RitualsHuman 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Helene Tursten, Karin Fossum, Tony Hillerman, William Kent Krueger

37 responses to “Ritual*

  1. I totally agree Margot with your comments about Lesley. Wonderful writing and providing such vivid images for me. Ritual is part of all our lives, giving comfort consciously or subconsciously. The act of making tea, cooking a meal, shaking hands, praying or just repeating the same mundane things we do for ourselves and for others, every day, have some deeper meanings for us all. We go ‘through the motions,’ when confronted with pain and sadness and when in deep shock, unaware of what we do sometimes but there must be some comfort to be had. Actors, footballers and musicians often go through rituals before they perform, of play, and if something is out of place it upsets them to the point of being unable to continue. I have witnessed this myself. Such an interesting post and I popped over to Lesley as suggested and really enjoyed her piece – I knew I would. Thanks for pointing me her way.

    • Jane – Lesley’s post is lovely, isn’t it? And you’re quite right about rituals. They give us I think a sense of comfort – a sense that there’s some sort of order out there. I think you’re right that they have deep meaning for us. They anchor us if I may put it that way. So it’s no wonder that athletes and performers use them so often. They are calming, aren’t they?

  2. I am very touched by both your words and Janes. Every once in a while it is good to hear that people are enjoying my posts and stories. Thanks Margot for the reminder that rituals don’t always have to be born from religion. You have tied the examples in so well. I still marvel at your memory and ability to pull out such apt stories and passages. 🙂 What a great talent you have.

  3. In Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian mysteries, he and his partner Bennis live in Cavanaugh St, a city centre area in Philadelphia full of Armenian emigres. The community of friends forms a backdrop to most of the mysteries in the most charming manner: the Armenian women, in particular, have all their own rites and rituals and traditions, and nothing is allowed to come between them and their ways, whether it’s decorations, special food, attendance at the Orthodox church, or looking after anyone who needs it. The crimes and murders in the books are often sad and horrible: the women of Cavanaugh St give you back your faith in the world.

    • Moira – Trust you to come up with exactly the right example of what I had in mind for this post. And what an interesting look at an immigrant community too. You’ve reminded me that I absolutely must dip more into that series. Just peeped at it thus far and I’m not as familiar with it as I want to be. Thanks.

  4. I enjoy McCall Smith’s books very much and have read about 20 of them, including most of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I’ve also enjoyed the British TV series inspired by the books. The ritual of drinking bush tea runs like a thread through Mma Rambotswe’s life, connecting her to the past and its nostalgic memories. I’ve yet to try bush tea, but I always wonder what it’s like!

    • Caron – Oh I like the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series very much too. And yes, there is something about the bush tea ritual that gives some focus to every problem and really seems to allow Mma. Ramotswe to communicate more effectively with people. That politeness ritual does seem to make a difference.

  5. Ritual plays a significant role in many of Arthur Upfield’s stories about Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte. He is half-Aborigine, and understands the rituals of the Aborigines. In “Murder Must Wait,” a deeply moving ritual is at the heart of a mystery involving missing children. In “The Bone is Pointed,” the ritual of “pointing the bone” nearly leads to Bony’s death. These are fascinating books.

    • Les – Of course! The Upfield novels feature several rituals, and you’re right; they’re a fascinating look at Aboriginal beliefs and the ways in which they affect life. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  6. Margot: Trials are filled with rituals as the Court is opened, witnesses are sworn, exhibits marked and verdicts given.

    In Red Mass by Rosemary Aubert rituals are combined as superior court judges in their red sashed robes and lawyers in their court gowns gather in a Toronto cathedral for an annual Mass devoted to the legal profession.

  7. kathy d.

    Yes. I love the bush tea drinking ritual that accompanies visits and the morning opening of the detective agency, and sitting and relaxing at the end of the day. I would love to try it.
    I think just the concept of making tea and having a cup of tea when a crisis hits is a good thing to steady nerves and gather one’s inner resources. It is a ritual that seems to work in many countries, whether bush tea or other types of tea.
    I can understand why religion can help people with crises and loss. The rituals serve a lot of purposes for the grief-stricken.
    And, yes, it’s true that the nonreligious have rituals, too, such as memorials for the deceased or dealing with their belongings in a systematic way, cooking and serving food.
    People cooking for each other and bringing home-cooked food to someone grieving, whether in a religious setting or not, is very comforting to people and gives those making the food a task to do, which they see as helping the grief-stricken.

    • Kathy – I like the bush tea ritual myself. It’s a small thing, but it helps people focus, as you say, and gather their thoughts. Tea rituals do have that effect. And you’re right: when someone is grieving, it does help to have rituals such as making food. It’s away to express sympathy and support and be useful too. And as for religion, those rituals can indeed help people cope with sorrow and make sense of life. And as you say, one doesn’t have to be religiously observant to want to use rituals to help them come to terms with life and death.

  8. Col

    At what point does something stop being a routine and then becomes a ritual? If I have a cup of tea at 11 o’clock every morning – that’s routine. Rituals to my mind would need to have a cultural, spiritual or religious aspect to them.

    • Col – Interesting point. There is a somewhat blurred line isn’t there between routine and ritual. Both can be very useful in helping people cope with what happens to them in life. And then of course, our routines are affected by our cultures, I think, so it is a bit hard at times to distinguish routine from ritual.

  9. I’m joining the ranks of awe struck readers, in Margot’s abilities to remember all that she does and to tie them in to themes in each post and so eloquently. I need at least another ten years reading time to be able to respond to these posts appropriately!

  10. Even though I no longer participate in organized religion, I find elements of the religion I grew up with very comforting and uplifting. I love Christmas carols. At my father’s funeral, I drew strength from hymns that we had selected that I had grown up hearing weekly.

    And Moira’s example of the Gregor Demarkian series by Jane Haddam is very good. A blending of logic and rituals to show that the world is not just facts and data.

    • Tracy – I think a lot of people feel the way you do. They may not be religiously observant, but they do take comfort from certain religious elements such as hymns, prayers or something else. And that seems to be especially true at difficult times such as when there’s a death. And yes, Moira did give a great example didn’t she?

  11. When I lived abroad, I missed some of the rituals of living in England. Now, although I miss some parts of living overseas, I’m enjoying the rituals of Halloween, Bonfire Night and the run up to Christmas.

    • Sarah – Oh, I can imagine you missed those rituals, and it must be nice to live them again. I was out of the country during the US Thanksgiving holiday a few years ago and I did miss that ritual. I think those things can really help us mark time and make sense of things.

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