Category Archives: Agatha Christie

Baby, We Were Born to Run*

RisktakingIt’s common among young people (and sometimes, not-so-young people) to believe in the ‘it can’t happen to me’ myth. That myth of indestructibility is arguably part of the reason for which many young people take the kinds of risks that they probably wouldn’t take if they were older. You see this myth playing out in a lot of crime fiction, and it can be both compelling and poignant. After all, young people are not indestructible. I’m only going to be mentioning a few examples here, but I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie includes several characters in her stories who seem to believe in their own indestructibility. I’ll just mention one. In And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), we meet Anthony Marston, a young man who’s received an invitation to spend some time on Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. He accepts the invitation and travels to the island, where he finds that a group of other people have received and accepted invitations. After dinner on that first night, each person is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. In Marston’s case, he’s accused of having killed two small children in a reckless driving incident. Later that evening, he suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. Then there’s another. Now it’s clear that someone lured these people to the island and seems bent on killing them one by one. The survivors will have to find out who that person is if they hope to stay alive. More than once in this novel, Marston’s youth, apparent strength and seeming invincibility are mentioned, and that gives his death all the more impact. I know, I know fans of The Man in the Brown Suit’s Anne Bedingfield…

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar is the story of seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman. His parents Ralph and Elaine have placed him at the Laguna Perdida School, a boarding school for ‘troubled students.’ One day Tom disappears from the school. Dr. Sponti, who is head of Laguna Perdida, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy before his parents discover that he’s missing. But it’s already too late. During their meeting, Ralph Hillman bursts into the office saying that Tom has been kidnapped. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work with Tom’s parents to try to get him back. Almost immediately something seems ‘off.’ For one thing, the Hilmmans aren’t nearly as forthcoming about Tom as you’d expect from parents who were distraught about a missing child. For another, there’s some evidence that Tom may have joined the kidnappers willingly. If so, he may be part of a plot to extort money from them. Archer’s trying to track down leads when one of the people Tom’s with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. Now it’s clearer than ever that this is not an ‘textbook’ kind of kidnapping. Throughout this novel, we see ways in which Tom (and some of the other young people at the school) have behaved in that ‘indestructible’ way. Many of them take risks that they probably wouldn’t if they really contemplated the danger involved.

We see a bit of that perception of invulnerability in Kerry Greenwood’s Devil’s Food too. Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman is concerned when two of her employees Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge begin behaving very oddly. In fact, they behave so strangely that Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen think they may be on a new kind of drug. It turns out that the girls bought weight loss tea at a club one night and were poisoned by it. Now Chapman wants to find out who poisoned the tea and why. At one point, she also makes another discovery. Kylie and Goss are always worried about gaining any weight at all, so instead of reading the instructions and taking the tea as directed, they took a much larger and stronger does than was recommended, so they’d lose weight faster. Their choice to buy this tea from someone they barely knew, and to take it in the way they did, is a reflection of how young people often don’t think through the consequences of what could happen to them. After all, ‘it won’t happen to me.’

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer investigates the disappearance of Andreas Winther. He’s a young man who’s easily bored and likes nothing better than a little adventuring. His best friend is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, who goes along with Andreas’ plans more out of a desire for the friendship than any enjoyment he gets out of their adventures. One day the two meet as usual. By the end of that day, Andreas has disappeared. When his mother Runi first goes to the police about it, Sejer isn’t too worried. Lots of young men take off for a few days, and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. But as more time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre look into the matter. To do this, they trace Andreas’ movements on the day he disappeared. Although Zipp isn’t at all forthcoming, especially at first, he eventually tells Sejer what happened that day. But even he doesn’t know what happened to Andreas. As it turns out, Andreas was convinced that everything would be all right – nothing bad would happen to him. But the truth turns out to be quite different…

