My Eyes Can Dimly See the Pattern of My Life*

PatternsDid you ever catch yourself in a pattern you hadn’t even been aware you had? We often have a patterned reaction to life because it’s easy, or it’s comfortable and familiar, or perhaps because it’s served an important purpose. And we get so accustomed to our patterns that we often aren’t even conscious that we have them. But sometimes our comfortable patterns don’t work any more. When that happens we have to learn to deal with life in new ways. And that can help us grow. It can also add some interest to fictional characters as they see that the same way they’ve always dealt with life doesn’t always work.

Sometimes of course, patterns of dealing with life can be dangerous. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia we meet Louise Leidner. She’s the wife of prominent archaeologist Eric Leidner and she’s accompanied him on an important dig a few hours from Baghdad. The team hasn’t been at the site long when Louise begins to have what many people call irrational fears. She says that she hears hands tapping on windows and sees grotesque faces looking in at her. Her husband hires a nurse Amy Leatheran to look after his wife and she learns that Louise fears for her life. She’s been receiving threatening letters that seem to come from her first husband, who she thought was dead. Then one afternoon Louise is bludgeoned to death. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to investigate. He’s soon faced with several questions about the murder. Was the victim really killed by her former husband? If not, were the letters a blind? Did she write them herself in order to create drama? As Poirot sorts the case out we learn that there were several patterns to Louise Leidner’s life. Her interactions with people followed those particular patterns and in part that’s what led to her death.

Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone has had his share of damage in his life. And one of the patterns he’s used to cope with it is that he stays at least somewhat withdrawn in relationships. In some ways that’s been a successful strategy for him. His way of distancing himself makes it easier to do the hard things that cops have to do. For instance, in Night Passage, the first in Parker’s Jesse Stone series, Stone is hired as the new police chief in Paradise, Massachusetts. He thinks it will be a good chance to start life over. Having lost both his job with the L.A.P.D. and his marriage, Stone is looking for a new beginning. But he soon finds that being a cop in Paradise is anything but an easy job. It turns out that Stone was hired because the town’s leaders thought he’d be easy to manipulate. When Stone uncovers what’s going on, he needs his ability to ‘step back’ and not trust anyone as he finds out the truth. On the other hand, that pattern isn’t so useful in his personal life. It’s part of the reason for the breakup of his marriage and as the series goes on, we see how more than once, Stone’s pattern of withdrawal gets in the way of really sustaining a strong relationship.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman has a negative relationship with her parents for several good reasons. While she’s not obsessive about it, she also has no interest whatsoever in any contact with them. As she sees it, she has a good life (she has her own bakery, a good relationship with her lover Daniel Cohen, and a good circle of friends). But it’s all no thanks to her parents. Then, in Devil’s Food, Chapman’s mother suddenly shows up in her life. Chapman’s father has disappeared and her mother wants Chapman’s help finding him. Chapman’s first reaction is to follow the pattern that has so far served her well: avoidance. But she soon learns that avoidance isn’t going to work this time as her mother intends to stay in the area until her father is found. What’s more, one of the other residents of the building where Chapman lives and works offers to take her mother in for the time being. With few other options Chapman grudgingly begins to help in the search for her father. Bit by bit she develops a sort of détente with her mother. She also learns what’s happened to her father. At the end of the story, Chapman isn’t exactly ‘best buddies’ with her mother but she’s been able to re-think the pattern of simply avoiding any contact at all cost.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, beginning psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson has to re-think several patterns in her life. When she was fourteen, her younger sister Gemma was abducted. No trace of the child was ever found despite a massive hunt. Gemma’s loss devastated the family and is partly responsible for Anderson’s pattern of withdrawing from people – of not allowing herself to get close to them. In a lot of ways she’s aware of that pattern but for her it’s been a useful coping technique. She’s able to work with her patients because she doesn’t allow herself to get close. She can’t really face her own pain and sense of loss at Gemma’s disappearance so withdrawing helps her get through life without hurting too much or drowning herself in alcohol. For Anderson it’s not a bad pattern although it has cost her at least one serious relationship. Then she begins to work with a new patient Elizabeth Clark. Clark is still suffering the trauma of losing her own younger sister Gracie, who was, like Anderson’s sister, abducted. When Anderson hears Clark’s story she decides to lay her old ghosts to rest and find out who was responsible for both abductions. To do that she has to take several emotional risks and face the difficulty of getting close to some of the members of her family again as well as getting closer to Clark than professional ethics would normally dictate. But Anderson has found that her pattern of staying removed from people simply won’t work any more. As she slowly finds out the truth about what happened to her sister, she also learns some new ways of dealing with life.

