It Seems That Ancient Adage Still Applies*

SayingsI’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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Craig Johnson, John Burdett, Josephine Tey, Martin Edwards, Michael Robotham, Qiu Xiaolong, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

34 responses to “It Seems That Ancient Adage Still Applies*

  1. Karin Slaughter uses Atlanta Georgia slang in all her books. So much so, when I first started reading her books I thought some of the sayings were typos or really badly worded sentences. It wasn’t until someone on Goodreads pointed this out that I understood. I can’t think of an example — we don’t all have your incredible memory 🙂 — but one in particular was so “out there” that I mentioned how ridiculous it was in my (periodic) review. Come to find out it was a common saying in the south. And that, I think, can be problematic for readers. Unless, of course, you’re Karin Slaughter, Stephen King, etc…

    • You bring up a really important point, Sue. Sayings and adages are woven into our speech and thought, but each culture has different sayings. So if the author isn’t careful, those same adages can also pull a reader out of a story. It’s a delicate balance isn’t it?

    • Keishon

      Great post, Margot! Enjoyed the comments on The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Informative.

      Very interesting comment on Karin Slaughter. I stay in the South so I didn’t find her word choices/phrases/slang to stick out but that is a very good observation to make and point out in a review/discussion about regional dialects and language. It makes me wonder what books I’ve read that have given me the same problems. I’m sure they are out there.

      • Thanks, Keishon – I’m glad you enjoyed the post and the discussion. And you make a very well-taken point about the use of dialect. We may not notice a particular dialect if it’s in common use where we live. We’re so accustomed to it that it doesn’t present a challenge. But for other readers, certain words or idioms, etc., may be more difficult, because they’re not familiar to those readers. I think that’s something authors need to consider as they decide how to set their novels in place and time.

  2. The Charlie Chan novels by Earl Derr Biggers have his famous aphorisms… in some of them. I did not notice them in the first novel, but in the last novel in the series there were a lot. They were used much more in the movies, of course.

    Now Sue’s comment above has me wanting to get back to the Karin Slaughter novels and see if I notice sayings from the south. I have only read Blindsighted, and enjoyed it.

    • Oh, thanks for mentioning Earl Derr Biggers’ work, Tracy. You’re quite right that the Charlie Chan novels regularly make use of aphorisms. And I need to spotlight one of Karin Slaughter’s novels at some point, so I’m glad Sue mentioned her work, too!

  3. “Death is a black camel which kneels [unbidden] at every man’s gate.” That is said by various reference sources to be an Arab proverb; it is also quoted repeatedly by Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan in Earl Derr Biggers’ “The Black Camel.” In this one, the black camel has kneeled unbidden at the door of a Hollywood star, murdered on location in Honolulu. It’s one of my favorites among the Charlie Chan books. (I note that Charlie seems to have added the word “unbidden” to the original proverb for dramatic effect, but the meaning and example still hold, I think.)

  4. Can’t think of any examples, as usual, but looking forward to ‘meeting’ Martin Edwards, especially since I have three of his books on the TBR for the next few months: one of his own novels, and two collections of short stories of which he’s the editor. Of course, I became aware of him through your blog…

    • You’re in for some good reading, FictionFan. In my opinion, Edwards has a lot of skill, both as a writer and an editor. I hope you’ll enjoy his work. And his guest post.

  5. Kathy D.

    One of my favorite proverbs is Portuguese: “A house without a dog or cat is the home of a scoundrel.” I don’t know where this came from. It’s written on a friend’s emails as a tag line.
    There are many reasons why animal lovers may not be able to have pets, but the saying is still a good one.
    Anyway, this post has just resulted in additions to the TBR Mount Fiji.
    And, since mountains are mentioned here, our hearts go out to those killed on Mount Everest and in Nepal by that devastating earthquake.

    • Isn’t the news of that earthquake just horrible, Kathy? Just incomprehensible…
      Thanks for sharing that saying about dogs and cats. I like that one a lot 🙂 And I know what you mean about adding to Mt. TBR. My own list keeps getting longer and longer…

  6. Col

    Interesting post again Margot and I’ve not crossed paths yet with any of your examples.

  7. As always I’m in awe of your ability to provide examples, despite appreciating it when proverbs are used in crime fiction I can’t think of any. I am however delighted that Martin Edwards is paying a visit on Tuesday – consider it a date 😉

  8. Anya Lipska’s two books (to date) have titles based on Polish proverbs or sayings, which set the scene very nicely for her main characters and plotlines. ‘Where the Devil Can’t Go (he sends a woman)’ and ‘Death Can’t Take a Joke’.
    Look forward to hearing/seeing/reading Martin Edwards soon…

    • Oh, those are great books, too, Marina Sofia. I’m glad you’ve mentioned them, as I think Lipska is very talented. And I think you’ll enjoy Martin’s post very much.

  9. I can’t think of any examples off and, but Poirot specialized in mixing his sayings up, didn’t he?
    Some really fantastic examples here, and more than one book from Mt. TBR is here.
    Thank you for yet another great post, and I do look forward to reading tomorrow’s post- if someone knows more than you do about crime fiction, they can’t be for real!

    • Poirot really does mix up his sayings, doesn’t he, Natasha? Of course, we know his English is more proficient than he lets on….. And I think you’ll enjoy Martin’s post. He really is so deeply knowledgeable about Golden Age crime fiction; I learn every time I visit his blog.

  10. Really interesting post Margot… I sometimes use proverbs or well known sayings as prompts for a short stories or if the story is conceived first & the ethos of the proverb/saying fits, will use it or manipulate it for the title…

    • Thanks, Poppy/ I hadn’t really thought of using proverbs as story prompts in that way, but certainly makes a lot of sense. And sometimes, a proverb can be the perfect choice for a title.

  11. What a great topic Margot, I really enjoyed this one. I often think about the way quotations are used in book titles (another topic for you?) but have never really thought about sayings and adages. Ruth Rendell likes using phrases for her titles, perhaps with a word changed – the one I read recently was A New Lease of Death. But the American title, I believe, was The Sins of the Fathers, (which are of course visited on the children) which is more directly related to the book, but is a quote from the Bible. A much later one is End in Tears – a very familiar phrase, much used in my childhood by adults thinking the children are getting over-excited: ‘It’ll end in tears, mark my words…’

    • Ah, yes, I remember that saying too, Moira! And you’re right; Rendell uses saying in her titles, doesn’t she? Now I think of it, there are certainly quotations used in crime fiction. I know Colin Dexter uses them a lot. I’ll definitely have to think about that for another post. Glad you enjoyed this one.

  12. Margot: A very interesting posts with some writers I know well. In Jason Webster’s book Or the Bull Kills You there are a number of Spanish sayings about bullfighting. The one that “sticks” in my mind is:

    He’s got more balls than a blind bullfighter.

    I have not had the time I would like to be blogging. Last week Theatre Fest Saskatchewan was in Melfort for 7 nights and 7 full plays from amateur theatre groups around the province. Sharon and I went to 6 plays and 6 after parties. I am still trying to catch up. I may do a post on the week.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Bill. And thanks for that contribution from Or the Bull Kills You. I like that one very much. It sounds as though you had a great time at the theatre festival! It sounds fantastic. I hope you will do a post on it as I’d like to know how it all went.

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