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, there’s an interesting sub-plot about an upcoming event. Mma. Sylvia Potokwane plans a benefit in aid of the orphanage she directs. One of the attractions is to be a parachute jump, and she wants Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who runs a local garage, to do the jump. Secretly he’s afraid to jump, especially from such heights, but of course he won’t admit that to Mma. Potokwane. Besides, she is strong-willed and persuasive. So he reluctantly agrees. As the day draws closer he gets more and more nervous about it. But his wife Mma. Precious Ramotswe has an idea that works out well for everyone involved. She suggests that Charlie, one of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s assistants, might be glad for the chance to do the jump. That way he can do some good and impress the local girls. And that’s exactly what happens. Charlie is a little nervous, but he feels indestructible enough (and is interested in enough in being admired by the young ladies) that he’s eager to do it. It’s an interesting look at the way young people as opposed to more mature adults view risk-taking.

Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat introduces readers to twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who’s growing up in a small Welsh town during the 1950s. Gwenni’s a bit of a dreamer, and doesn’t always fit in. But life goes on for her, her sister and her parents until the day that a one of the locals Ifan Evans disappears. Later, he’s found murdered. Gwenni wants to find out why he was killed and by whom, so she starts her own kind of investigation. She’s not completely heedless as she goes about it, but she doesn’t really appreciate the risks she’s taking nor the danger she could bring on herself.

And that’s the thing about a lot of young people. They have that sort of myth of indestructibility that sometimes leads them to take all sorts of risks. In that sense, they’re both brave and extremely vulnerable. Which characters like that have stood out for you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Mari Strachan, Ross Macdonald

The Times, They Are a-Changin’*

1960sTo say that the 1960s was a decade of major change is an understatement. It was a time of so many social, political, economic and other changes that some people have called those years ‘revolutionary.’ And perhaps they have a point.

Crime fiction, like other genres, tells the story of those changes and we see them reflected in many different novels, both from and about the era. Space is only going to allow for a few examples, but I’m sure you already understand what I mean.

One of the major changes that took place during the 1960s was the role of students, especially university students. Certainly students had spoken out on campuses before, but in many countries, this decade saw the rise of student protests that really resounded in ways they hadn’t before. In John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler, for instance, Hewes College Classics Professor Arnold Weschler is faced with a difficult dilemma. He’s not himself particulalry political, but his brother David is. One day, Weschler is called to the office of College President Winthrop Dohrn, who wants to discuss the recent activities of a radical student group that’s come to campus. Dohrn believes that David Weschler is one of the leaders of the group. He wants Arnold to contact his brother and stop the group from causing any more trouble. The Weschler brothers have been estranged for a long time, but Arnold knows that his job may depend on his response. So he reluctantly agrees. That’s how he gets drawn into the group and gets to know the members. He even develops some sympathy for some of their views. That is, until there’s a kidnapping and then a bombing that kills Dohrn. Now Weschler has to find the killer and clear his brother’s name before he’s arrested.

During the 1960s, there was also a deep and serious questioning of ‘Establishment’ politics and economics. Many people, even those who didn’t identify themselves as Communists per se questioned the socioeconomic status quo. And there were plenty who did identify themselves as Marxists. Perhaps the best look at the leftist point of view and goals of that era can be seen in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s series featuring Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team. This is only my opinion, so feel free to differ with it if you do. But for me, this series encapsulates a lot of what this set of politics embraced. Each of the ten novels in this series is about a self-contained murder mystery. But throughout the series, there’s a great deal of social critique too. There are critiques of police power, social class divisions, ‘Establishment’ corruption and other important issues with Swedish society.

Another major change in society was a change in the roles of women. Bit by bit, women had been seeking full citizenship for a long time, and had made solid strides (e.g. suffrage, working outside the home and so on). But in the US at least, women were still regarded as best-suited for ‘home and hearth.’ During the 1960s this began to be questioned more and more. And it wasn’t just a matter of wanting to work outside the home at financial parity with men (although that was certainly an issue). I’m also talking here of what you might call women’s sexual liberation. There was still very much a double standard when it came to what was expected of ‘ladies’ and what was expected of men. And women began to insist on being as much in charge of their own destinies as men were. You see that in the non-crime-fiction work of writers such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. But you also see it in crime fiction. In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, for instance, we meet noted fashion designer Sheila Grey. She’s a well-off and successful single woman who has no desire to get married and ‘settle down.’ She puts it this way:
 

‘In fact – I’m speaking only for myself – I reject the whole concept of marriage. I’m no more capable of being happy as a housewife, or a country club gal, or a young suburban matron than I am of renouncing the world and taking the veil.’
 

