I’ve Been Moved By Some Things That I’ve Learned*

Lessons From ReadingOne of the real pleasures of reading, at least for me, is the things that I learn about when I read. My guess is, that’s true of most book lovers. Of course a good plot and believable, interesting characters matter. Otherwise a novel becomes a textbook. But a well-written story can also offer readers insights and information that they didn’t know before. And perhaps it’s just my perspective, but I think that knowledge is a good thing. We all know different things and read different books, so for each of us, what we learn will also be different. But, speaking strictly for myself, here are a few things I’ve learned from the crime fiction that I’ve read.


Different Communities I Didn’t Even Know Were There


Of course people migrate all over the world. But I’ve still been surprised to learn about some of the communities there are in some unexpected places. For instance, in Craig Johnson’s Death Without Company, Absaroka County, Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire is faced with a very difficult crime. Mari Baroja, a resident of the Durant Home for Assisted Living, is found dead of what turns out to be poison. Longmire, his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, and new hire Santiago Saizarbitoria begin sifting through the evidence, starting with the members of the victim’s family. Bit by bit, we learn about Mari Baroja’s past, and how incidents from fifty years ago have influenced what happens in the present day. One of the interesting things about this novel is that the victim is a member of Wyoming’s Basque community. It turns out that Wyoming has a large Basque population, something I hadn’t known before. But Johnson weaves that into the story so that it comes up naturally, rather than feeling forced.

Another community I learned about through crime fiction is the Ukrainian community in Canada’s prairie provinces. We get a look at that community in Gail Bowen’s first Joanne Kilbourn mystery Deadly Appearances. Up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during a speech that he’s giving at a Sunday School picnic. Kilbourn was a friend of Boychuk’s as well as being one of his political campaign workers. So she’s devastated at his loss. She decides to write a biography of Boychuk to help her deal with her grief. In the process of finding out about Boychuk’s life, she also finds out who murdered him. And readers find out about Saskatchewan’s Ukrainian community, to which Boychuk belonged. Anthony Bidulka’s PI Russell Quant is also a member of that community since his mother is Ukrainian, and readers learn about Saskatchewan Ukrainians in the novels that feature him. In those series and in Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series, readers learn about the Ukrainian influence on the Canadian prairie. There are even Ukrainian language programs in some schools in that part of the country.

I’ve learned about other communities I hadn’t been aware of too. There just isn’t room to mention all of them.


Things About the Legal System


One of the things that I enjoy about well-written legal mysteries is that sometimes, they turn on an important point of law that isn’t always widely known. So besides solid characters and plotting, I’ve also learned some interesting legal precedents and facts.

For example, in Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise, the case of Lindy Markov hinges on what’s been called ‘palimony’ in the United States. Lindy and her common-law husband Mike have been together for twenty years when Mike has an affair with his company’s vice-president for financial services Rachel Pembroke. Very soon Lindy finds herself removed from the company position she’s held and ordered to evacuate the home she’s shared with Mike for their entire relationship. She hires Tahoe attorney Nina Reilly to sue Mike on her behalf for her share of the profits from the company she helped him build. In part, this case has to do with the rights that a common-law spouse has. The answer isn’t clear-cut, and it varies by jurisdiction. This novel also taught me a lot about the process of jury selection and the work involved in preparing for a major trial.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit features Virginia brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. The two share an unhappy childhood, but that’s about all they have in common. Gates squanders his athletic ability and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare money and money he gets from his mother. Mason on the other hand makes use of every opportunity he gets, wins an academic scholarship to university and then goes on to law school. One night, he’s with his brother when an argument flares up between Gates and his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot Thompson. Out of a sense of duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and the Hunt brothers move on. Years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and begs his brother, now a Virginia commonwealth prosecutor, to help get him out of prison. Mason refuses, and Gates then threatens that if his brother doesn’t co-operate, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason calls his brother’s bluff and soon enough he’s indicted for a murder he didn’t commit. With the police targeting him and Gates willingly lying about the murder, Mason doesn’t have many options. But there’s one point of law that may be exactly what he needs. It’s a fact of law that I didn’t know until I read this novel. With help from his deputy prosecutor Custis Norman, Mason uses that legal point to his advantage.

Those are of course just two examples of novels where an important aspect of the law is explored. When they’re done well, such novels make points of law not just comprehensible to a non-attorney, but really engaging as well.


