Human beings are remarkably resilient. A lot of us can manage quite a lot of stress and unhappiness and survive. A lovely post from Lesley Fletcher has got me thinking about how we make sense of the unpleasant things that happen to us, so we can go on. Now, I’ll stop for a moment so you can visit Lesley’s excellent blog and see for yourself what a skilled writer she is.
Right. Making sense of the sorrow that happens to us. Lesley’s post dealt with ritual (in this case religious ritual) as a way to help a person contemplate and deal with the sorrow that loss causes. She’s right; rituals can be really helpful. They don’t have to be religious, either. And since crime fiction so often includes characters who’ve suffered great loss and have had their lives upended, it makes sense that we’d see a lot of those comforting rituals in the genre.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, the family of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell is rocked when a weekend guest Dr. John Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot was invited for lunch on the day of the murder, so he arrives on the scene just after the killing. He and Inspector Grange work together to find out who killed Christow and why. And as Poirot gets to know the various members of Christow’s circle, he finds that more than one of them had a motive. One of the interesting things about this novel is the way little rituals are still maintained, and seem to help people deal with the murder. Luncheon is still served, although it’s a modified, subdued meal. Plans are made for the evening meal. Newspapers are still read. And it’s those small reminders that there is a sane world somewhere that help everyone to deal with the reality that someone everyone knows has just been killed.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, we meet American ex-pat Andrea Curtin. She and her husband and their son Michael lived in Botswana for a few years while her husband was there on business. Michael fell in love with the place and decided to stay behind when his parents returned to the United States. He joined an eco-commune and all went well at first. Then, his parents got the terrible news that he’d disappeared. The official police report was that probably he lost his way and a wild animal got to him. It’s not an unlikely scenario either. Now, ten years on, Andrea has returned to Botswana. She wants to find out what happened to Michael and let go if I may put it that way by being able to lay him to rest. So she hires Mma. Precious Ramotswe to help her find the truth. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and slowly works her way through the history of the members of the eco-commune. It’s interesting how in this novel, greeting rituals and later, the simple ritual of a cup of bush tea help both women to deal with the case. And it’s easy to understand why Andrea wants the closure that a burial ritual can offer. She wants to make sense of what happened to her son.
Very often, witnesses are uncomfortable about talking to the police, even if they are completely innocent of any wrongdoing. Sometimes they feel more relaxed and able to think matters through if they have some ritual to fall back on while they’re thinking. There’s an example of what I mean by that in Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. Göteborg police detective Irene Huss and her team are investigating the death of wealthy financier Richard von Knecht, who was pushed (or jumped, or fell) to his death from his penthouse balcony. It’s not long before forensic evidence establishes that he was murdered, so Huss and her team want to talk to any witnesses who might have seen something. One of them is Fru Eva Karlsson. She happened to be on the street near the scene of von Knecht’s death, so she may have valuable information. Huss definitely wants to interview her and makes an appointment to come to Fru Karlsson’s home. But she knows that rushing Fru Karlsson or intimidating her won’t be productive. For Eva Karlsson, the ritual of providing coffee and pastry (lots, and lots of pastry) is an important part of sorting out her thoughts and telling her story reasonably. Huss leaves the interview a little overstuffed with food, but the ritual is worth it for her because it’s the way she is able to connect with this witness.
In Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland, whose body is found by a tarn near her village. Annie was well-liked in the village, and there are no defensive wounds or signs of rape. So the conclusion is that she was killed by someone she knew and probably trusted. That means that Sejer and Skarre have the thankless task of going through everyone in the village to find out who would have wanted to kill Annie and why. In the meantime, Annie’s father Eddie has to deal with the sudden, awful loss of his child. He exists in a mental haze in a way as Sejer and Skarre go through their investigation, but he tries to help. And in the end, he finds comfort in the ritual of preparing for Annie’s funeral. Those preparations help him to make what sense he can of her death and imagine himself going on.
In William Kent Kreuger’s Ordinary Grace, thirteen-year-old Frank Drum and his younger brother Jake are growing up in 1961 New Bremen, Minnesota. One awful summer, they come face to face with death as a boy they know is killed on a railroad track. Everyone thinks it was an accident, but there are some things that suggest it wasn’t. Then there’s another death. And then another death strikes tragically close to home for Frank. His world begins to more or less turn upside down as he has to cope with the terrible reality of sudden death. It doesn’t help matters that he’s also coping with the changes that accompany the beginning of adolescence. In the end though, part of what keeps the Drum family going on is the ritual of saying grace and making music. It’s those rituals in part that allow Frank to focus, make sense of what’s happened and put his world back together a little.
And it’s not just religious ritual or even a lengthy formal ritual that helps us make sense of things. In more than one novel in Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, the Navajo ritual of introducing oneself helps everyone make sense of who people are and where they fit in. And Chee uses that more than once as he investigates cases. And in Angela Savage’s series featuring Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney, it’s the wai, or Thai greeting, that establishes relationships among people and helps them make sense of things.
Whether it’s as simple (but important) as a greeting, or as complex as planning a religious service, rituals help us impose a little order on what can sometimes seem like a very chaotic situation.
Thanks, Lesley, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Journey.