Certainly she doesn’t identify herself by her ability to cook, clean, sew or look after children. She’s independent both economically and sexually. One night, she’s murdered. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to the case and his son Ellery of course takes part in the investigation. In the end, they find that the victim’s modern way of thinking about herself and the role love should play in her life had a part in her murder.

One of the other major changes of the 1960s was the move of drug use from certain bohemian, artistic and musical circles to the mainstream. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that drugs have been associated with crime fiction for a very long time. But during these years, ‘average’ everyday people had easier access to them and their use spread. There’s a mention of that in Agatha Christie’s The Third Girl (published in 1966), in which Norma Restarick and Hercule Poirot don’t exactly get off on the proverbial right footing. She wants to hire him until she actually meets him and concludes that he’s too old to help her. For his part, Poirot isn’t at all impressed with Norma’s appearance or manner. When she disappears, though, Poirot works with detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to find out what happened to her. The trail leads to fraud and murder and real danger for Mrs. Oliver. Drugs have their role to play in this novel, and it’s interesting to note that their use has gone beyond just the ‘artsy’ set by this time.

Questions of relations between the races had been simmering for a long time. But matters came to a head during the 1960s. We see this in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Admittedly it’s about an earlier time, but it raises issues that became a major point of conflict during the ’60s. In that novel, Tom Robinson is accused of (and quickly arrested for) the rape of Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, but because he’s Black and Mayella Ewell is White, he’s assumed to be guilty. Prominent local attorney Atticus Finch takes this case and goes to what you could argue are heroic lengths to prove that his client is not a rapist. Although we could hardly say that race is no longer an issue, there were some major strides forward taken during these years. In fact, Walter Mosley discusses this in Little Green, which takes place in 1967. PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a Black man named Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a hippie group, so Rawlins starts there. He discovers that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about the group, so he contacts her. At one point, they meet in a local restaurant, where something happens that certainly makes Rawlins think:
 

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’
 

Admittedly this story takes place in Los Angeles. In a smaller town things might have been different. But the move forward in race relations was an important part of the 1960s.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues (which takes place in 1967) also discusses many of the changes that took place during the 1960s. I’m just diving into that one, to be honest, so I’m not yet thoroughly enough versed to discuss it on this blog. But I can say this. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has to deal with the drug culture, the hippie movement, and other major social changes as he searches for what could be a serial killer.

There were of course many other dramatic changes in the 1960s – changes in technology, music, popular culture, cinematography and lots more. A decade that started out as looking very much like the 1950s ended up as something completely different. The times they definitely were ‘a-changin’. Which novels evoke this time for you?

ps. Just look at the two ‘photos of the Beatles and you’ll see the changes that took place during the 1960s. From ‘mop-tops’ in suits to hippies….
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Harper Lee, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Walter Mosley

I’m Old-Fashioned*

Old FashionedIn many ways it’s good – very good – to live in modern times. There’s better technology, better medical care and lots of other societal improvements. And while there is still bigotry and that may always be, there are fewer ‘-isms’ that limit people now than there were. But some of those things we may think of as ‘old-fashioned’ can actually be pleasant. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction to show you some things that may be old-fashioned but that perhaps people actually miss…

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Hastings is on his way back to London by train. Sitting in the same coach is a young woman who is in many ways very modern in her outlook. They strike up a conversation, and she pokes a little fun at him for his old-fashioned ways. But on a more serious note, she says,

 

‘You’ve been dug out of the backwoods, you have. Not that I mind that. We could do with a few more of your sort.

