Do you prefer your crime fiction dark or light?
If you favor cozy mysteries, then your choice will be a lighter strain of crime fiction featuring puzzle-solving amateur sleuths with an interesting hobby or pastime, set in a quiet, charming community in which murders take place off-stage, away from the public eye. Murder She Wrote, the 1980s television series starring Angela Lansbury, always comes to mind as the quintessential cozy mystery.
However, if your tastes run to darker, more realistic crime fiction, you’re probably a reader who is more likely to choose a police procedural, roman noir, or other similar hard-boiled mystery focusing on the police officers or private detectives who investigate the homicides and the violent, sociopathic individuals who commit them.
My Donaghue and Stainer crime novels, featuring homicide Lieutenant Hank Donaghue and Detective Karen Stainer, fall into the latter category. In Blood Passage, for example, Donaghue and Stainer are drawn into a four-year-old cold case when a small boy begins to claim memories of having been the murder victim in his previous life. The victim’s cousin, Peter Mah, hunts down the men “remembered” by the boy and exacts his revenge. The story follows the police investigation to the scenes of Mah’s murders, to the autopsy theaters where the medical examiner searches for evidence, and the back alleys where shots are exchanged as vengeance runs its course.
Realistic detective fiction has its own intrinsic themes. Ross Macdonald, for example, wrote about the decay of post-war American society in his Lew Archer series. Michael Connelly, through his detective, Harry Bosch, explores contemporary Los Angeles and its violence, and Bosch’s fragmented search for grace and personal redemption through a sense of family and personal belonging.
The Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel series has three dark threads running through it, three important themes that bind the novels together and help define the main characters as the stories progress. These themes include the violence of murder and the often-quixotic desire for justice, the effect of constant exposure to homicide on the men and women who investigate it, and their attempts to find some greater meaning in life in the face of such ugliness.
Murder is a horrible act. To deliberately take another person’s life is perhaps the most terrible thing that a human being can do, and the victim’s family and friends expect someone to catch the murderer, bring them to justice, and punish them. Society insists that this desire for vengeance, for retaliation, for retribution, has to be channeled through the mechanisms of the law: a police investigation; a fair trial; imprisonment or even, in some states, execution.
As homicide investigators, Hank Donaghue and Karen Stainer try to carry out this search for justice, with mixed results. Their approaches are very different. Independently wealthy and the son of a state’s attorney and a criminal defense lawyer, Hank takes a somewhat more intellectual approach to police investigation. Karen, however, is the daughter of a Texas state trooper. Her oldest brother is a state trooper in Oklahoma. All she ever wanted was to be a cop. It’s what she does. She reacts with her guts and her instincts, and never hesitates to shoot when it’s necessary. She walks a much different line than Hank. Just the same, they inevitably meet somewhere in the middle.
As very different people, how do they deal with the constant violence and bloodshed? The effect that constant exposure to violence has on the people who investigate it is a second thread running through the series. Hank and Karen, for example, think nothing of poring over crime scene photos and autopsy reports while eating a hearty lunch. They attend autopsies without flinching. They walk into horrific rooms or filthy alleyways or dump sites as a normal part of their day.
How do they do this? What changes a person, hardens them to the pathos of death and the repulsiveness of physical violence, and allows them to be so matter-of-fact?
Freud referred to something called isolation of affect, a defense mechanism that allows people to separate and compartmentalize their feelings. In order to survive, Hank and Karen must isolate their personal feelings, hold them separate from what they see, smell, and hear during their investigations, and maintain a self-image in which they can do their jobs with professional calm and detachment. Not easy to do, and not easy to maintain over a long period of time.
How does this ultimately affect a person? How does it change them? Does it make them less likely to react to normal, everyday life in the way that you or I would? Does it isolate them from their husbands, wives, friends, children? Is it possible to keep up this kind of rigorous compartmentalization for years, to have a family and live a normal life while also maintaining a law enforcement career?
Each novel in the Donaghue and Stainer series considers this theme, as Karen contemplates marriage with Sandy Alexander, an FBI special agent, and Hank begins a relationship with Meredith Collier, the widowed mother of the murder victim in Blood Passage. They’re both tentative, both afraid of creating false expectations or destroying their relationships because of their intense focus on their careers. Have they chosen a person who will understand them and give them enough room to be who they are and do what they do?
Inevitably compartmentalization of emotions is not enough. People have an overwhelming need to understand what happens to them in life in a wider context that explains everything, that provides answers beyond themselves, and even homicide investigators will have those dark nights of the soul when the questions won’t go away. Why do people do such horrible things to each other? Why is there so much violence? Why am I not making a difference? Why am I wasting my life pissing into the wind?
If there’s a God, how can He allow such evil to exist in the world?
This theme, a search for some kind of greater meaning in life in the face of evil, is a third thread that runs through the series. Each character is ultimately forced out of their box, in their own way, to consider what they believe. In Blood Passage, the memories of a past life by little Taylor Chan force the other characters to wonder if reincarnation is real, if our spirits persist beyond death. In Marcie’s Murder, Karen tries to talk about it to the leader of a religious group in southwest Virginia, uncertain what she should believe, thinking she should believe in something.
The search for faith is a very personal business. In fiction, the effort may be more compelling to read about than the destination. Ishmael, although Christian, recognizes in Queequeg’s paganism a much more rational approach to the unknown than Ahab’s blind rage, and he’s quite capable of admiring Queequeg’s calm grace without wanting to convert to idolatry himself. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus’s intellectual struggle to reconcile his Catholic upbringing with his mother’s ragged death and his own physical desires contrasts with Leopold Bloom’s more pragmatic movement toward understanding and acceptance. We don’t need to be Presbyterian, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, or cannibalistic pagan to appreciate the struggle for belief in the stories we read, even if they don’t lead us to a definite conclusion.
Hank Donaghue and Karen Stainer are characters who search for justice on behalf of the victims of violence, who do what they must to cope with the emotional impact of what they experience in their everyday jobs, and who inevitably try to make some sort of sense of it all. As human beings they will fail much more often than they succeed. But because they’ve devoted their lives to what they do, they will never quit trying.
Michael J. McCann is the author of Blood Passage and Marcie's Murder, the first two books in The Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel series. He has also published The Ghost Man, a supernatural thriller. A former editor, he worked for Canada Customs for fifteen years as a training specialist, project officer, and national program manager responsible for complaints investigation and commercial compliance management. He lives and writes in Oxford Station, Ontario, Canada.
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