It seems to be human nature that we want the things that happen to us to make sense. We don’t want to think that it’s all random. Perhaps that’s because humans seek ways to organise things in their minds, and it’s hard to make a pattern if everything that happens to us is random. That’s arguably one reason for which people study science; they want things to have an explanation. That’s also arguably why people look to spirituality for life’s answers; they want explanations too. That quest for things to make sense is an important part of what it is to be human, and it governs quite a lot of behaviour, so it isn’t surprising that we find it in crime fiction. Just the fact that fictional detectives want to solve mysteries is an example of that. There are a lot of others.
We see that search for things to make sense in Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, which features a polygamist group that lives in an isolated compound called Purity. PI Lena Jones and her investigation partner Jimmy Sisiwan are hired to rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from the group after her father Abel promises her in marriage to the group’s leader Solomon Royal. The rescue comes off and Rebecca is returned to her mother Esther, who is divorced from Abel. In the process of retrieving the girl, though, Jones sees that Royal has been shot and badly wounded. She calls the police anonymously, thinking that’ll be the end of her involvement. But the next day Jones finds out that Royal has died, and that Esther is the prime suspect. In order to clear her client’s name, Jones goes undercover, posing as a new member of Purity. As she learns more about the sect, she finds that women there are treated as, at best, third- or fourth-class citizens. She makes other discoveries too, some of them very disturbing. So one of the questions Jones asks herself is, ‘Why don’t the women just leave?’ One answer to that is that several of them have been raised in the group and believe that things make sense as they are. They’ve been given explanations for life by the group leaders and that’s how they see life. Others joined the group after leaving difficult or dangerous lives in the ‘outside world.’ For them, becoming a part of the group was the product of their own search for what it all means and why they ended up in the situations they faced. Of course, not all of the group’s members feel that way, but it’s an interesting undercurrent in the story.
Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch introduces readers to Dr. Siri Paiboun, who’s been ‘volunteered’ to serve as Laos’ chief medical examiner. The novel takes place in the 1970’s, and Laotians are expected to serve the new revolutionary regime. But Paiboun is already in his 70’s and ready to retire. What’s more, he no longer believes the revolution’s explanations for everything; he’s gotten cynical. But he’s pragmatic enough to know that he doesn’t have much choice but to go along with what he’s told to do, so he takes up his duties. Then he’s faced with two puzzling cases. One is the case of Comrade Nitnoy, who is poisoned during an important luncheon. At first her death is put down to a severe allergic reaction to some seafood she was eating but it soon turns out that she was murdered. The other case is even more delicate. Two bodies are discovered in the Nam Ngum Reservoir in Khamuan; a third soon joins them. The victims are Vietnamese, so there’s the difficult question of whether they were spies. At the same time as Paiboun is negotiating this political land mine, he faces an even more difficult set of questions. He’s a doctor and a person of science. He wants things to make sense scientifically. And yet in the process of this investigation, he has some experiences that have no scientific explanation. The process of making sense of it all – of figuring out how it all fits together – is an interesting part of Paiboun’s character development as well as an interesting thread through this novel.
Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing has as one of its major themes people’s attempts to make sense of life. Dr. Suresh Jha has made a career out of exposing religious charlatans – he calls them ‘the Godmen’ – and showing them for what they are. In fact, he is the founder and head of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (DIRE), a group dedicated to promoting scientific explanations for life and debunking religious myths. One morning, Jha is killed in a bizarre incident. According to witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and murders Jha in retribution for turning people away from her worship. Jha was once a client of Delhi private detective Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri, so he takes an interest in this unusual case. At one point, the trail leads to an ashram run by spiritual leader Maharaj Swami. His spiritual group has become increasingly popular as people look for answers, and in the voices of some of the group members we see that human desire for things to make sense. Swami may be regarded as a cult leader, but that doesn’t mean he murdered his nemesis Suresh Jha, so Puri sends one of his team members, who goes by the name of Facecream, undercover at the ashram to find out what she can. It’s a fascinating look at the way people seek explanations.
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series often takes a look at people’s desire for things to make sense. Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and works in a large Roman-style building called Insula. One of her neigbours is Miriam Kaplan, who usually goes by her Wicca name of Meroe. Meroe has a lot of wisdom, and answers life’s questions through her knowledge of traditional lore, an understanding of human nature, and Wicca spiritualism. Chapman isn’t at all a religious person and she doesn’t study Wicca or attend Wicca events as a rule. But she does respect Meroe’s wisdom and often relies on it when she’s trying to make sense of a case. There’s another perspective on making sense of life in the case of Chapman’s parents, hippies who live in a commune in Nimbin:
‘My parents had believed in going back to the land, and that meant candles. And an earth closet…And no shoes, even in winter.’
Chapman’s parents, who go by the names of Starshine and Sunlight, have answered life’s big questions by rejecting formal religion and living, so to speak, at one with nature. Chapman has a difficult relationship with them and part of the reason for that is that she wants life to make sense in a much more practical way. Besides, she prefers to wear shoes, especially when it’s cold.
Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has seen plenty of things in life that don’t make sense and might lead a person to despair. Although he acknowledges that those things happen, he still tries to make sense of them – to put it all in perspective. He’s not a religious person but he does have a sense of spirituality in his way. He has come to believe that things have a way of coming back to a person, if I can put it like that. It’s one of the reasons for which he has a habit of visiting churches and lighting candles for people who have died. In the way Scudder processes the things he experiences, we see that human urge to make sense of sometimes terrible things – to impose some sort of order on the otherwise random.
This is a fairly big theme, and it’s treated in an awful lot of crime fiction. I’ve only the space to mention a few examples here. So now it’s your turn…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s I Don’t Know How to Love Him.