One of the many things that make it hard to be a sleuth is that cases can take a very long time to solve. And some cases never do get solved. There are also times when the detective knows exactly who’s guilty, but can’t do much about it because of politics. And that means that sleuths don’t often get that ‘rush’ that comes with a sense of personal accomplishment. But I think (or maybe I’m wrong) that we all like that sense of ‘I did this.’ So it’s not surprising that a lot of crime fiction’s well-drawn sleuths find ways besides sleuthing to get that sense that they’ve accomplished something. And that aspect of a sleuth’s character can really add to a novel or series. First, readers can identify with that feeling of accomplishment. Second, it makes sense. Very often when you’re using your hands to build, paint, bake or otherwise create, your mind is freed up. And that’s often how fictional sleuths sort out their cases. It’s also a way to make a sleuth more rounded and realistic.
One doesn’t think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot as someone who works with his hands (although in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd he does give gardening a try). But like anyone, he likes that sense of having accomplished something. Poirot likes to do jigsaw puzzles and build houses of cards. There are several examples of this; I’ll just mention two. In Three Act Tragedy, Poirot investigates the poisoning death of Reverend Stephen Babbington. At first there seems to be no motive, but after another, similar murder, it’s clear that this wasn’t some fluke; there’s a pattern at work. In one scene in the novel, Poirot is building a house of cards. The only cards he’s been able to get for the purpose are from the card game Happy Families, so when he gets a visit from Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore, she’s more than a little surprised to see him playing a child’s game. He explains to her why he’s building the house of cards, and although she still doesn’t completely understand it, she goes along with what he says. Then she makes a comment about the card game that gives Poirot a vital clue. That clue points him in the right direction and helps in solving the case.
In Dead Man’s Folly, Poirot works with detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to find out who murdered fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, a girl who seemingly had no enemies and certainly had no fortune to leave. She did, though, have too much curiosity for her own safety and Poirot deduces that that’s why she was killed. Poirot is sure that Marlene’s death is related to a disappearance that also happens in the novel, but for quite a while he doesn’t see exactly how. So late one afternoon, he builds a jigsaw puzzle. As he’s working with his hands and putting the physical puzzle together, his mind is working on the case. His thought pattern leads him to one character who knows more than it first seems. Poirot decides to pay a visit to that person and finds that visit to be very helpful. It turns out that that person is key to solving the case.
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman also enjoys the sense of accomplishment that comes from creating with one’s hands. She’s a baker whom we first meet in Earthly Delights. As we learn in that novel, she was an accountant until it occurred to her that numbers really didn’t matter to her. That’s when she decided to do what she really loves – bake. For her, creating really well-made bread, rolls and so on is real. It gives her a critical feeling of accomplishment. And she’s passed that view on to her assistant Jason. When we first meet Jason, he’s just quit a drug habit and is actually still living more or less in the streets. As time goes on, Jason discovers that he’s good at baking and learns to get a real sense of personal accomplishment when he masters a new recipe. In fact, one of the running discussions in this series is Jason’s remarkable ability to make the very best muffins anyone’s ever eaten. When he gets a new muffin recipe right and one of his experiments works well, he gets a real sense of pride.
So does Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Beatrice Coleman as she learns the craft of quilting. When we first meet Coleman in Quilt or Innocence, she’s just retired from her position in an Atlanta art gallery to the small town of Dappled Hills, North Carolina. Quilting is the social activity of the area, and many of the residents have been quilting for years, so Coleman is persuaded to join one of the local groups, the Village Quilters. At first, she resists doing actual quilting; her idea is to do her part by promoting the group’s quilts and perhaps working on designs. But bit by bit she’s persuaded to try the craft itself. Then, one of the group’s members is murdered, and Coleman herself begins to get threatening notes. She does a little investigating and finds that even among the supposedly close group of quilters there are several people who had a motive for murder. All along, Coleman keeps trying to learn to quilt. At first her results aren’t exactly noteworthy. She just can’t get the knack of it. But then, with a little help from an expert quilter, she slowly learns and by the end of the first novel in this series (Yay! The second one, Knot as it Seams, comes out in February), she’s created some of her own quilting. Her sense of personal accomplishment adds to her character, and adds an interesting sub-plot to the story.
There are also sleuths (I’m thinking for instance of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Caroline Graham’s Tom Barnaby) who get that sense of ‘I did this!’ through gardening and horticulture. That makes sense too. To see a garden bloom because of the special care you’ve taken with it, or to use your own home-grown fruit and vegetables as part of a meal is a real sense of accomplishment. And for both of those sleuths, the time they take tending flowers, attacking weeds, doing the lawn and so on frees their minds up and relaxes them. Little wonder that Wolfe absolutely refuses to be disturbed when he’s in his orchid room.
And then there’s Peter Temple’s Jack Irish. He’s a sometimes attorney, sometimes private investigator who gets involved in some very dark and ugly cases. He’s learned the hard way that drinking his way through the bleakness doesn’t accomplish anything. So he does cabinetry. He informally apprentices himself to master cabinetmaker Charlie Taub, who’s always known the feeling you get when you create a beautiful piece of furniture from just the right wood. Irish hasn’t yet completely mastered the craft, and one of the running themes in this series is that both he and Taub know that. When he does create something that turns out beautifully, Taub acknowledges it in his characteristic understated way and that praise means more to Irish than even he is aware. And the sense of personal accomplishment that comes from it means at least as much.
There are also several mystery series that focus on building, such as Jenny Baker’s Do It Yourself Mystery series, and Juliet Blackwell’s Haunted Home Renovation series. Those novels too reflect that need so many of us have to accomplish things – especially with our hands.
We all feel good I think when we can step back and say, ‘I did this.’ And it’s easy to see why. So it makes sense that that theme’s woven through plenty of crime fiction too.
ps. Oh, the ‘photo? That’s my new home office desk and chair. Yes I built them myself. OK, I didn’t cut the wood. And no-one will ever mistake my work for that of Charlie Taub. But I did it. Myself. I built the cabinet you see just at the left edge of the ‘photo, too. Myself.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s Can Do.