 

Hastings and the young woman, who calls herself ‘Cinderella,’ part company and at first it looks as though they won’t meet again. But when Hastings and Hercule Poirot travel to France to investigate the murder of Paul Renauld, Hastings and Cinderella have what you might call a reunion. Although she is a modern young woman, she appreciates Hastings’ somewhat traditional outlook on life.

Isaac Asimov is perhaps best known as an author of science fiction, but he also wrote detective stories, including a trilogy featuring New York City police officer Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. In The Caves of Steel, Baley and his new partner R. Daneel Olivaw are assigned to investigate the murder of noted scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton. This isn’t going to be an easy case though. For one thing, life is difficult in the futuristic New York that Asimov depicts. Earth has become overcrowded and most humans have little better than a subsistence lifestyle. For another, there is an ongoing feud, which sometimes flares, between Earthmen (descendants of those who never left the planet) and Spacers (descendants of those who have explored outside the planet). Baley is an Earthman and the victim was a Spacer. What’s worse, R. Daneel Olivaw is a positronic robot. If there’s anything that Earthman dislike more than Spacers, it’s robots. That’s because they are perceived as a threat to humans. Despite these challenges though, Baley and Olivaw work together to solve the murder. In one plot thread in this story, there is a real mistrust among humans of old-fashioned, traditional things such as spectacles (instead of contact lenses). In fact, the interest in such things is known as Medievalism and is regarded as holding people back. And yet, there is a secret group of people who think fondly of what even Baley admits were simpler times. The question of preserving these things forms an interesting layer in the story.

In some ways, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is old-fashioned. There are several examples of this in the series featuring him; we see one in The Daughters of Cain. In that novel, Morse and Sergeant Lewis are on the trail of the person who killed a former don Felix McClure. At first it seems that the murderer was McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks. But when he disappears and is later found dead, things aren’t quite that simple. In the course of the investigation, Morse meets Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith, a prostitute who may be connected with the case. The two develop an interest in each other despite the fact that she’s a suspect in a murder investigation. Smith is a very modern young woman. She wears nose rings, uses language that Morse would prefer a woman not use and so on. But at one point, he gets the chance to see her dressed more traditionally and without her nose rings and he admits he likes her better that way. For her part, Smith is attracted to Morse’s view of the world, even though she doesn’t really envision herself settling down, marrying and so on in the traditional way. Even Morse’s insistence on standard English doesn’t bother her…

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost is in part the story of what happens to a traditional English town when a new mall comes in. The story begins in 1984, when the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a fledgling detective, and she’s sure that there’s lots of crime to investigate at the mall, so she spends a lot of time there. One day she goes missing and despite a thorough search, is never found. Her friend Adrian Palmer is blamed for her disappearance, although he claims innocence. He’s treated so badly though that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his sister Lisa is working at a dead-end job at Green Oaks when she meets Kurt, a security guard who’s employed there. The two strike up an unlikely friendship and each in a different way, look back into the past to find out what really happened to Kate. One of the themes in this novel is what happened to traditional English ‘High Street’ shopping with the coming of the mall culture. And the mall that replaces those shops turns out to be somewhat ‘plastic’ as opposed to the more genuine shops. As we learn in the novel, the mall culture hasn’t really made life in the area better.

In one of Anthony Bidulka’s series, we get to know Russell Quant, a Saskatoon PI. One of Quant’s haunts is Colourful Mary’s, a local restaurant that serves ‘down home’ cooking. In fact, Quant describes it this way:

 

‘Marushka cooks like everyone’s mother, most notably her own. In addition to some rather standard fare for the less adventurous, Marushka always adds one or two Ukrainian delicacies to the daily menu…I like Colourful Mary’s…You feel cared for but not smothered. I’m also addicted to Marushka’s cooking.’

 

It’s not a formal restaurant, but it serves traditional, old-fashioned (i.e. not pre-packaged) food. Little wonder it’s so popular with customers.

