What’s it All About?*

Making Sense of LifeIt 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.


Filed under Betty Webb, Colin Cotterill, Kerry Greenwood, Lawrence Block, Tarquin Hall

26 responses to “What’s it All About?*

  1. As usual I turn to Agatha Christie – the ABC Murders has an interesting take on looking for sense or a pattern in what happens. In a similar way, Three Act Tragedy has a very convoluted way of making sense of what happened. I personally think The Clocks is a rare failure on AC’s part: we are trying to make sense of why a set of clocks would be placed beside a murder victim, and I think the solution is a little disappointing – in fact I can never remember quite what it is, because it isn’t interesting enough!

    • Moira – I agree completely that Christie treats the whole idea of making sense of a pattern in several of her novels, and The ABC Murders is a great example of that. One thing I like about Three Act Tragedy is that Poirot is bothered all along by the fact that the murder of Babbington simply seems random. Until he figures out the truth…

  2. kathy d.

    Hate to bring in an existential question here, but don’t all works of crime fiction try to make sense of it all, meaning murders? Detectives, whomever they are, try to find out who did it and why.
    I think we all want to know motives when we’re reading a mystery, as we do in real life when an atrocity is committed, such a murder or why a war is being fought, why there is cancer and what causes it or even why a destructive force of nature, such as a tsunami or earthquake occurred. In fact, understanding the natural world and why certain events happen takes a multitude of scientists worldwide. And now with global warming and climate change causing so many problems, even for polar bears and penguins, we want to know why, what’s happening and what can be done to stem the damage.
    The whys of everything are crucial to know. As humans, we do want to know why, and, hopefully, there are answers or will be soon, as with cancer.
    Detectives try to make sense of murders. As readers, we’re riveted to the pages until we know the answers. Sherlock Holmes opened up the scientific method, and so many detectives have followed him.

    • Kathy – You’re absolutely right. Detectives want to know the basic ‘why/how/who’ of a murder or set of murders, and sometimes they want to know even more than that. That’s just one example of the way crime fiction shows us characters who are searching for answers. And it’s human nature to grapple with those big questions, too. We want it all to make sense. We don’t want things to be random. I think that’s a bit of the reason for which readers are so dissatisfied when a crime fiction story ends without answering the questions related to the murder(s).

  3. kathy d.

    Yes. True. We don’t like it when mysteries end without satisfactory questions of not only whodunnit but why. I can think of a few books, which ended abruptly and I didn’t know enough to be sated.
    It’s very hard for people to know that life’s events are sometimes random, like a loved one getting cancer or another awful disease. Or accidental injuries or deaths. Sometimes there are people to blame, but sometimes an event is an accident.
    Anyway, the quest for knowledge is endless. And, as readers, we deserve to know the whys.
    I just wrote an email to an author because it wasn’t clear what happened to one character mentioned. That was the only point left hanging in the air but it still needed a resolution.

    • Kathy – You have an interesting point. It really is hard to accept when something happens (such as a loved one’s death) that seems purposeless. People want to makes sense of those things. That’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind when I wrote this post, so I’m glad you mentioned it. And you’re right; as readers, we do want the major questions in a story answered. That’s another example of that ‘human nature’ need to have answers.

  4. Margot: If everyone and everything made sense I would not have a job! Court cases occur because of illogic rather than sound reasoning. Whether from stress or impulsiveness or stubbornness or alcohol or …. (lots more ors) people make poor decisions which do not make sense. Rusty Sabich’s actions in both Presumed Innocent and Innocent or Detective Ari Greene in Robert Rotenberg’s new book, Stranglehold, see extremely realistic men causing huge problems for themselves by failing to act rationally in stressful moments when confronted with the death of women they have loved.

    • Bill – It’s certainly true that court cases are designed in part to impose order on what might seem like randomness. And you’re right, sometimes people make poor or at least very unusual choices for seemingly no reason at all. And part of what attorneys, psychologists and other experts, and the police try to do is to make some sense out of those events. And you’ve given a couple of terrific examples of people who are otherwise intelligent, rational people but who do inexplicable things.

  5. kathy d.

    We wouldn’t have mysteries to read if everyone acted reasonably and thoughtfully. And, true, attorneys would be out of jobs, although there are desperate situations that propel people to do things contrary to their own best interests.
    But, as a 5-year-old grandson of a friend says of adults who do the wrong thing, “He/she makes bad choices!” I guess that’s true.

    • Kathy – Ah, the wisdom of young people. Part of that search for things to make sense and to see what it all means is to understand why people behave as they do. And that is not a question that’s easily answered. But as you say, if everyone acted thoughtfully and rationally, there’d be no crime fiction and really, I think people are more complex than that anyway in real life.

  6. I agree with what Kathy says. Seeking answers and explanations appears to be at the heart of most if not all fiction, especially crime fiction, as it is in real life. There is a motive to everything that we do and everything that happens around us. In the spiritual realm, there is only one question—why?—to which the unspoken answer is—why not? Often, even seers don’t have all the answers. Ask why bad things happen to good people, or why bad things happen at all, and see how vague their answers can be.

    In “All the Lonely People” by Martin Edwards, a book and author you’ve written about before, Harry Devlin is looking for his estranged wife’s murderer. You’d think that his quest is not so much about tracking down the killer as much about “why” she was killed and making sense of it all.

