Well, You Get a Hammer and I’ll Get a Nail*

DoitYourselfThere’s something about the process of building or refinishing something. It can give a real sense of satisfaction (i.e. I did this myself). And doing things yourself allows for a real creative outlet, and it means that you don’t have to pay for someone else to do the job. So it’s little wonder that a whole industry has been built up around doing things yourself. There are all sorts of home building outlets, and some furniture chains (Ikea comes to mind) sell only put-it-together-yourself pieces. You can do as little or as much do-it-yourself as you want, too, from snapping casters onto the bottom of a prefab chair to building your own house.

Of course, not everyone enjoys do-it-yourself projects, but they are very popular. They make appearances in crime fiction, too. In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the small village of King’s Abbot. He’s soon drawn into a murder case when retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. The most obvious suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, who was desperate for money and had quarreled with Ackroyd about that. What’s more, Paton has been missing since the day of the murder. But his fiancée Flora Ackroyd is convinced he’s innocent, and wants Poirot to clear his name. This story is narrated by Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to the house Poirot has taken. Sheppard knows everyone in the area, and takes an interest in the case himself. Although he’s a medical man, Sheppard also enjoys do-it-yourself electronics, and has an entire workshop in his home that’s devoted to that interest.

Fans of Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa will know that he loves books. He’s got quite a collection, especially for a small home like his. He’s a busy police inspector, so he doesn’t have a lot of time for home improvement projects. But he does want to take care of his books. At one point, he considers building bookshelves, and there are a few references to his reflections on what they might be like and where he might put them. But he settles on another option,
‘…a ‘shelf in its purest state’…’

He’s made his bookshelves completely out of books stacked on one another. No nails, hammer or paint are required for that project.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish knows the sense of satisfaction that can come from making and building something yourself. He is a sometimes-lawyer who also has a side business in finding people who don’t want to be found. But whenever he can, he spends time in his friend Charlie Taub’s cabinetry shop, where he is a kind of unofficial apprentice to Taub. There, he’s learned the real pleasure one can get in choosing the right piece of wood, using the right tools, and creating something in which he can take pride. He’s not the master of the craft that Taub is, but he’s learning; even Taub, who is not a man to gush, occasionally praises his work in his own way.

One of the plot threads in Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers concerns dubious developer Denny Graham. Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne has been doing the research for an exposé on Graham, and she’s hoping to shut down his business. It seems that he lures people to invest their money in what seem to be lovely retirement or holiday properties. Then, they discover too late that the ‘luxury’ property they’ve bought is anything but. Thorne finds that several of Graham’s victims don’t want to be a part of her story, in part because they fear the consequences of going up against a powerful person like Graham. But there’s another reason too for which Thorne finds it hard to get her story at first:

‘It was difficult to work out exactly how he got away with it but buyers generally either sold up at a huge loss or got out their deckchairs and barbies and got on with it. New Zealanders are do-it-yourselfers and there’d always be someone they could count on to give them a hand to fix up the electrics or sort out the plumbing for the exchange of a week or so at the bach. And it was a whole lot easier and cheaper to pick up discounted floor coverings and a Para pool than to try to take it through the courts.’

Depending on how large and complex the job is, there certainly is something to the argument that if you’re willing to learn the task and do the work, it’s easier to do it than to deal with contractors.

Even people who don’t generally enjoy do-it-yourself projects sometimes like to put their own personal ‘stamp’ on a project or a place. For instance, in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall, television personality Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford and her mother Iris have planned to open an antique business together. Everything changes though when Kat gets an odd call from Iris. On what seems to be a complete whim, Iris has suddenly moved to the small Devon town of Little Dipperton and taken the former carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall. Shocked at this change in plans, Kat rushes to Little Dipperton to find that her mother has indeed started a whole new life there. Iris has recently broken a hand in a car accident, so Kat decides to stay for a bit to help out until her mother recovers. During that visit, she gets involved in a murder case when Honeychurch Hall’s housekeeper Vera Pugsley is killed. She also learns things about Iris that she never knew before. The carriage house itself is not in very good shape, and Iris is not by nature a do-it-yourselfer. But she’s trying to ‘stretch herself’ since the death of her husband Frank, and she’s doing a few things:

‘The pantry…was in desperate need of a coat of paint but it was clean and Mum had painstakingly lined every surface with adhesive paper in a cheerful red gingham pattern.’