Politics and History That I Didn’t Know Before


Some political history makes international headlines, but there’s a lot that I didn’t know about before I started reading crime fiction. And sometimes, politics can be really interesting. For instance, in Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, readers learn about Australia’s 1972-1975 Gough Whitlam government. In that novel, Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen and his team investigate the murders of former Whitlam government official Alec Dennet and the editor of his memoirs Loraine Starck. Then it comes out that the manuscript they were working on has disappeared. Now it looks as though someone was afraid that Dennet might reveal some uncomfortable things about high-ranking people in the Whitlam government. The truth is both more complicated and simpler than that, but it leads to some interesting background on that government.

I also learned a lot about Australia’s women’s movement in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. That’s a fictionalised account of the 1900 trial of Maggie Heffernan for the murder of her infant son. As the novel makes clear, it’s much more complicated than a mother who simply ‘snapped.’ As James gives readers the background on Maggie’s life and the circumstances that may have led to the death of her son, we also learn that her cause was taken up by leading members of the Australian movement for women’s suffrage. One character in the novel for instance is Vida Goldstein, the first woman to run for Parliament in the British Commonwealth. I didn’t know that. The novel also gives some really interesting background on the women’s movement that had a powerful effect on the Heffernan trial. I also didn’t know before reading this novel (and afterwards, doing a bit of looking on my own) that South Australia was the first state to grant women’s suffrage (in 1895). Australian women were given the vote at the federal level in 1902, nearly twenty years before it happened in the U.S.  The things crime fiction teaches you!

Those are just a few of the many things that I’ve learned about that I never knew before reading crime fiction. What about you? I’m not talking here of things like recipes or names of places, as interesting as those can be. Rather, I mean things going on, perhaps even in your lifetime, that you never knew. If you’re a writer, has something you learned inspired you to write a story about it?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Staines’ River.


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, Gail Bowen, Kel Robertson, Martin Clark, Nelson Brunanski, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Wendy James

30 responses to “I’ve Been Moved By Some Things That I’ve Learned*

  1. Margot, I agree. One of the best things about reading fiction (and especially mysteries) is learning new things. I have seen that most in reading more mysteries set outside of the UK and the US. I have learned a lot about Canada and various European countries.

    • Tracy – You’ve got a well-taken point. When you read stories that take places outside a familiar area, you learn an awful lot. And sometimes when you look at the unfamiliar parts of your own area, you can learn things too.

  2. Helen

    I guess you better read some New Zealand books then since women’s suffrage dates from 19 September 1893 here!

    • Helen – It does indeed! New Zealand was actually the first country to grant women’s suffrage. I’d known that, but not the Australia story. Both countries got it right before the U.S. did.

  3. You are lavish with your ideas Margot – I think each of these headings would have made a separate post, this is such an interesting idea. Legal issues would be where I think I have learnt the most – and it makes you realize that most people DON’T know eg what happens to your estate if you die without a will, or what your rights are as an unmarried partner. I’m always surprising people by telling them info I got from murder story plots. (I do tell them that I am not a lawyer, and they need to check out my claims!)

    • Moira – Thanks; glad you thought this was interesting. I’ve learned an awful, awful lot too about legal matters from reading crime fiction. As you say, a lot of people don’t think about those issues if they aren’t faced with them, and it’s amazing how much you can learn just from reading novels that deal with the topic.

  4. I love reading your posts as I always learn something. My favourite reads teach me stuff about the legal system and history.

    • Thank you, Cleopatra – That means a lot to me. Like you, I’ve learned a lot about legal matters and history through crime fiction. Interesting isn’t it how a novel can engage us about those things while a textbook often doesn’t.

  5. kathy d.

    I, too, have learned a great deal from reading crime fiction. As a reader-friend says, one always learns something from every book.
    For instance, Gordon Ferris’ Pilgrim Soul informs us quite a bit about the “Nazis” ratlines, which helped them flee Germany to South America, the U.S. and Canada and who help them. Rather surprising information.
    Sara Paretsky’s Critical Mass also has information on WWII Vienna, the U.S. atomic energy program and who it recruited and the first A-bomb testing in Nevada.
    And, I must say I’ve learned about Australia and its treatment of the Indigenous and more from Adrian Hyland’s books about EmilyTempest and Nicole Watson’s The Boundary.
    I could go on and on here, have learned about criminal justice and the legal system in Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Denmark through crime fiction, treatment of the Roma people in Europe, the wonders of the French countryside, albeit it full of murders(!), and truffle hunting.
    And my knowledge about Thailand has soared since reading Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney series. These books have sent me to google about flora, fauna, geography and history in that Southeast Asian nation.
    And on the legal system here, I think John Grisham, Scott Turow, Perri O-Shaughnessy, Lisa Scottoline and others.
    Open a book, learn something is my motto.

