It’s Witchcraft*

It’s often the case that we fear things that we don’t understand. That’s how myths and scary stories are handed down over time. And one of the most persistent set of stories is the set of stories about witchcraft and sorcery. Those stories come up in many different cultures and are told in different ways and that’s what’s interesting; it’s such a pervasive set of beliefs. The stories that are told at this time of year about wicked women who fly around on broomsticks and cast evil spells are just one kind of example. There are lots of others and as influential as they’ve been in history, it makes sense that they’d show up a lot in different kinds of crime fiction too. And no, I’m not going to mention crime fiction where there are paranormal explanations for things. Really my focus is crime fiction where belief in witchcraft and sorcery plays a role in the story.

For instance, many of Tony Hillerman’s novels feature Navajo beliefs and traditions. And one of those traditions is a belief in skinwalkers, or witches. These are people who practice what the Navajo people call the Witchery Way. They can assume the shape of animals and use their abilities to wreak havoc. Although not all Navajos believe in skinwalkers, it’s a well-known set of stories. We see how influential this belief is in Skinwalkers. In that novel Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee, each in a different way, investigate a series of deaths that seem to be connected to the Bad Water Clinic, run by Dr. Bahe Yellowhorse. As they piece together the clues, we find that although the deaths have a very prosaic cause, the belief that witchcraft is at work plays an important role in the novel. We also see in this series a real contrast between those beliefs and the Navajo tradition of healing. For instance, in the early Hillerman novels, Chee is studying to be a yata’ali, or Navajo healer. That spiritual tradition of the healing arts is not at all the same as witchcraft but it’s often been mistaken for it. That misunderstanding has led to quite a lot of damage.

There’s a lot of mention of traditional belief in what you might call witchcraft in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels. Most of those novels take place in rural Louisiana where several different cultural beliefs have come together. One of them is juju, adapted from West African tradition. In the Burke novels juju is depicted as similar to, but not identical to, voodoo, and those who have skill at this kind of witchcraft are believed to have powerful abilities. For instance, in A Morning for Flamingos, Robicheaux is, among other things, trying to find out the truth behind the murder of Hipolyte Broussard. Tee Beau Latiolais has been convicted of the murder, but he claims that he isn’t guilty. Robicheaux promises that he’ll find out what really happened and begins to investigate. The trail leads to Gros Mama Goula, who runs a local brothel and who is said to be a juju woman. All sorts of stories have been passed around about her power, and although Robicheaux isn’t superstitious he knows that she has local clout.  When Robicheaux questions her, she startles him with what seem to be some eerie insights into what’s going on his mind. No, it’s not ‘mind-reading’ and no, witchcraft doesn’t solve this mystery. In fact, the scenes with Gros Mama Goula don’t take up a lot of space in this story. But her influence and the influence of traditional beliefs is obvious in this novel.

Belief in witchcraft – or at least uneasiness about it – shows up in M.C. Beaton’s Death of an Outsider too. In that novel, Constable Hamish Macbeth takes a temporary leave from his usual post at Lochdubh to fill in for a colleague in the village of Cnothan. He’s not exactly warmly welcomed and the feeling is mutual. But Macbeth takes up his temporary duties nonetheless and it’s not long before he finds that there are others even more disliked than he is. William Mainwaring and his wife Agatha are English ‘incomers’ who supposedly have taken up crofting. Everyone suspects that Mainwaring is involved in something much shadier, though. As if that’s not bad enough, he’s contemptuous of the locals, overbearing and has made more than his share of enemies. Agatha hasn’t been much easier to like and matters come to a head when she complains that she’s being pursued by a group of witches. She may not be particularly old-fashioned or overly superstitious but she’s uneasy enough about the possibility of witchcraft that she’s quite anxious and upset. Macbeth finds out that there’s a down-to-earth explanation for the incidents that have frightened Agatha Mainwaring but the situation turns tragic when Mainwaring is murdered. Now, Macbeth has to enlist the aid of wary and unhelpful locals to find out the truth behind the victim’s death.

