One of the most enduring ways of relaying events and teaching history is the art of storytelling, often called oral histories. In many cultures, those who tell stories are held in very high regard. Others know that they can learn a lot from those who can remember and tell about sometimes long-ago events. And such people play an interesting role in crime fiction too. It’s often those people who for instance can link a current investigation to something that happened a long time ago. They can also give a lot of background on an area and its inhabitants or on a family, and that can be useful to the sleuth too.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKAPoirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot receives a letter from wealthy Miss Emily Arundell. She wants to consult him on a delicate family matter but won’t specify what it is. Poirot is intrigued enough by the letter that he and Hastings travel to Miss Arundell’s home in Market Basing. By the time they arrive there though it’s too late. Miss Arundell has died of what appears to be liver failure. Poirot is not so sure though and he begins to ask questions. It turns out that he has good reason for suspicion, too. Miss Arundell had a large fortune and several relations who were desperate for money. One of the people Poirot and Hastings interview is Miss Caroline Peabody, who’s lived in Market Basing all her life and is about the same age as Miss Arundell was. Miss Peabody knows all about the history of the area and about the history of the Arundell family, and she’s able to tell Poirot quite a great deal. And in the end, it’s partly that information that helps Poirot get to the truth about Miss Arundell’s murder.
Storytelling is often associated with indigenous groups of people and we see that in crime fiction. For instance, in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Navajo Tribal Police officer Jim Chee is investigating the murder of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s moved to the Big Reservation. Chee’s also been assigned to find sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi, who left the school she’s attending and hasn’t been seen since. Chee suspects that her death may be related to the Gorman case since the two are distant kin. So as he searches for Sosi he also follows leads on the other case and the trail for both cases leads to a dilapidated area on the outskirts of Los Angeles. That’s where he meets Bentwoman, who is an elderly kinswoman of both Gorman and Sosi. Bentwoman tells Chee a little of the family’s history and her daughter fills in a little more. That information helps Chee to understand the Gorman family better and that in turn helps Chee to understand who would have shot Gorman and why.
We see a similar kind of indigenous storytelling/oral history in Gunshot Road in which Adrian Hyland introduces us to Eli Japanankga Windmill. He’s an elderly member of the Kantulyu Aboriginal group who are presently camping at a place called Stonehouse. He’s old and in ill health but he’s considered a leader. That’s mostly because he remembers all of the old stories and memories of the group. Hyland’s sleuth, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest meets Windmill and his group while she’s investigating the murder of former prospector Albert “Doc” Ozolins who was supposedly killed as the result of a drunken quarrel. Tempest isn’t so sure that’s what happened and she begins to ask questions. Her search for the truth leads her to a place that the Kantulyu call Irinipatta and the Whites call Dingo Springs. Windmill is so thoroughly familiar with his people’s history and with the land that he’s able to lead the group to Dingo Springs from their camp at Stonehouse even though he’s completely blind.
But of course storytellers aren’t necessarily just members of indigenous peoples. For instance, in Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead, we meet retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson, who’s lived on the island of Øland all his life. Years ago Davidsson’s six-year-old grandson Jens disappeared leaving no trace. Not even a body was discovered. Now, twenty years later, Davidson has received an eerie package – one of Jens’ sandals. Devastated by the loss of her son, Jens’ mother Julia left Øland and has tried unsuccessfully to start life again. When her father Gerlof calls her to tell her about the sandal she doesn’t even want to discuss it at first. Then she listens to his story about the package and reluctantly returns to Øland to help him find out what really happened to Jens. Together, they discover that Jens’ disappearance is related to the island’s history and past events. In The Darkest Room, Davidsson’s grand-niece, police officer Tilda Davidsson, investigates two cases. One is a tragedy that has befallen the Westin family, a successful family who moved to Øland to get away from the stress of city life, or so they tell themselves. The other case has to do with a group of drug users and dealers who’ve been breaking into local houses. Tilda Davidsson finds that both of these cases are related to Øland’s history and the relationships among the people there. In both of these novels Gerlof Davidsson proves to be an invaluable resource. He knows the island’s history and most of the people who live there. His ability to remember and tell those stories from long ago is an important part of the solutions to the cases in both of these novels.
Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Quilt or Innocence features another storyteller Miss Sissy. Miss Sissy is one of the elderly residents of Dappled Hills, North Carolina. A member of the Village Quilters guild, she’s done quilting for most of her life and is an expert. She’s prickly, even pugnacious at times, and she can be very difficult. But she also knows just about everything that’s ever gone on in Dappled Hills. That knowledge proves critical when another member of the Village Quilters guild Miss Judith is murdered. The guild’s newest member is retired art exhibitor Beatrice Coleman. When she discovers Miss Judith’s body, she starts to ask questions and then begins to receive threatening notes. Later she herself is attacked. Miss Sissy’s knowledge of the history of Dappled Hills is important to the solution of this case, and she’s willing to tell her story. The only problem is that she suffers from mental confusion at times, so it’s hard to tell her lucid moments from her less lucid times. Besides, she doesn’t have a lot of patience so it’s hard for her to wait while others put together the pieces of what she says. But when Beatrice makes sense of the things Miss Sissy tells her, she’s able to put together the motive for the murder and she realises that Miss Sissy’s known something important about the killer all along.
We rely so often sometimes on what we learn through reading and research that it’s easy to forget how much knowledge and history there is in storytelling. I think that’s probably a lot of the appeal in audio books; it’s a kind of storytelling. And when storytellers appear in crime fiction it can be a good reminder of that source of knowledge.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).