Most people don’t think of millinery shops as exactly modern and up-to-date. But there’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a hat custom-designed for you. And that’s exactly the business that D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington has been in for years. He’s very skilled at knowing exactly what kind of hat would best suit each client, and delights in making them. In Hats Off to Murder, One For the Rook, and soon Model For Murder, Heatherington puts those old-fashioned skills to use to when murder strikes first his shop and then his allotment. In some ways Heatherington is old-fashioned, but that’s precisely what makes his character appealing.

The ‘good old days’ certainly had many serious problems. I doubt most of us would want to go back. But if you’ve stayed at an old-fashioned hotel with old-fashioned customer service, you know how pleasant it can be. If you’ve been to a restaurant or shop with old-fashioned service, you know how pleasant that can be too. And old-fashioned courtesy on anyone’s part is a refreshing thing. Perhaps not all modern changes have been for the better…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Catherine O'Flynn, Colin Dexter, D.S. Nelson, Isaac Asimov

And Everywhere Was a Song And a Celebration*

WoodstockIt’s no secret that people are all different. Sometimes our differences lead to conflict and worse. But sometimes exactly the opposite happens. When people find a common interest – something that really means something to them, this can draw even very disparate people together. We certainly see it in real life, and it’s there in crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot, Captain Hastings, and the police are trying to track down the murderer of Alice Ascher, a seemingly inoffensive elderly shopkeeper. Soon afterwards, the same killer strikes again. This time, the victim is twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard. The detective team is busy on those two cases when there’s a third murder, of wealthy retired specialist Dr. Carmichael Clarke. Now it looks as though there might be some sort of disturbed killer at work. A cryptic note has warned Poirot that the next murder will occur in Doncaster, and the police begin to make plans to catch the killer there. But one of the characters says,

 

‘‘It’s easy to see you’re not a sporting man, Inspector.’
Crome stared at him.
‘What do you mean…?’
‘Man alive, don’t you realize that on next Wednesday, the St. Leger is being run at Doncaster?’

 

This race draws all sorts of people from many different walks of life. People from many different backgrounds will be gathering in Doncaster, drawn there by their common love of racing. So the detectives will have their work cut out for them as the saying goes.

Antiques are the common interest in Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy series. Those novels focus on Lovejoy, who is a dedicated antiques collector and dealer. In fact, antiques mean more to him than almost anything else. And interest in antiques draws together a varied group of people from all sorts of different kinds of backgrounds. In The Judas Pair for instance, George Field hires Lovejoy to find out who killed his brother Eric. Eric Field was shot with one of a pair of extremely rare dueling pistols – guns that haven’t even been proven to exist. But Field is convinced that they do, and that if the owner of them can be found, that will solve the murder. Lovejoy can’t resist the opportunity to get his hands on those pistols if they do exist, so he agrees to see what he can do. As he moves among various people in the world of antiques, we see how a very disparate group of people can be drawn together by a shared passion for the same thing. They may not have much else in common, but a mention of antiques can always get a conversation started.

People who particularly love cats and/or dogs are the same way. They come from all sorts of backgrounds and belief systems. But when it comes to their pets, it’s an entirely different matter. That’s why we see so much interest in dog and cat shows. Those events attract a wide variety of people. We see this for instance in Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis mysteries. Travis is a special education teacher whose aunt has gotten her involved in breeding, raising and showing Standard Poodles. In fact, that’s how Travis meets her husband. In the course of the series, Travis goes to several dog shows and other events. And because the dog loving/dog showing community is both large and varied, there’s all sorts of opportunity for conflict and (this is a mystery series!) murder. But interestingly enough, there’s also an undercurrent of love of different breeds and a deep and commonly-held contempt for irresponsible dog ownership, raising and handling.