    • Kathy – I like your motto: Open a book, learn something new. I’ve especially found that to be the case when I read books that take place in countries i don’t know much about. And you’re quite right; novels such as O’Shaugghnessy’s and Turow’s give readers a clear insight into the U.S. legal system, and there are novels such as T.J. Cooke’s that give us a look at the British legal system. And you’ve touched on something else important I think. Novels that treat historical things like the ‘ratlines’ give modern readers a new perspective. I think that’s especially important because they may not get a solid treatment in other media. Books fill that gap.

  6. For me, that’s what makes a crime novel great. The ones that just tell a good story are enjoyable to read, but the best ones also tell you about something you didn’t know, or expand your knowledge of something you were already aware of. Kathy D has already mentioned ‘Pilgrim Soul’ – a fascinating piece of my own city’s recent history that I was entirely unaware of. And Peter May’s last few books have given me a lot of insight into Lewis and the Highland Clearances – things I did know but now feel I understand much better from the human perspective.

    On the legal side, Michael Ponsor’s ‘The Hanging Judge’ recently gave a very good look at trying a capital case in the US system, while telling an interesting story at the same time. And ‘The Collini Case’ (Ferdinand von Schirach) hangs on a little known point of German law.

    • FictionFan – Oh, I’m glad you mentioned The Collini Case. I learned quite a lot about how German law worked too from that book, and (I’m sure you already know this) the book sparked a re-thinking of that point of law. Now that’s a powerful novel.
      Thanks too for reminding me of Pilgrim Soul, a book I have on my list, but haven’t gotten to yet. That one and other great crime books really do expand one’s thinking and sometimes even re-align it. And when that happens, the book stays in one’s mind for a long, long time.

  7. kathy d.

    I second or third the point on The Collini Case. I learned a lot from that book, not only about German law but about international law, which unfortunately allowed the Nazis to carry out a certain amount of violence against those who resisted.
    I agree about international crime fiction being educational.
    After reading about Peter May’s Entry Island about the Highland Clearances, I want to read that book. Also, even just reading about this history, I’ve scurried to search google and read about it — a sorry history, I must say.

    • Kathy – Yes, The Collini Case does have a lot to teach, about international law, about German law, and about history. And the Peter May novels have some great history in them too. It’s funny you’d mention doing some follow-up reading after you’ve finished a novel. I’ve done that too when the topic interested me. I’m glad the Internet is there to help with research!

  8. Margot: You have nicely tied together how the three major mystery series set in Saskatchewan all have strong Ukrainian heritage connections. When I was growing up in the 1950’s you could still have lived your life in Ukrainian in the community, Yellow Creek, next to Meskanaw.

    While I cannot say I read legal mysteries to learn about the legal community I am always interested in how cases are presented and the legal principles worked into plots.

    I have probably learned the most from historic mysteries. A trio of authors – Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd and Rennie Airth – have enabled me to have understanding of the consequences of WW I upon its participants as they live their post-war lives.

    I feel got to know alot about New York City before I ever visited from reading such series as the Nero Wolfe mysteries of Rex Stout and the Lincoln Rhyme mysteries of Jeffery Deaver.

    • Bill – I think it’s really interesting how sometimes, a particular community will have a profound effect on an area like that. And in the case of the Ukrainian community, that influence wasn’t confined to big cities, where you might expect heavy influence from immigrant communities.
      It’s interesting that you mention the way you look at legal mysteries. It’s a bit like the way I look at academic mysteries. It’s always really interesting to see how other institutions do things, and how the author envisions them. And I do like seeing how the campus atmosphere is treated.
      Like you, I’ve learned an awful lot from historical novels too, and you’ve mentioned three that really give an excellent perspective on WWI and its influence on the world. It really had a profound impact, and those authors discuss it.
      You’re right too about the way New York City is depicted in Stout and Deaver’s novels. They’re quite different series, but both quite descriptive about the setting. Some of Lawrence Block’s novels are like that too.

