Some Said it’s Nothing But a Story*

FolktalesJust about every culture has its share of folk tales. Sometimes they’re stories that explain how certain things came to be, and sometimes they’re scarier than that. And it’s interesting how very deeply those tales get embedded into our thinking. Even people who say they’re not superstitious pass the stories along and maybe, somewhere deep in their subconscious minds, the stories have a certain kind of life. So it makes perfect sense that we’d see those old folk tales in crime fiction too. Sometimes they can be very useful ‘covers’ to hide crimes, but even when they’re not used that way, folk tales can add interest and a sense of cultural authenticity to a story.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles includes a fascinating folk tale concerning the Baskerville family. The story is that generations ago, Sir Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was besotted. Since then the family has been cursed by a demon in the shape of a hound. That folk tale about the phantom hound has been handed down in the area of the Manor of Baskerville in Dartmoor. Sherlock Holmes learns this folk tale when the most recent Baskerville, Sir Charles, is found dead one day in the manor’s park. His death is explained by the folk tale of the curse and now, family friend Dr. James Mortimer wants Holmes to investigate because the next heir, Sir Henry, is coming from Canada and Dr. Mortimer fears for his safety. This folk tale may have been the easy explanation for what has happened to the Baskervilles, but Holmes is quite sure that something else is going on, and so it proves to be…

Another Dartmoor folk tale, this one about pixies, finds its way into Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. In that novel, Hercule Poirot decides to spend a holiday at the Jolly Roger on Leathercome Bay on the Devon coast. One day, fellow guest Arlena Marshall is found strangled on Pixy’s Cove not far from the hotel. Since Poirot was possibly the last person to see the victim alive, he works with the police to find out who killed her. At one point, Hercule Poirot and two other hotel guests are having a drink together and Poirot asks:


‘‘But I still do not understand. What is this pixy?’
Patrick Redfern said
‘Oh, that’s typically Devonshire. There’s a pixy’s cave at Sheepsor on the Moor. You’re supposed to leave a pin, you know, as a present for the pixy. A pixy is a kind of moor spirit.’’


The discussion moves on to some of the places in Devonshire that are supposed to be pixy-ridden. I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that Arlena Marshall wasn’t killed by pixies. But it is interesting how that folk tale has been woven into the story.

Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger includes a very interesting Ute folk tale. The tale is that a Ute named Ironhand was able to slip in and out of canyons almost magically. This gave him the ability to steal sheep and cattle belonging to the Navajos, who are the Utes’ enemies. The Navajos were never able to figure out how Ironhand was able to seemingly appear and disappear and the Ute folk tale is that he was always able to outwit the Navajo. That tale becomes important when it is tied into the modern-day robbery of a Ute casino. The bandits who get away with a huge haul are said to be right-wing militiamen, and a federal hunt for them is soon underway. Deputy Sheriff Teddy Bai is soon suspected of being an ‘inside operator’ on this case since he worked part-time as casino security. But Officer Bernadette Manuelito doesn’t think Bai had anything to do with the robbery. When she tells Sergeant Jim Chee about her concerns, he starts asking some questions. Retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn approaches the case from a different angle when he hears the Ute folk tale. It’s a fascinating way to tie in a folk tale with modern-day robbery and murder.

Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money features a folk tale about spirits who haunt a particular part of northern Cambodia and kidnap humans. That tale plays a role in the story when Madeleine Avery hires Australian former cop Max Quinlan to find her missing brother Charles. Avery’s last known place of residence was Bangkok, so Quinlan starts there. When he gets to Avery’s apartment, though, he finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. He also discovers evidence that Avery himself has gone to Cambodia. So he follows the trail to Phnom Penh, where he meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin. Little by little, the two piece together Avery’s life. They discover that he was involved in some shady deals and had gotten the wrong people very upset with him. This leads to real danger for both Quinlan and Sarin, but they continue to follow the trail, which takes them to northern Cambodia and leads them right to that old folk tale.

Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead introduces us to retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson. Twenty years earlier, a tragedy befell his family when his grandson Jens disappeared. No trace of the boy was ever found, and his mother Julia was so distraught that she left the island of Øland, hoping to make a new start elsewhere. Then, unexpectedly, Davidsson receives a strange package containing one of Jens’ sandals. He tells Julia about the sandal and she reluctantly returns to Øland to get some answers. The island is home to old fishing communities and there are several folk tales that go around. Julia’s own grandmother, for instance, believed she saw a goblin. And several stories have gone round about a drowned seaman who still wanders. Those two folk tales are not the reason Jens disappeared, but they add a fascinating layer to this story.