If you get people who love good wine talking about that topic, you’ll find a similar shared passion. They may not share very much else, but that particular interest unites them. We can see that in Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Winemaker Detective series. These novels feature noted oenologist and vintner Benjamin Cooker and his assistant Virgile Lanssien. As they investigate, we see how interest in fine wine can draw people together. In Treachery in Bordeaux for instance, Cooker and Lanssien look into a case of sabotage at Château Les Moniales Haut-Brion. Someone has contaminated four barrels of the vineyard’s wine, and its owner wants to find out who is responsible. What’s interesting about this is that none of the other local wine producers is really suspected. Part of the reason for that is that they all respect good wine too much to ruin even a competitor’s product. They may try to woo the vineyard’s customers away with their own fine wine, but they wouldn’t sabotage something they love so much.

Sometimes it’s a common place that draws a variety of people together. That’s what we see in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. That series is mostly set in Melbourne, in a large Roman-style building called Insula. That’s where Chapman lives and has the bakery she owns. There is a motley crew of other residents, all with different backgrounds, belief systems, interests and the like. But they all love the building and they have a common identity as people who live there.

I couldn’t really keep a blog about crime fiction and not mention the love of books in general and crime fiction in particular that we share. That’s reflected in, well, crime fiction, too. In Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library series for example, we meet Israel Armstrong, a ‘blow in’ from London who how drives and manages Ireland’s Tumdrum and District Mobile Library. Armstrong couldn’t be more different in some ways to the locals. In fact, in The Case of the Missing Books, one of the plot threads is the culture clash between Armstrong and the people he interacts with as he moves to the area and begins his new job. But as both he and the Tumdrum locals learn, they share a love of books. It may be reflected in different ways, but it draws them together.

It’s interesting how people who are so different in some aspects can put their differences aside when they have a shared passion. It’s one of many reasons I feel so fortunate to be a part of this online crime fiction community. We all come from different backgrounds, have different tastes and different world views. But we share a love of crime fiction. And that draws us all together. A very happy thought, even if the topic we like to talk about is, well, murder…

This weekend is the 45th anniversary of a unique event that brought together hundreds of thousands of people from many, many different backgrounds. Yes, I’m talking about Woodstock. From 15-18 August 1969, a large group of very disparate people braved rain (lots of it) mud (lots of that too) and very long travel distances to get together for ‘three days of peace, love and music.’ And they did it without brawls, ‘turf wars,’ or worse. There could have been real trouble, but by and large there wasn’t. They were drawn together by their passion for music and their desire to get together in peace. I’ve read that there were three babies born there during the festival. I wonder how many were conceived… Far out, man!!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Sansom, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Jonathan Gash, Kerry Greenwood, Laurien Berenson, Nöel Balen

Whatever Gets You Through Your Life*

RitualIt seems to be human nature that we want to impose some sort of order and structure in our worlds. We like to feel at least some sense of control over our lives, especially when things happen that are out of our control. One way in which people try to get and keep that control is through certain rituals. I don’t mean just religious rituals, although sometimes they’re used that way. Rather, I mean rituals we go through in our daily lives.