  9. I love learning new things through crime fiction (although not the novels that start to sound like a treatise). It nearly always nudges me to then go and do a bit of extra research to find out more. Two examples that come to mind are: 1) Stav Sherez ‘A Dark Redemption’, which gave me such a great feel for the plight of child soldiers in Uganda, but also for the immigrant community in London. 2) Jakob Arjouni in all of his novels gives us such a subtle, tongue-in-cheek depiction of Frankfurt and casual discrimination against the Turkish community in Germany.

    • Marina Sofia – You’re absolutely right that there’s a difference between novels that give interesting information and novels that read like a treatise or textbook. The key is working the information into the plot so that the plot stays the central focus. You mention some excellent examples too. And you’ve reminded me that I want to spotlight one of Arjouni’s novels, so thanks for that. And like you, when I find a topic that interests me because of a novel I’ve read, I look for more information too. That’s one way I know the book has really taught me something.

  10. Col

    I do think I can learn something from nearly every fiction book I read, whether its factual in respect of history if the book touches on any of the great wars, or Nazism, or civil rights or Vietnam for example. But also about people’s characters in the way they behave in stressful situations and about towns, cities and locations in the portayal of the settings for the books.

    • Col – No doubt about it; we can learn a lot about the human experience, the human character and so on from reading. If the author has created credible characters and explored the way they behave, the reader gets a good mirror into human life. And there’s nothing like a good novel for sharing what a particular place is like without it seeming like an atlas.

  11. I have started reading a lot wider and have really enjoyed doing so. Reading crime fiction based in countries other than the UK always shows me things I didn’t already know. I especially enjoyed learning about the Inuit lifestyle in White Heat by MJ McGrath. A great point Margot.

    • Rebecca – Oh, I know what you mean. When I read books that are not set in places that I know, I always learn something. I especially like it if the author is from that place, and so has insights I might not. And I agree about White Heat. There is such a great insight on Inuit customs and the way of life of the Inuit people in that novel. It’s not sugar-coated either, which makes it all the more credible and interesting.

  12. Margot – Another great topic and one of the pleasures of reading mysteries. One subgroup of the history-that-I didn’t-know-before topic is the mystery with a movie backdrop, especially from the Golden Age, with all the gossip and spicy details, true or not! There are many examples, but two authors that I think do this very well are George Baxt and Stuart Kaminsky.
    Another area is learning about clothes and fashions, especially vintage, as they appear in mysteries, a topic Moira covers so well in her blog.
    One more thought: it’s also fun to read about topics/places we already know about, to get an author’s often different take or treatment.

    • Bryan – I couldn’t agree more about Moira’s blog. It’s a fantastic resource for all things fashion and popular culture. I love it and I’ve learned a lot from it. I know what you mean too about the ‘behind the scenes’ look at films. I do like what some authors have done with that topic and you’ve named some whose work I really should spotlight. Thanks for that!
      And yes, a different perspective on a place we know can certainly teach us.

  13. I feel like I’ve learned quite a lot about the pre-WWI period from reading Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell Holmes series and Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series. Over the years enough has filtered in that I got interested in reading *actual* history of the times. 🙂 Given that the conclusion of WWI pretty much set up every major conflict of the succeeding decades, it’s helpful, to understanding today’s news, to have that background.

    • Chacha1 – I agree with you that the pre-WWI and the WWI eras had fundamental effects on everything that came afterwards, so I can see why you’d find that period of time so fascinating. And both King’s and Peters’ series give a solid picture of that time. I’ve done a lot of learning about that period of time too from crime fiction. That and the time just after the war are fascinating and yes, every once in a while I get poked along to read more deeply into the topic. 🙂

  14. I love novels that give me an insight into an unfamiliar culture and have so much enjoyed Tony Hillerman’s Navajo novels and also Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi novels set in a small town Jewish community in Massachusetts.

    • Chrissie – You’ve mentioned two really fine series. In both cases, the authors show readers what it’s like to be a part of a particular culture without overburdening the story with ‘cultural facts.’ It happens naturally and that’s what makes those novels terrific, I think. Well, the plots and characters help too. 🙂

  15. I love reading novels that teach me something, especially about history. David Fulmer’s Valentin St. Cyr mysteries were set in New Orleans…fascinating history I knew nothing about.

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