And then there’s Dan Smith’s Red Winter. That’s the story of Nikolai ‘Kolya’ Levitsky, who deserts his Red Army unit to return to his village. When he gets there, though, it’s empty. The men have all been killed, and their families have disappeared. The folk tale of Koschei the Deathless, who has sealed his soul away to be immortal, has gone around for years, and the devastation that Levitsky finds looks like the work of a demon-like character just like Koschei. But there are other, equally evil, possibilities to explain what happened to this village and its people. I confess I haven’t read this one (yet), but the interweaving of this old folk tale into a crime novel was too irresistible not to mention. Want to know more about it? ‘Course you do! Check out this excellent review at Raven Crime Reads. And while you’re there, do check out the blog and consider following it. It’s a terrific resource for excellent crime fiction reviews.

Old folk tales are fascinating insights into a culture’s character. So it can really add to a crime novel when we get a peek at some of the tales that are told among the people the crime affects. Which old folk tales do you like to tell?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leverage’s Stormchild.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dan Smith, Johan Theorin, Tony Hillerman

28 responses to “Some Said it’s Nothing But a Story*

  1. Scandinavian crime fiction as a whole does not make much use of folk tales and myths: which is a strange omission, given how powerful their Norse sagas are. One exception I’ve found is Anna Jansson’s Killer Island, which refers to the White Sea-lady of Gotland… and sure enough, a woman dressed as a bride is found murdered soon thereafter.

    • Marina Sofia – Thanks for that recommendation. Killer Island sounds interesting. You’re right that a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction doesn’t really focus much on their folk tales. There are a few but you would think wouldn’t you that there’d be more.

  2. I can’t think of any folk tales impacting the people in my little world….except I did ask a table full of attendees at a conference how many of them had ever seen ghost. Every single one of them had a ghost story….except me. Knowing that, I suspect haunted houses are the best example of American tales that can impact crime victims.

    • Pat – Oh, there are a lot of haunted-house stories aren’t there? And there are those ‘woods that you never go to,’ among other places. Interesting how so many people in your informal poll had had some sort of ghost experience. I always think those folk tales are absolutely fascinating.

  3. Fascinating Margot – It is certainly true that there can be something so primal and atavistic about the crime genre at it most basic that it can blend itself seamlessly with the historical genre and also trade on such deep-rooted folkloric traditions. Some great examples there, thanks as always.

    • Sergio – I hadn’t thought about it quite that way, but you have a very well-taken point. There really is that deep-level connection isn’t there? And what I find fascinating is people’s interest in those folk tales, even when they don’t believe them. Something primal indeed and yes, crime fiction strikes a similar chord…

  4. Elly Griffiths has great use of folk stories in her great books starring Ruth the forensic archaeologist – most recently, in Dying Fall, the legends of King Arthur. And Phil Rickman’s excellent Merrily Watkins books often have their roots in folk tales.

    • Moira – Oh, you’re quite right. I like that blend of past, present and folk tale in the novels, especially given Ruth Galloway’s practical personality. And Griffiths really does weave them in seamlessly doesn’t she?

  5. There are authors such as Arthur Upfield who use existing (or modified) folk tales in their books – I can think of a few where Upfield’s DI Napoleon Bonaparte makes use of Aboriginal legends and beliefs to help solve a case, most effectively (I think) in “Murder Must Wait.”

    Other authors create legends of their own – John Dickson Carr’s books are very effective in using what are said to be old legends and ghost stories to create a frightening atmosphere for the crimes in his books. Both “Hag’s Nook” and “The Plague Court Murders” are good examples.

    I am also fond of Gladys Mitchell, who frequently brings folk legends and classic myths into her Mrs. Bradley stories. In “Death and the Maiden,” for example, a great deal of the story is centered around a search for a reputed naiad, a water nymph, said to be living in the River Itchen in Winchester. Could the naiad have been responsible for the murder of a twelve-year-old boy?

    Legends and myths have always been important throughout human history – we shouldn’t be surprised that they feature in so many mysteries!

    • Les – We shouldn’t indeed. And You’ve named some authors who integrate them very effectively into their stories. What I like too about all of the authors you’ve mentioned is that heir stories mention those legends and tales without relying on them for the solution of the mystery. To me, that adds to the story’s credibility. The folk tales may make some people feel a little superstitious, but they aren’t the solution to the case. They simply add to the tension and I like that.

  6. In keeping with what you say, I had to share a Mrs. Bradley quote from Gladys Mitchell’s “Death and the Maiden.” Awakened one night by a supposed ghost, Mrs. Bradley throws a brush at the “spirit,” and the ghost disappears. Mitchell writes:

    “There had been something definitely tangible about the figure struck by the flying nailbrush, and she was not a believer in ghosts when these made noises. The spirit world, she felt, should be silent unless it could produce sounds in keeping with its own mysterious dimension. Gasps and squeaks were, to her mind, automatically excluded from the list of sounds which any genuine spirit ought to be able to make. She would not have found it at all easy to defend this theory, but she held to it very firmly. Poltergeists, of course, came outside her argument.”

