Just 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.