Did 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 And one of the patterns he’s used to cope with it is that he stays at least somewhat withdrawn in relationships.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.