    (Paragraphs such as that one are the primary reason I love Gladys Mitchell…)

  7. Another Holmes one with a folk tale at its heart – The Sussex Vampire. Of course, Conan Doyle famously believed in all sorts of stuff in real life – from spiritualism to faeries.

    • FictionFan – Oh, that is a good example! Thank you for reminding me. And actually I’ve always been interested in Conan Doyle’s choices of beliefs. It always makes me wonder how he really thought…

  8. kathy d.

    This discussion would not be complete without including the fabulous CWA-Dagger-Award winner, Fred Vargas. This French writer takes folk lore, superstitions and myths to a high level. An Uncertain Place revives old Eastern European vampire mythology and her recent book The Ghost Riders of Ordebec was so spectacular it co-won the Dagger, the fourth win for Vargas.
    Ordebec begins with the tale of an angry, medieval ghost army. It goes on from there.
    Many of Vargas’ other books bring in medieval prayers, superstitions about a wolfman and about the bubonic plague. If one enjoys this plot device and backdrop, read this medieval historian’s books.

    • Kathy – You know, you’re right. Vargas uses an awful lot of folk tales and other old stories in her work. And yes, she’s done that consistently. It’s an interesting aspect of her noves. I’m very glad you filled in that gap I left.

  9. I was with a group of friends at the crime festival tonight and we were just talking about this kind of thing. Not specifically folk lore in crime, but the crossover novel – crime with some supernatural thrown in. It does seem to be coming through more lately. I do find it all fascinating. It adds a little something to a straight genre.

    • Rebecca – Oh, what an interesting topic! The crossover novel! I think you’re right that we’re seeing such novels more now than we’ve seen before. Perhaps it’s getting more and more common for novels not to fit neatly into one or another category and if you ask me, that’s all to the good. I think novels that cross genre can add real innovation.

  10. kathy d.

    What is even more interesting about Fred Vargas’ Inspector Adamsberg stories is that provincial folklore and superstitions may provide the backdrop to a murder(s), the solutions are always based on scientific investigations, deduction and evidence. So, the standards set by the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, are in play, even if the stories contain a myth or folk lore, which townspeople may believe. The investigations cut much more deeply and search for evidence that is concrete.

    • Kathy – You’re quite right about that. Vargas doesn’t go for the easy but very unsatisfactory solution of having the ‘folk tale explanation’ be the right one. It’s much more interesting and realistic to have a folk tale or something like that serve as a backdrop or part of the atmosphere without actually being the explanation.

  11. Margot: Stan Jones, in his Nathan Active series, evokes stories of the past especially in Shaman Pass.

    Craig Johnson, in the Walt Longmire series, has the Sheriff hearing from the Old Cheyenne, the spirits of past warriors.

    I think it is easier to hear the spirit world when you live outside major urban centres. There is less competition for attention. There is a stillness that cannot exist in the cities of today.

    • Bill – I think you’re probably quite right. It’s very much harder to listen – really listen – when urban clutter, stress, etc. are not competing for one’s attention. So it’s no wonder for instance that Walt Longmire can hear from the Old Cheyenne, or that old stories play a role in the Nathan Active series. Both series take place in those quieter, rural areas.

  12. A fascinating article that truly captures the role of ancient folkloric traditions as an invaluable tool for fiction writers. Many a time I read references to these rich and wonderful stories that have their roots in the time old tradition of oral storytelling, and feel an utter compulsion to find out more about them, enriching my experience as a reader. (Thanks also for the truly flattering mention for both Dan Smith’s Red Winter and my blog- much appreciated!)

    • Raven – Thanks for the kind words. And it’s a pleasure to mention your blog and that particular review. Folks, click and find out what I mean. You’re right too that folk tales really are rooted in storytelling. I hadn’t thought about that when I was preparing this post, but it’s absolutely true. And that old tradition has kept people enthralled for generations. Little wonder that a folk tale can add a real layer of appeal to a novel.

  13. A very interesting topic. Thanks to you and all the commenters for providing these interesting examples. I am looking forward to trying some of them. I have the Andrew Nette novel, and I want to read some Gladys Mitchell mysteries. The only one I have tried is the Craig Johnson series. The Dan Smith book sounds good and the Raven Crime Reads review is great.

    • Tracy – One of the things I love about this blog is all of the wonderful input I get from commenters like yourself. Such great examples and discussion! I’m glad you found a few novels to interest you too.

  14. I love the diversity of your posts and the information passed on not just by you but by your readers Margot – so wonderful. Thanks everyone and thank you too.

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