Whatever Gets You Through Your Life*

RitualIt seems to be human nature that we want to impose some sort of order and structure in our worlds. We like to feel at least some sense of control over our lives, especially when things happen that are out of our control. One way in which people try to get and keep that control is through certain rituals. I don’t mean just religious rituals, although sometimes they’re used that way. Rather, I mean rituals we go through in our daily lives.

Some people develop personal rituals to help them cope with things that have happened, and it’s interesting to see how this plays out in crime fiction. After all, the genre’s full of murders, abductions and other horrible events that people have to deal with in one way or another. Here are just a few examples of what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner hires a nurse Amy Leatheran to help his wife Loiuse cope with her fears and anxieties. The Leidners are on a dig a few hours from Baghdad, so Nurse Leatheran stays at the house the dig team is occupying. At first all goes as expected, although there are undercurrents of strain among the members of the party. There are also a few incidents where Louise Leidner hears unusual noises and sees an unknown face at her window. But that’s put down to her strain and fear, and things settle again. Then one afternoon, she is bludgeoned and her body found in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area on other business and he’s persuaded to investigate. The story is told from Amy Leatheran’s point of view, and at one point, she goes through a sort of ritual to try to find out the killer’s identity. Although she’s not normally at all a fanciful person, she tells herself that if she goes into the victim’s room and lies on the bed in the same way, the door will open and the murderer will come in. Sure enough, when she does lie down on the bed, the door does open. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Nurse Leatheran isn’t murdered, but it’s an interesting look at how even the most pragmatic among us can have those rituals.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder does. He’s a former NYPD police officer who left the force after a tragic incident. He was going after two armed thieves who’d shot a bartender when he accidentally shot a young girl Estrellita Rivera. No-one really blames Scudder for this – not even the victim’s family. But he himself feels a great deal of guilt about it. He knows that nothing he can do or say will bring the girl back and he does pick up his life after a fashion. Slowly, he starts a new career as a PI. But he never forgets Estrellita. Whenever he gets the chance, he visits local churches, and always lights a candle for her. That ritual helps him deal with his reaction to having shot her, however accidentally.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we meet Jonas Hansson. He had a very unhappy childhood, but managed to make it into adulthood and found happiness in his relationship with his fiancée Anna. Then one day, Anna nearly drowned. Now she’s in a coma, and although she hasn’t responded, Hansson visits her at least once a day. At first, the hospital staff respects his devotion to Anna, but before long, it’s clear that he’s not dealing with what happened in a very healthy way. One night, he’s at a pub when he meets Eva Wirenström-Berg, who has her own problems. She’s just discovered that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful, and she’s devastated about it. She and Hansson strike up a conversation and after this chance encounter, things begin to spiral out of control for both of them. The end result is real tragedy for more than one person. As the story evolves, we learn that Hansson still bears the scars of his youth, and has certain rituals for dealing with stress. One of them is to recite from memory the distances among different places in Sweden:


‘Alingsås to Arjeplog 1179 kilometres, Arboga to Arlanda 144, Arvidsjaur to Borlänge 787.’


The rituals that Hansson goes through don’t change anything. They don’t bring Anna back to health, and they don’t draw him out of the tragic course of events in this novel. But they do calm him and we can see in his character how and why people sometimes engage in them.

When families have to deal with a missing loved one, especially (‘though not exclusively) when it’s a child, they often develop rituals. It’s almost as though those rituals will bring the child safely home. You see that sort of thing in several crime novels; I’ll just mention one. In Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow, we are introduced to Dorothy Pine, a member of the Ojibwa First Nation. Five months before the events in the novel, her daughter Katie went to school one morning and never came home. John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay Police was assigned to the case, but he and his team couldn’t find any solid leads as to the child’s whereabouts. Although it’s highly unlikely that Katie is still alive, her mother has ritually kept her things exactly as they were. Then a body is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. When the body is identified as Katie Pine, Cardinal has the thankless task of informing her mother. When he visits the house, we see how Katie’s things have been kept neatly, as though she would be home any time. This ritual actually turns out to be helpful to Cardinal, as he finds a clue that helps him track down the murderer.

And then there’s Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street, which takes place mostly in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Red Hook, located where the East River empties into a bay. One hot summer night, Valerie ‘Val’ Marino and June Giatto decide on an impulse to take a raft ride on the bay. At first it’s fun, but then tragedy strikes. Very early the next morning, Val is found on the beach by one of her teachers. June has disappeared. At first there’s every hope that June will come back, but as time goes by, it seems more and more likely that she’s drowned. Val has to cope with the grief of her friend’s disappearance. She also has to cope with the way everyone reacts to her (i.e. Might she know more than she’s saying about what happened?). Part of the way she deals with this, especially at first, is to go through all sorts of rituals, with the idea that they’ll bring June back.


‘If she goes to the party, does exactly what June would have wanted her to do, June will come back.’


It’s not spoiling the story to say that Val’s rituals don’t affect the truth of what happened, or of the novel’s outcome. But they do give Val a sense of control, however false, over what happens.

And that’s true for most of us. We may know very well intellectually that those kinds of rituals don’t change things. But it doesn’t stop us going through them. These are only a few examples from crime fiction. Which ones have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Giles Blunt, Ivy Pochoda, Karin Alvtegen, Lawrence Block

18 responses to “Whatever Gets You Through Your Life*

  1. Another really interesting post and one that I’m sure will resonate with lots of people who have their own rituals for one reason or another, hopefully not as traumatic as those highlighted in the books you’ve chosen. I find it fascinating how the intellectual part of our brain often works entirely independently to our instincts. As you say there seems to be a theme about children’s belongings being kept ready for their return when they go missing which is a terribly poignant action.