Some people develop personal rituals to help them cope with things that have happened, and it’s interesting to see how this plays out in crime fiction. After all, the genre’s full of murders, abductions and other horrible events that people have to deal with in one way or another. Here are just a few examples of what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner hires a nurse Amy Leatheran to help his wife Loiuse cope with her fears and anxieties. The Leidners are on a dig a few hours from Baghdad, so Nurse Leatheran stays at the house the dig team is occupying. At first all goes as expected, although there are undercurrents of strain among the members of the party. There are also a few incidents where Louise Leidner hears unusual noises and sees an unknown face at her window. But that’s put down to her strain and fear, and things settle again. Then one afternoon, she is bludgeoned and her body found in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area on other business and he’s persuaded to investigate. The story is told from Amy Leatheran’s point of view, and at one point, she goes through a sort of ritual to try to find out the killer’s identity. Although she’s not normally at all a fanciful person, she tells herself that if she goes into the victim’s room and lies on the bed in the same way, the door will open and the murderer will come in. Sure enough, when she does lie down on the bed, the door does open. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Nurse Leatheran isn’t murdered, but it’s an interesting look at how even the most pragmatic among us can have those rituals.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder does. He’s a former NYPD police officer who left the force after a tragic incident. He was going after two armed thieves who’d shot a bartender when he accidentally shot a young girl Estrellita Rivera. No-one really blames Scudder for this – not even the victim’s family. But he himself feels a great deal of guilt about it. He knows that nothing he can do or say will bring the girl back and he does pick up his life after a fashion. Slowly, he starts a new career as a PI. But he never forgets Estrellita. Whenever he gets the chance, he visits local churches, and always lights a candle for her. That ritual helps him deal with his reaction to having shot her, however accidentally.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we meet Jonas Hansson. He had a very unhappy childhood, but managed to make it into adulthood and found happiness in his relationship with his fiancée Anna. Then one day, Anna nearly drowned. Now she’s in a coma, and although she hasn’t responded, Hansson visits her at least once a day. At first, the hospital staff respects his devotion to Anna, but before long, it’s clear that he’s not dealing with what happened in a very healthy way. One night, he’s at a pub when he meets Eva Wirenström-Berg, who has her own problems. She’s just discovered that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful, and she’s devastated about it. She and Hansson strike up a conversation and after this chance encounter, things begin to spiral out of control for both of them. The end result is real tragedy for more than one person. As the story evolves, we learn that Hansson still bears the scars of his youth, and has certain rituals for dealing with stress. One of them is to recite from memory the distances among different places in Sweden:

 

‘Alingsås to Arjeplog 1179 kilometres, Arboga to Arlanda 144, Arvidsjaur to Borlänge 787.’

 

The rituals that Hansson goes through don’t change anything. They don’t bring Anna back to health, and they don’t draw him out of the tragic course of events in this novel. But they do calm him and we can see in his character how and why people sometimes engage in them.

When families have to deal with a missing loved one, especially (‘though not exclusively) when it’s a child, they often develop rituals. It’s almost as though those rituals will bring the child safely home. You see that sort of thing in several crime novels; I’ll just mention one. In Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow, we are introduced to Dorothy Pine, a member of the Ojibwa First Nation. Five months before the events in the novel, her daughter Katie went to school one morning and never came home. John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay Police was assigned to the case, but he and his team couldn’t find any solid leads as to the child’s whereabouts. Although it’s highly unlikely that Katie is still alive, her mother has ritually kept her things exactly as they were. Then a body is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. When the body is identified as Katie Pine, Cardinal has the thankless task of informing her mother. When he visits the house, we see how Katie’s things have been kept neatly, as though she would be home any time. This ritual actually turns out to be helpful to Cardinal, as he finds a clue that helps him track down the murderer.

And then there’s Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street, which takes place mostly in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Red Hook, located where the East River empties into a bay. One hot summer night, Valerie ‘Val’ Marino and June Giatto decide on an impulse to take a raft ride on the bay. At first it’s fun, but then tragedy strikes. Very early the next morning, Val is found on the beach by one of her teachers. June has disappeared. At first there’s every hope that June will come back, but as time goes by, it seems more and more likely that she’s drowned. Val has to cope with the grief of her friend’s disappearance. She also has to cope with the way everyone reacts to her (i.e. Might she know more than she’s saying about what happened?). Part of the way she deals with this, especially at first, is to go through all sorts of rituals, with the idea that they’ll bring June back.

 

‘If she goes to the party, does exactly what June would have wanted her to do, June will come back.’

 

It’s not spoiling the story to say that Val’s rituals don’t affect the truth of what happened, or of the novel’s outcome. But they do give Val a sense of control, however false, over what happens.

And that’s true for most of us. We may know very well intellectually that those kinds of rituals don’t change things. But it doesn’t stop us going through them. These are only a few examples from crime fiction. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Giles Blunt, Ivy Pochoda, Karin Alvtegen, Lawrence Block