There’s something about a coat of paint or varnish or paper that turns a room or a piece of furniture into something personal.

There are also several mystery series that feature do-it-yourself projects. For example, there’s Jennie Bentley’s Do-It-Yourself Mysteries, featuring New York-based home renovator Avery Baker. And there’s Sarah A. Hoyt‘s (as Elise Hyatt) Daring Finds mysteries, which feature furniture refinisher Candyce ‘Dyce’ Dare.

Even if you’re not one to open a can of paint or wield a hammer, you know how popular do-it-yourself projects are. They really can be satisfying, and in a novel, they can add character depth or even be a plot point. This is just a smattering of what’s out there. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Woody Guthrie’s Bling Blang.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Elise Hyatt, Hannah Dennison, Jennie Bentley, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Paddy Richardson, Peter Temple, Sarah A. Hoyt

32 responses to “Well, You Get a Hammer and I’ll Get a Nail*

  1. Well, well, who’d have thought DIY is so dangerous? I can’t think of any further examples, although I can imagine a plot line in which the screws left endlessly lying around while attempting to build an Ikea wardrobe for days and days could lead to a murder…

    • 😆 I could imagine that too, Marina Sofia! And then there’s the issue of what happens when partners work together to build something – and don’t agree on how that process should go…

  2. I know exactly what Marina means – don’t you find you always have extra screws and towels left over, too, and you’re not sure where you’ve missed them out – or are they just spare…?!

  3. Again, you’ve managed to broach an aspect I haven’t thought of before. BTW, love the additional lines from the books. Nice touch, Margot. Well, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I think I’ll have one of my characters in my WIP do a do-it-yourself project. Thanks for the tip!

    • Oh, that’s a real honour that I’ve given you an idea, Sue 🙂 – Can’t wait to see what you do with it. And I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Sometimes those extra lines from stories make my point better than I could myself…

  4. Yes, that passage from Paddy Richardson’s book Cross Fingers is so true of NZers. Most of my compatriots wouldn’t think twice about building something themselves. I, however, detest flat packs and avoid them at all costs. When I bought my desk set-up from Ikea, I hired someone to put it together: conveniently, Ikea had the details right there at the counter of who to ring. The guy who put the desk together for me so well in 1999 said the main problem with flat packs is they didn’t contain the right tools. He advised the DIYer to buy proper tools for the purpose, not just use the mini ones provided, and the job would be done much better and easier.

    • Caron – Oh, that is a good piece of advice! And let’s face it: DIY is not for everyone. Your builder was right about the tools too. So often they’re simply inadequate to do the job. Not that I’m a really skilled DIY’er myself. But I’ve built enough pieces to know just how frustrating those little so-called tools are…

      • My Dad is so useless at putting flat pack stuff together that my Mum actually pays someone to build the things! He inevitably does that “man thing” whereby he completely ignores the instructions and assumes he’ll be able to figure it out. Except he doesn’t, and a temper tantrum ensues. So, for the sake of a quiet life, she gets the local odd job man to do it. So I could actually imagine a DIY project ending in murder, in some cases!

        • Oh, that’s so funny, Crimeworm! Yes, those are the kinds of situations that, if you carried them far enough and so on, could most definitely lead to murder! DIY projects can be frustrating too, especially if you’ve not got the right tools or you make a mistake early on that you later have to go back five or six steps to re-do. Sometimes, calling in someone to do the job just makes for less stress for everyone.

  5. Margot: I admire such characters as Bart Bartkowski of the Small Town Saskatchewan series by Nelson Brunanski. Operating a fly-in fishing camp he is adept at carpentry, plumbing and electrical work. He has to be able to fix things. It is too expensive to fly in a trades person. He is an apt rural Saskatchewan guy handy at putting things together and repairs. I am non-typical for Saskatchewan. I struggle to assemble anything needing instructions. If only cabinets and furniture were as easy to put together as words.

    • Bill – I like that aspect of Bart’s character too. And as you say, it makes sense that he’s good at fixing and building on a few levels. On one level, it’s realistic given where he lives and what he does. And on the other level, it’s realistic in the sense of what Saskatchewan is actually like. And I know what you mean about building and assembling. It’s taking me less time to write this sentence than it did to put together the chair I’m sitting in as I do so.

  6. Col

    Hard to think of it in my fiction, but I quite enjoy NCIS with Mark Harmon – his character Jethro Gibbs is frequently shown in his basement working on something or other.

