you enjoyed it and found it thought-provoking. I like books that make a person think…
Chow Tung is a great character. He is a complex man for he also mentored in another context. For decades he was the leader of the Fanling Triads mentoring young Triads. Many of their activities were illegal. He moved them into legitimate businesses but still continued several of their illegal ventures.
I think Chow Tung is a very interesting character, Bill, with layers and, as you say, complexities. He has depths, and I like the way Hamilton has revealed them as time has gone by.
Always interesting to see that kind of mentoring relationship, and more believable than the kind of protagonist who just seems to know everything without ever having had to learn! Can’t think of any examples other than young detectives or police officers learning from a boss or older colleague, but while mentoring can certainly play a role in that kind of relationship, it’s rather different to the more informal mentoring you’re discussing here.
You make a really well-taken point, FictionFan, about believability. We all get our knowledge and whatever wisdom we have from somewhere. Often it’s experience, but, yes, it also comes down to someone giving us some support. And it’s funny how more formal mentoring situations don’t always work out as well as the more informal sorts of relationships here. I suppose it’s because informal mentors and mentees often choose each other? That’s not always the case with more formal arrangements.
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