Today there’s a lot more understanding of traditional healing and different kinds of spirituality than there was in earlier times. And we see that stark contrast in historical crime fiction and in crime fiction that includes connections with the past. There are a lot of examples of this; I’ll just refer to one. Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton takes place in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. Apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson is poisoned, and everyone believes that local music master Charles Thom is responsible. He’s duly arrested and imprisoned, but he claims that he’s innocent. He begs his friend, schoolteacher Alexander Seaton, to find out the truth behind the murder and Seaton agrees. He begins to ask questions and in the course of his investigations, he finds that both Davidson and Davidson’s beloved Marion Arbuthnott may have been paying visits to a mysterious old woman who’s got the reputation of being a witch with the ability to cast spells, heal, curse and so on. If that’s true, then there are several local people who might have wanted Davidson dead, as feeling against witches is at the boiling point. Then, Marion Arbuthnott dies, too, apparently a successful suicide. When the locals find out that she might have been involved in witchcraft, that story has terrible consequences. In the end, though, it turns out that neither death has anything to do with casting spells. It also turns out that there’s more to the mysterious old woman than meets the eye.

In A Carrion Death by the writing duo known as Michael Stanley, we are introduced to Botswana police inspector David ‘Kubu” Bengu. In this novel, a body is discovered in the Botswana desert. It’s mostly been consumed by hyenas, so there isn’t much evidence as to what happened. The death is initially put down to accident but Kubu isn’t convinced. He begins to ask questions and investigate further. Then there’s another death. As he’s trying to make sense of what’s happened, he runs into traditional beliefs about witch doctors, who are said to have great power and of whom many of the locals are fearfully respectful. Kubu’s been university-educated and doesn’t believe in traditional spirituality. But he does understand that others do, and is reminded of that one Sunday when he tells his father of an encounter between one of his associates and an old man who’s said to be a witch doctor. Kubu’s father reminds him that for many in Botswana, traditional views of spirituality and of witch doctors hold sway and must be respected. No, the two victims were not killed by witch doctors. Their deaths are related to greed, corruption and land-grabbing. But it’s interesting to see the power that the traditional belief system has.

We also see those beliefs depicted in Adrian Hyland’s Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs). Lincoln Flinders is the leader of an Aborigine encampment at Moonlight Downs. When he is brutally murdered, it’s thought at first that his death is the work of Blakie Japanangka, who is a local sorcerer. The two had a heated quarrel, and just after the murder, Blakie disappeared. So everyone makes the obvious connection. But Emily Tempest, who grew up in that encampment and has recently returned, is not so sure. She starts to investigate and in the end, she finds that Flinders’ murder isn’t related to sorcery at all. She also finds out some surprising truths about Blakie Japanangka. In this novel Hyland shares traditional beliefs about sorcerers and the difference between them and those who practice traditional healing. There’s also a thread of that in Gunshot Road, the next novel in this series. It’s easy to develop misunderstandings about traditional healing and what people think of as sorcery and witchcraft and Hyland makes the distinction clear, at least in my opinion.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman and nearly always involves the other residents of Insula, the building in which Chapman lives and has her bakery. One of those residents is Miriam Kaplan, usually known as Meroe, who practices Wicca and owns The Sibyl’s Cave, which sells everything needed for practicing traditional Wicca. She has a very deep knowledge of traditional forms of healing and if you want to, you can call her a witch. But she’s a long way from the stereotyped evil witch with an ugly face and a broomstick. She is in fact a really interesting character through whom Greenwood shares Wicca beliefs and customs. In Trick or Treat in particular we learn about the origins of Samhain, the end-of-harvest festival with which witches are most traditionally associated. You could say that she practices witchcraft as it was originally intended – as it was known before all of the stereotypes and awful legends came up. And her skill with traditional healing, herbs and so on proves useful in more than one case of poisoning that comes up in this series.