    • Cleo – Thanks for the kind words. I’m no psychologist, but I think you’re entirely right about our rational/intellectual brains being completely different to our instincts. Those rituals make people feel better on a very visceral level, even though they know very well that rituals don’t bring a missing person home, or return someone who’s passed on. Still, we engage in them. And there is a special poignancy isn’t there in the way parents of missing children preserve their things. It expresses the pain and longing for return as practically nothing else could.

  2. In The Good Girl while Mia is missing her mum insists on holding a birthday party for her in the hope she’ll turn up in time. I’m not giving anything away with that. But again it goes with what is said in the above comments about the difficulties in the loss of missing children. It’s a place none of us wants to find out the reality of.

    • Rebecca – What an excellent example of exactly what I had in mind with this post! Thank you. I think you’re right that people do things like have parties, preserve things and so on out of a sense that somehow, that will bring the missing person back. And yes, it’s a place I never want to be…

  3. It is surprising how much ritual helps even when one doesn’t have specific religious beliefs. I have got to read Visitation Street soon.

    • Tracy – I think you’re right. Ritual really does help people, even when one isn’t religiously observant. And I’ll be really interested in what you think of Visitation Street if you read it.

  4. Margot: I could not resist adding Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir. German exchange student, Harald Guntlieb, is in Iceland. He gets caught up in rituals involving sorcery, self-mutilation and erotic asphyxiation. They are not helpful. Instead they are dangerous and self-destructive.

    • Bill – Oh, that’s a very good example of the way rituals can be not helpful but as you say, quite destructive. And it’s interesting in that novel how Guntlieb’s strong personality figures into that plot.

  5. Some great scenes there Margot, I particularly join you in praising the Christie and Visitation St – couldn’t be more different but both great books! There used to be a frequent trope (in books) that murderers revisited the scene of the crime, and that they would very likely attend the funeral of their victim – both of which produced good book-scenes even if they may not have been true in real life. And, I don’t particularly enjoy serial killer books, but from my limited reading they seem often to have horrible rituals regarding the victim.

    • Moira – You’re quite right I think. Murder in Mesopotamia and Visitation Street are such different books, and yet they both integrate ritual in effective ways. I hadn’t thought about the murderer returning to the scene of the crime or attending the victim’s funeral when I was putting this post together, but you really can look at them as rituals, can’t you? I don’t know if those tropes are there in real life, but you’re right; you used to see them all the time in fiction.
      Like you, I don’t as a rule enjoy novels that feature serial killers. I’ve only read a few that kept me engaged. But yes, I think you’re right; a lot of them do involve some grisly rituals.

  6. Margot, I think one of the most memorable rituals is found in Arthur Upfield’s “Murder Must Wait.” Upfield frequently used Aboriginal rituals in his books, but the one in this book is most powerful and special. There’s not much I can say without getting into spoilers, but this ritual deals with fertility and infertility and is at the heart of the book’s climax. It’s brilliantly done.

    • Les – That is a really powerful ritual, and I’m glad you’ve reminded me of it. Folks, I don’t want to spoil it either. I do recommend you read the novel.

  7. kathy d.

    For many people worldwide, religion provides rituals for dealing with marriage, birth and, especially, death. in the worst circumstances, they were provided with tasks that have to be done upon which they can focus.
    Serial killers and other psychopaths — many do have rituals, yes, which they repeat. But these I don’t want to read about or know about. My curiosity does not go that far.
    Interestingly, as a personal mention, when someone close to me got seriously ill years ago, I started lining up my clothes in the closet in the same order and by color. Then folding all of the clothes perfectly in drawers, which I don’t normally do. I kept wanting to have control where I had none. Apparently, this is very common in such stressful situations.
    Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, the relative recovered.
    I stopped fussing about folding and hanging up the clothes.
    This is a minor example. But people do a lot of things to try to control overwhelming events in their lives. I’m sure this happens during wars.

    • Kathy – I’m very glad to hear that your relative recovered. And your interest in keeping your closet and clothes neat is a great example of how people try to impose order when the world seems anything at all but orderly. As you point out, people do like to have control when the stress level is really high.
      You make an interesting point too about religion. People really do use religion and spiritual rituals as ways to make some sense from what is sometimes senseless.

  8. kathy d.

    This is relevant to your next post, but thought I’d say that for many readers of crime fiction and other novels, reading helps them get through life. There is nothing like a good novel to draw one out of one’s self and thoughts and into another world. I learned this as a child, then it was reinforced during my teenage years and then later on.
    Friends of mine just pour themselves into books when they are stressed or want diversion. It’s the healthiest way to refocus — that and chocolate are universal panaceas — although other countries and cultures may have their own “comfort” foods, granted.

    • Kathy – You’ve got a well-taken point. Very often people who love reading have rituals that they go through so that they can really immerse themselves in their book(s).

  9. Col

    I do like Scudder and the air of melancholy he carries around with him, whilst still functioning and without it overwhelming him. I need to read more in the series.

    • Col – I think it is a good series and worth keeping up with if one can. I like the way you describe Scudder, too. He does have an air of melancholy, but it doesn’t weigh him down to the point where he can’t function.

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