    • Prashant – You’re quite right; one of the major themes we see in fiction, whether it’s crime fiction or not, is the search for answers. As we look at what fictional characters do, what motivates them and so on, we try to make sense of real life too. And a lot of people would agree with you that things do happen for a reason, whatever that reason might be. Finding out why/why not is one of the things people struggle with, and as you say, the answers are not always clear-cut.
      And thanks for mentioning All the Lonely People. It’s a terrific example of a character who is searching for larger answers. Harry does want to know who killed Liz, but more than that, he wants it all to make sense. He wants to understand how everything fits together.

  7. Must concur with the other commenters. Some of the best reads for me are seeing good people work themselves out of a bad situation without much thought of the consequences. Off topic, one of the best movies to show how good people can turn bad for greed is A Simple Plan which is based on a book so not so much off topic. I think Jim Thompson work can give you a idea on the human psyche (one that is a sociopath). One thing I’ve learned in life so far is that people are fragile. I think good mysteries explore complex issues that are not necessarily black or white and how these crimes affect the community, the victims and give us a clear motivation for the crimes or the trajectory to how they got there. I am trying to weed out mysteries that don’t provide a clear motivation behind crimes. I’m not in the business of reading about killers. I want to read about people if that makes sense. I’m all over the place, Margot, sorry.

    • Keishon – No need for apologies. You make some very strong points here. One of them is that the best crime fiction doesn’t portray people as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad,’ because most people aren’t purely one or the other. Characters are richer, stories more engaging and novels just simply more interesting when more depth is there. And in real life, people do get themselves into and out of situations and don’t really reflect on the consequences. So it makes sense that we’d see that in crime fiction too. For me anyway, part of the appeal of the genre is the way it explores human nature and the way it invites us to think about those big questions such as ‘Why are we the way we are?’
      Thanks too for reminding me of A Simple Plan. It’s a good reminder that films can depict human nature in all its complexity too. And you’re right; Thompson’s work really does invite the reader to ask those larger questions about people who don’t have what most of us would consider normal mental health.

      • Jim Thompson’s work ask those existential questions and I can’t help but think of Derek Raymond providing an answer to it in the form of a nameless, fearless hero who searches for those answers and finds justice for those who have no voice which is usually the victim. I’m sure there are other works out there that explores those issues well but the two writers I know best are the two I mentioned. I think of crime fiction also asking: why do people do bad things sometimes? What are the most common motivations for murder? If you read Jo Nesbo’s work you’ll see the same repeating themes over and over again: greed, revenge and corruption. Wash, rinse and repeat. Still, I find his work captivating. Meant to also add that I love Colin Cotterill and have read the entire series featuring Dr. Siri. Matthew Scudder is still a stranger to me but I hope to rectify that and Desert Wives, I bought, a long time ago so thanks for the reminder.

        • Keishon – That’s the thing about crime fiction isn’t it? It explores those deeper questions about why people do what they do, and that makes it compelling – well, at least for me. And even if the same theme comes up time and again, it can still be utterly fascinating. I agree too about Cotterill’s work. He combines atmosphere/setting, wit, plot and character development so well. I love that about the Dr. Siri series. And I hope that if you get the chance to read Desert Wives, you’ll like it.

  8. Hi Margot. Another great post on a truly underlying theme in all crime fiction. Continuing with the existential idea, I think in particular of the American hardboiled tradition in which, whatever the particulars of the case he’s working on, the detective is on a kind of metaphysical quest to find the answer to the big question, and the answer always eludes him. Also, a little off topic: the idea of good people making terrible choices is a basic premise of the film noir, in which the characters can never escape the long arm of the past. I think one of the appeals of crime fiction in that there’s always some hope of redemption and/or restoring order.

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. It is interesting isn’t it how crime fiction is so often concerned with the them of the search for answers. As you say, we see that a lot in the American ‘hardboiled’ tradition, including the modern incarnations of it. And you’re right about film film noir too. There seem to be two persistent themes running through that genre: the consequences of our choices and the question of redemption. Not surprisingly those are some of the questions that philosophers have written, talked and debated about for millennia. And it’s through the lives of fictional characters that we explore those issues.

  9. I think people who read classic mysteries share a need for things to make sense and the classic writers were especially adept at doing this. Lovely examples.

    • Patti – Thanks. And I think you’re right about the classic writers. Authors of that era were focused on telling stories that explained things so that everything made sense in the end. That’s a definite part of their appeal.

  10. Another good topic, Margot, and you got so many interesting comments. I would say in general I like things to make sense, and I look for the order in things, but I find lately that I enjoy a greater variety of types of mystery novels. Lately I haven’t liked serial killer novels, because they are usually about killers whose motives make no sense, but I have a lot of unread books about serial killers by authors that are highly regarded, so I haven’t given up on them yet.

    • Tracy – Thank you. And the things I learn from comments people make are the best things about my blog. I always come away with something new to think about and I love it. About serial killers…. I think that’s one of the things that really puts me off the serial killer motif. I like to make sense of a crime, and although a set of murders makes sense to the serial killer, if it doesn’t to me, I find it hard to get engaged in the book. Of course there are exceptions, but that’s my general feeling. That and I’m not a fan of a lot of gory violence, and although it’s not true of all of them, a lot of serial-killer novels have a lot of brutal violence.

  11. Thanks for reminding me of ‘Desert Wives’. It was on my list to read and somehow dropped off. Back on it goes!

  12. Col

    Nice reminder that I need to get back to Scudder soon, Cotterill too.

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