Håkan Nesser’s Intendant Münster has a pattern of relying on his boss Inspector Van Veeteren. That pattern makes sense for a lot of reasons. After all, Van Veeteren is the boss. Besides, he has real intuition for detection and an awful lot of skill. Münster is neither stupid nor lacking in insight. But he’s fallen into a pattern of discussing cases with his boss, getting Van Veeteren’s views, insights and so on and going from there. But then Münster has to re-think his patterns, at least to some extent. Van Veeteren leaves the police force and becomes an owner of a bookshop, which is something he’s wanted to do for a long time. So in The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Fall/ Münster’s Case), Münster has to take on the murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn himself. He certainly works with a team, and as I say, he’s no mental slouch. But it’s obvious that he has gotten used to depending on Van Veeteren. And what’s interesting is that Van Veeteren has gotten used to it and to detection too. A few times during this novel he and Münster discuss the case, and he gives Münster some valuable perspective.

And then there’s Julie Smith’s Louisiana Bighot which features New Orleans PI Talba Wallis. Wallis works for E.V. Anthony Investigations when she’s not writing poetry and doing readings. When Wallis is hired to find out whether her friend Babalu Maya’s fiancé Jason is cheating, Wallis has no idea that this case is going to lead to murder, corruption and more. When Wallis doesn’t want to deal with something difficult, even she admits that she ‘turtles,’ or goes into her proverbial shell. She avoids unpleasant confrontations if she can and drags her feet as the saying goes. And she tends to freeze up emotionally when she can’t avoid a confrontation. We see that for instance when she has to tell Babalu that Jason has been unfaithful. We see it again when Babalu is murdered and Jason is accused of the crime. It’s a lot more complicated though than a case of an angry fiancé who kills the woman he’s supposedly going to marry. Throughout the novel, as Wallis deals with the various threads of this case, she has to force herself not to rely on ‘turtling’ to get her through. But as we learn a little about her backstory, we also see why she has that pattern. It’s not an irrational way to deal with life, but it doesn’t work in this case.

And that’s the thing about a lot of the patterns we develop. It’s not that they’re necessarily bad or wrong. They may in fact be very useful. But sometimes, our comfortable familiar patterns don’t serve our purpose. And that’s when we find out what we’re capable of learning.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Patterns.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Julie Smith, Kerry Greenwood, Paddy Richardson, Robert B. Parker

18 responses to “My Eyes Can Dimly See the Pattern of My Life*

  1. I was absolutely stunned to discover that within six months of turning 40 I had to re-evaluate a whole host of engrained activities, most of which were no longer sensible. Such a cliche but for me it was true. Much more interesting to see it played out dramatically in fiction though and I really will dig out the Münster, which sounds great – thanks Margot.

    • Sergio – Oh, I’ve had to do the same thing as I’ve gotten – er – past 20. The patterns that work for one’s life (even something as simple as one’s eating habits) when one’s a teen or young adult just don’t work later. I think it’s the ability to cope with that and move on that adds to maturity. I still don’t always have to like it though. 😉 And I do hope you’ll have time to read the Nesser. He develops his characters quite effectively I think.

  2. Humans are definitely creatures of habit and routine, so I can see where even a relatively small disruption can shake up a person’s life. Very interesting post, Margot.

    • Pat – Thank you. And you put that quite well; we humans really are creatures of habit. We like things to be the way we are used to having them be. And we are most comfortable when we react to life in our usual pattern. So yeah, disruption can definitely upend a person’s life. In fact you’ve got me remembering that that’s how the police often catch people who’ve killed more than once. There are patterns about the murders.

  3. When talking about detectives with patterns in their lives, Margot, few can equal Nero Wolfe. His inflexibe daily routines – orchids from 9-11 and again 4-6, meal times never to be disturbed, never leaves the house on business, etc. – rule his life. Some of the most interesting Nero Wolfe novels, I think, are the ones where he is forced to break those habits. “In the Best Families,” for instance, the third book about his confrontations with supercriminal Arnold Zeck, finds Wolfe forced to escape the brownstone – and, as a result, we are given the ingenious plot he hatches when forced into totally unfamiliar territory. Also, “The Black Mountain,” when Wolfe leaves his home and even leaves the country as well, to go to Montenegro seeking the murderer of his closest friend, is also very much outside the usual mold for these books – and, I think, is particularly interesting for its insights into Wolfe away from his home base.

