There is no solving murders, you know. Not unless the dead are going to rise up out of the earth. Once somebody is killed, it's forever for their loved ones and their family and the community.
George Pelecanos http://www.identitytheory.com/interviews/birnbaum100.html
That quote, from an interview with George Pelecanos, forms the epigraph to The Old School. Though it may seem redundant to talk about grief in a crime novel, it is surprising that in fiction that deals almost exclusively with sudden and violent death, grief is an emotion that is often conspicuously lacking. Psychologists and health carers use terms such as “complicated grief” and “spoiled memory syndrome” to describe the complexity and severity of the impact of murder on the friends and families of victims.
Yet within crime fiction all too often the focus is primarily on the processes and procedures, the puzzle aspect, of an investigation into the violent termination of human life. We rarely see the consequences of violent death on those most affected by it: the family and friends of the victim.
These characters are sometimes sighted in brief sad scenes when they are informed of the murder. These are often just set pieces to allow the detective to display their compassion and empathy or conversely to stress how damaged and hardened they have become due to the horror of their job. Any real sense of the family’s grief and the on-going impact of violent death tend to be relegated off-stage. The grieving relative sometimes reappears at the successful conclusion of an investigation, in order to show their gratitude to the protagonist for providing them with justice, revenge or ‘closure’ and provide a poignant moment of closure. However, if family and friends of the deceased appear as suspects then any grief they display is harshly interrogated as a falsity.
But the grief that follows a ‘real-life’ murder is intense and real death ruptures the lives of those left behind. There are some writers who explore this dark territory. It is a constant theme in the novels of George Pelecanos, and one which he brought to the acclaimed TV series, The Wire.
Dennis Lehane’s, Mystic River is an elegiac meditation on the grief and destruction wrought on families and communities by two crimes decades apart.
Emotionally wounded and grieving characters abound in Ian Rankin’s, The Naming of the Dead; a daughter grieves for her murdered mother, a family for a raped daughter, a sister for a battered sister and a mass gathering of people who witness the shattering of their optimism as the G8 protests are swamped by a terrorist bombing.
In The Broken Shore Peter Temple’s protagonist, Joe Cashin, is also a grieving and guilt ridden character, carrying the responsibility for the death of a young colleague and family guilt relating to his Aboriginal cousins.
Each character in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost is in a state of grief, for the loss of love and the loss of lovers. In Sri Lanka Ondaatje suggests that love is being murdered by war. Ananda has taken refuge in alcohol to blot out the pain of his “disappeared” wife, while the brothers Sarath and Gamini are estranged from each other, immersed in work and wrestling with the grief and guilt about their love for the same woman, now dead by suicide.
To each one of these books, George Pelecanos’ words could apply.