I’ll bet you’ve heard them all your life. You may even use them and live by them yourself. I’m talking about sayings and proverbs that are passed along in a culture. Whether they directly reflect a culture’s values and viewpoint or are more universal in nature, sayings, adages and proverbs are woven into the way we think and sometimes act. So it shouldn’t be surprising that there are a lot of sayings and proverbs written into crime fiction in one way or another.
Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include sayings. For example, in Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poirot interrupts his travel in the Middle East to investigate the murder of Louise Leidner. She was the wife of noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, who’s been working with his dig team at a site a few hours from Baghdad. This story is told from the point of view of Amy Leatheran, a nurse who was hired as a sort of watchdog/companion for Mrs. Leidner. When she first meets Poirot, Nurse Leatheran is not exactly impressed, and her lack of faith in him is soon evident. Here’s what Poirot says about it:
‘‘You disapprove of me, ma soeur? Remember, the pudding proves itself only when you eat it.’
The proof of the pudding’s in the eating, I suppose he meant.
Well, that’s a true enough saying, but I couldn’t say I felt much confidence myself!’
By the end of the novel, as you can imagine, Nurse Leatheran’s opinion of Poirot’s abilities has improved…
The title of one of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant novels, The Daughter of Time, comes from a saying attributed to Sir Francis Bacon: ‘Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.’ And it’s a fitting title for a novel in which Inspector Grant looks into a very old case. He’s been laid up with a broken leg, and as he’s recuperating, he gets interested in a portrait of King Richard III. As he reflects on the portrait, it occurs to him that the king may not have been the evil murderer that history made him out to be. If that’s true, then the famous case of the Princes in the Tower could have an entirely different explanation. With that possibility in mind, Grant sets out to learn the truth about the tower case.
A Basque proverb, ‘A life without friends means death without company,’ is woven into Craig Johnson’s Death Without Company. In that novel, Sheriff Walt Longmire investigates the poisoning murder of Mari Baroja, an elderly member of Wyoming’s Basque community. At first there doesn’t seem much motive for the murder, but soon enough, the trail leads to the network of relationships among some of the people in the area. Those relationships go a long way back, and it’s in an event fifty years old that Longmire finds the root of this modern-day murder. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the saying is a very appropriate choice of title for the novel.
Michael Robotham’s Lost begins with a German proverb: ‘Wealth lost, something lost; honor lost, much lost; courage lost, all lost.’ In this novel, DI Vincent Ruiz wakes up in a hospital with bullet wound in his leg. He has no memory of how he got there, nor how he came to be hurt. All he remembers is being pulled out of the Thames. He works with his friend, psychiatrist Joe O’Loughlin, to get answers. It turns out that Ruiz was working on the disappearance of seven-year-old Mickey Carlyle, who went missing three years earlier. It was always assumed that the child had been killed by Harold Wavell, who’s actually in prison for that crime. But Ruiz came to believe that Wavell might be innocent, and that Mickey may still be alive. He was following up on leads in this case when he was shot. With O’Loughlin’s help, Ruiz pieces together what he had already learned, and discovers the truth about the disappearance.
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take begins, in prologue form, with a four-year-old child and the old prayer, ‘Now I lay me down to sleep…’ (I can’t say more about the prologue for fear of spoilers). This may not be, strictly speaking, an adage, but it’s been a part of, especially, Christian culture for a very long time. Sixty years after the events in the prologue, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir takes on a new client Jónas Júlíusson, who owns an upmarket spa and resort. He wants to sue the former owners of the land where his spa is located, because, so he claims, the place is haunted and the former owners never informed him of that. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she is interested in the fee. And the chance for a stay at a spa is just as welcome. So she travels to the spa to start working the case. She’s not been there long when there’s a murder, with her client as the most likely suspect. He asks Thóra to continue acting for him, and she agrees. It turns out that this recent murder has everything to do with the sixty-year-old events.
Sayings, proverbs and the like also come from other religious traditions. For instance, John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a member of the Royal Thai Police. He is also an observant Buddhist. More than once in this series, Burdett weaves in a saying or adage from the Buddha. And of course, Buddhist teachings are at the core of the way Sonchai thinks and tries to act.
There’s another interesting use of sayings in Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen series. These novels take place for the most part in post-Mao Shanghai, where Mao’s writings and sayings are still very much etched into the national consciousness. Interestingly enough, this society is also strongly impacted by much older proverbs and sayings. Since Chen is, among other things, a poet (as is his creator), he’s particularly observant of words and sayings. Their use in this series reflects much about the world views of the people Chen encounters.
And that’s the thing about adages, proverbs and sayings. We may not think about them very much, but they can reveal a great deal about a people’s way of looking at the world. Which sayings and proverbs have stayed the most with you?
A Programming Note…
I have a bit of a background in writing and words and language, so of course sayings in crime fiction interest me. But I’m by no means an expert in everything about the genre. So I’m going to call in a real expert to talk about Golden Age writers. As you know, I don’t do book reviews, and almost never do I do author promo. But Martin Edwards knows more about the Golden Age of crime fiction than I ever could, and I think you’ll find what he has to say very interesting. So I’m very pleased to announce that he’ll be right here on Tuesday. Do tune in!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston’s The Moon Got in My Eyes.