    • Les – Oh I am glad you mentioned Nero Wolfe. He is indeed a creature (some would argue prisoner but I am sure he’d disagree most vociferously) of his patterns. He sees no reason whatsoever to solve crimes by leaving his brownstone and then on the few occasions where he does, we see how he has to cope with it. You’ve given some excellent examples of just that. And I like Too Many Cooks for that reason too (among others). In that novel he has to leave his brownstone for a compelling reason when he’s invited to address a gathering of the world’s master chefs. But he doesn’t like it and his discomfort’s palpable.

  4. Patterns can be a way a of making something that is scary more comfortable. This is especially useful I crime fiction when people’s worlds can be turned upside down.

    I like it in books when the detective is struggling to find or discover the pattern of a crime. Such as in AC’s ‘Pale Horse ‘. They can make for intriguing books.

    • Sarah – That’s a very true statement about patterns. They do help people cope when life gets uncomfortable or scary. And they’re a natural part of life. So it really does make sense to have fictional characters with patterns. And thanks for bringing up Pale Horse. It’s a good example of the way sleuths can look for patterns in a crime that can lead them to the criminal.

  5. I read a number of Julie Smith books set in New Orleans a good 10 years ago, and enjoyed them very much, but I had forgotten about her. Thanks for the reminder! I’ll seek her out again.

    • Moira – Smith’s a talented author and her New Orleans-based series really express the character of that city I think. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the ones you’ve read.

  6. Margot: In the Three Pines mysteries of Louise Penny, when the Surete detectives come to the village they always stay in the B & B, eat at the bistro and set up their operations in the fire hall.

    Another New Yorker has an even more rigid schedule than Nero Wolfe. Lincoln Rhymes, in the series by Jeffery Deaver, because of his quadraplegia must follow a very precise routine to stay alive.

    • Bill – Thanks as always for filling in the gaps I left. You’re quite right that Gamache and team say at Garbri and Olivier’s bistro and work at the fire hall. I hadn’t thought of that but it’s certainly a pattern and so is the lifestyle that Lincoln Rhyme has to lead. As you say, he has to because of his health situation and it’s interesting how he adjusts to that regimen.

  7. What an interesting phenomenon to pick up on, Margot. I will have to look for this more closely.

  8. Skywatcher

    One of the scariest uses of patterns occurs in Margery Allingham’s TIGER IN THE SMOKE. The chief villain reveals to a priest that he owes his success to the ‘Science of Luck’. This refers to the habit of looking out for developing patterns and making use of them. We have all had the experience of the fates conspiring to push us towards a particular course of action. The villain, Jack Havoc, believes that he must always be watchful, looking for the patterns of life . He must ruthlessly take advantage of every fresh chance that comes his way, following his path to greatness. As the priest tells him, the path that he is following takes him in only one direction, and it’s straight down…

    • Skywatcher – Thanks. I must confess that that’s an Allingham I’ve not (yet) read. Interesting isn’t it too how we have that feeling of patterns pushing us towards one or another course of action. Some people argue we have free will; some say no (that is of course fodder for another post). But I know of a lot of people who feel just as Havoc does – that certain patterns are there and lead us to a sure destination. Interesting point, for which thanks.

  9. kathy d.

    Yes. Nero Wolfe is an example of someone absolutely stuck to a way of life and an unchangeable schedule. He has to do this in order to be comfortable enough to solve murders and name the culprit(s). He also has to take cases to afford the live-in chef, the orchid greenhouse,horticultural help, the rent, the freshest food, Archie’s salary, his furniture, suits and everything else. He is stuck in a rut but would deny it to the bitter end. He enjoys his life’s rigid patterns, although he can be a bit rigid, like when he scolds Fritz for using 4 juniper berries rather than 3 in a recipe. Or has a fit if water cress is one day old. But he’s stubborn, one of the stubbornest characters in crime fiction. In fiction, period.
    So here I ponder the thought: Should I break the chocolate and tea habit late at night while I peruse mysteries. I don’t think so.

    • Kathy – I don’t think you should, either. But that’s just my opinion… 🙂 And you’re absolutely right about Nero Wolfe. He certainly does have his unshakeable, unbreakable routines and habits. As you say, he needs to take cases to live the lifestyle he wants to live. He needs to have certain patterns and routines in order to free his mind so to speak to solve cases. So for Wolfe, the result of having those patterns in his life is that his cases are solved. It’s an interesting connection.

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