    • Col – Oh, yes, of course! You’re absolutely right about that. I like that aspect of his character too. Glad you mentioned him.

      • Col

        I should also have mentioned that he seems to do some of his best thinking – both re his cases and his personal life whilst occupied with his hobby.

        • He does indeed, Col. And I think that’s a bit of why some people do build/refinish, etc.. It is a way to clear the mind.

        • My other half is obsessed with NCIS – I think I’ve seen too many, and got a bit bored with it…But, as I’m sure Col can confirm, it’s on here incessantly, on one channel or another! Gibbs is a great example, though – perfect! (And apparently it’s a hobby of Mark Harmon’s in real life, Mr C told me. He also told me Pauley Perrette (sp?) who plays Abbie is actually 45 – she looks so much younger!)

        • Col

          45 wow – I would have said she’s 10 years younger. Yes – you could probably catch it a couple of times daily if you channel surfed. I don’t mind it TBH – I don’t necessarily seek it out, but it passes an hour or so fairly easily. I quite like the teasing between the main protagonists as much as the investigation.

        • Really? 45? I’d never have guessed. And I didn’t know that about Mark Harmon – interesting! Oh, and NCIS is on constantly here, too. It’s just one of those shows that seems to be picked up by a lot of networks.

        • That’s what Mr C loves – the teasing, the way they talk about Gibbs and he’s always right behind him…we were chatting about it in the chemist here one day and a girl who works there said her gran was in primary school with David McCallum, in Maryhill, in Glasgow. Ducky’s my favourite character – I LOVED Sapphire And Steel, which he was in in the early 80s, with a v glamorous Joanna Lumley. NCIS: Los Angeles, though, Mr C doesn’t like – it’s the great characters in the original he enjoys.

        • Oh, I like the original characters best too, Crimeworm. They just mesh well together and have really developed. And I do love Ducky 🙂

  7. If they would print the instructions in words, I’d be fine, but when it’s just a series of diagrams, I find it baffling. Somehow the bits in the pictures never look like the bits lying all over the floor… I had a computer desk for years that had one bit on back to front – I noticed it as soon as I’d finished but just couldn’t bear to take the whole thing apart again. No-one else ever noticed…or perhaps they were just too polite to say…

    • FictionFan – I’m the same way: I much prefer words to diagrams when it comes to instructions. I just think that way I suppose. And you’re by no means the only one who’s put pieces of a project together back to front *sigh.* I don’t blame you for not wanting to bother re-doing everything, especially for only one bit.

  8. And DIY comes in very handy if you are a murderer. All those bricked up cellars . . .

  9. Your posts do amaze me Margot, who’d have thought you could find so many links to DIY, especially as I tend to think of this as a relatively new obsession.

    • Thank you, Cleo. And I think it is interesting how DIY has gotten so popular in the last couple of decades. I think looking at that phenomenon is a whole topic in and of itself…

  10. I was mentioning Amanda in Margery Allingham’s Campion books recently – well there’s a short story where she has a terrible row with Albert (when they’ve been long married) about some unhandiness of his around the house – I don’t remember the details, but I think we would all assume that she would be a lot better at DIY than he would. And I think all couples would agree that it’s very dicey ground, and the source of many a marital disagreement.

    • Moira – That’s a perfect example of what I had in mind with this post – thanks. And Amanda probably would be better at DIY than Albert would be. As building things together? I’ve always thought that there are a few ways to really get to know a person; building something together is one of them…

  11. Kathy D.

    I’d like to see Guido Brunetti or Salvo Montalbano putting together a desk!
    Paola Falier would have to get out a hammer and screw driver, and Montalbano would get a youth who is in trouble with the law to do the work.
    V.I. Warshawski could do it.
    I admit I would like to be a DIYer, but I’m not really skilled that way. I can paint, as my father taught us how to do that so we could help him with house painting when we were children.
    I did stain with a wonderful non-toxic walnut finish several pieces of furniture, which had looked ready for the dump. They looked fantastic, and with new brass, copper or glass knobs, looked like new.
    So, congratulations to anyone who can actually DIY.

    • Kathy – Oh, I’ll bet they did look fabulous! I didn’t know you knew how to paint properly. And it is really funny to imagine what fictional characters would be like if they did DIY projects. Some, as you say, would be able to do it. Some…not.

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