Whether or not you are spiritual, it’s hard to deny the power that beliefs about witchcraft and sorcery have had over the years. I’ve only mentioned a few examples of crime fiction where misunderstanding about spirituality and beliefs about witchcraft play an important role. But those beliefs show up in many different cultures too, and that’s what I find particularly interesting.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Sinatra’s Witchcraft.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Michael Stanley, Shona MacLean, Tony Hillerman

12 responses to “It’s Witchcraft*

  1. I absolutely love the idea of the first one, that relies on peoples real and genuine beliefs in something with a creepy name as skinwalkers. What a fantastic idea for a crime novel setting. Brilliant. I think putting truth and real belief in a story add something extra. Supernatural and witchcraft doesn’t have to be all over the top and unbelievable, just weave it in enough to creep them out and you’ve added that extra depth to novel.

    • Rebecca – I heartily recommend Hillerman’s novels including Skinwalkers. It really is a fine, fine story. The setting is the U.S. Southwest – Navajo country – and there’s a strong sense of the land, the people and so on.
      And I agree completely about the difference between making a plot rely on the supernatural in an over-the-top way, and integrating people’s natural uneasiness about witchcraft and sorcery. People do get nervous about things they don’t understand and there are lots of ways to use that in a novel without using it to cover up a sloppy plot, if you know what I mean.

  2. Margot: In Arthur Upfield’s books featuring Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte there are frequent examples of aborigine mysticism. Among the most vivid are the bone pointing curses to kill.

    Kwei Quartey’s book, Wife of the Gods, explores belief in traditional healers against modern medicine.

    For some reason I find the “witchcraft” of indigenous people more credible than the spirits of Western society.

    • Bill – You know, that’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but there are of course real differences between indigenous approaches to healing and so on – what people have traditionally thought of as ‘witchcraft’ – and Western beliefs about witchcraft. I’d have to reflect on that but I can certainly see how you put them in different categories.
      And thanks for mentioning Arthur Upfield’s work. It’s very much worth reading on several accounts and his depiction of indigenous mysticism is just one of them. I’ve not yet had the chance to read Wife of the Gods, but that one’s on my TBR list after reading your interview with Kwei Quartey.

  3. A perfect addition to this post would be Michael Gruber’s first crime fiction novel, Tropic of Night. If you haven’t read this one, Margot, I highly recommend it.

  4. I do love a bit of a supernatural/witchcraft when it’s part of the culture. I immediately thought of Emily Tempest when I started reading the post so I’m glad you included her.

    • Sarah – I like Emily Tempest a lot myself :-). And I agree; when witchcraft/sorcery is an integral part of a culture, then having it integrated into a novel adds to the story. It gives a solid sense of context I think.

  5. Lovely post. One book I was thinking about while reading this was Tariquin Hall’s The Laughter Club, which is all about exposing the so called supernatural.

    • Natasha – Thank you 🙂 – And oh, how right you are about The Man Who Died Laughing! In fact I’m embarrassed now I didn’t mention it in the post because it is such a good example of the way people’s beliefs in witchcraft, the supernatural, and so on can be manipulated…

  6. Margot, I’m glad someone else mentioned Upfield, whose mysteries are filled with references to Aboriginal beliefs and rites. “The Bone Is Pointed” is one of the best of these, centered as it is on a ritual which, believers (including Bony) insist can and will effectively kill a person. I also recommend “Murder Must Wait,” in which a completely different witchcraft ritual plays a central role in the plot – it’s one of Upfield’s best.

    By the way, as a fan, I should point out that, while Frank Sinatra SANG it, “Witchcraft” has lyrics by Carolyn Leigh and music by Cy Coleman. I like Sinatra, but credit where credit is due… 😉

    • Les – First, thanks for giving Leigh and Coleman the credit they are due. I honestly do try hard to be meticulous about that, so I am glad that you pointed that out. Thanks also for mentioning some truly great Arthur Upfield novels. They give a real insight into the role that witchcraft and sorcery play in many people’s lives and decisions. And of course I like Upfield’s storytelling too.

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