People tend to want life to make sense. They want answers and many want to believe in something greater than themselves. For lots of people, the answer is organised, Western-style religion, but that doesn’t work for everyone. Some instead turn to New Age and alternative spirituality. The appeal of New Age spirituality can be quite strong for people who don’t really identify with a particular religious denomination, but still want answers to life’s big questions. There are a lot of New Age shops, books, temples and spiritual advisors in real life, and it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re there in crime fiction too. You’ll notice, by the way, that I’m making a distinction here between alternative spirituality and cults. Cults are a post-worthy topic all their own…
In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the death of Miss Emily Arundell. Her death was originally put down to liver failure, but when it turns out that she was actually poisoned, Poirots looks more deeply into the case. One of the suspects in this case is Miss Arundell’s companion Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson. It seems that Miss Arundell has left her entire fortune to Miss Lawson, and it’s quite possible that Miss Lawson knew about that. So Poirot tries to find out as much as he can about Minnie Lawson. One of his stops is at the home of two of her friends, Isabel and Julia Tripp. The Tripp sisters are eccentric characters who practice spiritualism among many other things. They aren’t exactly the most appealing and sympathetic characters in the novel, but there’s something quirky about them, and as a matter of fact, they and their spiritualism give Poirot an important clue.
In Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob, we meet Florida Department of Corrections officer Kathy Diaz Baker. She’s just shaken off her former husband and started her own life when she starts to get some unwelcome attention from Judge Robert ‘Maximum Bob’ Gibbs. Gibbs doesn’t have many endearing qualities, and he’s certainly made his share of enemies. After all, he got his nickname because he’s notorious for handing out the maximum sentences that the law allows. But when Baker finds out that one of her parolees Elvin Crowe may be trying to kill the judge, she can’t ignore it. It only complicates matters that the judge has hatched his own scheme. He wants to kill his wife Leanne, an avid New Age spiritualist. Here, for instance, is a bit of a conversation that Leanne has with her husband:
‘He might say to her, ‘How do you know my heart isn’t open?’
‘I can see it isn’t.’
‘By your aura.’
‘I forgot, my aura. What’s it look like today?’
‘It’s bright red.’
‘Maybe it’s my high blood pressure. Ask me how come, I’ll tell you.’
‘Your aura should be mostly blue. Yours is orangey-red. Big and way too wide. Doesn’t it hurt?’
‘Only when you bring it up,’ Bob Gibbs said.’
Leanne used to be a water-park ‘mermaid’ but a scary event with an alligator ‘reformed her.’ Gibbs can’t stand her anymore and wants her out of the way, and his plot is to frighten her to death with a dead alligator. Of course, this being Elmore Leonard, the various schemes and plots have a way of blowing up in people’s faces, as the saying goes, and not working out at all the way they’d planned…
In Rhys Bowen’s Evans to Betsy, a New Age centre called Sacred Grove has opened near the Welsh town of Llanfair. Run by famed psychic Randy Wunderlich, it’s gained some local interest. One of the residents Betsy Edwards has been convinced by the Sacred Grove leadership that she has ‘second sight,’ and is drawn into the group. This concerns Constable Evan Evans, but at first, there’s not much he can do. Then a local girl Rebecca Riesen goes missing. The trail seems to lead to Sacred Grove, so Evans is convinced that something dangerous is going on there. And that feeling only gets stronger when Wunderlich is found dead.
Of course, not all New Age practitioners are depicted in a negative way. For example, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features an interesting character named Miriam Kaplan, who goes by her Wiccan name Meroe. Meroe owns and runs a Wiccan/New Age shop called The Sibyl’s Cave, where she sells, among other things, New Age books, materials and so on. She’s skilled in New Age arts, too. She’s also a good friend to Greenwood’s protagonist Chapman, who has a bakery in the same building. Meroe is an interesting and strong character, and proves to be intelligent, steady and helpful.
There’s also Teresa Solana’s Barcelona-based Eduard Martínez, who has a PI business with his brother Josep ‘Borja.’ Eduard is happily married to Montse, who has her own New Age centre called the Alternative Centre for Holistic Well-Being. The Centre offers all sorts of alternative therapies, classes and so on, and there’s a strong ‘hippie’ New Age feeling to it. But Montse is portrayed as level-headed, intelligent and a solid character. Eduard loves her very much and respects her. And her centre and approach to her work are contrasted in a very interesting way to another centre in The Sound of One Hand Killing. In that novel, the Martínez brothers are hired to look into the activities of another centre called Zen Moments. They sign up to take a class there as a way of getting an inside look at the place, only to be caught up in a murder investigation. First, Eduard’s neighbour Brian Morgan is murdered. Then Horaci Bou, Zen Moments’ director, is killed. If the Martínez, brothers are to find out the truth about what’s been going on at the centre, and keep their own names clear, they’re going to have to find out what’s behind the murders.
Geoffrey McGeachin touches on New Age spirituality too. In Fat, Fifty and F***ed, banker Martin Carter is retrenched. On his last day at work, he can’t resist getting his hands on a million-dollar payroll and a stolen police 4WD. That’s when he meets Faith, a librarian who has her own problems with a biker. Martin and Faith take off to meet up with an old classmate of Martin’s, and that’s when their adventures really begin. One of their encounters is with a biker gang with a difference. This is a New Age biker gang that runs a clean and well-kept motel and a retirement home. Not exactly the typical dangerous bikers you read about sometimes…
New Age spirituality is appealing to a lot of people, so it’s little wonder that there are so many New Age facilities, books, classes and so on. It’s got a certain mystery about it too, so it’s also little wonder that it features in crime fiction plots.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Christine Lavin’s Sensitive New Age Guys.